Writer Dagoberto Gilb (his unusual name comes from a Mexican mother and a father of German extractions) was born in Los Angeles and has written The Magic of Blood, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna, Woodcuts of Women and Gritos, winner of a Pen/Hemingway award and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Gilb’s essays and fiction have appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Best American Essays and the Threepenny Review. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, receiving degrees in Philosophy. Dagoberto Gilb is now on the faculty of Southwest Texas State University (with Tom Grimes and Tim O’Brien).
Latin music is the source of some of my favorite uses of the human voice. In Cuban/Puerto Rican songs the chorus sings in a style known as vieja [old women]. In Mexican singing there are the high-pitched exuberant shouts and cries, called gritos. Gritos also turns out to be one of my favorite book titles (but my superficiality is another story). Nonetheless ‘exuberance’ is a very apt word to associate with Dagoberto Gilb. The essays in Gritos cover the whole waterfront as he is likely to go from blood sports like cock fighting to the author of Blood Meridian, Cormac
McCarthy. This collection of 36 essays consists of four sections. "Culture Crossing" is a series of ruminations on El Paso
and about living and working on the border. Section 2, titled "Cortes
and Malinche," is about masculinity and how the Mexican-American
and Anglo cultures interchange—such as it is. The third section,
"The Writing Life," chronicles Gilb’s struggle to adapt
to this unfamiliar life. And the final section, "Working Life
and La Family" pulls the collection together, showing how the
various strands of Gilb’s life have created certain fault lines
Here’s Gilb’s hometown paper, The Austin Chronicle, on Gritos:
"What makes Gritos such an enlightening and emotional read is not just the subject matter (writers from Richard Rodriguez to Mike Davis have tackled some of this before) but Gilb’s—gasp!—subtlety and great ability to overwhelm the reader with mere hints and traces…Not to fear, though, for Gilb still shines in these essays with his fearlessness and wit, as well. Most impressive are his clarity and his measured indignation at the inability of white America to grasp Chicano beliefs or culture. Gilb even begins his book with a square-one lesson in the Mexican essence of the Southwest. As the book progresses, though, the problem he’s addressing manifests itself in a million little ways—the misunderstandings and silly expectations he encounters from editors and the like, the quiet heat of construction workers trying to learn how not to be deported."
The conversation below is the second I have had with Dagoberto Gilb. We sat down after we had spent the better part of a day at the recent Pen/Hemingway Awards (held at the JFK Library, which also houses a significant collection of Papa papers) and then a pleasant round of drinks with literary couple, Helene and Robert Atwan (she of the Beacon Press and he of the Best American Essays series) and writer Suki Kim, author of the award winning The Interpreter.
Robert Birnbaum: Sometimes I am asked if I ever get sick of talking to writers. In fact, I ask myself that question, occasionally.
Dagoberto Gilb: I do [both laugh].
RB: The thing is that when you ask what a writer is, their commonality is overshadowed by huge differences. Which is to say, when you tell me that you are a writer, you haven’t told me that much. Or enough specific stuff for me to know who you are. What do you think?
DG: I’m not sure what your point is, to be truthful.
RB: Well, um, do you consider yourself a writer?
DG: I do now, yeah. Actually, yeah.
RB: And is it a distinguishing characteristic of yours?
DG: I guess when people are saying that—we just went through a marathon, seven hours of writer-talk—I feel like my nerves are squeezing, have wrapped my muscles and they are squeezing, saying, "STOP IT! [laughs] Oh my God, just stop it." For me it’s a little bit like being on Jeopardy and everybody is pushing the button, pushing the button. And I’m like, "Uh, uh." Everybody is ahead of me. I’m like, "I didn’t get that one. I wasn’t quick enough." I mean I write, and I like writing, but when I am around writers I feel like, "God, I don’t do this. This isn’t who I am."
RB: What I am trying to understand—I normally see writers one at a time, one brand new person who I don’t know, who has a new story to tell—
DG: Actually, I am around a lot of writers now in this stage of my life. I used to be a construction worker, and I never talked to writers or talked about books or writing. We’d just tell stories all the time. And so when I was around writers, I was hungry. It was like, all exciting because it was just words being thrown around like confetti. It was like a parade. And now I am around it so much, its messy, like, "Shut up! Go do something." I’m tired. A lot of writer talk—there’s a lot of talk about how to hold the hammer. And I’m like, “Please, I just can’t stand it." I couldn’t stand it when I was a carpenter. Even when I worked with an apprentice, I’d say, "You are asking me questions, you just need to shut up. And you need to just do what I am saying. And in six months you will not have that question. It’s just a stupid question. And you’ll know it." I could discuss this Johnson clamp with you. But once you put a hundred Johnson clamps on those walers you aren’t going to give a shit anymore. About the principle. You’re just doing it—
RB: Why do writers want to talk so much about writing?
