DANIEL OLIVAS AND MARIO ALBERTO ZAMBRANO talk about his celebrated first novel, Lotería.
DANIEL OLIVAS: In your debut novel, Lotería (HarperCollins), we are introduced to 11-year-old Luz María Castillo, who is in the custody of the state and alone in a room, with nothing more than her thoughts, a journal and a deck of Lotería cards — each card printed with a colorful image used for what some call the Mexican version of bingo. You begin each chapter with an image of a card, used as a springboard into Luz's story. What inspired you to structure your novel in this way?
MARIO ALBERTO ZAMBRANO: I grew up playing Lotería with my family, and like the Silvas in the book, we'd meet at my grandparents' house every Sunday, head to church and spend the afternoon together. Lotería was a great game because everyone participated, even my grandmother, and there was a real sense of familial closeness as we played.
As a kid I wanted the cards to mean something more than their face value. I was drawn to the images in a way a child is curious about a book. Could these cards be used as tarot cards? I'd lay out the cards and try to foretell my future, but everyone I asked knew nothing about fortune-telling. So for a long time those 54 images remained mere pictograms of a childhood game.
Twenty years later I was living in Spain and had just ended my career as a dancer. One night, I couldn't sleep and found myself circling a table I'd varnished with Lotería boards over the top. I stared at the images and searched for a narrative that linked them together. I didn't know what the story was, but the curiosity I had as a boy returned and it drew an outline. I was determined to connect these images in a sort of story, make a portrait out of them. That's how the idea began.
There were many different approaches I'd tried before I found Luz's story. I remember the morning when I went to a coffee shop on the Lower East Side, shuffled the deck, and flipped the top card over. It was La Araña, which became the first card of the book. I wrote that vignette, and when I reread it, Luz's voice seemed right to me. It felt alive. And from then on I just listened.
DO: You grew up in Texas and, after graduating from the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston as a Presidential Scholar, became a professional ballet dancer for 17 years, which took you to such places as Spain, Israel, Japan and Germany. Why did you decide to ultimately take such a completely different creative path?
MAZ: My relationship with dance is pretty complicated. I wish I could give a clear explanation as to why I stopped or what prompted me to do something else, but emotionally it's still somewhat of a confusing loss for me. It was my first love, my first heartbreak.
I'd started dancing when I was 11 and had my first contract when I was 17. I danced for all the companies I'd ever wanted to dance for and worked with the choreographers I'd dreamed of working with. But it came so fast — and I really didn't expect it to actually happen — that by the time I was 25 I was wrung dry, not just physically but emotionally. I started feeling a lack of passion for the work, though I still loved being on stage. I was becoming embittered with the idea of having to walk into a studio and be told what to do, spend all my energy trying to figure out what a choreographer wanted or what his vision was. So I quit, which sounds cut and dry, but my relationship with it was becoming sour and I didn't want to spoil it any more than it had already been spoiled. What I wasn't expecting — what hit me like a car wreck— was the crumbling loss of identity that I felt afterward.
For five years I was pretty blue about my future prospects. I thought I'd never find anything I'd be passionate about the way I was passionate about dancing. I choreographed, but I wasn't comfortable working in that way, having to depend on dancers to execute my work. Pen and paper don't get their feelings hurt if you ball them up and throw them away. But as a choreographer, if you cut a solo or a duet the dancers often take it personally. And you have to be sensitive to that. If you don't you become stoic, which can turn you into a villain. The psychological drama of it all — as well as the politics — was not something that interested me. It interfered with the imaginative space that I feel needs to be protected in order to create. Some people can manage that kind of work with a kind of composure and grace, but I couldn't.
I went back to school. I studied humanities and literature through an online university called Open University. That's where I took my first fiction class, which at the time seemed like an absolutely bizarre thing to me: to write a story. For one, I was not a child who read and I never wrote. I was too busy doing dance moves in the garage. But when I took that fiction class I discovered an artistic practice that could satisfy my creative itch and that I could do alone, which suits my disposition. Now, the more I do it the more I fall in love with it.
DO: Aside from earning a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly, your novel also has glowing endorsements from such writers as Charles Baxter, Justin Torres and Ru Freeman. How have these and other authors shaped you as an author, particularly during the early stages of writing this book?
MAZ: It's funny, I actually didn't know about these authors when I started writing the book, which I'm embarrassed to admit, but it's because I wasn't immersed in the world of literature — not yet. When I started my relationship with fiction I was trying to catch up with as much contemporary fiction as I could, but of course, there's so much! There was an edition of Granta titled "Best American Authors" around the time I started writing, and I remember reading all of the stories in that edition so that I could get an idea of the stylistic landscape of contemporary fiction. Jonathan Safran Foer, Karen Russell, Uzodinma Iweala were in there. That issue directed and introduced me to the kind of fiction I was interested in.
I'm often attracted to the way a book is designed — not only the musicality and tone of its voice, but its architecture. Books like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Foer, or If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, or The Waves by Virginia Woolf; all of these have a sculptural existence in the reader's mind — or at least for me — and I'm fascinated by this. A novel's potential to exist as an imaginative sculpture or blueprint while still telling a story — this is one of the reasons I started writing in the first place. I had no idea it could happen, and when I saw it, and felt it, I was blessed by the beauty of what literature could do.
Daniel Olivas writes regularly for the Los Angeles Review of Books.