An Interview with Oscar Casares, Acclaimed Writer and Director of The New Writers Project

Photograph by Yvette Martinez.

Photograph by Yvette Martinez.

Oscar Casares received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2001 and is now the director of The New Writers Project, the Creative Writing program in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin. He’s also the award-winning author of Brownsville, a collection of short stories, and the novel Amigoland. He has published other works in The Iowa Review, Colorado Review, Northwest Review, Threepenny Review, Texas Monthly, and other publications.

Oscar recently sat down with The Austin Review to talk about his approach to writing and how he left a successful career in advertising to become a full-time writer and professor.   

The Interview

The Austin Review: What do you try to accomplish as you edit your own work?

Oscar Casares: I think there are a lot of things that are going on. But really when I’m going back through a story, I’m asking myself is this something I want to read. There is an old adage that you write the kind of book that you want to read. And, for me, having started off as a non literary person, a non reader, there has to be something that compels me to sit down and not walk away from a book. So that’s a constant. I’ve got to be engaged by the material, not just writing it, but as a reader somewhere down the road.

TAR: In some of your other interviews, you compare your writing style with the art of verbal storytelling. Can you explain that process?

OC: It doesn’t particularly matter if the reader picks up on this, but, for instance, in my novel, and a good part of my story collection, the characters in my mind as I’m writing are actually speaking in Spanish. Now, as I hear them in Spanish, I’m obviously writing them to an English speaking audience, and in many cases a monolingual audience. So there’s a little bit of Spanish in there. It’s in there when there is no other word that I find that would work as well and that’s appropriate. 

I hate when somebody just throws Spanish in a work just to buy some street cred or whatever. I absolutely detest that. But, so I’m hearing it in Spanish, and I’m writing it in English, and somewhere between those two I have to negotiate the bridge. Am I being true to the way it was said? The syntax and all? And does it read well? If I do that—if I transcribe what I’m hearing—does it read well? In some cases it does, and in some cases it’s a little bit awkward, and in some cases I’ll say, “Well, that’s fine.”

TAR: How often do you pause to make sure the dialogue rings true, and your translation is working?

OC: I try not to stop too often, and it’s usually after the fact that I’ll pause. But there are times when an editor will suggest changing a bit of dialogue. Or even something coming from a close third, and then I’ll say, “I’m not hearing it that way.” If I’m really being true to the character, they are going to be honest in their own way and not in a way an editor or even some other part of me would like them to conform to. So that becomes a real challenge. Again, whether people pick up on that, I don’t really care, but it is part of the process—not simply writing the dialogue, but hearing the dialogue, hearing the characters move through their respective worlds. And that’s writing it from within. 

And I think that was the big . . . if I found a moment with the first story collection, it was the notion of writing it from within the community as opposed to outside looking back. So, in other words, that means that if there’s something I’m going to mention, or something I’m not going to mention, it’s based on being on the inside. Because if you’re from Brownsville, and I explain something too much, it’s going to seem like, “Why are you saying that? I mean, I know that.” And so the areas in my writing that I thought would seem totally left field for someone, I’d have to be creative about explaining it a little bit. But, explaining it, to me . . . if we were to go down to Brownsville right now—and I’ve taken people down there often—I don’t do a lot of explaining. I just drop them in and let them understand how different the place is, and just get it from hearing and seeing people. 

TAR: So was it while writing your short story collection that you realized this was the style of writing you wanted to achieve, at least with respect to Brownsville?

OC: Well, by that point I hadn’t lived in Brownsville in ten or twelve years, so by that mere fact I was writing from the outside. So I had to, in some way, psychically imagine myself sitting at a desk within the community, and then I was writing to my audience. Now, I was also thinking, “Well, somewhere down the line it would be nice if this were picked up and published,” and all the things that come with that. 

