WORD with the WRITER
an interview with Dagoberto Gilb
Featured Books by Dagoberto Gilb
By Maura Devereux for collectedstories.com
Dagoberto Gilb’s Woodcuts of Women (Grove Press) is a collection of lust stories. Set in the author’s native Southwest, they are tales of working class men and women struggling to find redemption through one another. They dance the dance of fear and bravado, hope and betrayal, and straight up physical need. As often as not, desire is expressed most acutely in the emptiness of failure and the solitude of loss, but these characters never really fall to despair. There’s always the memory of sweet time passed, and the promise of more somewhere down the road.
Author Gilb knows this terrain well. A longtime resident of El Pason who now lives in Austin, he spent 16 years making his living as a carpenter before winning wide acclaim for his first story collection, The Magic of Blood. That collection won the PEN/Hemingway award and was a PEN/Faulkner finalist. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award. He is also the author of a novel, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna. Gilb answered the following questions for collectedstories.com via email.
from the story “Mayela One Day in 1989” by Dagoberto Gilb
“She is sitting across the booth I’m in. Her name is Mayela. We are in a coffee shop downtown where sunburned truck drivers talk the loudest in drawling English, tattoos on their hairy arms, wearing cowboy hats. Women, having lunch, wear nylons and high heels and imitation pearl necklaces. The coffee is too hot, too old, too black, too thin, and I color it with white liquid that isn’t milk. The waitress has a bun of hair bobby pinned to the top of her head, two cloth flowers stitched into the net containing the bun. The mix is fertile and intoxicating, though like a drug cut with strychnine, there is an edge on the rush, a rustling breeze of death, and the whirl makes bold the blood and breath and muscle. When it has become later, the same restaurant, the sky blue red, too bright and gaudy to be anywhere else but here, there is no one else, not even the waitress pouring more coffee, and now she, not us, is the phantasm.
Mayela tells stories of men: fathers, brothers, cousins, lovers. Mayela has a husband. He lives in Houston, a dangerous American town where he left her by herself too often. She could not be alone like that, she says, as if of no more or less importance, and she never loved him. She only wanted to get away anyway she could. Hers wasn’t a home, that mud building near Chihuahua. It was her grandfather’s house, and she slaved there, cleaning this, raking that, cooking, washing, nursing a grandmother and younger, fatherless children that were brother or half-sister or cousin or niece and, then, also her mother. Her mother stopped being well for so long that one day, Mayela says, she couldn’t be sure she was awake or asleep. So she married, at sixteen, and she had two children, and now she’s here because she never loved that man. She cannot find a lover who can satisfy her. She is tormented by lovers. One, at twenty-two, is younger than her. Another, her boyfriend, is thirty-five, and he sometimes wants too much from her — he throws things and she doesn’t know about him, and so she won’t see him for days and sometimes weeks. The man with gray hair, almost sixty, treats her with elegance and dances with her in the middle of the day where lights are under the floor and tells her how to be near her is all he might ever ask for. He gave her a car, a used sports car. He says she can have a house that will be hers and he will carry the note. Mayela says she took the car but will pay for it and that she won’t take the house. Because there’s always payments.
I tell her how I feel sorry for her because a woman like her cannot live simply. She is monitored, never ignored. She is supposed to be more strong and more resistant than a man. Men always approaching her, making conversation supposed to not be about what it is. So many men, so much temptation. Too many temptations. Leaning toward her, making my voice as close as I want my body, I whisper this, us, that even as these words leave my lips, as my hands would move over her body, it is not me at all but her, that I am the one drawn in, that I will be the one caught and that she will be the one who has led me here. You, I tell Mayela, are temptress, and I am prey.”
