Octavio Solis is a playwright and director whose works have been produced across the country and include Alicia’s Miracle, Se Llama Cristina, John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Ghosts of the River, Quixote, Lydia, June in a Box, Lethe, Marfa Lights, Gibraltar, The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, The 7 Visions of Encarnación, Bethlehem, Dreamlandia, El Otro, Man of the Flesh, Prospect, El Paso Blue, Santos & Santos, and La Posada Mágica. His collaborative works include Cloudlands, with Music by Adam Gwon, Burning Dreams, cowritten with Julie Hebert and Gina Leishman and Shiner, written with Erik Ehn. Solis has received an NEA 1995-97 Playwriting Fellowship, the Roger L. Stevens award from the Kennedy Center, the Will Glickman Playwright Award, a production grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the 1998 TCG/NEA Theatre Artists in Residence Grant, the 1998 McKnight Fellowship grant from the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, and the National Latino Playwriting Award for 2003. He is the recipient of the 2000-2001 National Theatre Artists Residency Grant from TCG and the Pew Charitable Trust, the United States Artists Fellowship for 2011 and the 2104 Pen Center USA Award for Drama. Solis is a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony, New Dramatists alum and member of the Dramatists Guild. His new anthology, “The River Plays” has been published by NoPassPort Publishing. He is working on commissions for the Magic Theatre SF and Yale Repertory Theatre.
To read an exercise on creating tension between desire and thought, inspired by Solis’ story “The Want,” click here. More of Solis’ stories in this series can be found in the new issue of Zyzzyva and forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review. On March 4, Solis will read from these stories at Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art.
In this interview, Solis discusses his approach to fiction and nonfiction, laying the mental groundwork for stories, and moments that lead characters to speak in code.
Huizache doesn’t label this story as fiction or nonfiction, and so I’m wondering how you would categorize it. Is it one or the other?
I would categorize it somewhere between. I started writing these pieces that reflect things that happened in El Paso: turning points in how I recognized how I functioned in the world and who I am, so they’re moments of discovery. But as I was writing, some of them seemed so surreal that they seemed like dreams, and so if I didn’t write them down, they’d be relegated to just dreams. But as I started writing them down—I’m a storyteller, it’s what I do—as I started writing the story, the details and characters started to take on a life of their own. There are details on the sides that aren’t clear, I can’t see them as clearly, and so I give myself permission to make them up. But they’re made up in the sense that I insert them in the moments when they weren’t there, but they’re part of my background, personal history, youth, my past. So they fall into place very readily. I don’t even feel like I’m making them up. But usually the central moments are real and true except that they take on a life of their own. Somebody said, I can’t remember who, “Once you start writing something down, it starts to become fiction. It just can’t help it.” That’s what I gave myself permission to do: tell a story. I realized I had bigger fish to fry than just write an autobiographical story. I’m more interested in telling stories that will resonate in a more universal way.
As for what really happened, I remember that it happened in the winter, but I don’t remember if it was right around Christmas time. It could have been. I remember that I was in college, so it had to have been over Christmas break. But to write that way, frankly about something like that, I’m running a risk because it doesn’t cast me in such a positive light. At the very least, I look like an idiot. But I was young and stupid and horny and crazy—and something else was operating. I also had recently lost my faith. I was told I’d been saved by my drama teacher, was reborn in Jesus and all that, and warned not to stray in college. Then all of that fell away, and I realized the reason I wanted to be saved and be a Christian was to be in the theater. And that felt like it was my way in. But then in college, that all fell away. There were consequences for all that—feelings of grief and remorse about the loss of that community. So I was dealing with loneliness on an epic, metaphysical scale. Not just physical loneliness. And once you have all of those ingredients working together, you become sensitive, aware of the invisible connections that were already emerging. You just let them happen. You don’t even have to force them that much. And so suddenly this girl becomes the virgin Mary and I’m offering her refuge. Of course it’s a complete negative image of that. She’s not looking refuge. I’m looking for a good time and she’s ready to provide it, which is quite different, and that’s the point. It’s an inversion of the Christ story.
Did you always know the story was headed for that moment? The beginning is filled with Christmas imagery—Bing Crosby, the lodestar in the Franklin Mountains—but there’s also a shock of recognition at the end for the narrator (“And how fucking Catholic of me…What a fucking cliché.”)
It also happened to me as a writer, that sort of discovery, oh shit, what have I been writing? It’s all so clear to me now. How could I have missed it? That’s the wonderful thing about writing these stories. I’ve amassed 50 of them.The wonderful thing about them is that I make discoveries as a writer as I’m working on them. I’m not there to share an epiphany. I’m having the epiphany. That final paragraph is also me as a writer thinking, “Oh Jesus, unbelievable.” No matter how much of an atheist I am, all this Catholicism has made me think this way—and I’m so blind to it. I’m hoping that if I’m having the discovery, the reader will land in this same place. And that comes from my theater background. I was trained by a great writer, María Irene Fornés. She taught us to be available to the moment, to discoveries, to not have everything so planned out, to see the journey, the starting point clearly and follow the thread. It will take you to a place as a writer you didn’t expect. Then it becomes a delightful discovery for the writer and will be that for the audience. If you can predict how it’s going to end, the audience will, too. But if you don’t now what’s around the corner, then the audience won’t, either.
There’s something pretty uncomfortable about that discovery, especially in the moment right after he picks up the girl. He claims to be doing it out of concern for her, but when he says, “Dangerous for a girl in her condition…I hope you didn’t drink too much,” it’s creepy. As I read it, I thought, “Oh no.”
Oh yeah, it’s very uncomfortable. But then it turns around the other way as well: she looks innocent and stranded, but she’s not. She’s also looking for me as much as I’m looking for her. The dynamics are constantly shifting inside the car. They start shifting from the time I see her. The dialogue in the car—because of the discomfort, because it’s harder to just lay out baldly what the needs and wants are—you start speaking in a kind of code, unconsciously, without the narrator really knowing what he’s really after, what he’s really saying, until she makes it very clear: You wanted this. You were after this. Don’t pretend otherwise. Because he’s functioning on two planes. I explain a little in that passage about the difference between want and need: I want someone in the carnal way, I need company, I need to be good again, the good Christian again and find myself in fellowship with other people just to do that. He’s opening on this level where he’s wanting someone. He even says, I want someone to give me some nighttime CPR, and goes into bars looking for that. He wants to take her home. He’s a boy scout, but he also won’t admit to himself that he wants something else.