This interview with Maceo Montoya is part of a Latino Stories series with Latinx authors. Maceo was one of the Latino Stories 2013 Top Ten “New” Latino Authors. In terms of literature and art, the Montoya family is a dynasty in our Latinx community. Maceo is its latest member to become a well-established writer in his own right, creating works in different genres. Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces: A Novel and American Quasar, a visual-textual collaboration between Maceo and poet David Campos, are forthcoming from University of Nevada Press and Red Hen Press in spring 2021.
Salvatierra: You started your career as a visual artist, and later began writing novels; how did you make that shift, and in which of those two artistic modes do you feel more at home, or can you feel at home in both at the same time?
Montoya: I would say that my identity was first as a visual artist and that eventually I mustered the courage to call myself a writer. But really, I began writing fiction almost at the same time that I began to seriously focus on my artwork. This was in 2003, in Knights Landing, a small town where I rented a room with the goal of teaching myself how to paint. I started writing stories to accompany the paintings, and together the words and the images formed my first attempt at a novel, “The Dreams of Juan José and Other Stories of Knights Landing.” But I’d been making images for so much longer, ever since I was a little kid, and I’d done so under the guidance of a great artist, my father Malaquias, so I was much more confident as a visual artist. This is why when it came time to apply to graduate school, I opted for an MFA in painting. I can’t remember exactly when I finally embraced the idea that I was a writer, or not embraced, I just stopped thinking about it. It was no longer an issue. But it took a while to get there. In fact, at the first AWP I attended in Seattle, my second novel had just been published, and I was still walking around the convention center, thinking, “Look at all these goddamn writers, I bet I can draw better than all of them.” Not those thoughts exactly, but my point is that I saw a clear line between being an artist and a writer, and I fell very much on the side of being an artist.
At that time, if you’d asked me what artistic mode I felt most comfortable, I wouldn’t have hesitated to say visual art. I was always able to pull images from deep inside myself, and what emerged onto the paper or canvas would often surprise me, as if it came from someone or somewhere else. Lorca describes this as the duende, the black sounds, “the mysterious power which everyone senses but no philosopher explains.” He calls it the substance of all art. I’m not claiming my paintings have duende, but I know what it feels like to conjure a power, a spirit, onto the canvas. I’ve never felt this with my writing. There’s too much cutting and pasting, deleting, too many doubts about commas and syntax. I’m a self-conscious writer. I submit to the process of endless revision and still cross my fingers at the end of every draft. I’ve never doubted my images in the same way because they’re everything I am, everything I have to offer. But the truth is, for years now, I’ve struggled to get into the studio. I leave paintings unfinished. I rarely sketch anymore. It’s literature that consumes me.
Salvatierra: What is your writing process and what parts of it do you find most challenging and rewarding?
Montoya: As I mentioned, my earliest attempt at a novel was a combination of stories and paintings, and my process was to always finish the painting first, which sometimes took weeks. So the whole time I was painting, I was forming sentences in my head. This made for a long gestation period, and eventually, my hunger to write outstripped the pace with which I could paint. Around that time, I read in Steinbeck’s journals that for The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden he wrote 2000 words per day, so I thought that was a good model to follow. I wrote two novels like this and the results were sprawling and unwieldy. I also realized that when I began revising, I was cutting significantly, maybe even half my daily word count, so I decided to limit myself to 1000 words, thinking that if I didn’t stretch myself so thin maybe I would actually keep most of the words I’d written. For my fourth novel attempt, I gave myself strict parameters: 1000 words a day, each day’s word count would constitute a chapter, and I knew where the novel was going to end: a fourteen-year-old boy found next to his dead father in the desert. The parameters helped, and it eventually became my first published novel, The Scoundrel and the Optimist (Bilingual Press, 2010).
I still stick to 1000 words a day. That means in three to four months I have the first draft of an average-length novel, at which point the real work begins. There was a time when I would get emotional when I finished a first draft, which is to say, I would cry. To be fair, I’m thinking specifically of “The Inheritance of Socrato Mérida,” my third novel attempt. I’d actually spent closer to two years writing it and the novel was about my hometown, so I felt very close to the material. But now that I’ve spent almost fifteen years on that manuscript, revising it so many times I’ve lost count, I know that my sense of accomplishment was premature.
