Life Has Been My MFA Program: An Interview with Author Daniel Olivas

By David Nilsen

I’m honored today to share with you an interview I recently conducted with Los Angeles-based author Daniel Olivas.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of seven books including the award-winning novel, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press, 2011), and Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press, 2014). He is also the editor of the landmark anthology, Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008), which brings together 60 years of Los Angeles fiction by Latino/a writers.

His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in PANK, Fairy Tale ReviewExquisite Corpse, New MadridPembroke, Bilingual Review, and many more literary journals. He has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Jewish Journal, El Paso Times, High Country News, Los Angeles Review of Books, and La Bloga (where he blogs on Chicano and Latino literature), among other print and online publications.

He earned his degree in English literature from Stanford University, and law degree from UCLA. By day, he is an attorney in the Public Rights Division of the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles.

Daniel also published a wonderful short story here on Fourth & Sycamore last summer. I’m excited to share our conversation with you.


ThingsDavid Nilsen: It’s unusual to write and publish a book comprised mostly of interviews like Things We Do Not Talk About. What led to the decision to do this project? What makes you enjoy the interview format so much?

Daniel A. Olivas: True, it is unusual, but not unprecedented. Frederick Luis Aldama, who is a professor at Ohio State, interviewed me for his 2006 book, Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia: Conversations with Writers and Artists (University of Texas Press). At the time, I had already conducted several online interviews with authors and I was delighted to be on the receiving end of the questions. Over time, the interviews I conducted of Latino and Latina writers started to be cited and quoted in scholarly books and dissertations. So, I thought: why not pull together my interviews into one volume that could be used in the classroom? When I presented the manuscript to Professors William Nericcio and Harry Polkinhorn of San Diego State University Press, they agreed. One-on-one interviews with writers offer us a chance to peer into their minds and get a glimpse of the creative process. This is both a privilege and a wonderful opportunity.

David: What makes the interviews in this book especially important to you?

Daniel: Writers of color often do not receive the kind of coverage that they deserve. My book is an attempt to counter that disgraceful state of literary affairs.

David: How does the experience of writing and conducting interviews differ for you from writing fiction, poetry, essays, and the other formats you write?

Daniel: When I focus on my own creative writing, I am—to borrow a phrase made famous by Seinfeld but without the same implication—the master of my domain. When I craft interview questions for another author, I am a guest, someone who is enjoying the hospitality of someone else’s world.

David: In some of the essays in this book you talk about your conversion to Judaism following your marriage to your Jewish wife in the late 1980s. How does holding to the Jewish faith impact the way you interact with the writing of your fellow Latino/a authors, since so much of this writing is informed by the Catholic faith?

danielDaniel: My wife and I are both grandchildren of immigrants. Her grandparents came from Russia over a hundred years ago, mine from Mexico in the 1920s. So, yes, while many of the authors I interview were raised in the Catholic faith (if not currently practicing Catholics), I think my interaction with my fellow Latino and Latina authors is grounded in a shared experience with the immigrant community. I also believe that my adopted “lens” of Judaism enhances my interaction with my interview subjects. That is, I have been both an insider and outsider when it comes to Catholicism, and I can use that insider/outsider status to help me dive deep into other writers’ lives and religious influences. In the end, I approach all religions with respect and I try to learn from my subjects’ responses to my interview questions.

David: You started writing fairly late in life, publishing you first novella when you were 41 after completing it two years earlier. Yet in one of your essays in Things We Do Not Talk About, you say your identity as a writer means you “must write.” Why did it take so relatively long to discover this part of yourself? Looking back now does something feel like it was missing in the years before you became a writer?

Daniel: I have been writing since I could hold a pencil. My parents made certain that their five children always had access to books even when money was tight…God bless libraries! I was a creative writer throughout my school years—grammar school, high school, and college—where I wrote stories and poems for school newspapers and literary journals. I majored in English literature at Stanford where I read and analyzed the wonderful books and plays I studied. In law school at UCLA, I served as editor-in-chief of the Chicano Law Review and wrote a long piece on immigration raids. As a lawyer, I’ve written for legal newspapers and magazines. In other words, before 1998 (the year I started to write fiction as an adult), I was always writing. So, I don’t think I suddenly discovered that part of myself in middle age: it was already there. I am happy that I became a “creative” writer as an adult, one with a wife, son, and a meaningful day job. I note that I started to publish fiction when I had already lived a big chunk of my life. Thus, I had life experiences that I could draw on which, I hope, has made my writing deeper and more satisfying. Life has been my MFA program.

David: What is your regular writing routine and process like?

Daniel: Because I am a supervising attorney with the California Department of Justice, I write whenever I have time which is usually on the weekends, vacation days, and sometimes in the evening. I am a fast writer, one who loves the editing process. I am a compulsive writer. I do not have time for “writer’s block.” Writing is fun.

David: Which writer have you been most excited to interview and why?

Daniel: I am excited to interview writers at any stage of their careers. But I do have some favorite “veterans” whose work I’ve been reading for years and who inspired me to become a writer. In terms of those veteran writers, I have been honored to interview Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rigoberto González, Helena María Viramontes, Luis J. Rodriguez, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Michael Nava, to name a few.

David: Who are some young poets and authors who are shaping the world of Latino/a writing today?

Daniel: Oh, there are so many! A few of the many wonderful authors your readers may want to explore are Melinda Palacio, Verónica Reyes, Eduardo C. Corral, Ashley Hope Pérez, and Luivette Resto. Again, these are just a few names. There are so many talented Latino and Latina writers who are publishing powerful, important, and entertaining works of literature.

David: What will your next book or big writing project be?

Daniel: I just co-edited a poetry anthology, The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press), with Neelanjana Banerjee and Ruben Rodriguez, which will come out in time for the annual AWP conference to be held this spring in Los Angeles. I also have a story that is featured in the forthcoming LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press) edited by Kate Gale and John Brantingham; it includes stories by some of my favorite writers such as T C Boyle. I have a new collection of short stories and my first book of poems making the rounds. I’d like to turn back to a screenplay I wrote a few years ago. And I will keep on covering writers for La Bloga, Los Angeles Review of Books, Huffington Post, the El Paso Times, and many other publications. In the end, I just want to keep writing and I hope my readers will be happy with that!

David: Thank you, Daniel!


Daniel’s collection Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature Through Essays and Interviews and his novel The Book of Want are both available now at GPL.

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