Manuel Muñoz is the author of two collections of short stories, Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. Now he’s out with his first novel, What You See in the Dark. Muñoz talked to AARP VIVA about the pressures of being a Chicano writer, why he couldn’t get the film Psycho out of his head and the mentor who influenced him.
Q. Unlike your previous story collections, your new novel doesn’t take on overtly Chicano themes. Do ever feel pressure to write about those big issues?
A. The pressures are pretty immense, to be frank. I think what happens is that — I can only speak for myself as a Chicano writer — the label is confronted with its own limitations, meaning we already have a certain milieu or set of themes that we can or are expected to write about. When we talk about identity, my identity can also be as a filmgoer, as a consumer of art. Why can’t that enter the conversation about what constitutes a Chicano artist? That’s sort of the question that I faced for five years while I was working on this book.
Q. Are you excited to see what the reception of the book is like?
A. The excitement really is that I’m going to be able to go out on a book tour and talk about something that isn’t necessarily personal biography. When I was out doing readings for the short story collection, most questions from the audience tended to be about the Central Valley: what it’s like to grow up there, how do the stories reflect that experience. This time around, this dependence on Psycho is going to generate questions that I just wouldn’t have otherwise been asked. I like that. One of the first things that I’ll be doing once the book launches in March is we’re going to be screening Psycho at the historic Tower Theatre in Fresno, California.
Q. How did you arrive at giving Psycho a central role?
A. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I took a class on Hitchcock, and we were required to view all of his films on the big screen. I’d seen Psycho before, but when I saw it on the big screen I was really struck by this moment where Janet Leigh is driving away from Phoenix and she passes this sign for Gorman, California. Gorman is this little mountain town on the pass between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. So even though the film never explicitly said that the Bates Motel was going to be in the Central Valley, logic dictated that was exactly where it was going to be. That moment stayed in my head for a long time as a moment where I felt that the world of art could penetrate a place like the Valley.
Q. Can you tell us more about the role of your home region of California’s Central Valley in your work, and Bakersfield, where the novel is set?
A. I’ve always said that the Valley is a place of walls. You’re surrounded on three sides by mountains, and it almost literally is telling you, "You can’t escape." Most people that I grew up with always had dreams of moving to some other place. It’s a place that is dominated by small towns. Bakersfield has always functioned as the gateway on the drive to Los Angeles. It has become a place for me that has started functioning as metaphor for the interior lives of a lot of people I write about.
Q. Who are the writers who have been most important to you?
A. I speak often about my mentor at Cornell, Helena Maria Viramontes. I met her over 15 years ago. As a mentor-student relationship, it has served me extremely well. She really sort of coaxed me out of a lot of shyness and uncertainty about art. She still is a great influence on me.
Q. Now that you teach writing at the University of Arizona, do you like being in the position to mentor?
A. I do because it was so valuable to me. Most students are at a point where it’s not a lack of talent or ideas getting in the way. It’s a lack of confidence. To be able to hear from a peer — I approach my students as a peer, not as a professor — I think it can be very valuable for some people.
Q. So what’s next?
A. That’s a good question. Another novel is in the works.