© 2001 DAGOBERTO GILB
cs: Congratulations on the publication of your latest story collection, Woodcuts of Women. Did you write the stories with the goal of a thematic collection, or did you just happen to find that all of the stories you’d been writing happened to be about women?
dg: I did this one willfully. I was going through a serious, call it, “woman” phase (itty-bitty personal trouble), part to go against the macho stereotype that consistently sweats my identity. I did not grow up with a father. I was raised by a woman, a good-looking woman, and all of her friends, and all of my best friends, always, have been women — both the ones I loved and the ones I was and am still friends with. This macho thing bores me. Yes, I am a man. Yes, I love to be with a woman. I very much like a woman in my life, even need one. I am a big baby. (Once you’re called “macho,” whatever you say becomes “macho.” So here I am saying I need a woman — now, am I a wuss or a cabron? Alan Alda, or Norman Mailer? I hate men issues!)
cs: Did you write the stories over a period of days, weeks, months, or years?
dg: Years, and days, and weeks, and a few months. They started coming out quickly once I decided. I made a decision to make it a shorter collection than I had intended, though — fewer stories, so that it could be read — so I pulled back. I remember how in college everyone loved Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” The perfect length. Stories are closer to poems, and they are harder to read. I wanted this collection to be read, all of the stories, so that when a reader finishes, there is that feeling of ownership, of possession, of the physical object of the book. I don’t think many people read all the stories in my Blood collection because it’s too long.
cs: Despite the title, Woodcuts of Women, none of the stories feature a female narrator or a female protagonist as such. It seems to be more of a collection of stories about men.
dg: I am a man, male genetics and hormones. But they are stories about women. And, of course, the men who are obsessed with them, as they should be, as they like to be, as they have no other choice to be. There is an implication with this: the debate about what can and should a man write about a woman, what he can’t and shouldn’t. Every single person is a mystery. I don’t know any individual men, or their issues, any better than I do women’s.
cs: I’ve read in interviews that women responded favorably to the story “Nancy Flores” in The Magic of Blood. Do women recognize themselves in the portrayals of Woman in this collection? The characters seem to have a primarily totemic significance, even as illustrated by the use of the woodcut – a blunt outline.
dg: Well, now that you mention it, the story, “Nancy Flores,” did seed the idea for this collection. When women approached me about the Blood collection, invariably they would bring up that story. It is one of my own favorites as well, and so the idea swelled. I can only hope that women recognize the stories as stories. I don’t know. But “totemic”? Well, you be the judge, I can’t be. The woodcut: A writer takes a flat, two-dimensional surface of paper, applies a dark line on that white plane, and makes “words.”
A woodcut artist gouges what will become white and leaves the black, a mirror reverse of what the writer does. Both are attempting to transcribe an image of love, of a woman he loves, both as it is only his and as example of the deepest knowledge of being alive.
cs: Early in your publishing career, and perhaps still now, you’ve been burdened by the dual identity of a “western writer” and a “Mexican-American writer” (or even, roughly, an “ethnic writer”). What do you think are the hallmarks of “western writing?” What do you think is perceived as typical, and by this I mean both archetypical and stereotypical?
dg: The West, of course, is ridden by stereotypes perpetuated through the “commercialism” industry. So a writer from there goes in with a burden.
Writers from LA are LA writers (Hollywood, shades, lots of “like” in speech, Venice Beach), from Montana are Montana writers (mountains and whiskey), from the Southwest are Southwestern (cowboy hats and boots, indios and putas). If you’re from the East, publication means you’re a National, American Writer. The Chicano experience is still in an early stage of being understood and written about. Though we are people who were here generations previous to the western expansion, we are treated as immigrants. Though the culture of our working class, and still young middle class, occupy so much the physical heritage of the Southwest–think of architecture and food–it’s an undocumented worker, a cholo, a maid or puta which represent what’s expected to the Anglo culture that lives in our boundaries.
cs: How do you think these labels have limited the scope of your audience? Or have they, perhaps, helped your publishers market you aggressively in a niche market? What do you think of niche marketing in general?
dg: The trouble is that if “Chicano” or “Latino” is taken as a “niche,” as a “genre,” like it were “mystery,” or “romance,” what happens is that if one is published that doesn’t do well, the worry for a publisher is that people aren’t so interested in that “genre” as much anymore. One book represents “trend.” Which would never happen to “mainstream” writers — nobody thinks they should stop publishing that “kind” if one of those books sucks and doesn’t sell.
cs: Most of your biographical material refers readily to your former life as a construction worker. Most of your stories feature working class protagonists. I doubt this is a coincidence.