DG: I don’t know. I mean some of it—like myself, when I was hungry, it’s fun. The business part I enjoy. I like talking the business.
RB: Because they’re odd stories?
DG: Right. How to maneuver in the business. And then, obviously I love writer’s stories. When I find someone I’m interested in whatever that odd little thing in somebody that you like, that happens to be a writer. Sometimes that’s fun. I don’t meet them very often. Lots of people have really great stories that aren’t writers.
RB: And lots of writers have not really great stories. [laughs]
DG: Yeah, really don’t have a lot of great stories. They tell me what they are working on, and most of the time when people are telling me what they are working on, I find it less fascinating than—I like writers for other things. Maybe for the trouble they cause that isn’t about writing or is a consequence of writing.
RB: For me there is a presumption that writers are people who have a heightened ability to notice things that frequently go unnoticed. Plus I imagine there is bigger conversation going on. I am not sure, but it’s nice to think there is.
DG: When I came upon the first writer—because I knew none, they were all dead people. I really didn’t have a concept of a living writer. I took it upon myself, the equivalent to reading Plato, "I want to write one of those dialogues." And then when I started to reading books, "I want try to write a novel"—maybe that was the effect of drug addiction. Hah! [laughs]
RB: Or innocence?
DG: Yeah. Comparable things. [both laugh] I just thought I could. I had a confidence in myself that I could do anything I wanted, if I just worked at it. And I did believe that I could just sell books. I could look at a Writer’s Market and they’d have stories about selling a first novel for fifteen or twenty thousand dollars. When I started that sounded like a lot: "I’ll just do that." Frankly, I never met a writer that was working. They were all in school, studying books and in fact now I teach at this university and still find myself listening to these people, their references aren’t to stories of things that they have done or to people they saw do this. They are memories of books.
RB: Not a lot of first-hand experience.
DG: It’s just different. I don’t think there is anything wrong. It’s just not the way I came up. Or even how I found writing—I saw it as an adventure. Writing was a physical adventure that I went through and recorded in a fictional way. I would recreate fiction. And it’s different. I don’t know if there are two distinct camps. There are probably several distinct camps. One is where you come out of it like a physical adventure and then there are the people who have an imaginary mental adventure. We were talking earlier about Joyce Carol Oates—what did you call that disease?
DG: It’s fascinating that you could live in that world of sentences and never get out of it and still create. I can’t even imagine that. I sort of envy it. You fall in to some kind of dreamscape, a complete dreamscape.
RB: I am curious what it feels like for someone who is writing when they are actually doing it.
DG: It’s a dream to me. I feel disturbed when I am woken up. Talking about what writing does to me–it keeps waking me up from my dream. I’m like, "I don’t want you to wake me up. Leave it alone.” Because you make me think about it then I will think am I doing good. When I am really just having an entertainment. When I have to become conscious of it, I’m like, "Is it this? Is it that?" I play those little games with myself to my own standards, high and low. This other stuff is disturbing. Most of the time I am strong enough for it to bounce off me. Or I just turn my head and it gets right by me.
RB: Is there a cultural ethnic divide? You are Mexican-American, started off as a worker, a laborer from L.A.—in one of the essays in Gritos you refer to El Paso as a suburb of L.A.
DG: It is a suburb of L.A.
RB: Am I making too much of the fact that you are not the model for most contemporary writers?
DG: That’s becoming more and more evident to me—
DG: No, I don’t think I knew it. It just becomes more and more evident. I feel isolated in different and varying ways. Which, when you are tired or something, you get this paranoid feeling. But when you are feeling strong, you feel good. Like that is exactly what you want and that’s exactly how I have always been. And that’s the only possible way that I am going to do anything interesting. I don’t mean in terms of the ‘out there’ interesting but in terms of my own dealings with God. Like this book I am working on–I think it’s interesting. It fascinates me. And that’s fun.
