As with many writers, you majored in English literature in college. But unlike most, you did not go on for an MFA. Instead, you went to law school and have been practicing full-time for the last three decades. Why did you take that path? Does that say something about your opinion of MFA programs?
It’s true I came to my writing life, in some sense, rather late. Other than my creative output in school publications, I published my first fiction—as an adult—at the age of 39. I am now 58 with 10 published books to my name, two of those as editor. And my first poetry collection will come out this November. All the while I have been practicing law, the last 27 years with the California Department of Justice. I’m currently a supervising attorney in the Consumer Law Section.
I am not the first non-MFA graduate to become a writer. I think people must choose their own paths. For me, I needed to make certain I entered a profession where I could do some good in the world and also pay the bills. Becoming a writer didn’t seem to fit that model. And as the middle of five children with parents who sacrificed tremendously to make certain we all had educational opportunities, I just couldn’t see becoming a starving artist after attending four years at Stanford. Basically, I was a Chicano kid from a working-class neighborhood who had the opportunity to attend a great university. I saw my parents struggle at times, and that made an impression on me. I don’t think they ever wanted us to struggle that way.
Is that an indictment of the MFA pathway? Of course it isn’t. It’s just my pathway. Also I think my fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are that much richer because I experienced such things as getting married, having a child, and working hard as an attorney. Mix in all the things that happen to a person, year in and year out, you end up with a more diverse and complex base of experiences from which to draw.
Oddly, some people call me a “part-time” writer because I make most of my income as an attorney. That, of course, is plain silly. Most writers make their living doing other things, such as teaching or copywriting, or as a store clerk, barista, what have you. Anyone who has work published is a writer. And with nearly a dozen books under my belt, I am a writer who also happens to be a lawyer. Also, as any writer will admit, we are always writing, perhaps not in the literal sense of hands on the keyboard, but in the sense that we, as writers, view the world through a writer’s lens so that everything we experience and observe is fair game and could end up in a story, poem, or essay. So beware the company of a writer!
In your newest short-story collection, The King of Lighting Fixtures, you address some difficult issues such as betrayal, bigotry, lost love, and even Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and promise to build a wall at the southern border. And often times, you use humor to explore these subjects. Did you plan this collection to have these themes?
In truth, I wrote the stories over the course of 16 or so years. The earliest one (“Silver Case”) was published by the Vestal Review in 2000. What happened was, after publishing three prior collections and a novel of interconnected stories, I had a group of pieces that had become orphans. They just didn’t seem to belong in the other collections. A couple years ago, I realized that I had what amounted to about 70 or 75% worth of stories for a collection. I decided I would pull them together and see what kind of themes would appear, and I did see a bit of a pattern in terms of the subjects you mentioned. I wanted to complete the collection with stories that seem to fit this pattern.
One of the other elements to these stories is that they all address my hometown, Los Angeles. Sometimes in my stories, Los Angeles appears as it does in reality, other times it is more of a mythological, fabulist, or magical place. So in truth, the real thread of these stories is the city that I love and I know. It also is a city that is not often represented in Los Angeles fiction, at least not the fiction that tends to get noticed by reviewers: you know, fiction where everyone is in love with Hollywood and where the characters are mostly white. That’s not the city I know. The greatness of Los Angeles comes from its tremendously diverse communities. Yes, we have problems—all large cities do. But I love how I can walk from my office on Spring Street in downtown to the Grand Central Market a few blocks away and hear any number of languages being spoken. I am the grandson of Mexican immigrants, and my wife is the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Our people have been in California for a hundred years, and we are not part of the movie industry. I try to offer that Los Angeles to my readers.
Do you have a writing schedule or routine?
None whatsoever! I have a very full life as a lawyer and husband so I am not really capable of forcing myself to write every morning or every evening. I write when the stories have to be written. Usually a story begins to percolate in my mind and then after some time, I find that I need to get to my laptop and start allowing the story to take shape. The same thing happens when I have a poem or essay beginning to form in my mind. It all eventually has to get out. Usually my wife can tell and she’ll say something along the lines of, why don’t you go do some writing. My wife is a saint. God bless anyone married to a writer.
Speaking of your wife, is she your first editor?
No. She has an incredibly busy schedule as it is. She was a litigator for many years and is currently an administrative law judge. She’s also very active with various women lawyers organizations. The last thing she needs is one more job. In any event, Sue is so extremely supportive of my creative endeavors in other ways that I’m truly grateful that we met and fell in love our first year of law school all those years ago. And our son, Ben, who’s now 27 and living his own life, has always been very proud of his papa. Ben is an extremely creative person himself and I wouldn’t be shocked if he ends up publishing someday.
What’s next for you?
Wait a minute! I’ve just published this new book. Why does everyone ask me what’s next? Well luckily, I do have an easy answer for that. My first poetry collection, Crossing the Border, will be published in November by Pact Press.
And as I’ve said many times elsewhere, I think it is incredibly important for writers of color to keep on publishing and not let anyone dissuade us from telling our stories. Diversity within the publishing industry is still a major issue—something I address in several of my short stories—and luckily there are some wonderful presses that understand our work and want to get it out to the reading public. But that’s only half the battle. We need to get our books reviewed and our writers covered. That is the primary reason why I interview so many Latinx authors in such venues as La Bloga, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Prairie Schooner blog, and elsewhere. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m so grateful that you invited me to do this self-interview. ¡Gracias!
DANIEL A. OLIVAS is the author of seven books, including The Book of Want: A Novel and Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews. He earned his degree in English literature from Stanford University, and law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1990, Olivas has practiced law with the California Department of Justice. A second-generation Angeleno, he makes his home in Los Angeles with his wife.