Lawrence Coates is the author of Camp Olvido, the winner of the Miami University Press 2015 Novella Prize. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Bowling Green State University. MU Press intern and senior Creative Writing major Annabel Brooks recently chatted on the phone with Coates to learn more about his novella and his writing process in anticipation of Camp Olvido’s October 27th release.
Let’s see, Camp Olvido is a story set in the labor camps of central California during the Depression. It follows a man named Esteban who is a bootlegger who takes liquor and wine to the camps at night to sell to the workers. He runs across a sick child at one camp and gradually, through a series of decisions that he hasn’t really thought through, gets more and more entangled in trying to get help for this child, ending up in an act of violence. Then, he has to face the consequences of what has transpired through his own actions that he mostly took in bad faith.
I know that you’ve spend a good part of your life in California. Can you tell me a little bit more about the inspiration behind the novella?
I have spent a lot of my life in California and I do consider myself a Californian even though I’ve been living in Ohio for more than 10 years at this point. It’s where I was born, it’s where I grew up and it’s where I still have family. I wrote a novel called The Garden of the World that’s set in the late 20s and did a lot of research on some of the Latino characters in that novel. After I finished The Garden of the World I felt that there was more to write about that community. Around the same time I read a book called Decade of Betrayal, a nonfiction book that discussed how during the Depression, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans were frequently treated as a scapegoat for the economic troubles the country was going through, especially in California. Many of them were forcibly deported, including some American citizens, and this struck me very hard to know that that level of injustice had happened in our country that’s never really been acknowledged. So I wanted to write a story that was set in the context of these Latino farmworkers during the Depression.
One of the things about the date of the book is that it’s before the Dust Bowl happened and the reason that’s important is that the Dust Bowl is what brought us John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. This would have been in the same region as where some the Grapes of Wrath takes place but it would’ve been before that migration from Oklahoma to California when there were some white workers in the fields but mostly there were Latinos. So in a way, the book fills in a gap in the history of California as represented by literature that people who just read the Grapes of Wrath might overlook. I have also worked as a volunteer teacher of the English language to immigrant workers in California. I’ve also done some freelance journalism in Mexico. I have connections with the people I’m writing about. And I speak Spanish fluently.
On your website I read the article you wrote for the Chicago Tribune. I thought it was very interesting because of, well its connection to Camp Olvido obviously, but also because of the way that it connects to the current political climate revolving around the US-Mexico borderlands. With the GOP debates and the upcoming presidential election, I was wondering how you connect our current political climate with your discourse concerning the US-Mexico borderlands in your article and also with Camp Olvido? How do all of these things connect?
First off, when I was doing that article, it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it is today. There weren’t the same kinds of narcotraficantes and the same kind of drug smuggling around that there is today. I mean I was traveling around in a Volkswagen bus and we were staying in hotels in Juarez, which is a pretty dangerous place these days as I understand. So it was not nearly as dire of a time for the border as it is now.
I hope that my book helps provide the gift of empathy for people who could be seen as Other. I hope that my book simply allows people to, and I think a lot of good literature does this, imagine themselves in lives different than their own and that that largeness of spirit that can come from reading good literature might help inform the debates. Some of the rhetoric I hear about immigration today treats people as Other. Instead of what philosopher Martin Buber called an ‘I Thou’ relationship with another human being you can get into something close to an ‘I It’ relationship and I hope that my book, even though it’s set 80 years ago, has some impact in helping to create empathy for people whose experiences are different than the experiences that I’m depicting.
In relation to that, I think that the cover of the novella is really compelling. I was doing research about Matt Black, the photographer, and his involvement with the Economic Hardship project as well as his tour of the United States where he photographs those impoverished areas that are often underrepresented. I wanted to ask: what do you think the cover photo is trying to evoke in relation to the story of Camp Olvido?
