Maceo Montoya: An Interview With The Writer, Artist And Educator
Maceo Montoya is an artist, writer and an educator. He has been a professor at the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis for ten years. Here, his classes focus on shining a light on Chicanx literature by Chicanx authors. Also, Montoya has been a writer for about 18 years. During this time, he has published three novels. By the time I sat down to talk to him through Zoom, he was getting ready to release his fourth novel, “Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces.”
What is “Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces” about?
It is about an artist. An outsider who grows up in the mountains of New Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s. He’s struggling to be an artist. He has all these ideas of what it means to be an artist and finds himself continually misunderstood. The artist soul is struggling to be heard in a world that is never conducive to it. This is my first novel about an artist which is why I ended up illustrating it. After working on it for years, I thought, what would this guy’s illustrations look like? As he is narrating his story, he is also illustrating it.
What made you become a writer?
It was my first year after I graduated college that I first started writing stories that would go along with my paintings. That’s where it all came together. I could tell the stories that I was hearing. I lived in Knights Landing [California] which is a small agricultural town along the Sacramento River. I got to know undocumented fieldworkers. We played soccer together and I got to know other people in the town. They were telling me their stories and I wanted to find a way of documenting them.
My first impulse was to paint their stories or paint variations of their stories. Then, I realized I was fictionalizing them. I didn’t ask them to sit down for portraits. I didn’t ask if I could directly tell their story so, I took their stories and I created composites. That became my first attempt at writing a novel. It was told through both images and these short stories.
I knew I wanted to write fiction because I loved inventing and the different ways that you can take a story and transform it. I could take my own experiences and transform it into something new through fiction. Everything seemed material to me. Every hardship, every heartache and the stories of those around me. I thought it was a beautiful way of looking at the world through the eyes of an artist. Paying attention to the light, to the landscape, hearing every story, and every comment could be something that I could internalize and use. All of my senses were completely opened. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a visual artist and a writer.
Did you find yourself relating to farmworkers stories?
I had studied stories of immigration. Even though it was part of my community, I still felt like I didn’t know that story. I am several generations removed from the immigrant experience. How could I tell these stories coming from a place of privilege and be removed from the experience? Those guys dispelled that notion. They would say, “It’s so cool you can paint. Tell my story. That’s so awesome that you can write.” One of my friends thought it was cool that I could type so fast.
I was interested in them as much as they were interested in me. They would ask me questions about the U.S. and what it was like to grow up here. The relationship was reciprocal. They were my friends and my teammates. I think they knew the importance of their stories. The idea that I was there telling them in some fashion was important to them and interesting.
Even though I didn’t grow up there [Knights Landing], I was at home. I felt like I belonged there. My work as an artist and a writer is tied to Northern California. It is tied to the valley and these towns that I’ve been around my entire life. The setting was important to bridge that divide. I’m the kind of artist that needs to be rooted in place because I know it with familiarity. This is why my paintings are rooted in the landscape. They are focused on the figure and the human story but very much in the landscape. My stories are too. I’ve written novels set in Woodland and another in my hometown. It is important for me that we walk the same streets and that the rhythm of our lives are similar. This is when I feel comfortable walking into someone’s shoes and telling a story that is different from my own.
How would you describe your writing process?
I had read about other authors who set up a word count. They would write 1,000 words a day. I tried that and it worked for me. To think about writing 60,000 words to 80,000 words for a novel, just seemed overwhelming. If all you’re focused on is 1,000 words for that day, then it breaks it up into these manageable pieces. My first novel was a very difficult process because I would have to finish the paintings before. I wrote the story. I wanted something more regimented. Using the word count meant I could finish a draft in four or six months, but that’s when the long slog begins. You begin revising and that can be very pleasurable. You are shaping sentences; the stories are coming together but it can take a long time.
My process has also been shaped by rejection. I send it out and if it is not picked up right away, you have to pick yourself up and dive back in. You learn over time. Do I stand behind what I’ve written or do you look a little bit longer for those flaws? For me, rejections happen for a reason. It took me nine years to get this novel [“Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces”] published. The draft was done in a year. Ever since then, it has been revising, thinking it through and sending it out. It was a finalist for a couple of novel prizes and it did not win. All of that is part of the life and evolution of the work. It takes a lot of persistence and blind faith that this is worth it. The novel will become something. I believe it is in a much better place now than it was eight years ago.
When you are rejected, are you given any feedback?
Not typically. I have shared my work with readers and have gotten harsh feedback. Some of it is helpful. I think it is helpful to know if it is not working for someone. You learn to examine where they [readers] are coming from or you read through the lines of their comments. To be challenged really makes you examine your decisions on the page. You can let it go or you can change it. You can double down, and say this is what I want it to be. Then, you leave it and it makes you own that decision. I think that is healthy.
For the most part rejections, whether it’s from presses or literary agents, those are just form letters. Who knows what the reason is? They might not be interested in the work, or they do not think it is marketable. The fact is, it didn’t work for somebody which gives you more time to dig back in. Time is the best editor. I’ve never set work aside and come back a year later, and said, “It’s perfect just how I thought it was a year ago.” No. You see more of the flaws and you develop as a reader and as a writer. You have that distance from your work and there’s always more revisions to be made. That is how I think rejections can be helpful because it gives you the opportunity to have more time with it [your writing] and that time can be instrumental. Art should be instrumental.
Do you find yourself writing with a certain mind set during a certain period of time and then realizing you can make your writing better later on?
