CELLAR DOOR interviewed author and Stanford graduate of English Daniel Olivas ’81.
CD: I see that you were an English major at Stanford. What was your emphasis? You said in an interview that you didn’t take any creative writing classes; could you speak a little about that? And what was the department like when you studied here? Do you have any fond–or maybe not so fond!–memories?
DANIEL OLIVAS: I did not have an emphasis within my major. I simply wanted to take whatever English courses appealed to me. I purposely did not take any creative writing classes because I thought that it would be a frivolous thing to do. Ironic, to say the least, no? I figured that I had a creative outlet being a staff artist, and then art director, of the Stanford Chaparral, where I had an opportunity to draw and write. In fact, in my newest collection of stories, Anywhere But L.A., I include one of my stories that appeared in the Chaparral in 1979. I now regret my decision to avoid creative writing classes at Stanford.
CD: How was the English Department back in the late 1970s?
DO: Wonderful! I took an American Lit seminar with the late Jay Fliegelman and he eventually agreed to be my advisor. He was so young. I remember taking Arnold Rampersad’s class on African-American autobiography in my senior year. I still have a few of my papers from that class; one is entitled: “A Discussion of the Concept of Reality and its Various Planes in Richard Wright’s Black Boy” which begins: “Living in the Jim Crow South, Richard Wright at times felt as though he were ‘living in a dream, the reality of which might change at any moment.’” Don’t laugh! I was young and in love with ideas. I loved my time on The Farm.
CD: When did you start writing fiction and why? Have you considered writing nonfiction? Poetry? Have you attended fiction workshops? What is your revision process like?
DO: I wrote my first book when I was in first grade (never published, of course). It consisted of two stories, each one illustrated. I wrote a little bit of fiction throughout grammar and high school for various class projects and campus publications. I loved telling stories. When I went to law school at UCLA, I kept writing, but this time it was on legal topics. I eventually was appointed the editor-in-chief of the Chicano Law Review which was incredibly fun. After graduating from law school and working as a lawyer, I focused on writing briefs and memoranda. Once I had enough experience as an attorney, I started writing articles and essays for legal publications as an extracurricular activity. I loved the act and rigor of writing and I also enjoyed seeing my words in print. Eventually, when I was 39, I decided to write fiction. My wife had suffered the fifth of what would eventually be seven miscarriages. I worked mightily to help her and our son with their grief. But I wasn’t dealing with my grief very well. So, for some odd reason, I started to write fiction. My first endeavor was a novella which was published in 2000 by a very small (and now defunct) press in Pennsylvania. But once I started writing fiction, I couldn’t stop. I wrote short stories that got published in print and online literary journals. That led to three short story collections. I also wrote children’s stories for the Los Angeles Times; one of those stories was eventually published as a children’s picture book. I’ve written many poems that have ended up in anthologies and literary journals; I have a poetry collection sitting with a publisher right now. I am a frequent book critic for the El Paso Times, MultiCultural Review, and many online journals. My essays have appeared in The Jewish Journal and California Lawyer. I share blogging duties on La Bloga (http://labloga.blogspot.com) which is dedicated to Chicano and Latino literature. I am a compulsive writer, I guess.
I did some online workshopping on the Zoetrope website, but that was in the first few years of writing. I no longer workshop. I revise my stories as I go along, which might not be the most efficient way, but it works for me. Thus, I’ll write a page, think about it, and then revise. The next day, I’ll reread what I’ve written, revise a bit, then move to the next page. I like revising, and I’m relatively fast at it, something that comes from my legal training. Once I’ve completed a story, I will then reread it, making edits as I go. Once I feel as though the story is “done” (are they ever really finished?), I will submit it to a literary journal or proposed anthology.
CD: Is it challenging to encompass the two cultures in your writing so that either one culture or the other could enjoy it?
DO: I try to tell a good story, first and foremost. I want my characters to ring true and I want the conflicts to be compelling. Most of my characters are Chicano or Mexican. Also, I converted to Judaism in 1988 so Jewish themes do show up in my writing. Over the last eleven years of writing and presenting my work to audiences, I have found that people who are grounded in my cultural and religious touchstones get a special pleasure from my stories. Those who do not share those touchstones nonetheless relate to my characters for their “universal” experiences and travails regarding love, loss and the human condition, in general. I never try to dumb down cultural material. If a reader “gets it,” great. If not, such is life.
