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Winner of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, 2010
Selected by Gail Godwin
What inspired you to write “Cocido”?
On a train trip back to Fresno from Bakersfield, we stopped briefly in Wasco, once referred to as the “Rose Capital of the World.” Typical of towns along this Central California Valley, it is heavily populated by Mexican-American families who have worked the surrounding fields for generations.
As the train idled in front of the dust-hazed depot, I thought of what a wounded Iraq War veteran might see and feel here, coming home from two tours of service and months of hospital treatment. What came to me, as I began to mentally develop the character of Alex Villarreal, was a kind of structural and spiritual devastation that would confront him.
Not only had the place been blighted, but his sister and mother, whom he’d left to operate the family restaurant without him, had suffered terrible traumas of their own. I felt right away that I wanted to write a story about the effect war has on a family, seen through the eyes of a young man who had to leave his at such a tentative time in his life.
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
I started writing late in life. Like most beginners, I fell prey to the autobiographical. Getting out of that bog hasn’t been easy for me. In “Cocido,” I was able to lean on my own experiences while telling Alex’s story. But in the end, it is his story, not mine. I feel good about that. Alex and I are completely apart and separate. But I’d sure recognize him if our paths were to cross, because I’ll never forget him.
Do you structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?
I start with the character. As I did with Alex, I picture my protagonist first, find out what he/she wants, what or who might be in the way, and how the character changes in order to get (or not get) what she/he is after. With this simple structure in mind, I allow anything in the door, as long as it moves the story forward. One thing I keep in mind during this process is: will the reader care enough about my character to take the ride, and will the ending cause a pause, a reflection before the reader moves on to something else?
Are there instances in your writing to which you did not intend to give thematic or symbolic meaning, but which you became aware of after writing them?
It seems every story I write holds an unexpected bit of wonderment in it for me. With great humility, I’m going to quote Flannery O’Connor to better answer your question.
“If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.”
Alex returns home after rehab to find his family ravaged by addiction, illness, and the economy. He is still in recovery, but is expected to be the stabilizing force to those around him. Were you trying to make a larger point about what returning soldiers might face?
Yes. Though I started with Alex, his story brings into focus how war destroys eternally. Especially preemptive wars, wars of invasion, where the innocent multitudes pay for the downright evil decisions of only a few. As old as time, it remains every generation’s horror. And always the young like Alex and his sister, Tensia, are left to walk or be buried and forgotten in the ruins.
Food and cooking revolve around family and memories in “Cocido.” What do they mean to you personally?
A great deal. After working as an artist for many years, I took a break to design a couple of restaurants and teach myself to become a chef. I worked for years alongside my son in two independent restaurants we founded. And, yes, I’ve cooked my share of Cocido stew.
Did you need to do any research on the barrio culture? If so, how did you go about it?
I’m familiar with the belt of agriculture that stretches between Los Angeles and San Francisco. As a high school kid, I tried my hand working the various crops. In college I was employed as a County agricultural inspector, so I know the territory and its people well. Labor camps and city barrios have much in common. Brown hands are their life support.
Have you given thought to what happens next in Alex’s life?
Yes. I’ve thought of writing a sequel in which I bring him back. If I picture him again as vividly as I did on that train outside of Wasco, I might try it. Surely his friend Kavenaugh will be with him, and they will be bearing arms, until Alex decides not to. Now, there is a hopeful idea.
How did you decide on the title of your story?
When I decide on a character, I let him/her decide on the title. “Cocido” was Alex’s choice, as a dedication to his mother.
What writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?
I’ve always been a reader. My list until I started writing about a dozen years ago included all the obvious choices, especially John Steinbeck. Since then, my favorites vary from Elmore Leonard to Larry Brown to Don DeLillo. I’m currently reading Alice Munro’s, “Too Much Happiness,” in hopes I’ll learn something about writing short stories.