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The Truth Bordering Fiction

An afternoon with Oscar Casares

En español | Following the writer’s dictum to “write what you know,” author Oscar Casares, 45, has long drawn on autobiography to give his fiction the unmistakable ring of truth. Although a graduate of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he credits the setting of his native Brownsville—the southernmost U.S. city on the United States-Mexico border—and his storytelling uncles for inspiring his narratives. In fact, the seed for his debut novel Amigoland, which revolves around a much-contested piece of family lore, was planted in Casares’s youth. 

“I grew up hearing this story about my great-great-great-grandfather coming to the United States after being kidnapped by Indians in northern Mexico,” says Casares, a fifth-generation Mexican American. “It was one of the first stories I ever heard. My uncle would repeat it often, and then across the room my father would say, ‘Don’t believe a word your uncle just said.’ It was an ongoing argument between the two brothers, and I never knew who to believe because there wasn’t another family legend to go by. A part of me wanted to figure out that story.”

But the further he delved into the writing, Casares says, the more intrigued he became not by the original premise but rather by what the argument between the two fictional brothers revealed about their relationship. The result of Casares’s seven-year fictional investigation is a pitch-perfect family narrative infused with humor, sadness, generosity, and meticulously detailed prose.

His critically acclaimed short story collection Brownsville, published in 2003, revved up his life when it garnered the National Endowment for the Arts and Dobie Paisano fellowships. Now, with Amigoland's publication, life is once again ramping up. His day begins with bidding farewell to his wife, Becky, and newborn daughter, Elena Isabel, then pushing through the merciless summer heat in Austin, Texas, to drop off his two-year-old son, Adrian, at childcare. A photo shoot at the J. Frank Dobie House—where he teaches at the prestigious James A. Michener Center for Writers—is next. Then lunch at Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop, an eatery serving traditional Mexican fare and reminiscent of his native Brownsville, is followed by an interview and reading at a recording studio with us.

At 6’5”, he sports perfectly styled silver-streaked black hair and is impeccably dressed in a striped button-down shirt and dark denim jeans. The dim lighting of the recording booth accentuates the lines of concentration etched on Casares’s face as he reads from one of Amigoland’s most touching scenes. The author switches voices for the dialogue between the two main characters: estranged brothers Don Celestino, 74, a retired barber and widower who has fallen in love with his Mexican housekeeper, and Don Fidencio, 91, a retired mail carrier and resident of Amigoland, the long-term care facility from where he plots his escape.

Casares says that portraying this setting at the facility was the most difficult aspect of the writing because, while researching the book in October 2004, fiction collided with life: his 90-year-old father broke his hip and spent the next three years in two such places. “In most cases, when you're writing a piece of fiction, you're lucky enough to have that distance, that perspective to look back and understand what it means, but I didn’t have that,” says Casares. “I was living it as I was writing.”

As the interview wraps up, Casares mentions his plans to sell his new book—as he did Brownsville—at the H-E-B grocery store chain. The dearth of bookstores in Brownsville and South Texas, combined with his need to personally connect with the community, fueled his upcoming “mini-H-E-B tour,” as he calls it. In a handful of cities, fans can hear him read at local bookstores and attend book signings at the local grocery. “I wanted to take the stories to the people, as opposed to having people go find the stories in a bookstore,” he says.

And bringing his poignant story of aging to the people may help them come to terms with their own. 

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