Every novel I’ve published has taken years to make its way into the world. Countless drafts and countless rejections. I feel as if time and rejections have been built into my process.— Maceo Montoya
Every novel I’ve published has taken years to make its way into the world. Countless drafts and countless rejections. I feel as if time and rejections have been built into my process. I’ve written novels where the protagonist is older than me when I began writing, only to realize, years later, that I’m now older than the protagonist. How can my perspective on the material not evolve? Time is a good editor. Rejections help too because they force you to confront your material with brutal questions. Is it any good? Do I stand by the decisions I’ve made on the page? Harsh feedback forces you to defend your work, but also to let go of the indefensible. Thomas Wolfe would dump 200,000 words on Maxwell Perkins’s desk, and Perkins, believing in Wolfe’s genius, would winnow the words down to make them shine. One day it’d be nice to have my own Maxwell Perkins. Until then, I have no choice but to put in the work, no matter how many years it takes. Don’t read resolve in those words, merely acceptance. I just realized you also asked about the rewards of the writing process. Is it telling that I can only speak of its challenges?
Salvatierra: What does Latin America mean to your work, and which Latin American writers have influenced you the most?
Montoya: Although the Chicano Movement is often identified with cultural nationalism, my father was a Bay Area artist, and el Movimiento in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco was not only cross-cultural but also very international in its outlook. Many of my father’s posters were made in support of revolutionary movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador or to protest U.S. backed dictators in Chile and Argentina. For him, as well as for my parents’ community of activists, there was no separating the struggles for justice in Latin America from the struggles of Chicanos in the barrio. I was named after Antonio Maceo, the Cuban revolutionary. I went to sleep every night with one of my father’s Che Guevara posters above my bed. So you could say that Latin America and its political struggles have been a part of my consciousness from a very young age, and that affinity extended to my artwork and writing.
It was very natural for Chicano visual artists to turn toward Mexico and Latin America for models, especially because so many Latin American artists engaged political themes in complex ways. This was true for writers as well, but there have always been barriers to full identification. Part of it has to do with class differences, but also questions of language, audience, and literary tradition. For a fuller discussion of this topic, I recommend two essays: Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s “I want to write an American Poem” and Daniel Chacón’s “Borges and the [email protected] (in b flat).” Chicano authors write from a position of self-consciousness and self-doubt. On the whole, we still emerge from working-class backgrounds, which presents obvious barriers. We still must resolve questions of language and for whom we’re writing. In other words, to what degree must we translate our lived experience for an outside audience? Lastly, and Sáenz brilliantly poses this question, what literary tradition can we rightfully call our own? Chicano authors celebrate their bicultural, bilingual identities with good reason, but writing from the margins isn’t enviable. It can be a defensive stance. It’s draining having to constantly define your existence.
A truly great writer is neither a lightning bolt nor an accident. The writer must be given a platform. They must be elevated, supported, their work promoted and widely shared by a publishing industry that at that moment still considers Latinx writing almost exclusively in terms of subject matter rather than the quality of the writing.— Maceo Montoya
Latin American authors also experienced this same self-consciousness and self-doubt. In Borges’s essay, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” he addresses the Latin American author’s fear of provincialism, of poorly replicating European models or indulging the exotic as a false attempt at authenticity. It seems to me that what ultimately lifted the Latin American author from this feeling of inferiority was authors like Borges, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, and García Márquez, all the Boom authors that made Latin American literature unquestionably world literature. So I wonder if that’s what it would take for Chicanx authors to lose that self-consciousness, the emergence of a truly great writer we could claim as our own? Perhaps the author of American Dirt, what was her name, Jeanine Cummins? A bad joke, but it points to something problematic about what I just said. A truly great writer is neither a lightning bolt nor an accident. The writer must be given a platform. They must be elevated, supported, their work promoted and widely shared by a publishing industry that at that moment still considers Latinx writing almost exclusively in terms of subject matter rather than the quality of the writing. Right now, the most brilliant Chicanx writers I know are slaving away teaching five classes a semester at community colleges. How great would Borges be if he had to learn Canvas and compose an endless litany of learning outcomes?
As far as Latin American authors impact on my own writing, I’ve had two major influences: Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. I’ve read everything by both authors, and I only wish I could relive the experience of discovering them for the first time. I was very much attracted to Márquez’s magical realism and there are elements of it in my first stories. I may have even told people that magical realism was the way I interpreted the world, but that’s not really true. I learned to distinguish between the supernatural elements—Remedios the Beauty disappearing into the sky—which get most of the attention, and the pleasures of exaggeration, which is what continues to draw me to Márquez’s work. It takes a poet’s sensibility to identify the right details to run with. My family is full of wonderful fabricators, which is to say they exaggerate, usually for the sake of a laugh. I’m still sorting through Bolaño’s influence. I just know that I have trouble getting his voice out of my head. I admire the fact that he breaks the rules of so-called good writing. He’ll stop a story to describe a dream or share the plot of a movie. He writes knowing that readers will follow him wherever he goes. I also think, like many writers who read him, we love how the world of writers is a source of intrigue. He makes literature seem dangerous. I can hardly get my own siblings to read my work, so how amazing that Bolaño makes me feel as if I’m Camus writing for the resistance.
Salvatierra: As you continue to fictionalize the city of Woodland, do you see it becoming more like a mythical place in your writing?
Montoya: I’ve published two works of fiction set in Woodland, and I’ve written two other novels, so far unpublished, set here as well. I made a decision early on not to change Woodland’s name. I think because it was important to me that places like Woodland are represented in literature. James Joyce wanted to reconstruct Dublin brick by brick. It would test readers’ patience if I tried that with Woodland. My ambitions are more modest: it’s enough for my characters to drive the same streets that I do, to get a beer at Zitio’s, my friend Julio’s bar, or mention Beamer Elementary, the school just down the street from my home. I believe in the power of the word to inscribe people and places into history. Why not my own community?
That being said, the Woodland I recreate is set in a certain time, specifically how I remember it when I first moved here in 2006. Everything was new to me, and I observed it through the eyes of an outsider. Those first impressions left their mark. The downtown was very different then, full of empty storefronts and shops that made you wonder how they stayed open. Woodland has changed since: more restaurants, a brewery, a farmer’s market, people moving here from Sacramento and the Bay Area. You even see the occasional hipster roller-skating. My relationship to Woodland has changed, too. I’m an insider now, so to speak, a homeowner, a full-fledged community member, I’m asked to endorse school board candidates, that kind of thing. I don’t have the same clear-eyed detachment. So I set my fictionalized Woodland about ten years in the past and while that’s helpful for my fiction, I recognize it as a skewed lens. But you said mythical. That sounds better, I might use that.
Salvatierra: How do you feel you’ve evolved as a writer, and what sort of lessons have you learned along the way about the writing process and publishing that might be useful for new writers?
Montoya: I used to think I would just keep growing as a writer, getting better, you know. Maybe that the novels would get easier to write as my craft matured. But each novel brings new challenges, and just when you think you’ve figured out something about how a work is constructed, a new blind spot emerges. I’m about to turn 40 and barring some deal with the devil, I think I’ve hit my ceiling. But this isn’t a bad realization. I feel as though the novel is an imperfect form, which makes it ideal for imperfect writers. Talent can only get you so far, the rest is hard work and will. I know what’s required of me, what I require of myself.
Some writers find agents, land book deals, and establish a relationship with editors who advocate for them. But most writers I know, in fact, almost every Chicanx and Latinx writer I know, make their careers alone (save for supportive friends and readers), advocating for their own work, publishing in small independent or academic presses, and are lucky to sell a few hundred copies of their books. The luckiest among us have found teaching gigs. Every book is a struggle. Not just the creative part—I welcome that struggle—but trying to get your work into the world. It can be soul-crushing. One of my favorite works of Chicano literature is Arturo Islas’s The Rain God. He spent years trying to get it published. In Frederick Luis Aldama’s biography on Islas, he includes some of Islas’s correspondence with condescending and sometimes outright racist agents and editors, and it’s maddening. Such a brilliant writer, with a brilliant book, and he’s treated this way. He finally published The Rain God in 1984 with a small press in Palo Alto that some Stanford professor had established to publish his wife’s work, almost a vanity press. It was a difficult journey, too difficult, I think, but four decades later we’re still reading Islas’s novel. His perseverance paid off, though if it were up to me, I would go back in time, start my own publishing house and give Islas ten years of his tragically short life back. Getting published doesn’t make you a writer, it’s persevering through every discouragement. I don’t know if that’s helpful for the young writer. I wish it was as simple as honing your craft. You can learn to write well, but I don’t know how you learn to pick yourself up off the floor time and time again. It’s just a requirement of the job.
Maceo Montoya is a California-based author, artist, and educator who has published books in a variety of genres, including three works of fiction: The Scoundrel and the Optimist (Bilingual Review, 2010), The Deportation of Wopper Barraza (University of New Mexico Press, 2014), and You Must Fight Them: A Novella and Stories (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), which was a finalist for Foreword Review’s INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award. Montoya has also published two works of nonfiction: Letters to the Poet from His Brother (Copilot Press, 2014), a hybrid book combining images, prose poems, and essays, and Chicano Movement for Beginners, which he both wrote and illustrated. Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces: A Novel, is forthcoming from University of Nevada Press in spring 2021.
In the visual arts, Montoya’s paintings, drawings, and prints have been featured in exhibitions and publications throughout the country as well as internationally. He has collaborated with other writers on visual-textual projects, including Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Crown for Gumecindo (Aztlán Libre Press, 2015) and Arturo Mantecon’s translation of Mexican poet Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s Poetry Comes Out of My Mouth (Dialogos Books, 2018). American Quasars, a book collaboration with Fresno poet David Campos, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2021. Montoya is currently an associate professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis where he teaches courses on Chicanx culture and literature. More information about his work can be found at maceomontoya.com.