I think the other thing, when you commit yourself to that writing style—the other thing that comes along—is that it gets very difficult to understand a world like Brownsville because, for instance, if I were writing about Mexican Americans here in Austin, they’re marginalized, as they are in many many communities—whether that’s geographically, culturally, economically, you name it. They’re definitely a presence, but most people see it as a presence along the margins, for the most part. That’s an over-generalization but still true. But if you’re writing from within Brownsville, there is no other, there is no margin, with the exception of class, which comes up quite often. But suddenly there is no mainstream and minority—there is one mainstream. And the one mainstream is you’re either a Mexican national or a Mexican American. That’s the commonality. That was a huge revelation to me, I think, as a writer.

TAR: How did you choose advertising as a career? 

OC: Advertising had not been a passion of mine, as I don’t think it is for many people—people in the business, or even people who spend their entire career in advertising.

TAR: Were your friends entering advertising?

OC: No, I had worked in sales for a radio station in Brownsville and had been around a couple of advertising agencies, but I really didn’t know much about it. But it seemed I didn’t have anything else that vaguely interested me. I got here at UT, and they asked me to declare a major. I said advertising, and they said what area of advertising. I answered, “What does that mean?” and they said, “Do you want to be on the business side or the creative side?” Creative sounded a little bit more fun, and so I found myself entering this world that I had not in any way imagined, and it was very challenging. It was intense. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on a daily basis. And so anway, I did that for eight or nine years.

I think when the idea for writing actually began, people would occasionally ask me, “Are you going to write?” and I said, “I’m not a writer. I just like to tell stories.” And what happened was, after I graduated here, I moved to Minneapolis and starting working there. I felt so out of my element.

TAR: What types of advertising jobs did you get in Minneapolis?

OC: Print-based ads, and some of that was at the bottom of the barrel of advertising. I’m talking about doing the Sunday supplements . . . like for one of the monster cereals—you know, like Count Chocula. I remember this guy calling me in and closing the door. He says, “I need to know that I can trust you with this.” And General Mills was in Minneapolis, and they did a lot of test marketing. And this guy has got this easel, and he very dramatically turns it over, and he doesn’t say anything. He just has the new product’s name up there—sort of like a dramatic effect—and it’s called Honey Yummy Mummy. I don’t think that one passed the market test.

It was this mummy, with a big jar of honey stuck on its head. Honey dripping all over. And this supplement was an appeal to whatever, moms, shoppers, general people—take their coupon and try Honey Yummy Mummy. Anyway, the ad jobs dried up, and I had to find other work, so I ended up working in a movie theater.

TAR: Were you writing during this time?

OC: No, not at all. And then I worked at this shop that sold mountain gear and canoes and stuff. I was in shipping and receiving. So I spent all day in the basement of this place, pricing things, and I remember there was a guy who did the same thing. We would stand sort of back to back, just doing our own little work, but I’d spend my time telling stories—this happened, or that happened, or this time my uncle did this. And I think that was sort of the genesis of this adventure into writing. 

Then I got recruited to come back to Austin. I was already at the end, I mean really at the end. Before I got the call, I already had everything packed—whatever belongings I had, I moved them into a friend’s garage, and I was going to stay on his couch. And that morning, they called from GSD&M. Earlier I had sent them my portfolio, and they said, “Are you ready to come back to Texas?” “You don’t know how ready I am to come back,” I said. And that was 1989. It was a fun ride. I did make some good friends in the business, and I think I learned a ton from working in that environment—about generating ideas, being on a deadline, having my work shot down.  

TAR: So taking criticism was a big part of the business?

OC: That’s just part of it. You walk in with six or seven ideas, and you’re lucky if one of them makes it out of the room. You have to have a thick skin. You won’t last a week if you don’t. No, you’ll just go insane. First of all, they couldn’t do everything that you came up with anyway. Even if it was all brilliant.

TAR: What did you tell people when you left advertising?

