Playing God: A Conversation with Daniel Olivas
Daniel Olivas became an author later in life than most, publishing his first book at the age of forty-one. Since then, he’s written ten books, edited another, and contributed to over a dozen anthologies. A short story collection, The King of Lighting Fixtures, was published in September, and his first poetry collection, Crossing the Border, was published in November. (When I served as the editor of the Fourth & Sycamore literary journal, I published three of the stories that appear in The King of Lighting Fixtures.)
Not bad for a full-time attorney.
Olivas’s stories cut to the quick of human motivations, rarely glossing our vices or pleasures under gentle lighting, but shining an interrogator’s flood lamp onto the inner gears of our desires. He has a keen and mischievous storyteller’s sense, recognizing when to show his cards as a writer and when to hold them close to his chest. Indeed, devilish humor popping up through the new stories, in places we might never expect it. The characters—mostly Chicanx individuals from the Los Angeles area, where Olivas and his family live—are as human as sin, and Olivas shows us enough of their humanity to grant them some pardon. If we don’t always forgive them, we at least understand why they do what they do.
The Rumpus: The King of Lighting Fixtures is a very diverse collection of stories, ranging from microfiction to a novella, and from realism to magic realism. How did this collection come together? Was there a guiding principle for choosing the stories for this book?
Daniel Olivas: As with my three previous short story collections, and even with my novel, which is built on interconnecting short stories, I allow my books to grow organically without much planning beforehand. Indeed, these stories span seventeen years, with the first one being published by a literary journal in 2000. The most recent story was birthed earlier this year after the election of Donald Trump. It ends the book and is titled “The Great Wall,” and envisions a world where Trump actually builds the goddamn thing.
I like to envision the creation of a short story collection as being like putting together a jazz album. Yes, there’s logic and literary structures imposed by me, but at the same time, all the tracks are shaped and ordered in a much more improvisational manner. The guiding principle for me is whether or not a story adds a layer or texture to the overall collection.
When this book was peer-reviewed by the University of Arizona Press, a couple of the review comments indicated that I should think about reordering some of the stories. I did that and I’m glad I took the advice. Sometimes you get too close to something and a fresh pair of eyes can help. Those peer reviewers are sort of like record producers who can step back and offer sage advice.
Rumpus: “The Great Wall” is an emotionally devastating story about the psychological violence of deportation and its impact on families. You and I spoke in the days following the election last fall, and you sounded like the wind had been knocked out of you. Have you noticed your mindset for writing—whether in tone or in content—changing since the election? Do you feel like your fiction is or will be more overtly political now?
Olivas: I’ve often touched on political issues in my writing over the years and specifically addressed some of the nastier pre-Trump immigrant bashing. I’ve confronted most forms of bigotry though sometimes I’ve done it in a darkly humorous fashion. But I think that the election of Trump was such a devastating occurrence for specific communities that I needed to confront it head-on in some way in this collection. In “The Great Wall,” which ends the collection, I tried to address the very human suffering of families that are torn apart under a fully realized Trump immigration policy.
I don’t think this will be the last time I address Trump in my writing. I think it will evolve and change the more we live in a world where he is president. Indeed, I almost feel as if it is my duty as a Chicano writer to respond to the disaster that is the Trump presidency.
Rumpus: While many of your stories deal with very heavy themes—grief, infidelity, bullying, molestation—you also regularly employ humor. In “The Subtenant,” you have a line early on that reads, “It’s been a bit more than three years now since Satan first sent me an e-mail in response to my Craigslist posting.” Is humor a conscious choice for you, a way of allowing yourself and your readers to come up for air, or does it just happen organically?
Olivas: I let the characters and storylines dictate how funny a story should be. If I have an outrageous theme such as in “The Subtenant,” where this poor schmuck has to sublet a room to a down-and-out Satan because he desperately needs the money, that kind of premise is wholly appropriate for bawdy, no-holds-barred humor. But there are stories such as “Kind of Blue,” inspired by the tracks of Miles Davis’s brilliant album, which are not funny and deal with particularly difficult issues such as gang violence and sexual abuse. Making an outrageous joke in that context makes no sense unless it highlights a character’s warped view of the world or is utilized for some other character-driven purpose.
In terms of whether I use humor to allow me or my readers to come up for air, I don’t think I put that much thought into it. I hate to say it, but I first have to entertain myself before I can think about the reader. I know that’s kind of weird and selfish, but I write because it’s fun, not because I need to put bread on the table.
Rumpus: The devil and damnation come up in more than one story in this collection, but humor, however grim or mischievous, often lightens those tales. What role do the Devil or spiritual perdition play for you in your creative landscape?
Olivas: Oh, the Devil has appeared in many of my short stories. In fact, a few years back, I published a collection titled Devil Talk in which I addressed evil in its many forms, including in the classic form of the Devil. I think the more fascinating aspect of a story that includes the Devil is how other characters react to his or her presence. That’s where the fun lies. And devils are so much more interesting than angels, aren’t they?
Rumpus: Does being a religious person inform your use of the Devil as a muse, or is he just a device for exploring human nature?
Olivas: I come from a slightly unusual religious background. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and attended twelve years of Catholic school, all within a Mexican-American community. In my adulthood, after law school, I converted to Judaism within the Reform tradition. My wife is Jewish, so she ended up introducing me to many wonderful books on the subject. I studied for more than six years before converting.
