Interview with Daniel Olivas
"I never outline.That would take the fun out of writing! I let my characters take me where they want to go."
It's an honor to have here today accomplished poet, novelist, short story writer and editor Daniel Olivas. As if this isn't enough, he also is an attorney with the California Department of Justice and a regular contributor to La Bloga, a very popular Chicano/Latino literature blog. Olivas was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions.
Published on LatinoLA: August 6, 2009
BIO: Born and raised near downtown Los Angeles, Daniel Olivas is the middle of five children and the grandson of Mexican immigrants. Olivas received his BA in English literature from Stanford University and law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles. By day, he is an attorney with the California Department of Justice where he has worked in the Public Rights Division since 1990. He is married to his law school sweetheart, Susan Formaker, and they have a 19-year-old son, Benjamin. They make their home in the San Fernando Valley.
Olivas is also the author of five books of fiction including the forthcoming Anywhere but L.A.: Stories (Bilingual Press, fall 2009), and a children's book, Benjamin and the Word / Benjamin y la palabra (Arte P??blico Press, 2005). He edited the landmark Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, 2008). Olivas has been widely anthologized including in Sudden Fiction Latino (W.W. Norton, forthcoming 2010), and Hate Crimes: Social Issues Firsthand (Greenhaven Press, 2007). His writing has appeared in many publications including the Los Angeles Times, La Bloga, The Jewish Journal, The MacGuffin, Exquisite Corpse, El Paso Times, PALABRA, California Lawyer, The Elegant Variation, and New Madrid. His first poetry collection, Crossing the Border, will be published next year by Ghost Road Press.
Olivas has just learned that the University of Arizona Press has accepted for publication his first full-length novel, tentatively titled The Book of Want, which will be published in 2011.
MAYRA CALVANI : Thanks for this interview. Why don't you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you started writing.
DANIEL OLIVAS: When I was very, very young--in preschool--I was creating little books. I loved telling stories. My parents always read to us and our house was filled with books. But I never imagined that someone would actually want to publish my books let alone that my books would be studied in college.
When I majored in English literature at Stanford, I purposely didn't take any creative writing classes thinking that I wouldn't be able to "do" anything with it. But I always remained creative in my non-academic activities. For example, I was a staff artist and then art director of Stanford's humor magazine where I not only drew cartoons but also wrote a few pieces. In law school at UCLA, I was appointed editor-in-chief of the Chicano Law Review (it's now called the Chicana/o-Latina/o Law Review) where I edited pieces and wrote a legal article on an important immigration court decision. As a lawyer, I've written many articles and essays for legal publications. Eventually, I started to write fiction. This was in 1998 when I started writing a novella. It was a way for me to deal with grief arising from my wife's multiple miscarriages. I helped Sue and our son, Benjamin, with their emotions, but I wasn't dealing with mine very well until I started writing. It proved to be quite cathartic.
After selling my novella to a small (and now defunct press), I couldn't stop writing. Eventually, my short stories started being accepted by print and online literary journals. Then one of my poems was accepted by Lee & Low Books for a children's anthology, Love to Mam?í, edited by the great Pat Mora. I figured that as long as editors kept accepting my stories and poems, I'd keep writing.
CALVANI: You write in English with a little Spanish thrown in depending on the character. Can you tell a little about this "code switching" and why you utilize it in your writing?
OLIVAS: I admit that I'm a pocho. My Spanish is not very good. My parents were raising us bilingually but when I was three, I stopped speaking completely. This lasted a whole year. During that time, my parents panicked. They took me to be tested. At the end of the testing, the doctor told them that I was of normal intelligence but he strongly recommended that they cut all Spanish in the household. This was in the early 1960s so the bias against bilingual homes was fairly strong. In any event, my parents agreed to follow the doctor's recommendation. So, I struggle with my Spanish but I try to have some of my characters switch between Spanish and English when it's appropriate for that character. I want my fiction to ring true so I think it's important that I do that.
CALVANI: Please tell us about your latest anthology, Latinos in Lotusland. It has garnered a lot of rave reviews. What inspired you to put this anthology together?
OLIVAS: I was sick and very tired of what allegedly well-read book critics called classic "Los Angeles fiction." Whenever some critic said this, he or she typically referred to novels or short stories that involved movie moguls, starlets and Malibu scenery. Seldom did you see Chicanos or other non-white characters unless they fell into some ugly stereotype. I wanted to change this and bring together fiction by Chicanos and other Latinos about my hometown. The result was 34 amazing and powerful stories going back to 1947. We have authors who have written many books alongside writers who are at the very beginning of their careers. I am so delighted by the response we've had to the anthology. It has been and will be taught in universities such as Rutgers, UC Irvine, and Ohio State. And we've had Latinos in Lotusland readings from L.A. to Chicago to Denver to Santa Barbara and elsewhere. I've been so honored and enriched by the authors who are in the anthology.
CALVANI: Latinos in Lotusland is a great title. Why "Lotusland"?