In terms of my audience, I find it exciting that my books are being taught in universities (Rutgers, Ohio State, UC Irvine, University of Wyoming, to name a few), analyzed by graduate students, and discussed in scholarly books on Latino literature. I also ended up in two Norton anthologies this year, including Sudden Fiction Latino, where my writing sits side-by-side with that of such remarkable authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Bolaño, Isabel Allende, Junot Díaz, Gabriel García Márquez, among others. The editors asked me to moderate a panel for the anthology at this year’s AWP conference in Denver. I think this is a very exciting time for Chicano and Latino literature.
CD: How did you decide to go into law? Did Stanford prepare you well for writing briefs?
DO: I wanted to “change the world” through law. Oh, to be young again. But I have worked in public interest law for many years even though changing the world is much harder than I realized. After a stint in private practice, I went to the Public Rights Division of the California Department of Justice in 1990 where I’ve worked on matters involving everything from antitrust investigations to coastal protection and beach access cases. I currently work in the Consumer Law Section. Jerry Brown has been a very active Attorney General in the area of consumer protection, so things have been quite exciting of late. I work with a fantastic group of lawyers who are dedicated and accomplished. All of them read voraciously, by the way, and several went to Stanford.
I did find that majoring in English was a smart decision when it comes to practicing law. I do a lot of legal writing at the trial court on up to the appellate and Supreme Court levels in both state and federal court. Half the battle is writing a solid brief that tells a compelling story. I think some lawyers forget that judges are people, too, and they will be bored or, worse yet, annoyed by a poorly written brief. However, my office prides itself on producing high quality briefs, so I’m lucky.
CD: Do you find it easy to write stories and novels? It is often assumed that authors come from autobiographical places in all their writing, but have you explored unfamiliar territories in your writing, and were they difficult?
DO: My early stories were more autobiographical than my more recent stories. Perhaps that’s common, I’m not certain. Regardless of the “inspiration” for any particular story, I think the hard part is crafting a narrative that is compelling. That’s the key, not whether someone might think a story is autobiographical. In fact, with stories that are absolutely not based on my life, I still have people telling me they believe those stories are, in reality, autobiographical. You can’t win!
CD: I noticed also that you keep a blog. For you, how does blogging differ from writing in print (in terms of audience, purpose, style, etc.)? What was your motivation to start and keep a blog?
DO: I share blogging duties with a wonderful and diverse group of Latino writers from across the country. My assigned day is Monday. My post will differ in content from week to week. Sometimes, I’ll run an author interview. Other times, a book review. Yet other times, I’ll pull together literary news and make note of calls for submission. Our blog is read by students, professors, and anyone else who has an interest in our subject matter. My motivation is to stay connected to a national network of readers while also spreading news about Chicano and Latino writers.
CD: What was the impetus for your latest novel, The Book of Want?
DO: All short story writers get the question: When are you going to write a novel? Of course, after writing a novella and three short story collections, my writer friends asked me that question once too often, so I caved. In truth, I liked the challenge of breaking out of what I knew how to do (i.e., write in the short form), so I decided sometime in 2005 that I would write a novel. But I wanted it to be fun to write. After all, I make my living as a lawyer so my fiction writing should remain enjoyable and not become a job. I decided to structure the novel on the Ten Commandments, with each chapter being inspired by a commandment. I focus on two generations of Mexican women: a matriarch who passes away in Mexico (she sometimes appears as a ghost in modern day Los Angeles), and her two daughters who have migrated to California. I have all kinds of characters: young, middle aged, elderly; straight and gay; Mexican and Jewish; rich and poor. One chapter, entitled “How to Date a Flying Mexican,” appeared in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse which you may read here. The University of Arizona Press will publish it in spring 2011. I hope it is received well. But even if the reviews are not stellar, I know that I had fun writing it and the experience stretched me as a writer.