Blake Sanz is the author of  “The Boundaries of Their Dwelling,” a collection of short stories that won the 2021 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was named a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. His short fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Joyland, Ecotone, Puerto del Sol, and other literary magazines. He and his writing have been featured in Poets & Writers, Writers’ Digest, Electric Literature, and other national forums. Originally from Louisiana, Sanz teaches writing at the University of Denver.

SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

Blake Sanz: My mom is from south Louisiana and my dad is from Mexico, and while I grew up in Baton Rouge, I spent most of my childhood longing to know that other country, my dad’s country. The result was that I was often aloof to Louisiana as I grew up, wishing I was in Mexico. And later, when I finally made it to D.F. and Veracruz, I realized I didn’t fit in there at all, despite the best efforts of my father and my extended family. 

For these reasons, I’ve long been interested in how people sometimes come to be estranged from the places they are, the places they thought they wanted to be. The book’s title, “The Boundaries of Their Dwelling,” comes from a Bible verse in Acts in which Paul is explaining to the Greeks how God wants us to live in specific places he’s marked out for us, and if you find that idea somewhat fraught, then maybe that helps you feel what my characters feel. 

The book, then, is filled with people who, for various reasons, end up having to deal with the fact that the place where they are isn’t like the place they grew up. This includes native residents of a place, as with the main character of “Hurricane Gothic,” a carpenter, born and raised in Louisiana, whose self-built homes keep getting washed away storm after storm; it can also include immigrants, as with Manuel in “In the City of Murals,” who’s just come from Mexico to Louisiana and is trying to decide, as he starts a family, if small-town Cajun country will ever feel like home. Unsurprisingly, this cast also includes Americans who, like me, strive to make sense of their origins and identities by embarking on trips to the foreign country from which their families came. All these characters are aware of what the boundaries of their dwelling—as defined by families, or borders, by storms or other factors—are supposed to be, and yet they push, and are pushed, to see themselves in ways that transgress those limits. 

SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

Sanz: The book has 16 stories and contains two parts. The first half is an assembly of stories that follows characters both in Mexico and in the U.S. South of the type I described above, and the second half follows an estranged father and son—one from Mexico, one from Louisiana—as they negotiate these kinds of questions apart from one another, and eventually together. 


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The excerpt here, a short story called “How to Live Domestically as an Artist,” is a good example of the kinds of situations my characters encounter. In this case, the main character, an artist named Manuel, thinks he’s creating a true home for himself in Cuernavaca, Mexico with his new wife and daughter. 

He’s tried and failed to immigrate to the US already, and now he’s back in what he assumes is his actual home, his birthplace, living right down the road from his parents. His sense of home is uprooted by the turmoil within his new domestic life, and he’s left to rethink his own concept of home in a way completely apart from what his failures at immigration had taught him. 

SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write? 

Sanz: In terms of experience, my own connections to Louisiana and Mexico are largely what led me to these themes and characters. I’ve long been interested in the weird political history of Mexico because my dad was interested and involved in it, and my Louisiana experiences have been marked by many storms, metaphorical and literal, of the type depicted in the book. 

In terms of literary influence, lots of immigrant fiction informed how I approached this subject matter, including works by Jhumpa Lahiri and Luis Urrea (a former Colorado Book Award winner!) and Sandra Cisneros and Flannery O’Connor and plenty of others. 

SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

Sanz: For me, writing stories always takes me in unexpected directions. I didn’t know, for example, how the political dissident at the 1968 Mexican Olympics in “Mysteries of the 19th Olympiad” would end up using that experience to forge a new life afterward, at least not until I got through a couple of drafts. 

That’s typical of my writing. When my writing mainly serves to express what I already know, I tend to get bored by it, and I imagine readers would feel the same way. 

SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

Since it was a story collection and not a novel, a big challenge was knowing when I was finished: what short stories would make it into the collection, which ones wouldn’t? I suppose musicians used to face this dilemma when putting together an album. 

Many bands often had more new songs they could put on it, and not all of them would fit. The same was true here for me: I’d written so many stories along the lines of the themes I’ve discussed that it took some time to cull them down to these 16, and then to order them in a way that would make for a unified reading experience. 

The biggest surprise, I think, was re-reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful collection of stories, “Unaccustomed Earth” about children of Bengali parents making their way in America and Europe — and discovering that the way she arranged those stories could be a template for my own collection. 

