Monday, May 18, 2009


Stephen D. Gutierrez was born in Montebello, California, and grew up in nearby City of Commerce just outside the City of Los Angeles. He earned his BA from Cal State Chico and MFA from Cornell. His first book, Elements (Fiction Collective 2), won the Charles H. and N. Mildred Nilon Excellence in Minority Fiction Award. Gutierrez has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his writing has appeared in many literary journals. He is a professor of English at Cal State East Bay where he serves as Director of Creative Writing. Gutierrez is married with one son.

His new book, Live from Fresno y Los: Stories (paperback, $16.00), will be released on June 1st by Bear Star Press and distributed by the press and SPD. Of this collection, Virgil Suárez says: "If you read one book of stories this year, make it this one. Live from Fresno y Los kicks out the jams, and takes no prisoners. Enjoy, and tell a friend."

Jim Krusoe offers this assessment: "There is an ineradicable sweetness to these stories, accompanied by the crisp and happy bemusement of a genuine voice -- the sound of one person speaking directly to another, and not from the head, but from that most mysterious of mouths, the human heart."

And this from Lamar Herrin: "Stunning. Really, a lovely and loving collection of stories, nicely balanced between the vernacular and the literarily eloquent."

I’ve had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Live from Fresno y Los and I fully agree with Suárez, Krusoe and Herrin. Gutierrez kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and answer a few questions in honor of his new book’s publication:

DANIEL OLIVAS: Whether set in Fresno or Los Angeles, you capture the awkwardness and yearnings of puberty so perfectly that some of your stories made me break out into a cold sweat. How did you feel as you revisited that time through your fiction?

STEPHEN GUTIERREZ: I felt emotionally drawn into the times of those stories, not necessarily painfully, but fully aware that I had somehow come to grips with whatever inspired the stories by writing about them somewhat (I hope) artistically -- that is to say, with the detachment necessary to shape raw emotions into something meaningful. "Catharsis" is an overused and ill-understood term -- not even the experts understand it completely -- but in the sense of confronting past horrors with a measure of calm I felt relieved writing them, maybe even happy. Writing makes me happy, is the bottom line, however hard it may be to get to a place I'm satisfied with.

OLIVAS: "The Barbershop" is one of my favorite stories in the collection concerning an aging father's last days and his family's attempts to cope. The particular beauty and poignancy of the story grows out of the very simple attempt by the father to get a haircut and maintain some dignity. What was the inspiration for this story?

GUTIERREZ: This story is pretty much autobiographical. My father suffered from a horrendous form of early-onset Alzheimer's complicated by other neuro-degenerative maladies. One day I saw him take what I already knew to be a heroic walk up to the front door of his regular barbershop for his last haircut. The image of him setting off down the sidewalk stayed with me, and I tried to make something out of it.

OLIVAS: In "Harold, All American," you write about the racial and ethnic tensions among East L.A. teenagers: Chicanos vs. "Okies" vs. "wetbacks." It gets pretty brutal as the teens try to find their place on the pecking order. Does it change much when we grow up? Are we better equipped for adulthood by surviving such an environment?

GUTIERREZ: I think it does change. The famous tension between Okies (sometimes called "surfers," though none that I knew rode the waves, 25 miles inland from any beach worth surfing) and Mexicans (be they Chicanos or Mexican-Mexicans) and less so between Chicanos and Mexicans eases with time. Everybody grows up, matures, laughs about it, how stupid one was as an adolescent, how commonly adolescent one was after all, how narrow-minded and protective of one's own fragile identity against everyone else. But there are some who refuse to grow up and carry hate into their adult lives, how sad; or at the very least never completely rid themselves of old prejudices, recipe for stagnation. I think surviving any adolescence steels you for adulthood. The problem is that adolescence never completely ends in the quandaries it poses about selfhood. It's just a primer for the agonies of life, almost self-contained but not quite. It gives you useful tools though, like the awareness that time will pass, and change is inevitable, even if that current pimple in your life seems fixed.

OLIVAS: Your stories remind me so much of the community I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s near downtown Los Angeles in a predominantly Mexican/Chicano neighborhood. Do you ever get concerned that you're writing to a particular audience (someone like me) or do you see your fiction as being "universal"? Do you even worry about this?

GUTIERREZ: I'm happy to have any reader, one reader, two or three who enjoy my work. No, seriously, I give it some thought but not major. I think all writing is geared toward a particular audience; the suburban novel is going to bore stiff the urban reader. But let me amend that: most writing, by default, is particularized and necessarily appealing to a smaller audience than intended. That's because "universal" writing is less common than the reviewers of major book reviews with their biases in place would have us believe (or know themselves). I think my writing transcends its locale, if that's what you're asking. If you'll permit me one immodesty, I think it's universal, and I'm glad for that. I wouldn't want to just appeal to "my people," whoever they are at this point -- I know in the end I'm a member of the human race, and my stories reflect that. I hope my characters are deeply recognizable from whatever background you have -- they are people caught in the crux of life, facing their own demons.

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