Eight Years Between Collections and 22 Days of Madness: An Interview with Hudson Prize Winner Daniel Chacón

Black Lawrence Press:
We at Black Lawrence Press are honored to have Unending Rooms, winner of the 2007 Hudson Prize, on our list. Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of the collection?

Daniel Chacón: Rooms was created from the energy of at least two parts of my writer’s life.

Ever since my first collection of stories came out, I have been writing stories here and there between a novel I was working on, so Rooms, my second collection, is a sample of the short fiction I was writing between that first book in 2000, and this one in 2008. A lot happened to me in those eight years. My novel had had come out with Simon and Schuster, I spent a lot of time abroad, walking the streets of new cities, I got tenure at my university, and I got married.

A few of the stories I actually wrote while waiting for Chicanery to come out, (that interminable wait writers must endure from the time they sign the contract to the time the book comes out).

“The Day they Discovered Rain,” “Hole in the Mountain,” and “El Regalito” I wrote when I was still living in rural Minnesota, and I was feeling quite exiled in what was to me a cold and alien culture. If you read those stories, you’ll see how they reflect the energy of what I was feeling at the time.

Most of the other stories come from a period of 22 days. In 2006, when I was the visiting writer in the MFA program at Fresno State, I was living in Philip Levine’s house while he and Frannie were living in New York. I wrote like a mad man, and I came up with this insane idea that I would write 22 stories in 22 days.

Everyday, for 22 days, I would write a complete story, and when I was done with it, I posted in on a social network for my friends to read, and so they could see that I would stick with the commitment, 22 stories, 22 days.

During that time, I took only one day off a week, Saturday, because I think that we (we being humans), need a day of rest, whether it’s a Sunday or Monday or whatever Sabbath suits you best.

So for 22 days, except Saturdays, I woke up in the morning, even when I wasn’t feeling very well from having stayed up too late the night before. I went to Philip Levine’s office, sat at his desk, and wrote, determined to finish each day what I had started. I started the day’s story with a rhythm or maybe an image, maybe one that had just emerged in my dream world, with very little idea where I was going. Sometimes a story took me hours, sometimes it took me all day.

Levine’s office seemed full of writing duende, artistic energy everywhere that buzzed all over me.

It was in that office where he wrote each morning, where his Pulitzer Prize stood hidden behind books on a shelf. The room was walled with poetry books, thousands of them, no fiction, no nonfiction, just poetry, and more than half the books that I randomly pulled from the shelves were signed by the writers who had written them. Some of the books even had Levine’s comments in the margins. How could I not be possessed by language and the spirits that seep from images?

When I was done with a story for the day, I posted it online. The stories, of course, were first drafts, but I posted them anyway and got quite a few hits. I had sent emails to my friends and family saying that these 22 stories in 22 days were gifts to them, and I meant it. I was bursting with love, being back in Fresno, love for family, love for friends, love for the word.

About half of the stories in Unending Rooms are from those 22 days, “Calabi Yau, Soul Library,” , “22 hiding Places,” just to name a few.

Of course over the years I revised the stories, deepened them so to speak, loosened the form in others, but there are a few that are almost exactly the way I wrote them in that office.

Readers of Rooms are often surprised to know that I didn’t write those stories with ideas in mind, because there are a lot of ideas that seep from the wormholes in the landscape, but the truth is I wrote with an image in mind, or a character, a sound.

Unending Rooms consists of stories from those two energies in my life, the eight years between collections, and that 22 days of madness.

BLP: Unending Rooms is your second collection of short stories. How was the development of this collection different from the development of your first collection, Chicano Chicanery?

DC: I wrote most of the stores in Chicanery when I was in graduate school, the MFA program at the University of Oregon, and some even before that.

I was still very much learning my craft. I would enter into a story and often times I would follow it into a wall, so I had to back up, dust off the debris and revise them over and over again. Some of the stories I revised for ten years.