Seeing that that book had two parts — one with an assortment of characters and situations having to do with similar immigrant themes, and another that follows two such characters over multiple stories — I realized I had a parallel set of stories to arrange. Once I saw that connection, the rest of this work became easy. 

SunLit: Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

Sanz: Readers have been a joy to interact with! I’ve had a few people tell me strongly that they did NOT like the cover, and I was totally fine to nod my head and listen to them explain why. Since I’ve also gotten plenty of positive feedback on the cover, I’m not too put off by anyone who has thoughts on it that way. 

I’ve been asked, too, about what it’s like to write characters whose experiences are so different from my own. Often, the idea behind that question is something like, is there some magic juice you can drink that gives you the right or the will to do such a thing? 

And I do think it’s always a privilege to live in anyone else’s head but your own. To take on that challenge as a writer is to burden yourself with the responsibility of getting them right. But so much of getting a character right is a process of trial and error, of experimenting and allowing yourself to be read by people you trust, of listening to those readers wisely when they tell you that you’ve got it wrong, of being patient with yourself and your drafts, of trusting that the process can yield real-seeming people, no matter how different they are from me. 

SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

Sanz: At the University of Denver, for years, I wrote in bursts, seasonally, mostly in the summer, a little in the fall. That was because those were the times of year when I wasn’t teaching, or was only teaching a little. So, I’d basically go from January to June every year without writing anything, and then immediately light a fire under myself to get as much done from June to December as possible. 

“The Boundaries of Their Dwelling”

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The good part about this method has been that I get plenty of time to forget I wrote anything, which means that, when I come back to it, I’m able to be ruthless with it, which is a crucial step. Even still, I’m trying to even out my approach so that I write throughout the year, but I’m still adjusting. Check back with me in a year and I’ll tell you if it’s working. 

SunLit: Are any of the characters in this book based on real people? 

Sanz: It’s an age-old question. The minute you start to write a character onto a page, that character becomes someone different from any real-life people of that same description you might have been thinking of. When you start writing this kind of book — that is, a work of fiction — you don’t know, from sentence to sentence, what new trait you’ll give a character, or what perceptions of that character a reader might have. 

A lot of how a character ends up being written depends on what the story needs. It’s such a hard thing for readers to accept, that even if a book’s characters or storylines seem to resemble what they know about the author’s life, those characters and storylines are still meant to signify something larger and different than whatever might be factual about some real person’s experiences. 

SunLit: Has the writing of the book changed you in any way?

Sanz: There are two ways to answer this: in terms of the actual writing, and in terms of publication. First, regarding the writing, I do feel that to take on the writing of a book that explores some set of issues from different perspectives is bound to change how you think about those issues. And when those issues are things you view as core to your own identity — as is the case here — it’s only natural that you feel different at the end of that process.

In this example, the way I feel different is in how I’ve come more fully to terms with my own sense of being foreign to some places, or being native to others. Having sat with these different characters for a long while, all of whom wrestle with things related to those types of issues, I feel less alone in those struggles. That’s maybe crazy to say, I realize. 

And then, publication has boosted my confidence. So many of these stories languished unpublished for years, even a decade or more in some cases, that I really didn’t think this would ever happen. Now that it has, I feel emboldened to keep going. To write the next thing. To trust more fully in the process it takes to have a polished book worth publishing. 

SunLit: Tell us about your next project.

Sanz: I’m writing a novel about a 20-something, an All-American athlete and scholar who decides to become a Carmelite monk in the west Texas desert. He has a cousin who’s a more conventional kind of striver, and the two of them, as their mothers’ only children who hang out together constantly, profess a prepubescent pact of brotherhood, pledging to be there for each other always. 

When the All-American leaves for the desert, the younger one feels abandoned, and is compelled to live his life in a way totally different from his older cousin: He becomes a jet-setting, world-wise journalist in search of grand stories and adventures. So begins the story of how these two rivals attempt to find their place both within their family and beyond it. 

Hopefully, when it’s done, the book will have explored questions related to the powers and limits of solitude and social connections in this current weird age. Given what the world has to offer at this moment, what’s the value of a life lived away from everyone else? Of a life lived on a global scale, always striving for some vague and grand notion of oneself? I’m not sure yet, but these are some of the questions I hope the book can eventually give entertaining answers to.