This week, TheLatinoAuthor.com is featuring Daniel A. Olivas. Mr. Olivas is a multifaceted writer and a supervising attorney in the Consumer Law Section. He currently resides in the San Fernando Valley and is a graduate of Stanford University (English literature major) and UCLA (Law degree). Read our interview and see what compelled him to become a writer.
Can you tell us about yourself; where you grew up, where you currently reside, etc.?
I am the grandson of Mexican immigrants, the middle of five children, and grew up a few miles west of downtown Los Angeles, in an area once commonly known as Pico Heights. It’s near the better known communities of Koreatown and Pico-Union. It was a predominantly Mexican-American community when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. I attended twelve years of Catholic school: St. Thomas the Apostle School (which included grades one through eight at that time), and then Loyola High School, both of which were a couple blocks from my home. My parents worked so hard to send us to these schools, and to this day, I give them great credit for putting our education first even when times were hard. Ironically, I eventually converted to Judaism, but that does not diminish the remarkable education I received. I now live with my wife and son in the San Fernando Valley. Our son, Ben, is now a junior majoring in anthropology at UCLA and lives in the dorms, so we’re sort of empty nesters (or getting there fast).
What inspired you to begin writing – your English Literature Degree or your Law Degree, or did you always have an inkling to write?
My parents always made certain we had access to books. My fondest memories are of our family visits to the library where we could check out armloads of books. I loved the look, feel and smell of books! I remember wanting to be a writer when I started to learn how to read. In fact, I wrote little books that I also illustrated. The plots weren’t complex (a ghost scaring a boy, etc.). Certainly majoring in English at Stanford University and then attending UCLA School of Law contributed to my need to tell stories, but it all started with my parents’ desire to make reading a natural and essential part of their children’s lives.
Do you find that being a Latino writer is a hindrance or a plus? Please elaborate.
I find that my Chicano culture and experiences are rich sources of inspiration that I have to go with “plus.” What more can I say?
From a publishing and marketing perspective, what challenges have you faced?
Unfortunately, as larger presses get more concerned about the bottom line, there seems to be less “risk taking” with manuscripts that are not easily marketable. Many of my fellow Latino/a writers have had manuscripts rejected by large presses (and agents) with suggestions such as: why don’t you write a Latino version of Waiting to Exhale or Sex in the City? This is why many of us have found welcoming homes with university and other independent presses. Six of my seven books have been published by Bilingual Press (Arizona State University), Arte Público Press (University of Houston), and the University of Arizona Press. All of these presses “get” what I’m doing with my writing…I don’t need to translate my art to them.
What is the impact that you want to make with your writing?
I want readers to feel as though they are in good hands when they enter one of my stories, poems or essays. Everything else is gravy, as they say. I certainly am moved when a young Chicano or Chicana student comes up to me after a book reading and says: I want to write, too. If I’m an inspiration for young, budding writers (especially if they’re Chicano/a), then I’ve done something that was not planned but, nonetheless, has resulted in an important impact.
You have written both poetry and fiction. Which do you prefer and what are the challenges with each of these writing techniques that you can share with our readers?
I’ve written much more fiction than poetry, but I must say that I enjoy both in different ways. With my fiction, I enjoy going on a journey with my characters. In fact, you might say that I become very close to my characters, almost like friends or relatives, even the not-so-nice ones. On the other hand, poetry writing is such a condensed form of expression for me, something that is much more of a personal experience. With poetry, my journey is joyous, painful, and extreme.
What advice can you give to upcoming writers on how to best navigate through the writing business or on writing techniques?
First and foremost, focus on the craft. Don’t fall in love with the idea of being a writer. Do the hard work. Read voraciously all kinds of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Which writers turn you on? Why? What are they doing that grabs you as a reader? Then get your ass in that chair and write, edit, write, edit. If you need to take a class in writing, or join a writers’ workshop, or enter an MFA program, do it. After you’ve actually started to write, you can start taking a look at the many “how to” books on submitting manuscripts. But don’t do too much of that before you’ve actually written a fair amount.
In putting together Latinos in Lotusland, what obstacles did you face and what would you do differently (if anything)?
Putting together an anthology, particularly one as ambitious as this, takes a tremendous amount of energy and time. The call for submissions resulted in a huge number of stories coming in to me. It was almost overwhelming. But having the full support of Bilingual Press was essential to keeping me on track. In the end, we were able to bring together sixty years of Los Angeles fiction by Latino/a writers in one volume (never before done) that includes such veteran writers as Luis Alberto Urrea, John Rechy, Helena María Viramontes, the late Richard Vasquez, and Luis Rodriguez, to name but a few. But we were also able to include many new writers such as Estella González, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Salvador Plascencia, and Reyna Grande. In the end, I wouldn’t change much, though I wish I had included a story by Dagoberto Gilb!
What projects or books are you currently working on that you would like to share with our readers?
I have a poetry collection entitled, Crossing the Border, that was going to be published by an independent press last year, but that press had economic problems and eventually went under. So, it’s making the rounds. I also have a collection of stories, essays and author interviews entitled, Things We Do Not Talk About, which is also out there being considered. I continue to write for La Bloga, and I write essays and book reviews for other publications such as the El Paso Times, from time to time. I wrote an adult picture book, The Last Dream of Pánfilo Velasco, which was inspired by the art of Gronk, and which I have submitted to a publisher for consideration. Gronk’s artwork also adorns the cover of my novel, The Book of Want, which came out last year from the University of Arizona Press and which has (I am happy to say) won two awards and is a finalist for two others. Since I do have a day job as a supervising attorney with the California Department of Justice, I don’t have the time I wish I had to write. But I make do with weekends and little scraps of time here and there. If you are driven to write, you will write, no matter the obstacles.
Visit me at: www.danielolivas.com!