Daniel A. Olivas is the author of ten books, including How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories (University of Nevada Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He has written for many publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, Alta Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Los Angeles Review of Books. Olivas was born in Los Angeles and is the grandson of Mexican immigrants.
Daniel A. Olivas es autor de diez libros, entre ellos How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories (University of Nevada Press), y Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). Ha escrito para muchas publicaciones, incluyendo The New York Times, The Guardian, Alta Journal, Los Angeles Times, y Los Angeles Review of Books. Olivas nació en Los Ángeles y es nieto de inmigrantes mexicanos.
Daniel A. Olivas will be one of the featured authors at the Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family. L.A. Libros Fest will be streamed live on YouTube on Friday, September 23, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. The Festival will be in-person at Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, September 24, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with select Saturday programs streamed live on YouTube.
Our tagline this year is Read, Dream and Celebrate en dos idiomas. How do you think your books and stories help us accomplish this?
Like many Chicanos, I am not fully bilingual. When I was very young, my parents were raising us in both Spanish and English, but I stopped speaking completely for a full year at the age of three. This was in the early 1960s. My parents took me to a doctor who ran tests for my hearing and intelligence. After the tests, he said that I was normal, but he strongly recommended that my parents stop speaking Spanish at home. So, after that, I grew up speaking only English. Sadly, this kind of bigotry in the medical profession was too common back then. Even though I struggle with the Spanish language, I use a little Spanish in my fiction, plays, and poetry because I think it’s important to capture the spirit and sound of my community. Over the years, my Latino readers have told me that they appreciate this because I am accurately depicting my people.
What are some of the things you do to bring to life the world you’ve imagined?
I like to set my stories in places that I know, especially Los Angeles and other cities in California and the southwest. I also have set stories in various cities in Mexico where I have family and where I have visited over the years. By doing this, my stories become very real to me, and it’s easier for me to imagine what my characters are going to do and say.
What stories inspired you as a young reader?
When I was very young, I loved picture books like Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, and The Story of Babar: The Little Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff. Remember, this was in the early 1960s, so the schools and libraries really did not carry children’s books by Latino writers the way they do now. But there were some wonderful books that made me dream of being a writer someday.
If your book was turned into a movie/series, who would you cast?
I adapted my novel, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press), into a stage play and helped cast it for a Zoom reading last year with Circle X Theatre. The story takes place in 2006 in Los Angeles and follows the loves and lives of an extended Mexican American family. For the play version, we had a wonderful cast of actors who have appeared in film, television, and the stage. If I were to make a movie of that novel, I’d like to cast them again! We had a dozen actors, but the lead actors were Christine Avila, Edward Padilla, Sabina Zúñiga Varel, Tupac Zapata, and Minerva García. I would love to work with all of the actors again if my novel, The Book of Want, were turned into a movie or series.
"Remember: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and they will likely get it wrong. You are the only one who can tell your story."
What advice would you give to young writers?
Ignore people who tell you that your stories do not matter. Also, aside from reading as much as possible, try to find mentors and other people who will support you in your dream of becoming a writer. Remember: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and they will likely get it wrong. You are the only one who can tell your story.
How did you feel the first time your work was published? How was your publishing journey?
I remember back in 7th grade, I helped put together the school newspaper. I drew cartoons and wrote captions for them. It was magical seeing my work in print and then hearing people react to it. Flash forward many years when I wrote my first book at the age of 39, and it was published two years later by a small press. That book was a short novel titled The Courtship of María Rivera Peña and is now out of print. It was loosely based on my paternal grandparent's migration from Mexico to Los Angeles in the 1920s. Since I had a law degree rather than an MFA, I had to teach myself to write by reading voraciously and figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Many years later, my tenth book was published this year. Each time I publish a book or I get published in a magazine or newspaper, it still feels magical seeing my words in print. My publishing journey has been a bit unusual because I am a full-time attorney, but I am inspired to tell stories that grow out of my Mexican American culture and experiences.
"Each time I publish a book, or I get published in a magazine or newspaper, it still feels magical seeing my words in print. My publishing journey has been a bit unusual because I am a full-time attorney, but I am inspired to tell stories that grow out of my Mexican American culture and experiences."
What are some challenges you encounter when writing?
It can be a challenge to find time to write since I am a full-time attorney. But writing is an artistic expression for me, and I am inspired and driven to write no matter what.
What was your experience like getting your book translated into Spanish or English?
My children’s book, Benjamin and the Word (Arte Público Press), is about bullying. It was translated into Spanish so that both languages share a page. It was translated by Gabriela Baeza Ventura, who did a beautiful job. Because I am not fully bilingual, I am delighted that my publisher used one of its translators. I was so excited to see that my book could reach a wider audience because it was published in a bilingual edition. The University of Nevada Press is currently working on a Spanish translation of my new book, How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories. This will be my first book for adults that will be translated, and I can’t wait to see it hit the shelves!
How do you think libraries make our world a better place?
Libraries are magical places where the entire world is available between the covers of books. And all of that is available for free. What could be more wonderful!
What are you working on now?
I am working on so many things! I am planning an essay about how my family has had key connections since the 1920s to Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. I have also completed another short-story collection titled My Chicano Heart: New and Collected Stories of Love and Other Transgressions, which is being read by a publisher right now. And I am reading five new books by Latinx writers that will lead to a special project but that is still being developed. I also want to start a new play, but I am not yet certain what it will be about. There is so much to write and so little time!
Books by Daniel Olivas
Daniel Olivas at L.A. Libros Fest