OLIVAS: The original working title was Latino L.A. but Gary Keller, the director of Bilingual Press, wanted to explore other potential titles with me. So, he suggested that we use a nickname for Los Angeles. One nickname is "Lotusland" which harkens back to the mythological race of lotus (or "lotos") eaters "represented by Homer as living on the fruit of the lotus and living in a state of dreamy forgetfulness and idleness" according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Therefore, the term has entered the English language to mean "a place or state of idle pleasure and luxury, contentment and self-indulgence." (Websters New Millennium Dictionary of English.) Some non-native Angelenos decided long ago to pin it on Los Angeles. As William Safire explained in a New York Times essay:
"La-La Land is a play on the initials L.A., perhaps influenced by Lotos-land in 'The Lotos-Eaters,' a poem by Tennyson: 'In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined / On the hills like Gods together.' In his 1941 novel, The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald had a character describe Hollywood as 'a mining town in lotus land.'"
Of course, I use the name "Lotusland" ironically. As I explain in my introduction to the anthology: "[N]otwithstanding the fact that the characters who populate this anthology may have feasted on the City of Angel's lotus flowers, they do not live in blissful oblivion and they certainly have not forgotten who they are."
CALVANI: You have written many short story collections. Have you written novels as well?
OLIVAS: My first book, The Courtship of Mar?¡a Rivera Pe??a (Silver Lake Publishing, 2000), was a novella but I do love the short story form. Every word has to count. I've even dipped into the very, very short story form such as flash, sudden and hint fiction (hint fiction is a story of 25 words or fewer). One of my very short pieces will be featured in W. W. Norton's forthcoming Sudden Fiction Latino (2010), edited by Ray Gonzalez and Robert Shapard. However, I have written a full-length novel that is made up of linked stories, many of which have been published in literary journals already. It's called The Book of Want (as of right now) and has just been accepted for publication by the University of Arizona Press for its Camino del Sol series. I am so excited by this. I have enjoyed many of the press's titles over the years so I know they publish wonderful books. Their author list is a who's who of Chicano and Latino literature including such names as Jos?® Antonio Burciaga, Stella Pope Duarte, Luis Alberto Urrea, Kathleen Alcal?í, Ray Gonzalez, Pat Mora, Sergio Troncoso, and Juan Felipe Herrera, to name but a few. We have a tentative publication date of 2011.
CALVANI: Do you outline your stories beforehand or do your ideas develop as you write?
OLIVAS: I never outline. That would take the fun out of writing! I let my characters take me where they want to go.
CALVANI: Let's talk about short fiction writing. What would you say are the three most important elements of a great short story?
OLIVAS: I can't speak for other writers or readers, but I think that interesting characters play the primary role for me. If I don't have characters I care about, my story goes nowhere. The second most important element (for me) is conflict. Without conflict, a story is boring, to put it simply. The conflict could be big such as two robbers arguing over whether they should kill for money, or small such as which tie a widower should wear on the first date since his wife's death. Conflict and how the characters deal with it is at the center of all great short stories. The third most important element revolves around language. This, for me, is the toughest element because it truly involves what we call "art." There are a million ways to convey one idea, but not all paths lead to the creation of literature.
CALVANI: You're a regular contributor to La Bloga, a very popular Chicano/Latino literature blog. What do you blog about?
OLIVAS: We're pretty freewheeling over at La Bloga but, obviously, our primary focus is on literature. My blog day is Monday. I do author profiles, interviews, book reviews, notices of literary events, listings of writing opportunities, things like that. I try to write my post on the weekend before it goes live. I also like to cover Chicano and Latino artists, community activists, store owners. In other words, I focus on what we call "culture." We don't get paid for what we do so we do as we please. La Bloga was founded in 2004 and I was invited to join as a contributor a couple of years ago after the founders read some of my work on another literary blog, The Elegant Variation, which was created by the novelist, Mark Sarvas. Right now at La Bloga, we have eight authors working on the blog. It's a great virtual home and I'm in the company of dedicated, interesting writers. All kinds of gente read us: students, educators, judges, lawyers, editors, book publishers, etc. I find that La Bloga keeps me in touch with so many readers and writers in a way that was not possible 15 years ago.
CALVANI: What's in the horizon?
OLIVAS: Well, I'm working with Bilingual Press to put the final touches on my new collection, Anywhere but L.A., which comes out this fall. I then must turn to promoting that book which takes a lot of time and energy particularly because I'm a fulltime attorney, father and husband, not necessarily in that order. I have to squeeze whatever little time I can out of an already hectic schedule. Then I will turn to my poetry collection, Crossing the Border, which will be published in 2010 by Ghost Road Press. I'm writing short stories, book reviews, and essays, here and there, that I am submitting to various publications. I'm participating in book events, too. I've started a new novel but I'm having a little trouble making time for it. And I'm reading, reading, reading all kinds of wonderful books and print and online literary journals.
CALVANI: Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
OLIVAS: Number one: Support Chicano and Latino literature! Number two: Read a book! Number three: Get involved in your community!
Mayra Calvani is a multi-genre author and reviewer, and the Latino Books Examiner for Examiner.com.