Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

A U T H O R   I N T E R V I E W
Letting The Old Aztec Gods Have Their Way
a n   i n t e r v i e w   w i t h   d a n i e l   o l i v a s

BY TAMARA SELLMAN for Margin

I REMEMBER reading Daniel Olivas's story, "The Plumed Serpant of Los Angeles," back in the wee days of Margin, and having to say "no" to his story because our editorial board at that time could not arrive at a positive consensus for acceptance. He's also sent other work to us that, for one reason or another, we were unable to publish because of reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of the writing: "too speculative," for instance, or "too similar to something we've already accepted."

So when I read his short story entry for our War Stories Contest last summer, "After the Revolution," I was pleased to finally get my hooks on a Daniel Olivas story I knew we would accept and publish.

As it worked out, his story was a finalist in that contest, but we only publish the winner, so I took that as an opportunity for us to focus separately on Olivas's work as an emerging magical realist author.

His stories have appeared widely; earlier, in Fantasmas, a collection of cuentos de fantasmas edited by Rob Johnson; later, in another collection, Assumption and Other Stories, and here and there in electronic journals and print magazines I was reading independently, including one of my favorites, Outsider Ink.

Daniel Olivas's work is nothing if not secure, which is a funny thing to say about magical realism, since it's hardly a concrete literary form. But Olivas, who lives in Los Angeles, puts forth work that "knows itself;" that is, you can recognize a Daniel Olivas story from a mile away. There's its "blue" content and language to reveal its urban contemporaneity. There's the well-developed magical realist storyline told in its characteristic matter-of-fact way. There are the surprise endings, the tongue-in-cheekness. The ubiquitous study in all things Los Angelean, like the "redundancy" of the La Brea Tarpits (I'll not spoil that one for you; you'll need to buy a copy of Devil Talk to parse that one out! Hint: "Black Box.").

I was lucky enough to recently chat with Olivas (via email) to discuss a variety of subjects, including the shapes of evil, the poor Spanish skills of Chicanos, blogging, podcasting and virtual coffee.

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Tamara Kaye Sellman: Thanks for taking a moment to discuss magical realism with us.

Daniel Olivas: The pleasure is mine. You have such a comfy office here! And the coffee is fantastic. May I have another cookie?

TKS: Cookies? What cookies? No fair, virtual offices and interviews shouldn't be without real cookies for all parties involved! And besides, my office is freezing (!) and you can't find good coffee in my house (because I'm not allowed to make it!). You must be referring to the cup of joe I picked up from the bagel joint down the street.

…All kidding (and carbohydrate cravings) aside, I'd like to know: How do you respond when you are categorized a magical realist writer?

DO: It startles me a bit because when I write in what some call the “magical realist” style, I don’t say to myself: “Okay, it’s time to write magical realism.” I just write and whatever comes out, comes out. The label doesn’t bother me, but in the end, unless we’re studying literature, do we need labels?

TKS: Only to discuss or sell books, I suppose. You're more tolerant than most, truth be told. Some terrific magical realist writers (Toni Morrison, as one major example) have long resisted the label. Your point is well taken, though. Certainly, it's our experience as a publisher of magical realism that those authors whose writing is organically magical realist—without intention—tell their stories far more authentically.

So what is it that inspires you to produce magical realism? The writing of others? Day-to-day life? Cultural experience?

DO: I think the strongest influences are those that come with childhood. I grew up in a Mexican-Catholic household, which means the existence of spirits, angels and devils was a given. So, I’m not surprised that at least a third of the stories I write blend the physical world with that “other” world. I converted to Judaism in 1988; that culture is also rich with fantastical folk tales. In terms of literary influences, there are many, but the strongest are Franz Kafka, Kathleen Alcalá, Aimee Bender, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Edgar Allan Poe, and the like.

TKS: Your work certainly gives meaning to the definition of the cuentos de fantasmas. Tell me about the influence of Chicano folklore and border life over both your writer's voice and narrative style. Who are you writing for when you write your own cuentos?

DO: I love using many different types of voices to tell my cuentos. One example is in my story, “Don del la Cruz and the Devil of Malibu,” where I use the voice of a hip Mexican folklorist. That narrator is a blend of the old-time teller of tales with a modern observer’s sensibilities.

I don’t really have an audience in mind when I write. I think that would be dangerous for me to even think along those lines, except when I’m writing for children (i.e., for children, I don’t use “blue” language or touch on sexual themes as I do with my adult stories). I try to let my inner censor sleep so I can freely let my stories develop as they will. The readers will come of their own will.

