“Pleasure, Reward, Activism”: An Interview with Dagoberto Gilb

Interview conducted by Kimberly Garza

Dagoberto Gilb is the author of five books of fiction—​The Magic of Blood, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, Woodcuts of Women, The Flowers, and Before the End, After the Beginning—and a collection of essays, Gritos, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Whiting Writers’ Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Ploughshares, Boston Review, Zyzzyva, and innumerable other places.

When describing Gilb, reviewers often mention the same things: that he was born in Los Angeles and has lived in places like El Paso and Austin, Texas. That he spent 16 years as a journeyman high-rise carpenter. That he frequently writes about working-class Mexican-Americans. That he is Mexican-American himself. This was my introduction to Gilb years ago, as an undergraduate, first reading The Magic of Blood. I was struck by his clean, graceful writing, his clear-eyed, honest examination of people and lives I recognized from my own experiences along the Texas-Mexico border. The characters in those stories can be both thoughtful and devoted, violent and petty. They are complicated. He refused—still refuses—to sentimentalize them.

Gilb currently sits on the faculty of University of Houston-Victoria, where he serves as executive director of CentroVictoria and the founding editor of the literary magazine Huizache. Last fall, he traveled to Denton to read as part of UNT’s Visiting Writers Series. During his talks here at UNT he was like his prose: sharp and poignant, funny and refreshingly blunt. I was fortunate to be able to ask him further questions over the winter break and get his insight on the common threads between fiction and nonfiction, his goals for Huizache, and how to talk about creative writing (hint: don’t call it creative writing).

Kimberly Garza: Are you working on anything new? How do you approach starting a new work, fitting writing within your busy schedule of CentroVictoria, Huizache, etc.?

Dagoberto Gilb: Yes but not talking about it much specifically beyond yes. Generally what’s hard for me are the interruptions. I love to be in the dream—the story—of what I’m working on and making that part of my daydreaming too. It’s not good for me when I have to wake up and get into someone else’s dream and or reality. Which is to say teaching, specifically creative writing teaching. I need life—I don’t need constant cloister, just a room when I’m at it—and I want to have contact outside because that’s where I learn and fill in. I didn’t come up, as a writer, as a student writing fiction for classes, all ideas from library books alone (not to say I don’t LOVE libraries). I had 16 adult work years (in the construction trades) and more years before that writing without supervision. Now that I’ve taught it for years, I know that best for me is to write nonfiction when I’m reading student prose (i.e. teaching classes).

Editing Huizache is pleasure, reward, activism. Just look at the mag, think on it for five minutes and you’ll see what it is doing for us and this country. If, that is, literature and art are important. I didn’t envision the bureaucratic BS of maintaining a mag. I never considered any of that, naively imagined people pounding at my door wanting to join in and me having to hold their energy and enthusiasm back.

KG: As a reader, I like whe