Oscar Casares: On Writing A Story About Stories

Oscar Casares

In his books “Brownsville: Stories” (2008) and “Amigoland” (2010), Brownsville native Oscar Casares breathes life into the border culture he grew up in through spare, affecting prose and a high relief sensitivity to detail and environment that recalls the vivid realism of storytellers like Larry McMurtry. Casares also teaches creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin, where he has resided on and off for most of the last three decades. I caught up with Casares in late March, and we talked about roots, family, Texas, and the all-encompassing importance of stories.

Sightlines: Your writing is clean and naturalistic; it’s almost like the reader is overhearing a story told in a bar. Your style is transparent, as if your words have always been there, like a mountain or something, but still light as air. What are your influences? Where does that style come from?
Casares: I didn’t have the the typical literary influences; my influences all come from oral tradition. I had two uncles who would come over to the house and hold court. So I didn’t know it at the time, but I was I was in a workshop when I was four or five years old, and I was learning to tell a story back then. It was only later, much later, when I started writing.
For me, the thing that mattered, still matters, and I stress this a lot to my students, is that there’s somebody in front of you, and that unless you’re reaching them and that you’re aware of that… and you’re no more aware of that than when you’re telling someone a story orally. You see when they get distracted, you know when they decide to get up and go to the bathroom or get another beer or whatever, that you’ve kind of lost them a little bit. So as much as I can, I try to keep that same sense on the page, of holding someone’s attention there and making it feel as natural as possible.

SL: So later on, when you began writing full-time, were there things that you were drawn to or attracted to that had an impact on your writing or changed it in any way?
Casares: Yeah, I gravitated toward a clean style, where I felt like there was room between the lines to read more. The people that come to mind are writers like Raymond Carver, James Salter, and Juan Rulfo, where what’s said has a certain economy, and also I’m attracted to a voice. What I’m going to ask when I read something is, “do I hear a voice?” I mean, there are some fine writers that I can pick up and I can appreciate, but I don’t hear a voice. And that’s the single hardest thing for me when I’m starting to write a story or novel: to tap into that voice. I know what I want to say, but I haven’t heard the voice, the frequency is off or something, and I’m listening and listening and I’m writing pages and pages and pages, and then suddenly I’ll hit on a line and I’ll go, “that’s that’s the opening line.” With “Amigoland,”  I had written 300 pages, and I was having dinner with my wife and I said, “I just wrote the first page of my novel” and she’s like, “haven’t you been working on that for over a year?” and I was like “yeeeah but…” If  I write that first line and I’m pretty confident in it, I sort of understand where the rest is going to go; it kind of flows from there.

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SL: A major theme of “Amigoland” seems to be about the prevalence and importance of stories as something that binds people together and helps them make sense of life, both past and present, where they come from, etc. Is that accurate? Why are stories important, both in general and to you personally?
OC: Well, a lot of this started with one of the first stories I heard, which is embedded in “Amigoland,” the story that takes the brothers to Mexico. It’s the story of this young boy being kidnapped. So that’s my Genesis; It was the first story my tío Nico told me when I was a kid. This story is how we got to Texas. This is how we got to the United States. I was enthralled. That story tumbled around in my head for years and years. And so, when I sat down to write a novel, I sort of knew that story was going to be involved, and that it was going to involve somebody who held onto that story. But as with any sort of story like that, it gets compromised over time. So I felt like part of the challenge with keeping that story alive was figuring out how this old man in the book, Fidencio, was struggling with it, and that having a sense of where he was from grounded him, gave him some sense of bearing and meaning, and a way of coping with the reality of what he’s dealing with. I was talking to somebody the other day about Tim O’Brien’s “The Things We Carried,” which on the surface is always cast as a Vietnam collection. To me, it’s a story about stories. It’s a story about coping, it’s about making sense of an experience.

SL: I thought “Amigoland” was too, it’s a story about stories.
OC: Yeah, and how they get recounted and recast. Fidencio is trying to hold on to this story that he didn’t pay much attention to when it was first told to him, but now the stakes are much higher. They get down to Mexico and the story is recast again. So, where’s the truth? It’s probably in a little bit of both of the storylines. We want to make sense of that story, not just in a historical sense, but a contemporary sense. For example, one of the things I’ve done with my kids, since my son was 5 or so, and I never did this growing up, I didn’t do it as an adult up until this point, but I started creating an altar for Día de los Muertos. And it’s not about being Mexican-American or having Mexican roots and what have you —that’s sort of secondary to the idea of keeping these stories alive. So every late October I set up the altar, and my son helps me. We pull out photos and we remember people: this is the uncle who did this, this is the grandfather who used to ride the horse, and this is the one who… I very methodically try to keep these stories alive. I think these stories were important to my uncles, but I see them slipping away.

