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Interview conducted by Lazaro Aleman and Steven Robinson
Recently, Lionel Garcia’s short piece “Leaving Home,” an excerpt from a novel in progress, won first prize in the PEN-Southwest Discovery Prize fiction competition. The $1,100 award and critical recognition would have been a welcome boon to any writer. But for Texas-born Garcia, who has been writing in relative obscurity for the last thirty-five years, the award was especially gratifying—and long overdue.
Dialog wanted to know what effects, if any, winning the competition has had on the Seabrook veterinarian and what his future plans might be. We also were curious to know what kept him going all those years.
A mild-mannered and soft-spoken man, Garcia speaks modestly of his accomplishments. He expresses his ideas and feelings frankly and laughs easily at his own foibles. Indeed, Garcia’s easy-going amiability is disarming. But underneath the mild exterior, one always senses a confident and strong-willed determination.
Dialog: When did you start writing?
Garcia: I started writing way back in the early ’50s. Around 1950, ’51, ’52. Somewhere around there. I was writing in the high school paper and stuff like this.
Dialog: Were there any particular authors who influenced you at the time?
Garcia: No. There wasn’t any author in particular. I just liked to write.
Dialog: When did you discover your present style, or are you even aware of a particular style?
Garcia: [laughing] I don’t know if I found it yet. My problem is that, for a long time, I would write like whoever I was reading at the time. You know, if I was reading Faulkner, well, I’d write like Faulkner; if I was reading Mark Twain, I’d write like Mark Twain, or Hemingway. All those other authors. I think that I started writing like I write myself in, oh, maybe the late ’60s. Middle ’60s.
Dialog: Were you conscious of it when this change occurred?
Garcia: No, it just started to come a lot easier that way. There were times when I can write easier in a certain way than in another way. In strictly narrative form, the words just flow, as opposed to writing descriptive type things. Then I have more difficulty. But if I’m writing in the first person, like, what’s happening to somebody, then I can just go and go and go. I can write ten, fifteen pages a day of that. But, the descriptive-type literature, that’s a little more difficult for me.
Dialog: Are you a very disciplined writer, or do you write mostly when the inspiration hits you?
Garcia: Yes and no. I can, for example, sit down and write every day, and maybe produce from four to ten pages a day. Or, while I’m doing this, if I get the inspiration for something else, then I can just drop this and pick up the inspirational stuff. Other times, like writing a novel, you can’t afford to do that. You’ve got to sit down every night and write something.
Dialog: Regardless of whether you feel inspired or not?
Garcia: Well, it’s not too much of an inspirational thing. In the case where you’re writing everyday, the inspiration comes from the writing itself. For example, I’ll be writing and then something clicks. Then there will be an inspiration for that night to write something in the novel. But you really have to sit down every day.
Dialog: So you have a schedule you more or less follow?
Garcia: I write from about seven to ten each night. It’s tedious work. You really have to think about it as something to accomplish a little bit every day. If you say, I can produce four pages a day or two pages a day, in a year, you’ve got a pretty good book. But if you think that you’re going to write, and say, well, I’m going to write a one-thousand-page book or a six-hundred-page book, I don’t think you can do it.
Dialog: What are your feelings about writers’ workshops?
Garcia: Well, it reminds me of the story they tell about Sinclair Lewis when somebody asks me if I’ve taken creative writing in college and all that other stuff. Sinclair Lewis was at a college one time to give a talk, and the first thing he said was, “How many of you want to be writers?” And everybody raised their hands. And then he said, “Why aren’t you home writing, then?” You now, why are you here, listening to me?
I think they can teach the mechanics of writing. This is what they teach in the writing courses. They’ll say, well, we’re going to teach you about plot. But the only way they can do that is by letting you read a short story that has a real heavy plot. Or they’ll say, here’s how somebody developed a character, and let you read something with a lot of characterization to it. But writing, I think, you just got to sit down and do it. I know I do. I just sit down, and I start writing. That’s it.
Dialog: Do you think it’s important for a writer to associate with other writers for support or criticism?