RB: An odd notion of isolation, I think. I’ve been reading a book by Rachel Cohen about artists/writers and their friendships from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. The overarching idea here is that each of these people has been making their own life without a model. And that a creative person’s life is also an act of creation.
DG: I don’t have a paradigm. This whole concept of mentoring is odd to me. And I don’t have one.
RB: Perhaps that wasn’t a big thing with our generation.
DG: I hear about it. People who came up through writing programs, whether it’s a specific person or a program, people ask, "What do I think of these?" I tell them, "Just think of it this way. They are telling you to join a program. That should tell you something [laughs]. Maybe you need to join a program. I don’t have the answer to this.” I am asked about what writers have influenced me. And I have really thought of it a lot and think, "You know, maybe Plato. Maybe these weird things that I read. I don’t know that it’s been literature, and I didn’t know any writers, to the extent that when I went to El Paso and started writing, I was writing a novel because I thought I could write a novel." And then I met Raymond Carver. Did he mentor me? No. He was a guy that was publishing, getting famous writing stories about the working class, which was what I was doing across the street. And so I thought, "Oh, they are interested in the working class and here I am working. He’s teaching over here and I am banging nails over there and I can tell you a story or two. I know a few stories." "Aw, that’s a good idea." And I started trying to write short fiction. But does that mean he [Carver] influenced me? That was a business thing that wasn’t like a stylistic influence or even like Russell Banks was saying today about Hemingway. I was thinking, "He really was influenced by Hemingway, going there [Key West] and following him," I didn’t do any of that. I read different novelists from first book to last. If that’s what you are talking about, I did all that.
RB: I forgot what I was talking about. But I do think this idea of mentoring, on a large scale, is a recent one [hence the prevalence of the verb], a post-Vietnam-War-era phenomenon. And that there was this greater pressure or accent on programmatic ways of living. More self-help books, various new methodologies on how to be successful, leader counseling, blah, blah, blah.
DG: I didn’t have that. I have been doing a little more self-analysis because I didn’t have help. I don’t feel bad about it. But I know that I don’t feel good about it. I am as equally bitter as I am a proud. And that’s just how I am.
RB: Well, in principle, it would be nice to be helped.
DG: It would be nice to have your parents help you once in a while. I didn’t have any of that stuff. And I still have problems where people tell stories and I am like, "You have help. You are covered at the end. When things go bad your folks will die and you will inherit a house and you’ll sell it and you have a big bundle of cash." I don’t have any of that. And I have never had any sense of any of that at any point. It’s really like, what I have got, what I’ve done, what I am doing, and my fantasy about it succeeding. And that’s it. And the success I have gotten—I have gotten success at the financial aspect, but it wasn’t major. I lost my train of thought.
RB: We were talking about who can teach you and help you. What are the lessons to be learned from someone else?
DG: We were talking about mentoring. I am like the Zen master who is living in a cave, on a very steep sharp cliff and the students crawl up—rock climbing skill was necessary—from crevice to crevice, and then get there: "Ah master." They have come for satori. And I am like "Get the fuck out of here."
DG: "You are not welcome. I do not want to see you." And they go “boom" and they understand the mystery of life.
RB: [laughs] Well that’s good, yes?
DG: Yeah. [laughs]
RB: It would be an odd kind of mythology that wisdom comes to you from sages in little dribbles.
DG: They all do [think that]. They all think they should come in the cave and sit down and talk over a primordial fire. And things pass. "Fuck you. Get lost." Actually, the truth is what I want to say is, "Now go write that story. You have a funny story now that will probably be published. You climbed that rock and the dude said, ‘Fuck off.’" To me, that’s my life experience. I mean that positively and humorously. That’s what life has been to me. One job I had—I had just gotten fired from a job. And I sucked it up. The guy yelled at me. Instead of just snapping it off, I stared at him, sucked it up and then he got me my check three days later. So I didn’t have the job. It didn’t pay off. I got three more days. There is something to be said for that. But I was pissed off that I didn’t tell him right then what I thought about what he was saying to me. So the next job I went to there was this old German man and we were doing something, in this big hole, a pit, and four stories down. I was one of the first five or six carpenters and this old German man starts screaming at me one day. And I just did my old me. Which would be to jump up and start screaming, "Do not ever scream at me. If you have anything that you are so mad at me that you are going to scream at me, just get me my fucking check. Don’t scream. I am not going take it. I am not taking it from you." And the guy got the biggest damn grin.
