I first read Robert Lopez’s work a few years ago online. His was just the kind of writing you hope to find on the internet: visceral, immediate, somewhat shocking but with a deceptive attention to detail that was unmistakable to me. I was so pleased that when I read more and more of his work, these traits were consistent, almost dizzying. In A Better Class of People, Lopez’s unhinged narrator is so chillingly realized that you can’t help but feel the momentum of the subway rollicking through you as you read it.


Lopez sculpts words into sentences, then weaves together sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages. The work here is granular but not tedious. You get the sense that for Lopez each sentence is its own story. And then it’s on to the next one. 


That is why his ability to will (or wield, depending on how you see it) these pieces into a novel is a real achievement. To marry the love of language with a fully-actualized plot, complete with three-dimensional characters and narrative tension is something I wanted to discuss with Robert.

I was so pleased that he took the time to talk with me about the book, point of view, and stringing together the small moments.


Get your copy of A Better Class of People today.


Each chapter or story, depending on how you see it, opens with a diamond-sharp sentence. Your sentences in the book overall are expertly crisp, which is no surprise. I’m curious about the work that goes in to getting these sentences perfect. As someone who already works in a sentence-driven tradition, do these expert opening lines just come to you or do you rearrange sentences as you go? How do you juggle the precision and language of The Sentence and not lose sight of the bigger narrative?


I almost don’t know how to answer this first question. There’s something about putting language together that feels outside of one’s own consciousness. When the sentences come, they come fast and more often than not they come correct. Maybe that’s partially true. Otherwise, I go over them a lot during the initial composition and I don’t move on to the next sentence until the previous one feels finished. Even then there’s work to be done when getting the book ready for publication. Words are cut out here and there, maybe whole sentences and paragraphs. The bigger narrative comes from reading the thing over and over every day and finding threads and echoes and adding all kinds of connective tissue.   

Everything always starts with the first line. I never have any ideas. I wouldn’t know how to write a fiction from an idea. There’s very rarely any rearrangement when it comes to beginnings.


You really play with the unreliable narrator in this project (as you do in much of your writing). Can you talk about the ways first-person point of view seemed to be the “right” call for a project about this kind of person?


All humans are unreliable. I can’t imagine a narrative stance that is something other than unreliable. I respond to urgency on the page and am drawn to it above all. More often than not the urgency presents itself in the first person. There’s something about the third person that can feel like a bedtime story – Once upon a time – kind of thing. Not always, certainly. I’ve worked in the third person before and perhaps will again. But it’s rare and was never an option for the narrator of this book.


I wanted to inquire about the refrain of “a better class of people.” Was that something you had first or did that begin to repeat itself organically as you wrote? I love it because it feels so natural but carries a lot with it.


This goes back to the consciousness thing somehow. A Better Class of People is the second of a triptych that started with Good People. At first “Good People” was the title story, but then it seemed that many of the stories in the collection involved characters who concerned themselves with the idea of doing good or being a good person. That phrase kept coming up in the book and I don’t remember making it happen consciously. So, yeah, that was organic. With A Better Class of People, however, the refrain was a deliberate choice and a play on Good People. The same holds true for the last book in the triptych, The Best People, which will be published by Dzanc Books in late 2023. 


Can you talk about Roy-Boy as a one sentence chapter? This worked for me for a few reasons. 1) It fits the unhinged narrators voice 2) It’s only one chapter that does this (I believe). Can you talk about the balance of indulgence vs. restraint in this kind of story/chapter?


That story, very like “Family of Man on Isle of Wight” in Good People, presented itself as a single uninterrupted breath. All writing is performance and it’s always a matter of indulging the performative aspect of it to a certain degree. I enjoy that unhinged voice and like to exercise it every so often. After a while, though, it could be exhausting. So, for “Roy-Boy” it felt right for that one piece, but it wouldn’t feel right for almost all the other stories/chapters in the book. That’s where restraint comes in, I suppose. I do like the idea of a one sentence novel, although I’m not sure I’d ever try it myself.


“Two Syndromes at Once” was the first story that I ever read of yours. It totally blew me away. How did it find its way into this character or novel project? Has this been an ongoing project about this narrator, or did you see patterns in narratives you had already completed?


Indeed, I saw patterns in individual stories and more than that I took individual stories that had nothing to do with each other and revised them to fit into one narrative from one narrative voice. This was both the work and fun of putting this book together. Taking stories that were “finished” and opening them back up, tinkering with the voice and the goings on so that they fit into the book as a whole.


Can you talk about the subway or public transit, in general, as inspiration? For a couple years I took a late night taxi every month or so to catch an Amtrak and I often thought that each taxi ride was a short story.


That sounds like a lot of commuting, Nick. I rarely ride the subway and this is a good thing. The subway is a bad place. A miracle of engineering, but still no good. At some point, to occupy myself while on the subway, I began jotting down notes into my phone. Sentences mostly and I used what I saw. There’s all kinds of implied narrative and weight when it comes to modes of transportation. Immediately we ask where is the character going and where have they come from? You have that weight on either side and that weight can do so much work. Then you have the people, one’s fellow commuters. These people can open many doors into the psyche of the narrator, through observation and interaction.


Can you talk about the class politics of the book? The word shows up quite a bit (not the politics part, but…) a better “class” of people, troubled “class”: I’m grabbing these from the text and stringing them together for this question, it’s really very understated in the text itself, but it strikes me as present and important. I was wondering if you could elaborate on this.


Of course, these phrases, Good People, A Better Class of People, The Best People, are all ridiculous. In this book, the narrator has something of a chip on his shoulder and he sees the people around him and feels alienated. There’s no such thing as a better class of people, but the narrator feels inferior, and this relates to the way so many people in contemporary America feel. I’m sure you know who I’m talking about, a certain criminal imbecilic fascist’s cult followers, for instance. They loathe the coastal “elites”, the whiny liberals, etc. So, the narrator of this book separates everyone into two classes, the better class and the troubled class. They rarely mix and when they do it’s fleeting, like perhaps a few stops on an underground subway line. For him the better class of people dress nice and talk like snowdrops, his word for snowflakes. 


Could you talk a bit about the inspiration for our main character? Where did he come from? He’s fully-realized, but so idiosyncratic.


I have no idea, really. These voices come from the language itself and this was the case of this particular narrator. And I really do think of the characters as voices, not real characters. I use the word character but I’m not sure I know what a character is, what it means. To me it’s a voice, it’s language on the page. If the writer succeeds the reader sees a character in that voice. The reader makes up the character as much as the writer does. I certainly didn’t base this character on anyone, but I suppose this voice was born out of our current reality, like we discussed in the preceding question and answer.




Robert Lopez is the author of three novels, Part of the WorldKamby Bolongo Mean River —named one of 25 important books of the decade by HTML Giant, All Back Full, and two story collections, Asunder and Good People. A new book, A Better Class Of People, will be published by Dzanc Books in 2022. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in dozens of publications, including BombThe Threepenny ReviewVice MagazineNew England Review, The Sun, and the Norton Anthology of Sudden Fiction – Latino. He teaches at Pratt Institute and Stony Brook University. He was a fellow in fiction for the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2010 and Visiting Writer at Syracuse University for fall, 2018. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Nicholas Rys lives in Syracuse, New York where he is a university writing instructor. His fiction has appeared in the Antioch Review, Lake Effect, BULL, and others. He holds an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University.

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