OC: I told everyone I’d come back if it didn’t work out. I swear the morning that I quit, I had like a line of people—sort of like this traffic jam of people wanting to know how I had arrived at this decision. I knew—it was confirmed that morning—that advertising is made up of people who want to be doing something else. Very few people start off and say, “This is what I want to do.” They start off in marketing. They’re in art school, but their parents keep nagging them that they have to find something different. They’re in music, they get a gig, and then they find that door.  It’s so widespread that it’s almost normalized. Everyone started off somewhere else. 

TAR: By the time you quit, did you have a few stories already finished?

OC: Not really, that’s the insane part. It’s not like, “Oh I had this published over here.” I started writing some right before I left; I started writing, I believe, in June or July of 1996. 

TAR: And you had started with short stories? 

OC: Well, you know what I started with is all these stories I would tell all these people in bars. And mainly because I already knew the stories from beginning to end, and mainly I wanted to see if I could get it down on paper. When I finished it and read it, or someone else read it, I wanted to know whether they might think it was funny the way I thought it was funny, or interesting. That freed me up greatly because I wasn’t worried about all the things that you normally worry about when you’re writing a story—the structure, the backstory, or whatever. I basically wrote it the way I would’ve told it to someone. And then I just went through my whole library of stories. I’d write one every week or every two weeks. I was getting up at crazy hours of the morning and working late at night and writing on the road, and it just started gaining this presence in my life. 

Probably a couple of months into that, I started thinking about—well, what would it look like if I were to quit? And part of it was that cliche people always say: what would you do if you could pick one thing to do and get paid for it? Mine was to sit around and tell stories, but I don’t think anyone is going to pay me in a bar to tell stories. So this was the next natural transition—writing stories, in a formal way.

TAR: It seemed like appearing in literary journals was a big stepping stone for you; do you think literary journals are as important today in helping young writers advance?

OC: Oh, absolutely. For me, I felt like I had to cross that threshold before this was going to be real. 

TAR: Before you had a few publications in journals, did you look back and regret leaving advertising?

OC: I came to the realization that I could have worked another five years, ten years, twenty years, whatever, in advertising, and I would never amass enough wealth to just sit back on my porch and write. That day was never going to arrive, and if it arrived, I’d be so spent that it wouldn’t matter at that point. 

The way that a good many people do it—and a sensible way of doing it—would be to continue on in their regular career, try to get a few things published, maybe a book, and see if somewhere in between you could make that transition into this other life of writing. My feeling was, “What if I spend the next ten years trying to get this book published, and then maybe get a couple of stories published, but it never really gets any momentum?” And then I’d be looking back and thinking, “Well, it maybe could’ve worked, but I was working, and I had this . . . .” I would much rather write those ten years or whatever and say that I tried it, and you know what, I sucked. 

But, oh my god, the day after I quit was so dramatic in this way—it’s so much easier to work towards something when you don’t have all these responsibilities in the way. Suddenly I took everything off the table and said, “I’m going to write a book.” I announced it to all my friends, and suddenly, I was out there. In my little circle I was very vulnerable. Like an idiot, quite frankly. I mean, what was I doing? What was I thinking? 

TAR: So many people are too risk averse to do what you did.

OC: Well, I was at a point when I had paid down all my debt. I had a little bit of savings, not a lot, but I didn’t own a home, and I didn’t have a family. So that was a huge part of this, of this jumping off. I want to think I wouldn’t do it now, but I think there are people all the time who get to a certain point, and they have no choice but to make that leap. They have to do it.

TAR: Another leap took you to academia. Explain how that came about.

OC: That was even crazier. 
 
TAR: Was it your MFA degree that got you thinking about becoming a professor?

OC: Well, I thought that the MFA might open up another door for me, but I didn’t go to graduate school with the intent on teaching. I was so laser-beam focused on finishing a book. And nothing else would happen until I finished.

TAR: You thought of your MFA as a tool for writing your novel?