TKS: Yes, if you write it, they will come.… Your stories are often described as "surreal," "bizarre" or "disorienting." Does this surprise you? Do you think of your work in this way?

DO: Those descriptions delight me and also make me laugh. I’m just trying to tell stories! But it feels great to know that my stories are not boring.

TKS: Oh, it's impossible to find magical realism "boring," in my humble opinion! Daniel, you've already cited some favorite magical realists. Who are your favorite Chicano authors?

DO: Several are very, very important to me: the late Richard Vasquez, Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, Dagoberto Gilb, Luis Rodriguez, John Rechy, Pat Mora, Alejandro Morales, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Manuel Ramos, and many others. I hate making lists because I will inevitably leave off someone I love. But, you asked, so there.

TKS: Los Angeles—and Hollywood, in particular—strikes me as a naturally magnetic and magical location. How does this landscape—filled with extremity, unreality, dreaminess—inform your short fiction?

DO: All landscapes are perfect for magical realism! From New York to New Mexico, from Florida to Oregon, from California to Pennsylvania. Los Angeles is my home, so that’s where most of my stories grow. But I will admit this: Southern California offers writers an amazing range of geography to play with: beaches, mountains, office buildings, suburbia, etc. The city also offers a perfect history for me to play with: California was part of Mexico until 1848, so those old Aztec gods still make mischief everywhere, from Malibu to downtown.

TKS: Your story, "The Plumed Serpant of Los Angeles," which appears in your collection, Devil Talk, definitely supports that idea! [Editor's Note: Other favorite stories from this book include "Eurt," "You're the Only One Here," "The Horned Toad," "Señor Sanchez," "On the Hill" and the title story]. While the stories in your collection are not being entirely magical realist in technique, Devil Talk certainly embodies the magical realist notion of deals made with devils. Why the devil in these various guises?

DO: Evil comes in all shapes, no? It’s the perfect spark for both plot and character.

TKS: Your stories are known for twist endings. Do you know, going into the writing of a first draft, what sort of twist you'll employ, or does it discover itself along the way?

DO: Usually the twists just happen. I often have the general sense of where the story will go, but the endings tend to develop naturally. Once I create a character, that person becomes real to me and will say and do things that are consistent for that character. It almost feels as though the endings I write must be written.

TKS: You've talked, in the past, about struggling with your native Spanish language. How your parents were advised to speak only English in the house so that you would be less confused as a child, and how that altered your experience growing up among other Chicano children in Pico-Union. Doesn't this add yet another dimension of "otherness" to your identity as a Chicano author?

DO: Not speaking Spanish well is very common with Chicanos. It’s almost a cliché, in fact. But I think using Spanish in my stories is very important, so I do my best to do it right.

TKS: What has your experience been like trying to find homes for your short stories? Some writers of magical realist work express that their experiences seem doubly challenging, since it's hard to know which editors are going to be receptive to work with varying elements of realism in it.

DO: I’m reckless with my submissions: I just submit without a thought as to whether a print or online literary journal is open to magical realism. Some of my stranger stories have ended up in publications that aren’t known for publishing such things. I think the goal for any writer should be to write the best story possible, regardless of what label one might give the story, and then submit it to a quality publication. The Web has opened up so many opportunities for writers that I think it’s getting easier to place “different” stories. Also, a publication such as Margin is helping to say to people: fine literature comes in all styles.

TKS: We try! You've managed to publish your work in some terrific places, Daniel, such as Exquisite Corpse and In Posse Review. What advice do you have for writers of magical realist short fiction for finding the best and most receptive homes for their work?

DO: Do research. By that, I mean read the online or print journals that you might want to submit to; when you find publications that you respect and enjoy, submit your work by following all guidelines. I’ve collected many rejection slips over the years; writers simply have to accept the fact that rejection is part of writing. Sometimes, there are editors who are specifically looking for something “different.” The great writer, Jim Sallis, has been guest editing a special “genre” section at In Posse Review with the following guidelines:

Among those who think of themselves as literary writers and readers there are generally two aesthetic approaches, two attitudes, to genre fiction. One attitude takes the mode as a kind of repository or composter, a source of energies it might not otherwise tap: jayhawkers, basically. Then there are the postmoderns, skimming like waterbugs across the surface barely touching, out to "subvert" genre conventions. But there are also those among us who appreciate genre fiction for just what it is. We relish its profound strengths, often wonder if Jim Thompson or Horace McCoy may not represent his time as authentically as Raymond Carver or Faulkner his. Literature, I keep saying, is not a bureau with drawers discretely labeled Meat, Potatoes, Salad, Fruit, Cheese, but a long banquet table piled with all sorts of food. You go along the table, taste this and that, go back for seconds and thirds, take portions of what you need. It's from writers who understand this, that I want to hear.
Based on these guidelines, he accepted my story, “Monk,” which is also the opening story in Devil Talk. I think Jim eloquently states the case for the power of literature regardless of labels.