Garcia: No, I don’t think it’s necessary at all. I think if a writer is going to depend on the criticism and support of other writers, he won’t be a writer. You have to believe that you’re the best writer in the world in order to continue. If you don’t think you’re the best writer in the world, well then, what’s the sense of writing? There’s enough bad writers around. [laughs] And I’m not talking about the best in terms of fame and money and all that other stuff. I’m talking if you personally feel that you’re writing better than a lot of people that are being published. I think that’s enough to keep you going.
Dialog: How do you deal with dry periods?
Garcia: Well, I don’t have dry periods. I’ll tell you why. I need to be doing something all the time. If I’m writing a novel, and I don’t know where I’m going with it anymore . . . suppose I don’t know where the thing is taking me or what the characters are going to do next. Then what I’ll do, I’ll switch to another novel. So actually, I got three novels that I’m working on at the same time. And then, I got short stories. I’ll write maybe about five, six, or seven short stories a year, in between times. I’ll just jump from one thing to another. And that gives me a fresh outlook and inspiration. So, what I’m doing, actually, is, I’m fooling my brain. I’m saying, well, if you don’t want to do this one, we’ll do this other one. So, I’m always doing something.
Dialog: Have you ever just quit writing?
Garcia: I’ve done that. And I think it’s been good for me. I think I’ve learned more during those periods where I have gotten disgusted enough to say, well, I’m not writing anymore. I think that when I go back to it, I’m a better writer.
Dialog: Do you keep a journal, particularly during those periods when you aren’t writing creatively?
Garcia: No, I don’t do that much research. The only research I do is when I’m writing to check out little facts. For example, last night I was up at 11 o’clock trying to find out when penicillin was discovered. Simply because it came up in the book. Well, it didn’t come up in the book, but what happened is that this man had gotten sick. Well, I thought, how come the doctor didn’t treat him? I’m working in a novel that’s set in about 1940, ’41. I got to make sure of little facts like that, so that the reader doesn’t say, well, this guy should have been treated for this. See, I got a guy that is going to have trouble later on in the book, and he shouldn’t be having trouble if there were certain medical advances. Like, for example, I caught myself the other day with a character using the telephone. Or somebody says, I got a phone call. And then you go back and say, wait a minute, although the phone may have been very common in 1940, there were a lot of people who didn’t have a phone. Poor people didn’t have phones. I know when I was a kid, we didn’t have a telephone until the late ’40s, early ’50s. But that’s the only research I do. Everything else comes strictly from the imagination.
Dialog: What is your primary goal when you write?
Garcia: It’s hard to say. You know, I’ve been asked that question many times, which translated another way is, do you write for the money? Are you a formula writer? Or do you want to just write? A lot of writers will go and check the market and crank out a novel on whatever is popular. Or they’ll go to a magazine and say, this is what this magazine wants. I’ve never catered to that, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily right. I’m not saying that the other way of doing it is better. But what I’m saying is that, first of all, I write primarily for myself, and hopefully, somebody else will appreciate it.
I think what you’re trying to do when you write is you’re trying to depict life as it really is, or as it was in certain cases, if you’re writing about the past as you lived it. Now, if you want to write escape literature, that’s okay. But I’m not going to do that. If I wanted to do that, I guess I could have written westerns and paperbacks and followed the literary trends. And maybe I would have been a commercial success. But I never have believed in that, and I never will. I just won’t do it.
Dialog: How much of your writing is autobiographical?
Garcia: Depends on what I’m writing. If you want to express it in percentages, I would say 25 percent or less is autobiographical. For example, if you come up with an inspiration for something that happened in your life, the episode that happened in your life may not be that interesting. But it might be the seed that provides for a more interesting episode. What you do is, you use that maybe as the beginning of the story and then go from there. You’ve got to spice up your stories with imagination
Dialog: With maturity, has your imagination become more or less fanciful?
Garcia: I think that with the years your imagination becomes more focused. You won’t let it run wild. I used to write all kinds of strange stories that were purely symbolic. I was into symbolism for many years and, of course, I was heavy handed with it. I just let my imagination run wild. Now my imagination runs in check, at a safe speed limit [laughing], because most people don’t like a lot of symbols. They just can’t figure it out. The writer himself doesn’t understand it sometimes. You ask the creator, what does it mean? And he says, well, I don’t know, it was just an inspiration. I used to write like that. I don’t anymore.
Dialog: In general, how does your early work compare with your present writing?