I’m surrounded by stories. Everyone is. There are those that stick with you. One of my novels, “The Deportation of Wopper Barraza,” was a story of a friend’s brother. After his fourth DUI, his papers were revoked and he was deported. He didn’t know where to go, so he went to his father’s hometown. I completely transformed the story. I created my own character and my own situation. After I heard that story, I thought, what would a child from Woodland who came here when he was three do if he suddenly found himself in Mexico? How would he find his way to forming a life or find his way back?
Another similar story, my novella, “You Must Fight Them” is about four brothers who in order to date their sister, you had to fight them first. I remember hearing that from friends. One of them had fought the brother and dated the sister for a while. I thought that was crazy and it stuck with me. Then you imagine yourself in that situation and think, “What would I do?” The stories, the premise, the situations present themselves all the time, but I think you pursue those that stick with you and spark your imagination. They have to really stick with you because it takes several years to see a novel come to fruition. There is something that really has to be there to invest that much time and effort.
You might not even know as a writer what calls to you. Why you choose a particular story? After “You Must Fight Them,” a reviewer pointed out that a lot of the stories are about Latino masculinity, male fragility and this desperate need to both assert and explain themselves. I had never thought about that before. It wasn’t why I wrote those stories but it’s something that emerged. Obviously, it is a question that I think about but it’s more subconsciously than consciously. One of the good things about the project [“Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces”] taking so long is I have sort of removed myself from the project by the time it finds way into the world.
Who has been your biggest support throughout your career as a writer?
I come from a family of artists, so they understand what I think an artist’s life is like. They are supportive of it. There are aspiring artists especially from working class and communities of color where there is pressure to find that stability, to find that job and the notion of becoming an artist seems frivolous. How are you going to make money? How are you going to receive health insurance? How are you going to help out the rest of your family? I feel lucky I didn’t have that pressure. Being an artist was a path that was open to me.
That being said, being an artist is very lonely. No one needs another painting, no one needs another book. I mean paintings and stories can save lives. But no one is asking for them. People are asking for other things, for tangible things. Those pressures are real, but to create a novel and a work of art can feel in tangible. You can always find a community of writers who are there and will help you through hard times, but at the end of the day, it’s a very solitary path.
To continue as a writer and an artist, I think you have to dig very deep inside of yourself over and over again to keep making the work and believing in the work. The life of an artist. The life of a writer. There is no set path. Everyone’s path is different. How do you carve out a life for yourself so that you can make the work that you need to make? That’s a better way of looking at it then, how can I have a career as an artist? How do I carve out a life in which I can make my work?
You have been a teacher for ten years. Do you enjoy teaching?
I do. One of the benefits of teaching is that you’re completely immersed in your subject which can be both good or bad. It means I don’t have any distance from Latinx literature or art. I think as an artist you sometimes need that distance. As a teacher, you’re in a critical space and an analytical space. Sometimes as an artist you need to be in an emotional, instinctive space. Just responding, not jumping to analyzing and critiquing. I think moving back and forth is sometimes difficult.
I think teaching is its own art. Teaching requires its own creativity. There are a lot artists and writers who find it very hard not to give all of themselves to teaching. There’s not much left over when it comes to the end of the day and finding time to write or finding time in the studio. That’s a juggle. I think a lot of writers and artists, just by their nature are passionate, heartfelt human beings. It’s easy to get lost in the job and that’s definitely something that can be a struggle. Do I want to cultivate the writers and artists of the future? Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing.
Do you bring a different teaching style to your classes each year?
I think choosing new works always changes the class. I learned over time to embrace my role as a practitioner. I’m not a scholar. I’m a creative practitioner and that’s how I approach the work. At first, I didn’t know if students would respond to that but I feel students do. They really like to figure out how something is made, to respond to it creatively and to think about the artists motivation. Rather than, some sort of literary theory that’s brought into the conversation. That’s valid, but, it’s not my expertise. Over time I’ve learned that the way I read and the way I absorb material, as much I can share that with students, it’s better for me and better for the students.
I feel the classes are important. My narrative class is about contemporary works. All works published in the last year or two. I find that can be the most exciting class because I invite the authors and the artists to come speak to the students. Students get to see that not only are these stories that resonate with them and their own experience, but they get to see that the literature is alive. These aren’t books written 30 or 40 years ago that have become part of the canon. These are works that are created in this moment and there can be something very exciting about that.
A lot of the works I teach are published in small presses, all independent publishers and they’re great works of art. They’re very well done, beautiful works, serious works. Also, my students get to see that these authors have made a life for themselves, sharing their work, and not as a huge commercial success, but in a way that is very possible. Writers who are dedicated to their work and to their teaching. They have created a life in which they’re able to make their work. They have found small presses who will do right by their work and it makes the literature much more vibrant.
What are your goals for your writing career?
At times, I wish that my work would find a bigger audience. I think one of the drawbacks of publishing with small presses or academic presses is their reach. At the same time, those same presses are committed to the work, so your novels don’t go out of print. They still remain around so that people can read them. The reality is people who read my work are in the couple hundreds. Then there are writers out there who are reaching tens of thousands. What would that be like?
That’s an aspiration that I have, to reach a wider audience. Really, the goal is to keep working and keep writing. I have tons of ideas and the most pleasurable thing is to be creating. To be able to write the works in the way they need to be written without any pressures or exterior considerations, that’s a really good place to be. I’m always looking forward to the work I have ahead. Those are the goals.
“Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces” is available now. For more information about Maceo Montoya’s work and where to purchase his books, you can go to his website: http://www.maceomontoya.com/