DG: I was in. I was in. I kept that job for three years—in and out. I did whatever I wanted. And he was right to trust me. I am not the type who would fuck off when he wasn’t around. I am doing the same when you are around as when you are not around. I am not playing games. I understand I am in life. I am going to build this sucker. I am going to enjoy myself while am building it. I’m here from 6:00 to 4:30 everyday, banging. And I am going to make fun. I’m going to laugh and you’re not going to scream at me.
RB: It doesn’t seem like people are learning to live like that.
DG: I don’t know what people are learning.
RB: I don’t know what they are learning. I have sense of what they aren’t learning. Wait, maybe I do know. Duplicity is okay. It’s okay to be sneaky. Irony is okay and you don’t have to be direct and say, "I don’t like this and I do like this. Or fuck off." That’s what seem to be the reigning values of social interaction: non-confrontation, euphemism and a set of indirect patterns of interaction.
DG: I don’t know how you can learn that without it just eating your body, turning it mushy with rotted parts. The funny thing about authenticity and inauthenticity–these people who are making up personas–I don’t even know how they determine what was the one to imitate [laughs]. How do they do that stuff? So I am just like, "I have no ability to—" I have to stop myself. I have no idea what they are talking about. I am stupid. We sat here for several hours [with Helene and Robert Atwan and Suki Kim] and I was thinking, "How do they know all that shit?" I feel so ignorant. I’m supposed to be one of the people that you are reading and I am totally ignorant.
RB: That’s one way of looking at it. Some stuff just accrues to you. That’s all. If you played a sport–or being a carpenter. You hold a hammer and if you do it often enough you get good. Helene [Atwan] has been in publishing for over 25 years. She could talk publishing business stuff in her sleep.
DG: I love books. I find a lot of people who want to be writers don’t really love books. It’s extremely odd to me. I do love ’em but I am kind of innocent and young about them. I just don’t deceive myself that I am ever going to read them all. I mean, there are books that I’ll read and I don’t understand. I don’t know what they are talking about. I can read the words, but it’s just not getting to me. And I have somehow gotten into a business where there are people who know more about books, in all these ways—and I’m with them supposedly as a teacher now. And that I have finally been reduced to saying, "You know, I’m just not an editor. I have no idea what to tell you here. I just can just tell you maybe about four sentences worth of what I read in the work that seemed to matter." But I don’t know, that’s for somebody else to decide.
RB: Who are you supposed to read? I have given up worrying that I haven’t read any Updike or more than a few pages of Roth and other masters from the canon.
DG: I did read those people. It’s funny–I was talking to Russell Banks today. In his speech on Hemingway and as he was speaking, I realized I had no interest in Hemingway. I realized I was completely not interested. And when I did read him, he’s in Spain [laughs]. What could be wrong here? And God, what ennui is it? [laughs] Now, in fact I like him [Hemingway] more. But this is very recent that I have read him more carefully—because I have been teaching. Before I taught him I never read him. Once in a while I will have a workshop class and we’ll read ten published stories and one of them will be a Hemingway. The presumption is that I’ll lead the discussion. I try not to, but sometimes I have to be prepared and Hemingway is kind of good. I didn’t really know that before.
RB: One can only hear the phrase "deathless prose" so often.
DG: Yeah. I joke about Hemingway. It’s like, there is a certain kind of prose. He is the ultimate man: "I was thirsty. I bought beer. I opened it. I drank." Just periods. And then when you get a little girly you get into Faulkner and you get to have commas. And lots of “ands.” It starts to get a little loopy. But Hemingway is sort of like the ultimate male. That’s another thing I realized tonight—is that I don’t write like him in the slightest. I think because he’s a male and I am male, I get a lot of these, "You read like Hemingway."
RB: I liked Banks’ remarks. And he made the perhaps obvious point that he was widely read. The author that made a strong impression on me when I was a young reader was Nelson Algren.
DG: I like him a lot. But I guess mine were all foreigners. Dostoyevsky just blew me up. It was like, "Whoa." The large issues that were both spiritual and—
RB: I had trouble reading stories where I couldn’t pronounce the names.
DG: Yeah, there are too many names. I just read some recently and I thought, "Man, this is not as good as I remember it." Crime and Punishment is a really great story. [But] if I were to edit it today, I would cut out a lot of stuff.