Garcia: Oh, I’m much better! I get better every day. I really do. I don’t think that I can tell it on a day-to-day basis. But if I take something that I wrote last year and compare it to what I wrote this year, I’m much better this year than last year.
Dialog: In what sense?
Garcia: I think I’m a lot more of a thinking writer now than I was before in as far as trying to arrange a sequence of events. In a novel, a lot of what you’re doing right now depends on what happened a hundred pages ago. And a lot of times it’s hard to keep track of that. I think I’m a lot better now in developing an even flow. I’ve always felt that a novel should flow like a stream. It’s an inevitable process where it’s going. So, there are a lot of things that you can start doing on this page, and see, you’re thinking maybe one hundred pages ahead. The reason we’re saying this here is because this is going to happen. And this seems to give the novel a plausible course. This is very important to me. I’ve always believed that everything that happens in a book has got to be a plausible thing. Even an accident! There’s got to be some reason for it. You just don’t come out of the blue and create something in a novel. I don’t think the reader will buy it. I think you have to start way back and work your way in a steady stream until finally there is an inevitable course that the whole thing happens. This is why, a lot of times, I’ll say in writing that I don’t know where the characters are taking me. I don’t think you necessarily want to manipulate the characters and make them do what you want to do. A lot of times, you’ll be going and you’ll say, well, this incident has created another incident up or down the line. But you didn’t create it. It just came about. So the novel then becomes a steady stream. And when it ends, you feel, that’s it. This is what happened.
Dialog: Is there a central theme or idea that runs throughout most of your work?
Garcia: No, the only thing, I like to write about people. Now, I may write about a particular type of people, if that’s a central theme. I like to write about the type of people I was raised with, which were simple, poor people. And the tragedies that they have, simply by being poor. There are a lot of people who don’t realize what tragedies occur to poor people through no fault of their own but just because they’re poor. Anyway, I think that that’s more what life is about than people constantly having a good time and all this other stuff. Because that’s not what life is. Not to me, anyway.
Dialog: Is there a particular epoch of your life that you find the most fertile in terms of ideas or inspiration for your fiction?
Garcia: I think so. I think the ’40s and the ’50s in the U.S. changed a lot of things. You had, of course, the Second World War. I was too young for that, but I lived through it. I was born during the Depression. War and depression create a lot of literature. There’s not too much good literature when there aren’t any bad times. All the literature during the good times is kind of superfluous. But the Depression created a lot of stories and so did the war. Not necessarily what was going on in the war, but what was going on here, to the families of the people that were involved in the war. I think that these are the years that are the most fertile in my mind, if I’m writing something like that. A lot of times, I’ll write a story that has no time. It could happen any time.
Dialog: Is it a disadvantage for you, as a Mexican American, writing in English for an Anglo audience?
Garcia: Oh yeah! Sure. I think that’s been my difficulty for thirty-five years. Nowadays, all of it is marketability. Being a Mexican American, one of the things they tell me is, who wants to read about the Mexican American experience? Well, I don’t write about the Mexican American experience all the time. I can write about the Anglo culture as well as I can about the Mexican American culture because I’ve lived in both cultures. I would not like to be known as a Mexican American writer. I would like to be know plainly as a writer. But still, there’s the name and identification. See, there never has been in the U.S. a Mexican American writer of fame. The only ones they ever tell us are good are the people from Latin America. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the one that won the Nobel Prize. And Juan Ramon Jimenez, from Puerto Rico, and all these other people. The Spaniards. But they tell us that the Mexican American is just not good enough, I guess. And yet, I don’t see anybody writing any better than some of the Mexican American authors.
Dialog: What made you decide to go into medicine?
Garcia: Well, I had the mistaken idea that I was going to practice medicine and write at the same time. I had envisioned that I would have more time to write and I wanted to go into a profession that I love equally as well as writing. I was naive enough to think that I would be my own boss. But when you have your own business, everybody’s your boss. [laughs] So, instead of having one boss, I have about two or three thousand bosses. But I have no regrets. What I have done is I have been able to provide for my family, which I probably could never have done by writing.