Believe me, I was really happy when the Press found Matt Black’s photographs. The photograph is of the road disappearing into the distance and it’s mysterious because you don’t know where the road’s going. The last image of the book is the image of Esteban taking the mother and child on the road and heading toward Malaga Park. I ended it there with some ambiguity, as you’re not sure if they’re going to get there safely. You’re not sure if Esteban is doing this as an act of atonement or once more acting in bad faith. You’re not sure whether it’s possible for him to even gain atonement given what he’s been involved with up to that point.
There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity in the novella and that’s intentional. I could have written a different kind of story, a sin and redemption story. I didn’t write that story. I think if you have somebody who has been complicit in a corrupt, exploitative system then writing a redemption story for that character is far too simple and easy. The photograph with the road disappearing into that desert-like landscape expresses something about the way the ending of the book disappears into a distance in which you can’t tell what’s at the end. I just thought it was a brilliant choice for the cover. The Press has been great, the cover design is just one part of how supportive they’ve been; the editing I’ve received has really improved the manuscript I originally turned in. So grateful.
That’s great to hear! I just have a few more ‘fun’ questions—firstly, what’s your writing process and do you have any particular quirks/routines?
I write on a manual typewriter; I suppose that’s quirky. I write on a manual typewriter so I never lose a word. If I need to make corrections I cross it out on the manuscript page but I still have it there in case what I cross out ends up being better. I also frequently make big sketches in an 11”x17” sketchbook, I’m not very good as a visual artist but I like sketching things out. So by the time I’ve finished a book I’ll have one, two, maybe even three sketchbooks filled with little notes, little arcs that describe parts of the narrative, maybe figures against the landscape. So that’s part of my process. I have never been able to work from an outline but I do like to have a sense of the season of a book. If I understand the season of the book, how it begins and ends, then that lets me have some kind of notion of the overall shape while leaving myself free to make daily discoveries.
Do you have any advice for young creative writing students? What do you like to tell your own students to inspire them to continue or begin writing?
Well, that’s a good question. I think that, and I’m getting some of this from reading Flannery O’Connor’s book Mystery and Manners, students don’t necessarily think about telling a story enough. I think that rather than concentrating on the meaning of a story if you just tell a good story the meaning will be there. I’d tell people to trust in the sovereign power of story and then the meaning and your own personal sensibilities and your view of the world will be there. If you concentrate on the more abstract qualities you might fail to tell a good story. Privilege telling a story. That’s what we are after all as writers; we’re storytellers.
Do you have anything coming up next?
I am working on something now. It won’t be coming out anytime soon because it’s long and ambitious. You know one of the things you find out, and I’m not complaining about this, but having a book come out (I had two books come out this fall) is very time consuming. So I spent a lot of time over the past few months copyediting and doing pre-publicity work. I’m doing quite a bit of book tour stuff right now, I’m going to California and I’ll be in Detroit later this month. I’ll be in Cleveland and of course I’ll be in Oxford. I’m traveling around quite a bit so I haven’t had the time to just sit back down at my desk and settle into my new work. So there’s been an hiatus in my writing right now, which is regrettable but like I said I’m not complaining because anybody who complains about having a book come out needs their head examined, that’s what we reach for. So I do have something I’m working on but it will be a good long time before it comes out.
Last question, do you have anything you’re currently reading? What’s on your bedside table?
I’m reading a book of short stories by Kyle Minor right now called Praying Drunk. I’ve got a novella on my bedside table now by Daniel Torday called The Sensualist. One of the other great presses in the country that specializes in novellas besides Miami is a press in California called Nouvella, so I’ve been reading some novellas coming out of that press. And since you asked, I’m going to read next The Narrow Road to Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Those are three books that I’m engaged with right now even though one of them I haven’t even started.
I feel like that happens all the time, I always have five or six books on my bedside table.
So many books, so little time. That’s just my life.
Don’t miss Lawrence Coates when he visits the MU Bookstore Nov. 4th to read from Camp Olvido at 7:30pm.
Camp Olvido will be available for purchase on Amazon, through the Miami University Press website, at the Miami University Bookstore and at participating bookstores.