Thursday, December 24, 2009

Interview with Daniel Olivas

By Lydia Gil

LYDIA GIL: Tell us a bit about your literary background and how it intersects with your legal background.

DANIEL OLIVAS: I majored in English Literature at Stanford University but, instead of continuing along that track, I went to law school at UCLA. I have been a lawyer with the California Department of Justice for the last twenty years where I have worked on cases in the areas of antitrust, environmental law, and consumer protection. I started writing fiction rather late in life at the age of 39 in 1998. Now, over ten years later, I’ve had five books of fiction published, edited an anthology, with two more books on the way in the next two years. My legal background intersects with my literary background primarily in the kind of people who populate my fiction: my characters (who are mostly Chicano and Mexican) come from all walks of life, from people who work with their hands to lawyers and judges. Also, because I am a trained lawyer who works with words all the time, I’m a very fast and efficient fiction writer. I never suffer from writer’s block. A lawyer can never say: “Oh no! I can’t finish this brief!” You have to get it done. I have the same approach with fiction writing. A blank computer screen does not scare me.

LG: How did your recently published collection of short stories, Anytwhere But L.A., come about?

DO: I found that throughout the last few years, many of my stories involved characters who had escaped Los Angeles (my hometown), wanted to escape the city, or simply had no connection to L.A. I like to have a theme for my collections (this is my third story collection), so I pulled together the stories and found the title in the words of one of my characters in the story “San Diego” to be a perfect fit. He utters the words, “Anywhere but L.A.,” after his wife has died and he needed to escape the city because everything reminded him of his wife. Also, I think natives of Los Angeles have a love-hate relationship with the city. It has so much to offer yet it can be maddening in terms of traffic, crime and smog.

LG: I'm not familiar with your earlier work (except your book for children, which my daughter loves). Is there a thread that runs throughout your work, or is each project completely different in nature and execution?

DO: If you were to look at all of my books, I think you would find that I’m not afraid to confront tough issues such as racism, sexism, dysfunctional families. But I often use humor in my stories even as I write about matters that normally would not be humorous. In the end, the important thing is to tell a compelling story and not be predictable. I think fiction should disturb the reader, in every sense of the word.

LG: What role does the "city" play in your writing? Is it necessarily tied to the Latino experience?

DO: I think that city life in the United States has allowed Latinos to thrive in ways that other settings have not. My grandparents came to Los Angeles in the 1920s and made a good living even though they had little education. My father’s father was a cook. My mother’s parents worked in a laundry. My parents took advantage of the low-cost city college system to improve their lives. In the mid-1960s, with five young children at home, my parents went to community college. After graduating, my father eventually landed a job with our public transportation system where he could wear a suit to work. My mother opened a pre-school in our neighborhood which she ran for many years. All but one of my siblings finished college, and three of us went to graduate school. So, in my fiction, Los Angeles and the Latino experience are necessarily tied together particularly with respect to how Latinos have taken advantage of the city’s opportunities to improve their lives. I think this is the classic story of immigrants in the United States.

LG: Has your connection to Judaism influenced your writing? How?

DO: I was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism in 1988. My wife, Sue, is Jewish and she introduced me to Judaism. So, I feel comfortable including Jewish themes and characters in my fiction particularly with respect to the theme of conversion. Anytwhere But L.A. includes my first Holocaust story which was a challenge for me. But I feel comfortable with the result and I hope that Jewish readers will, too.

LG: How do you see your work in relation to recent Latino literature?

DO: I think that my writing is part of the continuum of Chicano literature. I have been deeply influenced by writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, Helena Viramontes, Luis Rodriguez, and many others. Yet, because my parents were born in the United States, and I am an attorney, I bring other experiences to my literary expression. My fiction has been called “postmodern” and I have been categorized as part of the “new wave” of Chicano writers. I don’t know if such labels really mean much to the average reader. I’m just delighted that people are reading my books.

LG: What are you working on now?

DO: My first full-length novel, The Book of Want, will be published by the University of Arizona Press in 2011. It concerns two generations of Mexican women and bounces back and forth between Mexico during World War II and Los Angeles in the year 2006. I recently put the manuscript through another edit and await further comment from my editor. My first poetry collection entitled Crossing the Border will be published next year by Ghost Road Press, a small and wonderful publisher based in Denver, Colorado. I’m always writing short stories and likely will have a collection completed sometime in late 2010. I’m a book critic for the El Paso Times and other publications, and I blog each Monday on La Bloga [HERE!!!] which is run by a collective of Latino bloggers [THAT'S US]. I’m also thinking about collecting some of my essays and interviews of writers into a volume. As you can see, I’m a compulsive writer!

LG: Thank you for your thoughtful answers, Daniel!

And to the rest of you, if you haven't yet read Anywhere But L.A., run to get your copy! It's full of wonderful twists and literary levitations. You may learn more about Daniel's writing by going to his official website.

En español: If you are still scrambling to find a present for your Spanish-speaking primas, here are some suggestions. And for the primitos, René Colato's bilingual books are guaranteed to be a hit.

¡Felices fiestas, mi gente!


Francisco Aragón said...

Great interview. And congrats on the novel!

Charles said...

Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize genocide we send a critical message to the world. As we continue to live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, we must repel the broken ethics of our ancestors, or risk a dreadful repeat of past transgressions. We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - most in gas chambers. These facts have been proven repeatedly through countless thesis and dissertation research papers. Virtually every PhD in the world will stake their career on the veracity of known Holocaust facts. Despite this knowledge, Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Such deniers have only one agenda - to distort the truth in a way that promotes antagonism against the object of their hatred, or to deny the culpability of their ancestors and heroes.

Museums and mandatory public education are tools to dispel bigotry, especially racial and ethnic hatred. Books and films can reinforce the truth of past and present genocides. They help to tell the true story of the perpetrators of genocide; and they reveal the abject terror, humiliation and degradation resulting from blind loathing and prejudice. It is therefore essential that we disclose the factual brutality and horror of genocide, combating the deniers’ virulent, inaccurate historical revision. We must protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

A world that continues to allow genocide requires ethical remediation. We must show the world that religious, racial, ethnic, gender and orientation persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope. Only through such efforts can we reveal the true horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"