The Rumpus Interview with McSweeney’s Publisher Oscar Villalon


Villalon: Kind of. We were a working class family. My dad was basically a janitor for most of his working life. My mother did assembly line work. According to my mother, who’s since passed away, I read a lot. I was just always reading when I was little; I just liked to read the back of cereal boxes. This was when I was 4 or five. I’d read little Golden Books, I’d read magazines, whatever they deemed to give me. I pretty much was geared toward that.

Rumpus: Where did the urge come from?

Villalon: I have no idea. We didn’t grow up with books in the house. That’s the thing. However, books were available to us. For example, my mother would give me a little bit of money for the – remember they used to do those, once a month you could order books through your school, Scholastic Books, and they’d deliver them every month to the kids? She’d try to scrape together $5 or something and I’d buy a couple books, stuff like that. She’d definitely take us to the library. When I was little she’d read to me Dr. Seuss, she’d buy the encyclopedias they used to sell in super markets for like $1.99, free if you buy like $20 worth of food or whatever. So, there was a mentality that reading was good, but I think frankly the economic reality was they could not afford to have any sort of library. That just wasn’t gonna happen. And the nature of my father’s work, my mother’s work, I don’t think they ever really read.

Now they were both very religious which meant you read the Bible a lot. Lots of close reading. So for a lot of kids being raised in the church that way were actually gonna probably turn into close readers, because you always have to look for subtext. Every single time you read through the Bible it’s to say, “What does this mean? What does this symbolize? What does this refer to, and in what other book of the Bible did we hear this before? Does this foreshadow, or is this preordained?” All these sort of techniques that I guess are grilled into kids in English classes in college, these people are already picking them up by the time they’re in middle school.

Rumpus: Your parents saw this as a good thing, I assume?

Villalon: Well, this is the immigrant’s experience. You come from Mexico. My father, his educational opportunities were limited by the fact that his father died when he was young, so he had to stop going to school, had to stop working. And you understood the value of education, the value of education was reading, these sort of things, and that it was an elite pursuit. Look, if you come to this country from the Third World, you understand that not everyone goes to college. Very few people go, and you understand there’s something elitist to that, and therefore, if you want to get into that sphere, sacrifices need to be made, and you stay out of your kid’s way. But this has been true of nearly all immigrants.

Look at Jewish immigrants who came over from Eastern Europe. They didn’t know what the heck their kids were reading. How could they possibly know? You think Saul Bellow’s dad knew what the hell he was reading? The guy was a bootlegger; he had no idea what the guy was reading. But, hey, if he likes it, he likes it. Go ahead.

Rumpus: But there seems to be a split between that attitude and the, “Oh, I gotta get this kid doing something practical so he can –”

Kevin Smokler is the CEO of and a writer living in San Francisco. More from this author →