Like, there’s this great story about how my parents met. This must have been 1936, 1937, around that time, and my dad is in South Texas and he’s working in the town of Donna, and he’s working at this packing shed loading fruit onto the back of a truck. And there’s a high school nearby. School lets out, all these kids start walking home, and this high school girl walks by. And he sees her, and he’s trying to figure out how to talk to her, and he grabs a grapefruit from the truck he just loaded. And there’s this kid hanging out there, and my dad says, “Hey do me a favor. Take this grapefruit to that girl.” So the kid takes off and gives the girl the grapefruit and says “that’s from that guy up there on the packing shed.” And this becomes the beginning of the courtship of my parents, right? So every Día de los Muertos, there’s a grapefruit on the altar and the kids know immediately that this is where we come from. We come from this grapefruit. And it’s wonderful in the sense that it’s very much a South Texas thing, but also keeping these stories alive, and a sense of where you came from, and what that means. My uncle, the one who told me this story, just passed away about a month ago now. He was born, I think, in 1924. So you know, he grew up with all these stories from the 1800s. I think about that sometimes, how this treasure chest just plopped down in front of me, the stories I mean. It’s really important to me. 

SL: You grew up in Brownsville,TX and then you moved to Minneapolis, and then you came back to work at GSD&M in Austin–
OC: Right.

SL: –And I read an interview with you where you said “God I’m so ready to be back in Texas, in Austin.” What do you like about it? Why live here?
OC: I moved here in ’85. I’ve always felt that I’m a part of Brownsville, but I’m also kind of an oddball in Brownsville. My family has been there a really long time, I’m attached to the community there, I feel at home there. But I’d spent so much time in Austin, going to school here, working here. I went away for graduate school, but I had an offer to stay here in Texas. And in a way, the offer was actually kind of a better offer — to attend the Michener Center, I wouldn’t have to student teach — it was just a nicer offer. But for me, I thought there was something to being away from Texas for a while and reimagining it. And I think living in Austin but being close enough to Brownsville where I can access it, if I need to go down and research something, is kind of perfect in a way. A friend who’s a writer told me this, so I’m not going to pretend that I made it up, but he said that writers are insiders and outsiders. They’re attached to something, they have intimate knowledge of something, but are also detached from it. And so with regard to my relationship between Brownsville and Austin, I can get down there pretty frequently. Right after the first book came out in 2003, I was down there for a year. Before I came back here to the teach at UT, I seriously thought about staying down there. There were things that I loved about it, and there were things that reminded me of having outgrown it. That’s sort of a difficult thing to come to terms with, both loving a place and knowing that you need other outlets, and I felt like Austin was kind of the perfect place for that. 

SL: So you like it here.
OC: I love it here. One of the things about being a writer here that I kind of enjoy is that musicians are gods here. I would much rather be in a place where there’s another art form that is taking the lead. I was in grad school in Iowa City, and there were two or three readings per week, and the readings are on radio, and that’s the culture there. Here, we have steady stream of writers throughout the year, and then we have the Texas Book Festival, and that’s about it. It’s comfortable in that way.

SL: Who are some of your your favorite writers, favorite books?
OC: Again, I’m looking for a voice, you know. One of the voices that I sort of always go back to is Joan Didion. Jamaica Kincaid. James Salter’s another one. Early on, Checkov was huge. Richard Yates. I’ll go back occasionally to Garcia Marquez. 

SL: The dreamlike sections in “Amigoland” reminded me of Garcia Marquez.
OC: Yeah…

SL: You’re working on a new novel–
OC: I finished it.

SL:  Can you talk about it?
OC: I can definitely talk about it. I’ve been working on it for a long time. I was in Germany in the summer of 2015 and I had some time to wrap my head around it and start on it. Last year I had a year off from teaching so I wrote the bulk of in 2016 and 2017. The title is “Where We Come From,” and it has to do with a family that gets mixed up in human trafficking. It starts off as a favor to someone, and that favor gets away from them, and suddenly they find themselves actually in the midst of traffickers and trying to get themselves out of it. It’s partly about how we deal or don’t deal with that issue, but also about family and where we start out and end up. The two main characters in the story are a woman who does this favor for someone and her godson who comes down to Brownsville to live with her for the summer. I started writing this, thinking about this storyline, way before immigration became as big an issue as it is right now. But it felt really important to me, getting back to this idea of where we come from.

SL: I’m looking forward to it, thanks so much.

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