TKS: Interesting that you should mention "Monk." That's the story of the state employee who "liked to do little illegal things." Immediately, I'm reminded that you are deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice. How does this line of work inspire you as a creative writer?

DO: Having an interesting and well-paying day job frees me to write for fun, not profit. If I make a little money here and there with my books or columns, that’s icing on the cake, as they say. I don’t have to think about whether I will put food on the table with whatever I’m writing. In other words, I don’t have to think about “what will sell.”

TKS: One of the great pleasures I had in reading Devil Talk had less to do with the stories of evil as a theme, and more to do with the conflicting desires and morals of regular people (such as in "Monk;" his dilemmas show up in the form of haunting dreams where objects are placed in and out of the body). Also, I especially loved the way in which the villagers in "The Fox" functioned as a kind of morality police, and yet, even when they got what they wanted (an Indian girl's assimilation into their town), something precious was still lost. Is this, perhaps, a reflection of your working life, too, where your focus is on things like environmental enforcement and land-use issues? It seems there must always be some price paid for keeping the ecosystem intact by the letter of the law.

DO: Life is filled with competing interests whether at work or at home. And there are often unintended consequences that arise from what we consider to be “good” choices. So I don’t think it’s necessarily coming from my day job; it’s coming from life in general.

TKS: Well, that makes sense. Your stories in Devil Talk carry a folktale air about them even if the majority of them take place in urban settings.

I'd never characterize your stories as urban fantasy, because that's not a category I feel I understand well enough, though others might. Your stories evoke a larger, contemporary landscape comprised of many smaller villages, in a sense. Is that an effect of being raised in Pico-Union and Koreatown? Or more just a combination of living within two worlds, that of the natural world and of the urban center?

DO: Los Angeles, as I’ve mentioned, is a dynamic mix of the urban and the natural. We have dense city centers (not one center) not far from beaches, mountains and desserts. So my stories reflect that fact. Yet I like your concept of “smaller villages.” Perhaps I am reflecting in my stories the smaller communities that make up our large city.

TKS: I used to live in Chicago, and driving the length of Milwaukee Avenue is to pass through many, many smaller, distinct villages. I get that sense with your work, as if it were a kind of narrative slideshow.

Looking into the future a bit, are there any up-and-coming writers of magical realism that you would you recommend we keep an eye out for?

DO: Salvador Plascencia wrote an amazing debut novel, The People of Paper (McSweeney’s Books, 2005). Keep your eye on him. In my review of his book for the litblog, The Elegant Variation, I said it was “a wonderfully strange, hallucinogenic and hypertextual blending of fiction and autobiography.” You must read this book!

TKS: Thanks for the tip! I know you've got quite the presence in the blogosphere, but you've also recently participated in a podcast interview with Pinky's Paperhaus: Podcasting Writers Who Rock. I'm less familiar with podcasts than blogs. What was that experience like?

DO: Wonderful! Pinky (Carolyn Kellogg) was the perfect hostess. Her love of literature and music makes me smile like a fool! And I fulfilled my dream of spinning records (actually, cds). If we could bottle Carolyn, we’d make a mint!

TKS: Funny, that's what some people say about all your "good energy!" So what's next on the horizon for Daniel Olivas?

DO: I’ve completed a short-story collection entitled Anywhere But L.A., which is being read by a large press right now; my story “After the Revolution” is featured in it. I’ve also edited an anthology of Los Angeles Latino/a fiction which is sitting with the publisher right now. I’ve started a novel which will have magical elements in it. I’m writing columns for The Jewish Journal and Tu Ciudad magazine. My book reviews often appear in The Elegant Variation, Moorishgirl and other fine litblogs. And I’m blogging each Monday on La Bloga, which is dedicated to Chicano/Latino literature. A full plate!

TKS: And always with room for cookies… thanks, Daniel!

Daniel Olivas will appear at The Quetzal Quill reading at Imix Bookstore, 5052 Eagle Rock Blvd., Los Angeles, with Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Reyna Grande, Miguel Murphy and hosted by Rigoberto Gonzalez on Monday, November 21 at 7-9:30pm.

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