- NYS Writers Institute
Q&A with writer Donna Miscolta
I’m always seeking a story to write. Sometimes, a memory will trigger a story. Sometimes, a conversation with a friend or a stranger.
-- Donna Miscolta
Interviewed by Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI)
Donna Miscolta is the author of three books of fiction. Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, published in 2020, was hailed by Washington State Book Award winner Sharma Shields as “fiction at its very best: intimate, universal, historical, and relevant as hell to our current era.”
Her previous books are Hola and Goodbye, winner of the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, and When the de la Cruz Family Danced, which poet Rick Barot called “intricate, tender, and elegantly written – a necessary novel for our times.” Miscolta’s short stories, essays, and book reviews have appeared in Calyx, Joyland, Los Angeles Review, pif Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere.
She recently received funding from 4Culture to work on a collection of essays about family, identity, and heritage. Raised in National City, California, Miscolta has long resided in Seattle where she worked in local government for many years.
Find her at donnamiscolta.com | twitter.com/DonnaMiscolta | facebook.com/DonnaMiscoltaWriter | instagram.com/misdonnacolta
We support local, independent booksellers. You may purchase Donna Miscolta's books at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza.
A belated congratulations on the release Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories in September of 2020. What would you like to tell your readers who are picking up the book at this time?
Thank you! September 2020 was just a few months back, but it seems like forever ago in some ways, especially when it comes to that little window of attention given a new book, but also given what’s occurred in the country since that time – an election, an insurrection, an inauguration. So I’m grateful for this chance to talk about Living Color, which I think has relevance to the issues that have plagued this country for years – institutionalized racism, microaggressions, thwarted dreams.
For readers picking up the book at this time, I hope they’ll see a little bit of themselves in Angie Rubio but also see a little bit of someone whose circumstances might be different from theirs and perhaps live for a moment in her shoes, in her skin.
Living Color is categorized as a short story collection, yet in many ways it reads like a novel, with its central focus on Angie Rubio’s development. Why did you choose to write a short story collection on this character instead of a novel?
When I first created Angie Rubio, it was for a single story written for a specific, themed reading. With this story, Angie had my heart or maybe she had lived there all along. I wanted to see what else I knew about her and decided to create a series of stories to find out. I was seeing each story as a distinct episode in her life even though they were all related by theme and certainly by chronology.
In fact, the chronology – the grade-by-grade structure – was ironically one of the reasons I was seeing them as separate. I wanted to capture Angie in a particular moment of awareness and discovery in each grade. I wasn’t thinking that moment upon moment was going to give a cumulative narrative progression or that any one of those moments would be of greater significance than the previous one. It was a collection of moments. Compartmentalized yet connected. Maybe that was naïve or unwitting of me to insist on this distinction when the stories, with some modification, could easily be regarded as chapters of a novel.
Maybe it’s just a fine line that I’ve convinced myself I’ve managed to walk. But the simple fact is I wrote them as individual stories, often with long stretches of time between each, and it made sense to me to accept how they came into existence.
In a Plume interview, you mention that Living Color deals with personal experience more than your other writings. How do you advise writers to create stories out of personal experience?
I can describe the process or at least the thought mechanism I’ve used and hope that it has some usefulness for others. For me, fiction was the best way to put memories of growing up on the page. I needed to let go of those experiences and hand them entirely over to Angie. By transferring these events to a fictional character, I was able to more easily find in each event the story that mattered by finding the particular emotion that was deepest. Was it shame, fear, anger, some other feeling? One of these prevailed, with the others playing a subordinate role.
Creating scenes that lead to the manifestation of the prevailing emotion and seeing how the character’s behavior turns on the basis of that emotion was possible when I could put my personal experience completely in the context of this imagined person’s life and observe how she responded to the antagonistic characters and circumstances around her.
Fiction is where my natural tendencies lie, but I have begun a series of essays, many of which are built around personal anecdotes and events. While there is still the challenge of finding that overriding emotion upon which to develop the story, there is also the challenge of seeing the ways that anecdote or event resonates in the context of the larger world. Self-interrogation comes into play. Introspection and self-reflection can ask and answer how does this experience fit in the world, how do I fit I the world. It’s how the writer brings insight to a situation that might otherwise be dismissed as inconsequential.
When you’re not writing about personal experience, what inspires you to write? And do you measure the effectiveness of the writing any differently than with experiential writing?
I’m always seeking a story to write. Sometimes, a memory will trigger a story. Sometimes, a conversation with a friend or a stranger.
Sometimes something I hear on the radio or read online will spark something. Whatever, the source, when I write I know that even though the story may have nothing to do with my life or direct experience, I’m aware that at some level, I’m still drawing to a certain extent on my own experience, observations, and emotional knowledge. When I’m trying to determine the effectiveness of the writing, whether experiential or not, I read it out loud. It helps me to see more clearly where I’m overwriting or underwriting. It helps me to see the pacing and also the structure. It helps me to see whether I’ve hit the right ending. All of this happens because reading aloud helps me inhabit the character.
