A native of Southern Colorado, John Paul Jaramillo now lives, writes and teaches in Springfield, Illinois. He has an MFA in creative writing from Oregon State University, and presently holds the position of Associate Professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College.
His writing has been featured in Acentos Review, Copper Nickel Review, Antique Children Arts Journal, Fogged Clarity Arts Journal, Digest Magazine, Verdad Magazine, Polyphony Online, Paraphilia Magazine, Sleet Magazine and forthcoming in Palabra Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art.
He’s the author of the short story collection, The House of Order, published by Anaphora Literary Press.
Find the author on the web.
Thanks for this interview, John. When did you begin writing short stories?
My Grandfather was a crazy storyteller. In the backyard and in the kitchen. I’ve always been trying to keep up with that. I began with failed poems in high school and at Colorado State and later at the University of Southern Colorado I started writing little failed stories. I didn’t think I had many stories to tell. They were mostly my Grandfather’s stories.
It wasn’t until years later, as a graduate student at Oregon State, I found a stride writing more minimalist stories about my younger days in Colorado. I had been teaching composition and literature and more and more interested in the differences in those who write and those who study writing. I knew I wanted to write more than read.
So I began getting down stories about the neighborhoods I grew up around in southern Colorado. I found an inspiration in the old house I grew up in and in the old folks of my family. I’ve been trying to capture their stories and re-imagine old family stories and myths since then. I guess I was finally okay with his stories and my stories coming together.
How did this collection come about?
This collection began as a failed novel coming together with my thesis from Oregon State. The novel was entirely about my father’s side of the family in the 1950s. And the graduate thesis was loosely based on my life after college. I brought them together because the family stories didn’t quite stand alone and the short stories were missing a family component and dimension I wanted to establish. I also wanted these stories to be more urgent in form and elliptical in form than a traditional novel or traditional collection of short stories. They became composite and somehow more than the sum of their parts. And I liked that idea.
Which is your favorite story in this collection and why?
The story titled “Juanita’s Boy” and Rabbit “Story” stand out as my favorites. I found something in the form of those stories. A form that surprised me and that matched the surprise I found in discovering the characters sparked from my family. A kind of voice bringing together an adult world that I’ve experienced as well as a child’s world I’ve also experienced. One of the themes of the book is delinquent parenting and communication between generations and I think I found a way to approach that subject from a point of view that seemed fresh and unique to me.
I love the cover art. It’s very ‘raw.’ Was that your idea? In what way does the cover reflect the stories?
The artwork is from an amazing Illinois artist named Felicia Olin. Her work inspires me and this particular piece, titled “Breathe Out,” caught my eye at an art showing at the University of Illinois Springfield. I’ve been told these stories are very raw and I hoped the artwork matched.
I also liked the way composite stories could break down a family and also a man so that we might see a fuller understanding. A fuller dimension in the layers of storytelling and narration. I like the idea that narration of a story can give us the inside and outside view of something. As in Olin’s work I guess things aren’t as pretty on the inside of folks or in the inner-workings of the world. I’m all for more complication in fiction to match the complication that exists in what Amy Hempel calls “the problem of being alive.”
Hopefully when one reads the book they might see a fuller view of a man or character, or situation for that matter, they might otherwise ignore or become offended with.
How would you describe — or how have critics described — your writing style?
I’ve always been more interested in the form of books rather than the meaning. Expressing rather than communicating. I try to teach that to my students. Content only matters as much as it is organized and structured on the page and I have studied literary minimalism so closely. Obsessed with it really. I’m attracted to the idea of doing more with less. That’s the failed poet in me I guess. I’ve always been inspired with the minimalism of Amy Hempel and Denis Johnson. The minimal form works best with stories about such weighted subject matter such as abusive fathers or delinquent parents. I’ve tried to steal an elliptical and bare bones style to match the laconic male family members.
Do you teach creative writing? In particular, do you teach short story writing? If yes, what common mistakes do you find in your students’ works?