Now I am still learning, but I am a bit more aware of the energetic fields generated from craft and technique. I write stories the exact same way as I wrote them back then, that is, I enter through whatever wormhole the story provides, but now I have a stronger sense of how a story wants to move away from me into itself.

Form in a work of art is motion, not structure, and today I am more able then I was back then to quickly follow a story to its conclusion, getting out of the way, letting it go where it needs to go.

BLP: Do you consider yourself to be a Chicano writer? Furthermore, what do you think are the defining or identifying features of Chicano writing?

DC: I’m a Chicano writer in the same way that Faulkner is a southern writer. That’s not to compare myself to Faulkner. It’s to say that by the very nature of my experience and the history of my people, of my little corner of the globe, I have developed social and esthetic commitments that make we who I am as a writer. I am forever connected to the cries and yelps of my community, forever sensitive to racism, to exploitation of the unskilled laborer, to police brutality, to the effects of patriarchy on the intellectual and spiritual development of the individual, and my work will always reflect those concerns.

I cannot help but write about those things that concern us, but that doesn’t mean my stories have to be about farm workers or cholos or cultural images normally associated with the “Chicano/a esthetic.”

I can write about those subjects, and maybe sometimes I do, but Unending Rooms is anything but a “conventional Chicano narrative.” Some of my stories take place in other countries that are NOT Mexico. One of my stories is told in the point of view of a duck. One takes place in Poland with a protagonist of indeterminate ethnicity.

But this “unconventional” aspect of my writing is what you will find among most Chican@ writers of our generation.

Today there are some amazing writers coming out of Aztlán (the Chican@ homeland), Manuel Muñoz, Dagoberto Gilb, Kathleen Alcalá, Norma Cantu, writers from all over the US, Lorraine Lopez who currently lives in Tennessee, who write things that have never been written by Chicanas but that are deeply Chicana.

I’m honored to be part of this generation of Chican@ writers. That’s why I mostly use the term Chican@ with the monkey tail at the end, getting rid of the schism caused by using a masculine over a feminine suffix.

BLP: How do you think Chicano literature identifies itself within the larger sphere of Latino literature?

DC: We are to each other the other self, el otro yo.

We share the same language, with variations of course, and similar experiences growing up in these United States, and we largely share the same audience, the same readers.

When I read Fred Arroyo’s The Region of Lost Names I wasn’t even aware that he wasn’t Chicano.

I remember the late poet Andrés Montoya once told me that I shouldn’t think of myself as a Chicano writer, but as a Latin-American writer from Aztlán, and I think that’s an important distinction. Latin American literature is more my heritage than John Updike. It’s more passionate, more unabashedly political, social, lyrical, and often it goes beyond a linear and material perspective of reality, what is often labeled by the non-initiated as “magical realism,” a term that cannot come close to capturing the essence of our intellectual and spiritual realities. This is my tradition, and this is the tradition of most Latino/a writers in the US. We share Julio Cortázar, Pablo Neruda, Claribel Alegría, Elena Poniatowski.

BLP: In addition to being an author, you are also a professor of writing and literature. Who are your favorite authors to teach?

DC: My specialty seems to have turned out to be Borges, Cortárzar, and Kafka, and I also teach literature seminars on subjects like quantum mechanics, mysticism, and fairytales, reading books such as The Elegant Universe, The God Particle, Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, and seminal short fiction texts like 1001 Nights and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

BLP: What are the best books that you’ve read so far in 2010?

DC: Just to name a few that I have loved so far:

Albert Rios’ The Dangerous Shirt.

Barbara Jane Reyes’ Divino.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel.

Dagoberto Gilb’s The Flowers.

Facts About the Moon by Dorriane Laux.

The Book of What Remains by Benjamin Alire Saenz

And my favorite so far: Insides She Swallowed by Sasha Pimentel Chacón.

Yes, we’re related, but it’s still a beautiful book.

Unending Rooms is available from Black Lawrence Press and Amazon.