dg: I write about the life I know and live through. Which I think is what writers, historically, have always done, right? I don’t understand a writer who would want to “make up” a story, say, about being a South American whatever. I mean, imagine Garcia Marquez deciding to write about a Texan. For me, being a writer is having consciousness of the journey, the adventure– for me, that’s first, what made me want to take notes, which made me turn the notes into fiction, much as a person takes notes in the morning about a dream.
cs: You seem reluctant to take on the identity of Writer, almost embarrassed by it. You’ve even taken a job as a creative writing teacher, at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. I have to ask: how’s that going?
dg: I hated it when I got outed as a writer. It was way disrupting of my self-awareness. But then I did want to grow up to be a writer. Still do. I think I’m over the embarrassment. Mostly…. Teaching creative writing is a job I do, and I do it okay. But that’s not being a writer. Teaching creative writing is not a religion, nothing I “believe” in (some people do). I want to be a writer when I grow up. One thing I do like about this schoolie business, a surprise that I wouldn’t have thought of, is to help find and promote people who write weird, who are underregarded, underestimated. I have to also say that I get tired of this automatic linkage between being a writer and being a teacher. I spent sixteen years as a construction worker. Most of that was as a high-rise carpenter. How come nobody knows enough to want to talk to me about that? Sixteen years is a lot of time. A lot of years. I was writing when I was a construction worker and yet, because the writing world has been overtaken as though it were only a degree program for competitive schools, people who don’t go to them, who have other life stories, seem to have trouble getting their stories taken seriously. Like nothing mattered until some school thought so.
cs: So let’s talk a little about your career trajectory. It seems you experienced a little of the “overnight sensation” phenomenon following the publication of The Magic of Blood. But you’d been writing and publishing for quite some time previous to that hadn’t you?
dg: I had published like 750 pages of fiction before a book was accepted for publication. Ten years of publishing, about five years before that (a bad novel). Then it was overnight. My local press–University of New Mexico Press, which publishes some of the best books anywhere–understood my work’s landscape.
cs: And then the collection went on to win the PEN/Hemingway award, and you began winning prizes and grants and fellowships, including biggies like a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award. How did you find all those doors opening all of a sudden?
dg: Disorienting, surreal, exciting, and scary (as in, where’s enough money?). Better than before.
cs: Was Annie Proulx instrumental in this? Tell us a little about how you met her, and about your relationship with her now.
dg: Annie was on the committee that picked the Hemingway that year. She was the one who made the phone call to me. Before that I didn’t know her. Now I am so proud, embarrassed even, to feel that she is a friend. I admire her work enormously.
cs: The final story in Woodcuts of Women, “Snow,” seems to be a parable of a nature-loving, laboring man’s transition into a world of literary celebrity. It’s a complicated and uneasy story. Given what we know about your propensity towards the autobiographical, should we understand that this had been a complicated and uneasy transition for you?
dg:The story tracks a parallel story that is personal. The end, for example, the last paragraph, that happened, that is “nonfiction” paragraph.
cs: Finally, I’m usually not inclined to compare the work of one writer to another, as I think this detracts from the ability to evaluate each on his own merits. However, you are often compared to Raymond Carver, and I do find this an apt comparison. Have you been influenced by his work? What other writers have influenced your work?
dg: I like Carver’s work. I met him one time and talked to him for maybe five minutes. He was passing through El Paso. He wrote short stories that they called working class, and I figured that if that’s what people wanted to read and editors published, I would do good, since I had had a million jobs. The influences: Rulfo, Beckett, Garcia Marquez, Borges, KA Porter, (I don’t want to leave out anybody, but it ain’t so easy!) Burroughs, Faulkner, Selby, Genet, Dostoeyevsky, Fante, Kerouac, Kesey, Archie Comics, Rechy, (I would write more if I could), Camus, B Traven, Bowles (the way I figure it, if anybody links me to any of these, I’m happy). Seriously though, that’s kind of joking up there. I vaguely resent that you, like many, have not noticed the most obvious influences upon my oeuvre: the Tao Te Ching and Plato’s Dialogues.