DG: These long speeches, really long speeches. But the issues were big. Raskolnikov and his sister—there is a story there that people haven’t paid attention to. I hadn’t paid attention to—his beautiful sister marrying some accountant for money. Whoring herself out. That’s a lot of what his crime was about. His passion for saving his family and that stuff—was it suppressed or not just on the surface of things? I never saw it.
RB: How old were you when you read it?
DG: We don’t play it up very much. He didn’t make her a good enough character. The first time I read him [was] in my early 20s. I didn’t start reading until I was—I read one book at like 17 or 18. And then I started reading in my early 20’s. I really went nuts.
RB: In retrospect, I was introduced to the canon before I had an interest or ability to get something out of it.
DG: I didn’t have any lessons in the canon. I would go to the bookstore and steal books. I was totally into stealing books. I would not go to the English department but to all the foreign books. That’s where I would look. Every time I read books from the English section I felt too stupid to understand. Something was wrong. So I learned to avoid them and I learned to enjoy reading. Dostoyevsky. The Brothers K. I just couldn’t get over how great it seemed. Now I should read that again. Take that those 1000 pages and see if I could make it 350 pages. It’s like you weren’t you. I am in a different life now.
RB: I do try to make a habit of reading one of two of Garcia Marquez’s books every year. Rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera is a litmus test.
DG: Speaking of Oprah [One Hundred Years of Solitude was a recent Oprah selection], I read 100 years about two years ago and was just blown away. I want to read his new book.
RB: The memoir [Living to Tell the Tale]?
DG: Yeah. Some books just do hold up.
RB: I started rereading [Nelson Algren’s] The Man with The Golden Arm last week.
DG: That must be fun to do.
RB: Algren is as powerful as I remember and a better writer than remember. He is pretty much overlooked.
DG: No it’s true. Ian Fleming?
RB: I’m talking about Nelson Algren. Not the writer of Man with the Golden Gun.
DG: Oh that’s right. I was thinking, "What a strange book to be reading and praising." I only know Algren’s stories. You’re from Chicago. I forget. Everyone from Chicago is always telling me about Nelson Algren.
RB: There seems to be a barrier to acknowledging people like Algren. Maybe it’s a kind of East Coast snobbery.
DG: These kinds of conversations, I don’t know if I am trained well enough to know. I can see what you are saying. I wish I could spend a year and look into this stuff—now that I am in the business. Before I used to like to read myths. Construction worker myths and telling those stories. I would use a sort of realistic style to tell myths that’s seemed dream-like to me.
RB: What’s your experience with people who have read your work? What do they say to you?
DG: I get good ones. I do. I was at the National Book Critic’s Circle awards ceremony. And this guy walked up with a bag of books and I was standing next to Tobias Wolff. And he says, "Oh Tobias Wolff, I want you to sign [. . .]" And he says, "Oh, you’re Dagoberto Gilb. I really love your work.” And he pulls out these books. And he didn’t have my books. "Yeah, you love me so much you don’t have any of my books, man. What the fuck?" And he laughed and says, "No, no, no. I have all your books. I am a carpenter. And I brought this." And he had brought this issue of Carpenter magazine.
DG: It was so much better [than having my books]. An issue of Carpenter magazine where I had written this light little piece. I get that kind of stuff, where these kinds of guys will come up to me and I feel really good. I don’t get a lot of money, but I know these other guys [authors] aren’t getting these particular people. Although here he was getting Tobias Wolff’s autograph [laughs]. So he wasn’t that dumb.
RB: That’s one form of payoff, isn’t it?
DG: Yeah, there’s a lot. I wish that would pay a month’s rent [both laugh]. It feels like it.
RB: Well there is the roulette wheel aspect of it. Someone will option something you do and some odd good thing will happen.
DG: Yeah, and I get a lot of those [sarcastically]. And if that were capital of some kind, I’d be doing great.
RB: Part of what happens when you write or paint or make movieswhat no one signs on for—is that great X factor of things that happen that you can’t anticipate. That’s why at the beginning of this chat I wanted to get a sense of what you think a writer is, because I think the noun has so much range of things that fall under its umbrella. How much are you like John Updike or A.S. Byatt?
DG: Not much in common. There is definitely this confusion that we all read everybody and [that] we should. One thing I have learned in the last five years teaching [is] there are whole bunches of genres, let’s call them, that I am not interested in. That doesn’t mean they are bad. I’m just not there. I do know my own area is the western United States that I write out of; a lot of the things I carry into the real estate market of literature are from the west, and the interest is different. People want a big ranch. They want things that aren’t as they are in Boston.