See, I took two years off to write once and I didn’t get published. I was foolish enough to think I could do it in two years. And when I didn’t publish anything in two years—I was working pretty much eight hours a day writing then—I got scared. I wasn’t providing for anybody. I wasn’t making a penny. My wife was working, but you know, we live in a very complex society nowadays. What do you do if you get sick? You can’t afford a doctor. You can’t afford to eat. You can’t afford anything. So it scared me in the sense that if anything should happen to me, then I would have ruined everybody else’s lives. And then I thought, what would happen if I never publish? Suppose you’re a minor league writer, and you never hit the big time? You never do anything well. When you’re dying, what do you say to yourself? I wish I hadn’t done it? Or I wish I had done it differently?
Now, the other side of the coin is that if you become tremendously successful, everybody says, oh, it’s great! What a great thing he did. But how many writers never make it? Who are just on the fringe. So it scared me. This is why, really, I went into medicine—to see if I could provide for my family and be able to write at the same time. And I’ve been able to do that.
Dialog: Would you like to write full time?
Garcia: Oh yeah! Sure. But even if I wrote full time, I don’t think I could stand writing except maybe three or four hours a day. I don’t know of anybody who could write all day long. I know that I would like to do it if it was profitable enough, and just in the mornings. I would love to be able to write in the mornings and then polish and type and get manuscripts ready in the afternoon. That would be ideal. Hopefully, someday I can do that.
Dialog: Tell us about the PEN award.
Garcia: Well, I’m sure you know they had the advertisement in the paper for anybody who wanted to submit work in progress that had not been published as a novel. I didn’t know anything about the award or anything like that. As a matter of fact, I submitted it on the last day that it was possible to submit. And one night, they called me and told me that I had won the award, which was very gratifying to me because, after thirty-five years, somebody finally says, well, this guy’s got some talent. This is where the critic is so important. Somebody’s got to tell you that you’re good. It’s not enough that you know you’re good. If somebody tells you that you’re good, and if a million people tell you that you’re good, well, then that makes it a lot better. It kind of reinforces what you already believed. But then, you’ve got to be the one who believes that you’re good first of all. If you don’t believe, like I said before, that you’re the best writer around, then you shouldn’t be writing.
Dialog: In your introduction at the PEN awards, you said that when you divided the prize money by the number of years that you had been writing, it amounted to about seven cents a day. Do you have any regrets about this?
Garcia: See, again, writing is a compulsion. I guess you have to be born with it. I don’t feel good unless I’m writing. And by that, I mean, mentally good. I may be physically good, but mentally, I don’t feel good unless I’m writing. So, it’s a compulsion thing. I’ve got to do it, whether I get paid for it or not, because even if I don’t get paid for it, I will still get the inspiration, and I will go ahead and write.
Dialog: What effects has winning this award had on you?
Garcia: Well, since this award, I’ve been working pretty fast on this novel because I don’t know if anybody is going to put a deadline on it. See, what’s happened is that I’ve gotten so much publicity from this novel that I have just kept on it. So now, I’m about four hundred pages into it, and I need about two hundred more pages to complete it. I’ve already been inspired enough. Somebody’s put a carrot out in front of me now, so I’ll finish this one.
Dialog: What are your goals after that?
Garcia: I would love to go ahead and publish the book and for it to be a best-seller and make a million dollars. [laughs] I guess everybody would like that, and if I said otherwise, I’d be lying. I would like to get the book published and for it to be accepted. Then I’ll go back and pick up the other two. I’ve got about ten years of writing stacked up right now that I need to finish up. So there won’t be any dry periods. I guarantee you that. I think that the timing of success is so important, if you want to call this award a success. I believe this award has come at the right time for me. I don’t think that I could have taken literary success in my early writing career. I think it would have destroyed me.
Dialog: In what respect?
Garcia: I think that it would have stymied my career. I think I would have had dry periods. Now, I’m hungry for this. I’ve worked thirty-five years for it, and I’m not going to mess around. But I think if this had happened to me in my twenties, I would have been complacent after a while and not really developed my talent.
You take a lot of these writers who publish the first novel in their twenties, and you never hear from them again. They don’t have anything else to say. They’ve said it all in their first book, so they’re gone. I hope that that won’t happen to me. And if it doesn’t, I attribute it to the fact that success came later to me. I think it made me a better writer. I was an apprentice for a long time.
This interview originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.