Don't bother asking author Dagoberto Gilb to talk about himself, because he will--and he will regret it.
He will regret it because he will tell you much more than he means to tell you, much more than he probably should tell you, much more than, in the end, you should know. This is a man who has packed a lifetime of hard living into 45 years. A man who has roamed from East Los Angeles to the western tip of Texas, yet who can truly call no single place home. A man who has known desperately hard times and broken more than a few laws. For this, he will make no apologies, because as Gilb sees it, a storyteller is only as interesting as the life he has led. And while many may quibble with the paths he has taken, few would deny that his life has been one long, occasionally terrifying, adventure.
And if you attempt to understand Dagoberto Gilb, he will tell you that you are missing the point. Read his novel "The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna"; read his collection of short stories, "The Magic of Blood." This is where you will learn all that matters, he will say. But the desire to understand him remains, because this excruciatingly contradictory man so defies understanding. A union carpenter with a degree in philosophy and no formal writing training, he didn't even pick up a pen until his mid-20s. For years he managed to publish in obscure literary magazines. Then, after screaming into the void for an interminable 10 years, after almost abandoning the whole damn thing, he was handed, one right after another, practically every major literary prize awardable: He was a 1994 finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for best fiction and won 1994's PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for first fiction, a 1993 Whiting Writers' Fellowship, 1994's Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award and a 1995 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.
He's a man whose rakish charm and inexhaustible exuberance can easily overwhelm. Whose angry confrontations with uppity members of the creative-writing Establishment are legendary, yet whose speech and writing often register one notch above a whisper. A man who continues to rail against a system that once ignored him--despite the fact that this system has wholeheartedly embraced him.
It all defies understanding, but you will attempt it nonetheless because at the center of it all is a man with an extraordinary gift. Not that extraordinary necessarily translates into likable. Gilb is, first and foremost, a fighter. He'll be the first to stand up and say (proudly), "If someone wants to not like me, there's always a good reason."
He also doesn't understand why you want to know so much about him, fearing that you will confuse his life with his stories. He would prefer to let his writing do the talking. But you won't let him, and for that you are glad.
\o7 It was said that my great-grandmother ended up in California and eventually got into the beginnings of the film industry. Nobody knows whether she got rich by it, or famous, or anything, though we do know she married some movie director--he was also old and he also died, but no one talks about any intrigue concerning his death. What mattered, to all of us, was this one glamorous, and verifiable, detail: she had a Hollywood address. It was like believing there was magic in our blood.
\f7 From the short story "The Magic of Blood"
There are few verifiable details about Dagoberto Gilb's family history--at least, few verifiable through him. In fact, family is the one topic he's visibly uncomfortable discussing. He even requests numerous times that it not be mentioned. Yet he is the writer he is in large part because of his family life--or lack thereof.
"I'm like the least likely writer," Gilb says. "Almost every writer I meet says they were writing their first story at 6. Well, sorry, I didn't have any idea what a pen was then, you know? I wasn't into that. I wasn't one of these people who popped out of the womb and wrote about the womb experience."
What Gilb will acknowledge is that his beautiful mother immigrated illegally to the United States from Mexico City as a young girl, and his ex-Marine father, of German ancestry, grew up in Boyle Heights. She lived next door to the industrial laundry where he worked and where they eventually met. Theirs was not a peaceful nor a lengthy marriage; in fact, Gilb never lived with his father.
"I didn't know anything about family. I was always on my own," he says matter-of-factly. "That was both the best thing about my mother and the worst thing: She didn't do jack s - - - for me. I did everything for myself. Everything I've done has been because I've thought of it. Some things were bad, but I never got caught, and I thank God I didn't get caught."