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Interview with Victor Villaseñor
Victor Villaseñor, author of Rain of Gold, Thirteen Senses, Macho, and other novels, served as the inaugural Steinbeck Chair in Salinas from February 2003-March 2004. Appearing before a variety of audiences, from middle school students and teachers to predominately Spanish-speaking families in East Salinas, the Steinbeck Chair serves as a catalyst for promoting pride and self-expression. The program is co-sponsored by the National Steinbeck Center, Hartnell College, The Western Stage, Partners for Peace, and the Salinas Public Library. During a community residency in March 2004, Victor Villaseñor was interviewed by Celeste DeWald, Director of Education at the National Steinbeck Center, about his connection to John Steinbeck and his experience as the inaugural Steinbeck Chair.
DEWALD: Why is John Steinbeck important to you?
VILLASEÑOR: For me, when I read his book, To a God Unknown, was when Steinbeck just ripped me out of my life and took me someplace that I have never been taken by another author. He loved the land, and I grew up with my father talking about Los Altos de Jalisco and how it was a mystical place. So my father had always talked about the land and ranching with such reverence—that we were connected to the land. Steinbeck wrote with such a love for this land, for this property. There was a beauty in it. I remember reading that one bookstore owner loved that book so much that he filled his entire bookstore with Steinbeck's To a God Unknown [End Page 129] and he went bankrupt. To me there was such passion and such beauty in it. It was like his whole world as a writer was an experiment.
Just think of the title, To a God Unknown. He is trying to find God and yet he is saying that God is unknown. It is the struggle—that is the beauty. It is a process of finding God in life and everything and in love. Other authors wrote as if they knew everything. Hemingway wrote as if he already knew everything. That is fine when you are a young man and you are kind of full of arrogance. But then look at what Hemingway did. He shot himself. And he was hunting in Africa and proving his manhood. Steinbeck was beyond that. He and Faulkner, I think, are the great writers. And Thomas Wolfe. These were the giants. And I read them over and over.
DEWALD: Are there other strengths of Steinbeck writings that you want to talk about?
VILLASEÑOR: His caring, his vision. I will never forget in The Grapes of Wrath when he writes about that turtle crossing the road. He was harmonizing. I really loved a lot of his writing.
DEWALD: Does Steinbeck's sense of place mean a great deal to you?
VILLASEÑOR: Absolutely. That is one of the things that I am doing. I am writing about my little piece of the globe, which is Oceanside, Carlsbad—it is north county of San Diego. I am writing about living near the ocean and going up to the mountains in Palomar. And I am writing about my father from Jalisco and my mother from Chihuahua. People say to me, "you should travel and go to India." When we travel across the world, we spread ourselves too thin. I think some of the power of Steinbeck is that he stayed home. And he wrote about what he knew really well. I think some writers who were globe-trotters never quite had the depth of understanding of the area they were in. Like, I can look at a hillside. I know where the quail are. I know where to find the water. It is like coming to know a mate's body. To really get to know somebody, how they sleep, how they breathe, [End Page 130] how they turn, the curvature of their body and the neck. It is forever changing. There can be real excitement in appreciating what you have...