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'What You See in the Dark' Author Manuel Muñoz Inspired by Hometown Dinuba, CA and the Art of Gossip

First Posted: Apr 02, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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Manuel Munoz

Photo : Manuel Munoz

This article is part of Palabras, the Latin Post Latino Author Series. 

The quaint Central Valley-located California town Dinuba, with its unchanging landmarks and the conversational closeness of its residents, is a source of creative stimuli for professor and author Manuel Muñoz.

When Muñoz was a child, the predominately Hispanic community had just 15,000 residents. Forty years later, the population has nearly doubled, "but it still feels the same." Dinuba sparked curiosity in the author, and it encouraged him to be interested in how people learn stories about other people without speaking directly to them.

"It's gossip, basically, but sometimes it's more complicated than that because with gossip, sometimes you're talking about a false story. But, there's something important in the way secrets travel from person to person, family to family... and I'm just really fascinated by how that can construct who you are, before you even know who you are," Muñoz said to Latin Post. "We knew things about teachers; we knew things about neighbors... and people on the other side of town. And we knew if someone's teenage kids got into serious trouble. It was public. You knew you didn't know the whole story, yet, you ran away with it, for better or worse. More than that, recognizing [interest in the way stories travel] was a way for me to realize that I was wrong. I always thought that there was nothing going on in my town when I was growing up, and now I know that is absolutely not true."

The youngest of five children in a home with very little reading, Muñoz gravitated toward reading because he was a quiet child. He and his sister, who was one year his senior, often ventured to the library to browse the shelves and check out books from the ever-adventurous Nancy Drew mystery fiction series. Being a little older, his sister was more sophisticated in her reading and was a better reader than him. And though he was the first person in his family to graduate from college, his sister was the first in his family to attend college... and this helped to angle him toward success.

Muñoz graduated from Harvard University, and four years later, he completed his studies at Cornell University, where he met his literary godmother, acclaimed writer Helena María Viramontes. Muñoz shared, as a mentor Viramontes was a huge influence on him, which is evident in the short stories featured in the collections in "Zigzagger" and "The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue," and his novel "What You See in the Dark."

"Emotional vulnerability is not the same thing as sentimentality. We're often told to avoid melodrama, but [Helena] taught me not to be afraid of big, strong emotions because that's what we witnessed in our homes and in our communities, and that needs to be honest," said Muñoz. "They need to be depicted with care, and with room to make them as emotionally vulnerable as possible. So that's what influences me. It's less of where the inspiration came from, and it has more to do with the mentorship that allowed me to be honest about things that I've seen and experienced growing up, and the things that really made up the small town that I came from."

Muñoz's notable work didn't begin until after he graduated from school. Prior to that, he was composing an ill-conceived, 300-page novel about his mother, which simply wasn't "honest enough." He retired that novel, and it wasn't until after he was no longer participating in workshops at Cornell and he didn't anyone to show his work to that he'd started writing short stories. "Zigzagger" was the first short story that he wrote, and it went from there.

"So, I think about an event that's happened in my life, and I tell myself what the real story is... the real gossip, and I asked myself what do I need to do to give it the arch that makes it intriguing or emotionally vulnerable? Sometimes interesting things or really sudden things happen in real life, but they don't have form of a story. ... They're just things that happened. And sometimes they're almost over as soon as they happen. Then you have to shape that," said Muñoz. "It's helpful for me to go home a lot. It's helpful for me to be in town just taking a drive, taking a walk or going downtown."

Muñoz shared the story about the only Chinese restaurant in town, and how it now had competition. The restaurant has been standing as long as Muñoz could remember, and as far back as his older sister-in-law could remember ... for at least 40 years. And there are many establishments like that in his town, and they fuel his imagination and help him to describe what's right in front of him. And he predicts that restaurant will stay open, because it has a history.

Recently, the author completed two short stories, which are very different in style and design, and the only thing they have common is that they're set in the late 1970s/early 1980s in his hometown, but they're not about childhood experiences.

"I was thinking about what some adults were going through during that time frame. And I kept being fascinated by how I would let a reader know a time frame without being explicit about that time," said Muñoz. "Little strange details come up, like TV personalities, like Jessica Savitch. That's the only time people will know that they're reading about a very definite time period. I'm doing that with a song right now in a story. ... Someone's listening to "Love Come Down" by Evelyn King. I'll just use the barest detail to just remind people when the story is rooted, but it could very well be the now."

After 18 years on the east coast, Muñoz chose to take a position at The University of Arizona to be closer to the west coast. And at 43, Muñoz is excited to "feel like a different kind of writer now."

"What I mean by that is that is I'm in Helena's footsteps. Yet, I already feel like there are writers who are younger than me who are already coming up, and I find that it's really exciting," said Muñoz. "On one hand, I want to cry and say, 'I'm no longer young,' but it's also very true that the work that we do as writers is to inspire those who'll come behind us. A lot of writers of my generation are doing important things. It may not feel important... and the world makes you feel like it's not important ...but there are writers who'll look at our whole body of work to be inspired, and we have to remember that."

To learn more about Muñoz and his work, check out his website.

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