RB: Jim Harrison just published a story in The New Yorker that is also in the online edition. Usually the online literati (at least the ones that I read) will note the new fiction in The New Yorker. I couldn’t understand why no one mentioned Harrison’s story. He’s a wonderful writer. [I communicated with Harrison and he wrote back, “I’m doing fairly well on the rest of the world but have heard the roar of silence for a long time from our Eastern Seaboard."] I had wondered if it was a regional bias.
DG: People admire him a lot, so he gets his. One of the things I think about with writing that I do like, I sort of gave up sports, and I have a son that gave up sports, too; he’s a good athlete. I gave it up and moved along. The thing is, you can be much older and you’re still playing this game and you are in the ball game and still trying to get MVP and all these things that you are still [going] after. I am still working it. I’m still playing. The season is still going.
RB: I hardly think about the competition in the literary world. I don’t think it’s supposed to be there.
DG: I mean in the best sense of the word. I like to play. Guys in sports are pretty much done at thirty. It’s like they’re figuring out how they are not young any more. At least the presumption with this business is that you are young when you are still writing. That the writing is still young. I like that idea. And I am hoping it works that way.
RB: When I talked to Alan Lightman last summer—he’s a former physicist—in contrast to scientists, he felt you got better as you got older, as a writer.
DG: Larry McMurtry thinks the opposite. At least that’s what he said for a while. At least before he wrote these new books. He’s such a machine.
RB: Have you ever been to his bookstore?
DG: No, I want to. He’s invited me. He’s a lover of books. I really like people like that. And he knows every book, too. He’s amazing.
RB: Where is Archer City in relation to Austin?
DG: It’s close to Denton. It’s north Texas. He invited me up there to stay. He jokes that, "Dagoberto won’t go because there’s no girls." "Hey, man that’s not true." But it does sound lonely [laughs]. [Michael M Thomas told me that McMurty has moved to Tucson, though his bookstores remain in Archer City.]
RB: I noticed there was a big anthology that came out last fall that you were in.
DG: Lone Star Literature, edited by Don Grant. It’s a Texas book—it collected most of the major names since Dobie. Frank Dobie being sort of the George Washington of literature in Texas. Most everybody that’s done anything is in there. So in that respect it seems like a pretty good book. Don’s an interesting guy. Pretty crazy.
RB: A former Texas Monthly editor?
DG: He’s still a Texas Monthly guy and he’s a professor.
RB: One of the essays in Gritos, about your writing for Texas Monthly, was bittersweet.
DG: Culos, man, that’s all they are. Culos. I think of it as an apartheid magazine. It’s sort of my current rail. The more I say it, the more I think it’s true. The evidence is overwhelming that I am right. The whole Mexican culture is so dismissed in their pages. And the history of the state is like… The way they treated me exemplifies that patronizing view of Mexican-Americans in the state. Who knows how that changes? I keep saying we just have to have a magazine of our own. We have an economy of our own that can actually buy—it’s confusing. How do you ever get out of this? We don’t read enough, so therefore we don’t buy enough books, and then we are easily marketed to because you can use TV and stuff to market lesser things. So you bring lesser things to the community, the smarter kids read it and think it is lesser, and they don’t know that they are right. They think, "I don’t like literature. I don’t like books." And move on to something else, when in fact they aren’t being told, "You didn’t like it because it was stupid." So anyway—
RB: That’s society wide, though I suspect it’s exacerbated in minority communities. There is this idea that we are more visually literate. I wonder if even visual literacy isn’t being degraded?
DG: One of my best friends in L.A. was an artist and we hung out a lot. And we had better conversations because I could verbalize his art and his art was always informing me. That, to me, is a more symbiotic relationship.
RB: That reminds me of Cohen’s book A Chance Meeting, where you had Joseph Cornell and Avedon and Matthew Brady and Carl Van Vechten being friends with a variety of writer and poets.
DG: I was hanging out with Junot Diaz. He’s a dominicano, and I feel more kinship with him. I come here and I feel like I am in another culture. I might as well be in Britain. On the one hand, yeah, we all write, but it’s like you are in a different world than where I see my world. And I hunger more for being around people of my own background, my own conversation and past. And so sometimes I think part of my own strange feeling isn’t just that it’s literary talk but it’s like talking about British literature. I just don’t. Intuitively I get a lot of what they’re talking about.
