It’s hard to have faith in a time where we’re so afraid of being wrong.
With a degree in English Education, you’ve included among your earliest influences (beyond the Berenstain Bears) “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the numerous books written J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, a renowned figure who you early on had the ambition to compete with. Later, Stephen King’s novella “Elevation” caught your eye and became a favorite (no doubt leading to your interest in his autobiographical “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”). You also listed “The Violin of Auschwitz” by the late Catalan poet and novelist Maria Angels Anglada, “The Celestine Prophecy: an Adventure” by James Redfield, “The Giver” by Lois Lowry, as well as four books written by the Mexican-American author and memoir writer Victor Villaseñor (“Lion Eyes”, “Thirteen Senses”, “Revenge of a Catholic School Boy”, and “Rain of Gold”). There seems to be quite a range here, some of it dark and dystopian, other parts hopeful. Are there any commonalities to these influences, and if so (or if not), how do they affect your own writing?
It’s funny. I never considered “The Giver” or “The Violin of Auschwitz” to be dark. When you put it that way, I get why. But that’s not what I get out of those books. Out of any of them (well, maybe except “The Great Gatsby”). Both of those books are stories about finding light in the darkness — not the how we stay alive, but the why.
Almost anything Villaseñor writes makes me believe in miracles again—perhaps that is the greatest miracle in the twenty-first century. “The Celestine Prophecy” gave me the basis of what would become my own personal spiritual belief system without negating the beliefs I still have in God/Universe. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was the first Shakespeare story I read on my own—and Will was the first writer to help me to my feet and held me up as I took my first steps as young writer. Morally questionable as “The Great Gastby” is, Nick Carraway actually became my first literary friend. The Harry Potter series, of course, is humongous fun and promotes the idea of good overcoming evil.
But the one that set the tone for me was “The Giver”. “The Giver” was the first book I read in college. My professor wanted to use a sixth-grade level book but she wanted us to read it at a college level. She essentially taught me to read like a college student. When she gave me the tools I desperately needed in order to digest a book (stuff, ironically, I lacked all throughout my first 12 years of schooling), I found “The Giver” to be an emotionally and spiritually enriching story.
Lowry somehow was able to communicate—at a sixth-grade level, no less—the beauty in even the tiniest aspects of life, and that pain lends itself to the joy that comprises our existence here on earth. She gave me a faith and love for life that the Bible never really did (an experience only matched by the spiritual resurrection I felt reading British Romantic poems a few years later). She set the tone for my college years—and ultimately, for the rest of my life. I knew this was going to affect my writing because you have to write about what makes you feel alive.
I want to give people that same feeling when they read my work. I want them to have a new look at this life. I want them to look up from their Smartphones and see what’s around them. I want them to stop watching travel videos and actually go out and see stuff. I want them to stop texting and actually look at the person they’re ignoring. I want people to not be afraid to feel again. I actually have a lot of trouble reading new stuff now because very few things I’m seeing are giving me that same emotional high. Eventually, I just decided that my only option was to write the things that would give me that high — and hope enough people want to join me for the ride.
Thornton Sully, AWwYP’s “fearless leader”, has recommended several times that I read Villaseñor’s work, given the quality of his writing on subjects related to the Hispanic experience (my current project delves into my father’s family history, which originates in northern New Mexico). Of course there is a strongly influential facet of the culture that draws from the paranormal and, well, superstition. A beautiful example of this was depicted in the film “Bless Me, Ultima” (2013), which was another memoir-based story that illustrated the belief in witchcraft that persists in New Mexico, even today. Could you describe some of the stories that Villaseñor told that helped you reinforce your belief in miracles?
I don’t think you can do any better than seeing Jesus walking on the waters just outside of Oceanside. Seriously. Although I have to say, shape-shifting (as Villaseñor’s grandmother is purported to have done), surviving war, having legitimate, full on discussions with the Virgin Mary and the Devil, having a loved one on the other side bring you water when you’re stranded in the desert as his father did are all pretty far up there.
I remember Victor saying that he often had trouble believing his family when they would tell their stories. I mean, who could blame him? In the 20th and 21st centuries, the magic of miracles are diminished with technology that we forget this very life is “un milagro de Dios” (“a miracle of God”). But his stories tell us that even with the quantum leap of technology, there is so much to life that can’t be contained or explained by the new toys we make each day. And after reading his stories, I wonder if many of these miracles happened simply because his family had faith. It’s hard to have faith in a time where we’re so afraid of being wrong. But on the other side of faith lies miracles. Please take the time to read his books; if nothing else, read “Rain of Gold”.
It sounds as if “Rain of Gold” had as much an impact on you as it had on Thorn. Goodreads and Amazon both have very brief synopses – essentially a gripping love story set on the US-Mexican border that later turns out to be true – and several rave reviews. Tell me why you, specifically, recommend this book above all of his other works.
“Rain of Gold” I think is Villaseñor’s crowning achievement. If I had to choose only one book of his that I thought represented him and his family best, it’s that one. “Rain of Gold” I think essentially lays the foundation of his family’s way of life, and while every one of his books that revolve around him and his family all have many of the same themes (i.e. belief in life as a miracle, God and humans as co-creators of miracles, the embracing of deep love as the only way to truly live, immeasurable dedication to family, etc.), “Rain of Gold” sets that tone, especially for any of his books that followed after it. When you read it, make sure you have time to sit down and read it from cover to cover in one shot. It deserves your total, undivided attention.
Hmm. Sounds like I’ll have to check it out. Your description of “The Giver” also seemed interesting. The synopses I found made it seem like it was a rather deep story, along the line of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948), which was the required school reading for those of us who grew up in the shadow following the Vietnam War draft that ended in the 1970s. As an outsider, I sort of detect that there is a similarity between communities like Torrance (or, for that matter, the suburbs outside of Seattle I grew up in) and the Community that “The Giver” is set within. Is this something you’ve detected as well, and if so, is this part of the charm of the story?
That’s actually something I never thought about. Torrance is a sizable city; it’s unlikely you’re going to bump into people you know on a daily basis, so it’s going to lack that feeling like people know what you’re doing all the time. On the other hand, Torrance is a middle-of-the-road conservative city, so there are probably a few things that it would have in common with the commune in “The Giver” (i.e. fear of outsiders, valuing the safety of the whole community, etc.).
So, then, the Community is actually a typical small town, then?
It reminds me more of a commune than a small town (but I never really lived in a small town, so for me, it’s a tossup if those two are the same). The Community is its own isolated country and it controlled every aspect of their citizens’ lives—everything from jobs, where you live, education, life partnerships, families (that were not biological, but assigned), and even your death. It is a small town that people seem to be close and know each other’s business, but the Community wanted to limit anything that could promote free thinking or revolution.
Lastly, going back to how you want your writing to affect people, what are some of the antidotes that you suspect are out there in the real world to the electronic trance that our Smartphone-oriented existence has lured us into?
The bottom line is that people have to begin craving human affection enough that the devices aren’t worth it anymore. There has to be something beyond the box of the Smartphone that they can’t access unless they go get it themselves. It’ll be tough because now we’ve gotten so used to having things at our fingertips: food, drinks, clothes, more phones, and, to a point, love.
I wish I knew what that was. Maybe that’s the seed of a new story down the line.