OC: Not necessarily. I’m not any different than most people who get an MFA—the program forces you to stay on schedule. I knew that I was going to be surrounded by some very good readers, and that was important to me. 

One of the things I became aware of while getting an MFA and as I started writing was the idea of the regional writer, and how that term was used at times as dismissive. Over time, several writers have been associated with a place—like Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty—but they eventually became larger than just their particular settings. But there are also a lot of writers who start off in a community and write about that community, and then they’re dismissed in this way. I wanted to have some sense that my stories about this little border community would connect with people, and so I would only send my stories out to publications that were outside the immediate southwest border region. There were a lot of good journals around here, but I didn’t want them reading it with their perception that you would have living in this region. 

Another part of the MFA was that I kept putting these challenges in front of myself, as a way of testing whether I had really screwed up or not. And it was like, “Well, if I can do this, then maybe I’m on the right path.” 

TAR: What do you remember about applying for your MFA around 1998?

OC: So I started writing in 1996, I walked out of advertising in early 1997, and I think the first story was published in 1998. When you have a piece accepted in a journal, that’s nice, but that doesn’t mean the piece is coming out now. It could be 18 months, 2 years, and you’re sort of waiting, you’re in line, and so it’s unbearable. 

I feel like there was someone watching out for me because both pieces—my first two stories—got published pretty quickly, and right next to each other, within a couple of months. In both cases they appeared by the end of the year. Why that is even significant is that I was applying to the MFA program. And they came out right then. So to apply, I just sent in the journals. I didn’t have to send in my 5 pages. Had it been delayed slightly, who knows? I was very fortunate. 

TAR: Any fond memories of Iowa City?

OC: I actually loved living in Iowa City—that was a huge part of my development, not necessarily because of the workshop or anything, but writing is so much the culture there. 

What you see here in music is what you see there in books. I mean their readings are on the radio. You meet people through a workshop, or a bookstore—writing has such a presence. It’s like the writing never turns off.

TAR: As a professor, do you find yourself encouraging your more talented students to consider making a career of writing?

OC: This is something I’ve learned along the way. I’ve had some really gifted students, and the first couple of years I’d pull them aside and say, “Listen, what you’re doing here is just . . . I believe the writing is at a different level than what I’ve seen with most undergrads, and I think you really have a serious talent here, and you should consider pursuing this.” And then the student would respond with something like, “I think I’m going to pharmacy school.” And I’d be like, “Ok,” you know. Or, whatever other school. And it happened like this almost every time. 

Meanwhile, I have these other students who show up on the first day and declare themselves writers. And you say to yourself, “Yeah, I guess the effort is there, the motivation is there.” But they still need time to develop, and they might walk out of that class with a B or a C, but the grade is not going to deter them. They are going to be on it. You know, that was a huge lesson: you can make someone aware of this, and you can be supportive, but at some point they have to do the work, they’ve got to be motivated in that way, and they have to put in enormous time and effort.

TAR: Has teaching and focusing on the mechanics of writing changed the way you write?

OC: Yes, the short answer is yes. And I hated the whole idea of that. I mean, I remember the first time I went to a writer’s conference, and I had only been writing maybe a year or two. I thought, “What are they doing? Why are they talking about all these things?” To me it was like being at a magician’s convention. You don’t go and say, “Oh, this is how I pull a rabbit out of the hat.” You appreciate the work, but you don’t sit around and talk about it and over-analyze it—you don’t talk about theory. But eventually I got myself actually kind of enjoying it, to a degree. 

When I started teaching, what I didn’t like was being as conscious as I had to be, of not simply enjoying the story, for the story’s sake, but being aware of all the other mechanics at play. And then someone commented that if it’s going to work, you’ve got to have a time when you know you’re a teacher and another time when you’re the artist. If you can separate that artist time from the teacher time, that’s really the best of both worlds.

TAR: Do you have a new novel in mind?

OC: Yes, I have a sense of what it’s going to be. I have a direction I’m headed. It’s simmering.