E. G. Willy’s “Nao Faz Mal” simmers with tensions, rife in towns where few have day jobs except the older adult males. “Places like that are always going to tend to explode very quickly and emotionally,” Willy says. He should know. He once lived in that town. [The interview has been edited for clarity and space.]
L&L: How and when did this story about Portugese gang members come to you?
EGW: The story had been percolating in my head for years. It’s fairly autobiographical; in the story, I’m Paul. I lived in Hayward, California, where the story is set, in the late 1980s and early 1990s—that’s when the piece took place. I went to school there so I knew it. I’m still a San Francisco/East Bay resident. You could drive through a town and you’d know by the paint color who was occupying it; it was easy to immerse myself in that tale.
It was a tough neighborhood. It’s in transition now, but back then, it was definitely as I described in the story. Pretty much any weekend, you could see the kind of activity I describe in the story. Half those guys ended up being killed or dying [some other way]; it’s a story that takes place everywhere in the U.S. I was never part of that crew, but I watched, as these dramas took place. You’re always on the stoop watching what takes place on the other side of the street.
Years later, I was traveling in Mexico with my wife and we took a cab from Pátzcuaro to Morelia in Michoacan, during a time of strife. The driver, an ex-policeman, told a story about being shot by a crime gang. Though I started out by writing his story, I decided to strip it down to this story I remembered [from my time in Hayward.] For immediacy, I placed it in the present.
L&L: Why did you use the second-person point of view?
EGW: I wanted to separate the narrator from Paul, the main character. Second person was the only way I could get the inner voice of Paul, who is the narrator. With first person, I couldn’t get the depth of character I wanted. I was trying to experiment, with that immediate voice pouring in.
L&L: How about the Vergueiro, an unusual gun used in World War I and the Spanish Civil War, once a service rifle of the Portuguese Army? You use it so effectively, especially at the end.
EGW: It was a really a Ruger, but I wanted to use the Vergueiro rifle because it’s more antiquated, and I’d briefly gone to Portugal when I was 19 or 20, and often ran into men carrying guns. Portugal had just turned communist and there was this tumultuous period after the dictator died.
L&L: How long did it take you to write Não Faz Mal after you lived it?
EGW: About fifteen years, and it was a battle to get that piece finished. I’d say it took at least three years; some of those scenes are very difficult to write even though you have it in your head. That curtain image, for example–that curtain image was guiding me. The curtain is the lie, that open window sucks you in. I realized that I was going use the curtain in the turning of the story.
Nao Faz Mal originally appeared in Zyzzyva Magazine.
E.G. Willy’s story “Wagli Yelo,” a Lakota story based on his grandfather’s life, was included in This Side of the Divide: Stories of the American West. (Baobab Press 2019) His work has also appeared in Conjunctions, J Journal, Zyzzyva, Sand, The Berkeley Review, Oyez Review, and The Redwood Coast Review; those in Spanish have appeared in Azahares and Accents. Willy’s work has also been anthologized in Stories From Where We Live, and others. His fiction won the Laine Cunningham Novel Award, and the Trajectory Journal’s WildBilly Short Story Contest.