I teach creative writing at the community college level and my students never quite bring their lives into the fiction. They seem to see such sharp divisions between fact and fiction. I tell them fictionalizing isn’t just making stuff up. I tell them to drag their lives by the hair into their stories. Mostly I read stories about vampires and zombies. Which is fine. But I try to push the idea of character and weighted content that say something about human truth. So stories no matter the genre or the subject work best when the reader cares for the characters involved. I also tell my students not to study markets and not think about meaning but rather think more on the form of their stories. I tell them not to think of the reader much. I also try to stress the idea that talent is longevity and commitment to revision. Committing yourself to your desk and your work of finding the stories and finding the best possible revisions. The success I’ve found in writing has come from searching out strong readers and working on massive re-envisioning of the fictive spaces and storylines I’ve drafted. Tireless revision and a dogged return to draft after draft.
If you could narrow down the three most important elements of a good short story, what would they be?
I think I’m particularly interested in trouble. Folks getting in and out of trouble. The thing within folks that creates that trouble around them. Expecially Latino males. Tom Spanbauer describes his style as dangerous writing. And I’ve tried to steal that for my stories. I think finding the trouble and putting the reader in an uncomfortable position along with the characters creates the most interest for the reader. So that’s one.
I also think the language needs to mean more to the writer than the reader. That comes from my study of poetry. Tracy Daugherty told his workshop members that language is a character’s skin. I like that idea. We have to get inside of our character utilizing more and more intimate language. I guess that’s when I started using more and more mixing and switching of English and Spanish in my stories. To match the intimate language of the old folks from Colorado that influenced me and that best represent me. So that’s trouble and language.
I guess the story must also be affecting. And I guess I mean that stories need to be less plot-driven and more driven by emotion. The best stories that I return to again and again are stories that give less plot and storyline but through the deep use of language and care for the main character makes me feel the most. The work has to be character driven and affecting to create a true immersive experience to compete with films and television and more visual mediums.
What themes do you explore in your stories?
I’m most interested in self-destruction. I guess that’s pretty negative. But I think the stories that I’m most drawn to are ones where folks are in the process of being tested or breaking down. Most of my stories are about family and the positive and negative effects family can have on the young Latino male. I’m also interested in delinquent parenting which is a big problem within the Latino community.
The lack of positive male figures is another concern I try to approach in my stories. I’m also interested in trouble that finds folks as well as the trouble folks are more than happy to find. I’m interested in characters and folks in my stories who only seem to live for the moment rather than for the long haul of a responsible and work-filled life. I can’t help but think folks would rather try and win the lottery than work for a consistent paycheck.
I’m also interested in the cruelty of adults as it plays out on younger folks. I’m also interested in how complicated human relationships can be. At one turn negative and destructive and at another hopeful and uplifting. Finding the playful within darker and more hurtful moments. I think we do that to survive.
Do you think short story collections have been ignored by publishers?
I’ve been told novels are easier to sell. And my work reads as a novel in that it is composite and follows the same characters. It’s literary, which I’m told is a negative. I’ve been told that a genre novel is more marketable and easier to sell. I’ve been told there aren’t enough literary readers. I’ve been told to study markets and try to fill a void or contribute to an established readership. I’ve been told this by other writers and publishers’ websites.
So my work is literary and also about Latino families which I only see as a strength. You have to find your readers I imagine. I mostly feel that works by Latinos and work that has code shifting between English and Spanish is overlooked as well. Sad because I feel it is how people actually speak in Colorado. But I think the work has to satisfy the writer and has to represent the author’s neighborhoods if it’s to be any good.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m working on a follow-up to my first collection of stories. I’m tentatively calling the book Huérfanos, after the nearby county I grew up around and it is more of a traditional novel rather than literary minimalism-styled collection of short stories. The criticisms of my shorter stories have been a complaint on the length of the stories. We don’t spend much time with characters and within a novel I can spend that time. I can give a fuller trajectory for the characters.
I jump from generation to generation in the short work but I like the idea of adding even more dimension of time within a novel. I also like the idea of following more characters. I’m also interested in creative nonfiction essays about the steel mills and steel unions of Southern Colorado. I’m also interested in turning blog posts from my writing and teaching weblog I keep into fuller essays on the subject of so-called “Spanglish” and the use of intimate language within my written work. I’m interested in writing on the representation of Latinos in popular culture and in films as well as in literature.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers?
I guess I should mention my writing and teaching weblog. The site is where I post thoughts on narratology and storytelling in general. Thoughts on the writer as teacher of composition and literature. The way folks with MFAs in creative writing approach the teaching of composition and literature in a particular way. Occasionally I discuss the idea or classification “Latino literature” and I also post reviews of books by Latino authors.