The concept of the Devil is really a Christian construct and is commonly depicted in Mexican culture. This is not really the case within Judaism. I think, in the end, my use of the Devil is very natural because of my Mexican cultural ties and he/she can play an important storytelling role to, as you nicely put it, explore human nature.
Rumpus: “The King of Lighting Fixtures” is your collection’s title story and its longest. What led to you want to adapt the story of David and Bathsheba in this way?
Olivas: The great personages of both Torah and the Christian Testament are riddled with imperfections. This fact is something that fascinates and delights me. King David is a perfect example: he was willing to lie and kill just to possess another man’s wife. So that got me thinking: what if I rewrote David as a successful, middle-aged Chicano (the King of Lighting Fixtures, as his TV ads dub him), and made my Bathsheba a college student? And what if I placed the action in the San Fernando Valley? How would my story evolve and develop? This is the great fun of writing fiction. We can play God by creating our own world.
In any event, the basic story of King David and Bathsheba allowed me to explore issues regarding relationships built on deception and unequal power. And you will notice that I touch upon other relationships within that story. In a sense, I’m shining a light on different sides of the same desire to be with one particular person. The story of King David and Bathsheba was one huge writing prompt.
Rumpus: Tell me about the role of magical realism in your fiction.
Olivas: I think being raised within a Mexican Catholic family made magical realism a very natural part of who I am as a person and as a writer. My parents always told us great stories that often had magical elements and roots within Mexican folklore. Also, I remember my father reading a book to me, when I was very young, about the lives of saints. Those were crazy scary stories! I remember one about this poor saint who tried to get to sleep but Satan would shake his bed all night long. I have no doubt that my father read those stories to me with great love. Maybe he was trying to scare me into being a good person.
In the end, magical realism offers me untethered freedom to explore human frailty and the way we clumsily cobble together our lives on this strange planet.
Rumpus: In your day job, you’re a Supervising Deputy Attorney General in the Public Rights Division of the California Department of Justice. How has that informed your writing?
Olivas: While I do not write legal thrillers, I do place some of my stories within legal offices and other similar settings. Indeed, in the very first story of the collection (“Good Things Happen at Tina’s Café”), the main character is a legal secretary (though completely fictional and not based on an actual person) who works in the exact legal division and building of the California Department of Justice where I work. And that story was inspired by a group of lawyers in my section who all shared a coffee pot that was kept in one of their offices (Tina’s office, to be exact). We jokingly called her office, Tina’s Café. I snuck in several of my colleagues (as well as some of our inside jokes) into that story.
But from a practical standpoint, the fact that I am constantly immersed in the act of legal writing and editing has made me a better and more efficient creative writer and editor. In the end, lawyers need to tell compelling stories when they write a brief or other legal argument. A successful lawyer understands that the judge is merely a person who is going to read that brief, which should articulate a compelling reason for the judge to rule in that lawyer’s favor. The lawyer needs to explain who is being hurt unless the court intervenes and how our society is affected by the court’s ruling. In other words, a legal advocate needs to get the judge to care. That’s not dissimilar to what a creative writer does.
Rumpus: I wonder if we aren’t all “judges,” to some extent, as readers, and the writer must win us over to their viewpoint.
Olivas: Book critics certainly are judges who wield a tremendous amount of power in terms of whether or not a book will reach a wider audience. That’s one of the reasons why I try to give coverage to books written by Latinx writers; too many worthwhile works of literature do not get the kind of coverage they deserve, and I’ve certainly seen that with respect to books written by writers of color. But there are some wonderful, diverse writers out there who mentor and otherwise support those voices that often have been ignored by much of the mainstream press.
In the end, the amplification of our diverse literary voices is a political act of resistance. Our lives are important, too. Our lives should be represented in our literature. And that literature is vital, compelling, and accessible. That literature deserves to be disseminated and noticed and available. And with respect to the dissemination and promotion of diverse voices—librarians, educators, and editors of literary journals play such an important role. They deserve not only a hearty shout out, but also our thanks and support.
Rumpus: As much as your stories are rooted in Chicano culture, they are just as anchored in the culture of Los Angeles. You’ve even edited a book of poetry by Los Angeles poets inspired by the city. What does it mean for a writer to write from a particular place?
Olivas: “Place” must include the people who live in that place. Los Angeles, for example, has a very interesting, long history going back to the indigenous people who lived here before the Spanish settlers came. And of course, California and much of the Southwest were part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the Mexican-American War. My grandparents came to United States and settled in this city about one hundred years ago. They were part of a huge wave of migration of people escaping the brutality of the Mexican Revolution. And my wife’s grandparents came from Russia around 1905. They were part of the large, pre-World War II Jewish diaspora. Large cities have often been magnets for various immigrant groups escaping almost certain death and searching for a better life.
Even in my lifetime, I have seen tremendous changes in the city in terms of migration patterns, demographics, civil rights, business, farming, the entertainment industry, environmental challenges, gentrification, etc. All of this dynamism and, at times, turmoil have seeped into and inspired my writing about the city.
In some ways, I use fiction to try to make sense of Los Angeles. But I don’t think one writer can do the city justice. That’s why it’s important to read the many diverse voices Los Angeles has to offer. And that’s one reason I edited Latinos in Lotusland, and co-edited The Coiled Serpent. Anthologies can help present the complexity of our city to readers by bringing together many different writers into one volume.