RB: I think it’s hard to find honest conversation—where you get to say things that you are thinking and some of them may be stupid and wrong, but you don’t get to understand that until said out loud in a conversation.
DG: I do say so many stupid things. [laughs]
RB: Who doesn’t? Some people can disguise their stupidity with a good vocabulary.
DG: I sort of enjoy being around people who are not listening [laughs]. Those are the people who are usually drinking and smoking a lot of dope [laugh].
RB: I am fond of putting things into play, to see what happens. Sometimes you don’t know what something sounds like until you hear it resonating off of an audience.
DG: Right. I have really good students this semester and they are taking notes and it just drives me crazy, "Please stop it. This ridiculous. It can’t be that good. Just don’t. "
RB: So what do they do? Do they stop?
DG: No, no, I try not to pay attention to it. I can’t believe people are taking notes when I am talking. Half of what I say is total nonsense and I don’t know which half it is. [laughs]
RB: They don’t know either—that’s why they are taking notes.
DG: Yeah right.
RB: How far ahead do you look into the future?
DG: I wish I did. I worry that I haven’t [thought about it] very well. A week ahead is like the flat earth. I know there’s dragons. I know I have to see the world as round. And I should stop it, and it’s like you are really getting older and really should not be making the same mistakes—they don’t seem like the same mistakes, but everybody tells me that they are the same mistakes, all the time. I don’t see it that way.
RB: How did you manage to get here, fly to Boston? You had to make plans.
DG: [laughs] These things, I can do it. Well, they got me the ticket two or three days before. I do some [planning] but I’m not good at it.
RB: You have an agent?
DG: Yeah. Kim Witherspoon. She’s supposed to be great.
DG: Her reputation is super. I have no idea. She’s the only agent I have. I have no idea if she is super or the shittiest [both laugh]. No clue.
RB: How do you get along with her?
DG: We don’t communicate a whole lot. I don’t need anybody.
RB: Yes, you do.
DG: Well, we are talking about my own character. A lot of people think this is an incredible flaw I have.
RB: It is. And I’ve known you for a few minutes.
DG: It must be an incredible fault. I just don’t speak up for myself. She wants books and I am like doing other things. Maybe that is why I need an agent that will sell me so that I will write them more. It’s such a strange business, and I am constantly asking people that question. One of the things I was talking to Helene Atwan about was "What is a good sale? And how do you know if you have a good agent?" and “What would you do as a publisher when you do this?" The only way I can finally understand personally is when I understand as my agent what would I do differently than what I am doing? Or “If I were a publisher and I got a writer that said this and this and this, what would I do?" I think you can figure out a lot of things. Would you hire you for instance?
RB: Sure you can figure all this stuff out, but how much time do you have, and isn’t that time better spent writing?
DG: Yeah, I have too many things. I really wish I could have some help. The way I focus—I need to keep this job. So that takes up this time and I need to finish this book. That’s basically been my agenda. Every time I finish a book I look up and say, "Now what’ll happen?" Usually, I get those fun, interesting things. Like Gritos got this nomination, completely out of the blue, and it’s kind of nice and it’s an odd sort of reward. It doesn’t mean money. A lot of bells didn’t go off but [there is] a little satisfaction.
RB: It’s also a reminder that the world is not under your control and that good things come as well as bad.
DG: Absolutely, and things go to your dreams. I look at when I turned the manuscript in, "This is kind of good." I don’t like to be immodest. but I did. But I did, I thought, "This is kind of good." It’s a unique book. And then when I went out reading, I thought, "They should be touring me." I’m reading, and if I have ever sold books on readings . . .
RB: Is there a paperback edition?
DG: There will be in the next month. This book is selling. People will buy this book. I probably could sell if you really pushed. I am not a big marketer. I am too embarrassed to—looking back, if I was a good marketer, I should have told my agent, "I worked high rises." This sounds immodest. "You can take pictures of me on a high rise with my tools and I am writing fiction. This is a story. Chicks will even like it."
RB: What did your agent say?