You’ve been a part of writing communities during your career, Los Norteños, among others. What role has community played in your writing life during the pandemic?
Yes, Los Norteños was the earliest writing community for me beginning back in the early 90s, and I’m still connected to many of the individuals who helped create and sustain that group, such as Kathleen Alcalá whose 1997 novel Spirits of the Ordinary will be reissued this spring with a new foreword by Rigoberto González. Now during the pandemic, community is virtual, existing inside a screen on our desk or in our hand. It’s not the same, but it’s something.
Early in the pandemic, a short essay of mine about my older daughter’s experience with COVID-19 in New York City appeared in McSweeney’s. Following that, Jennifer Haupt included it in the anthology of poems and essays she compiled about coping during the pandemic. When Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19 came out in July, attending online celebrations of it was vitalizing. I was also part of a virtual reading of Seattle contributors. The book created a community that extended beyond geography and beyond those whose work appeared in it, because the words and experiences resonated with and reflected what so many of us felt – uncertainty, fear, frustration, and isolation.
More cyber opportunities to connect with readers and writers came with the release of my book back in September. There’s a weird kind of intimacy and energy in seeing faces of people you like and admire filling your screen. So if we can’t gather in person, I’m thankful for the virtual experience of approximating togetherness. I’ve also taken online classes and workshops which has helped put me in like-minded communities seeking to benefit from the knowledge and experience of other writers.
I should also say that I’ve been lucky in that my situation during the pandemic has been easier than it has for many others. I’m retired from my job as of couple of years ago, so I haven’t had to adjust to a work-at-home schedule filled with Zoom meetings. My children are grown so I don’t have to worry about the confinement and isolation effects of remote learning as well as its disruption to home life. My respect and good wishes go out to those overwhelmed by lockdown, those who’ve suffered the effects of the virus, those who are providing essential services, and especially those who fit all these categories at once.
You turned to writing later than some, at age 39, while working a full-time job. Someone in similar circumstances might think the obstacles too great to become a writer. What advice do you have for people facing similar obstacles or perhaps different ones who want to become writers?
One of the biggest obstacles to writing is time – not having enough of it, feeling that the passing days are leaving you and your need to write behind, at the same time feeling as if that time in the future when you’ll have fewer responsibilities to rob you of writing time is so far into the distance you can’t even fathom it. In order to not feel so alone with this frustration, it helps to remember that many writers are in the same situation of trying to find that magical and elusive balance between work, writing, and home life.
Writing requires time, but it’s also a long-term endeavor and for most of us the external rewards such as publication, grants, and awards come gradually while we grapple constantly with doubt, rejection, and invisibility. But the rewards of getting sentences down on the page are there every time you write. It’s the only instant gratification you get as a writer. Figure out if it helps to set daily word count goals or page number goals or other types of measurement goals. I found it easier to set a goal of getting a full-of-gaps, very rough, first draft a story or a chapter in a month’s time. It gave me room to have days when I only managed to write just a few sentences. It might still require more months to take it to a final version but getting that first draft down made me believe I could take it to the next stage of completion. Having interim goals has been essential for me in that each is an acknowledgement of progress to the end goal.
I started the Angie Rubio stories in the late 90s whenever I could take time away first from the novel I was writing and later from my first story collection. In the twenty-nine years I’ve been writing, I’ve had three books published. I wish I were a faster writer. I wish I’d started writing earlier in life. But we’re each on our path at our own pace to write the stories we were meant to write.
As someone who has faced barriers and who has worked in local government for many years, do you have any thoughts on the historic inauguration of Kamala Harris as the first female, Black, Asian-American vice president?
In my job in local government, I served on employee Equity and Social Justice committees. I also helped create the ESJ Literary Project, which confirmed for me two things: 1) people of color have had to deal continually with discrimination both on and off the job, 2) leadership talent abounds among people of color, especially women, even though many are not in positions of leadership, which means there is a lot of untapped power, a lot of wasted potential.
Neither of these things came as a surprise to me, yet they still felt revelatory. I grew up with conflicting impulses and beliefs about race and racism. Marginalized communities often turn upon themselves the negative and damaging stereotypes the dominant groups wield to guard the imbalance of power that is in their favor. I understood what it felt to be a target of racist behaviors and thinking, but I also internalized them to some extent as did my parents, so that we believed ourselves to be inferior. It’s been a lifelong effort to correct this thinking. Writing has helped, especially writing Living Color and chronicling Angie Rubio’s repeated encounters with both veiled and overt racism and sexism and her attempts to understand and respond to them. Also important have been the voices of women of color – Dolores Huerta, Maya Angelou, Buffy Sainte-Marie – I heard while growing up.
In 1972 when Shirley Chisholm ran for president, I was a year out of high school. I was electrified by her fearlessness, her fierce calmness. I wanted her to succeed even as I knew she wouldn’t because of the history of misogyny and racism in this country. Now finally here we are with Kamala Harris as our nation’s vice-president, signaling a long-awaited and long-delayed eventuality of a woman as president of the United States. It’s inevitable and there’s no going back and I am saying finally.