DG: No. I didn’t do any of this. I did none of this. I look back, I wanted it just to happen very much like I wanted Gritos to be [noticed]—without me doing anything. I really don’t want to market things. Then I am always doubtful that you are really getting it. At least when I got this [NBCC] nomination, I didn’t do anything. I got it not because I knew how to play the system, but the system worked in the way I want everything to work. And in that respect I am proud. And everything I have gotten has worked that way. The Magic of Blood won those awards. Why did it happen? My publisher at the time, University of New Mexico press, they didn’t submit the books. How did I know that? Because I called one that I wanted my book entered into and they hadn’t gotten it. I just couldn’t believe I was told they did it. So I entered all the books, and every one I entered, the book placed. I think that proves it’s about the work, and sometimes you really want it to be about that and not how you played the other game. Some people are really good at playing those other marketing games. I wish I did know how to strategize. It almost makes me feel as if I am going to mess up.
RB: It takes a lot of energy.
DG: That’s true. Thanks. I need all the excuses I can get. [laughs]
RB: I wonder if the agent/artist relationship isn’t almost familial? Why would someone work hard on something that wasn’t obviously commercial?
DG: In some sense, what I should do in terms of agents is talk to people and ask them what their agent does for them and what they don’t do. I don’t really know. I’ve had this agent. She’s sold my books. I don’t understand why Woodcuts of Women isn’t in airports. It seems like a really good airport read to me. Actually, I mean that. Why wouldn’t it be something that people would want to read on an airplane? It seems like an easy—
RB: Because they read Tom Clancy.
DG: Mine is not harder to read. It’s just a matter of promotion. Just put it there and if it sells one in fifty—
RB: You told your publisher?
DG: I probably did.
RB: Let’s see, you have a novel stuffed away in a drawer and —
DG: Well I want to go back to that one when I am finished [with] the one that I’m on. And I am going to salvage it, probably. I just want start to writing books now. I want to get into that routine. I came out of many years of having jobs and raising my family. And then I got through that [and] I was messed up for several years with such personal chaos in my life. I got stuff done, but I should have done more. I should have written two novels in that period instead of what I did do. And now I am just trying real hard to not let that condition hold me down. The teaching stuff is hard for me. It’s not in my nature. But it’s a job that I have now. So I try to do that.
RB: Do you see a way of making things better for yourself?
DG: In teaching? Just [teach] one semester. There’s things I like about it. I don’t mind it so much. My dream job is still two days in a factory, 10 hours a day.
RB: 20 hours?
DG: A 20-hours-a-week job. Where I got paid really well. Even an auto parts job—regular old people. Just working physically. I miss physical work.
RB: Do you work out?
DG: Oh yeah. It’s not the same. Carpenters—we’d crack up about people having to work out. "Let’s go pick up the weights," or "Do the running machine." I’ll show you a running machine. It’s called Willie Mayo screaming at you. When he screams, you run [laughs].
RB: Do you envision an end game?
DG: An end game of what? Life? God, recently because I’ve been pondering an uncertain demise. I don’t mean in a maudlin way. Maybe I am being given a gift that I don’t have to go through the—
RB: Interesting, today, to be reminded of Hemingway.
DG: I don’t have to go to the Hemingway point, where you are so clouded and miserable. I don’t want that. I worry about that. I’d rather—I don’t want to go through the ravages. I was being offered a clean exit that would keep me intact.
RB: A clean exit?
DG: Heroically, almost.
DG: Where I still look good. I still can wink and they sort of smile. And it’s like, "Yeah, they are winking at me and I am winking at them. Now I can leave." I can’t really say I haven’t gotten everything. I’m way past my dreams. Living a life I never knew existed. And I am being put up in hotels and being flown to Boston. Things are cool. So wouldn’t it be nice to leave a legacy and a financial inheritance? So nature wants me to go soon. So go sooner. Does everything have to drop off you like some old jalopy? And they have to find the parts. And everybody is going, "I don’t want to work on that."
RB: Okay, so you are past this health crisis.
DG: The hope is that I am going to write these books. I think it will be a big one. How it plays out will inform me of the future. If it doesn’t sell—a lot of my friends that care for me jokingly say, "They are not going to like you until you are dead. It’s just not going to happen."
DG: And I’m like, "It may not happen." In terms of my cultural world where, as Mexican-Americans go, I am the only guy of my generation–[the only] male figure. We are still 50 years off from reading me. So the younger guys, people in their ’30s just coming up, are reading me, and so it may not happen. So this particular book, if it doesn’t do—
RB: The chicanas seem to do well.
DG: There is Sandra [Cisneros] and Denise [Chavez] and no guys. Jimmy Baca, who is not really a fiction writer.
RB: Rudolfo Anaya.
DG: Rudy, in an odd way, has passed the torch.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing