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Aspen Words Literary Prize finalist Manuel Muñoz channels stories of California's Central Valley

Manuel Muñoz Author Headshot
Courtesy of Aspen Words
“The Consequences” author Manuel Muñoz is one of five finalists for this year’s Aspen Words Literary Prize, which honors works of fiction with a social impact. Aspen Words will announce the winner on April 19.

Throughout his two-decade writing career, author Manuel Muñoz has explored stories about the place he was born and raised in California’s Central Valley.

He published his first book, a collection of short stories titled “Zigzagger,” in 2003, then followed it with another collection, “The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue,” in 2007 and his debut novel, “What You See in the Dark,” in 2011.

Muñoz’s latest book, “The Consequences,” is his first in more than a decade — a collection of short stories set mainly in the 1980s with a focus on the lives of Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers in communities around Fresno.

“The Consequences” has made Muñoz a finalist for this year’s Aspen Words Literary Prize, which awards $35,000 to a work of fiction with a social impact.

Aspen Words, a local literary hub with programs tied to the Aspen Institute, will announce the winner at an award ceremony in New York City on April 19. The Pitkin County Library will livestream the ceremony at a watch party that night from 4 to 6 p.m.

Muñoz spoke with Aspen Public Radio about his book and the prize earlier this month; interviews with all five Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists will be broadcast and shared online in the days leading up to next week’s ceremony.


Kaya Williams: You are on the shortlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize this year. How does it feel?

Manuel Muñoz: I was astounded when I heard the news because this is now, I realized — I have to pinch myself that this is the 20th year of my writing career. My first book came out in 2003. And I'd been a long time between books, so to see the book acknowledged in this really wonderful way, has just been terrific. It's been really terrific.

Williams: I'd love to talk a little bit about the development of this particular book. How long has it been in the works from initial idea to the finish line?

Muñoz: It took me about nine years to write this collection.

I've been speaking a lot to other writers and to students about creative doubt. I just had a period where I wasn't really sure where my work was going or to which audiences it might be best received. I really just had to get out of my own way and come back to, maybe, simpler ideas of what I needed to do for my own community, people I write about, the place that I write about.

So I just went story by story, and about halfway through is when I finally realized that I had a true collection going.

Williams: Now you, as you've mentioned, have a very long writing career. You've been honored with awards before. But looking at 2023, and this particular collection, were you hoping for awards or expecting awards, or have the accolades been kind of a surprise?

Muñoz: Oh, they've been absolutely a surprise, because I have always seen myself as a rather niche writer, meaning I write about a particular region of the country, California's Central Valley, that most people continue to see as marginal. And I do my best to sort of showcase it as a place where stories can happen. But I don't necessarily expect it to become really embedded in sort of a national literary consciousness.

I really was not expecting the level of attention that the book got. I'm very grateful for it. And I'm very happy, especially, that Graywolf Press is the publisher that I went with, because they really did a wonderful job with the book. But also, I think they really understood where I was coming from.

Williams: To that point of the Central Valley being a place where stories can happen, what was the kind of story that you wanted to tell here, or the messages that you wanted to get across?

Muñoz:I think sometimes people think of my work as ‘despairing,’ or, ‘it's about poverty.’ That's too broad of a generalization. I think those are the conditions in which many of my characters exist, but how they rise or fall or work through the kinds of complications that those conditions can present for them, is to me where the heart of any story is.

So it doesn't really even have to be I think about the Central Valley. I'm attuned to just any writer who is really looking at ‘place’ as an integral part of how their characters live their lives — how they understand, you know, the choices that they make, but maybe sometimes the choices that they're limited to. And that's really how I go about my writing and my storytelling.

The further I get away from childhood, the more I'm able to use that distance to really see the story that was in front of me. So many of the stories in this collection are somewhat based on family history, but I just didn't think that I had the capacity in my youth to see how complicated they were.
Manuel Muñoz, on telling stories about California's Central Valley

Williams: Now you yourself were born in the Central Valley. Are you still kind of drawing from experience when you're writing? What is informing these stories now?

Muñoz: What's so interesting to me is that I keep going back to the 1970s and the 1980s, in the Central Valley, for two reasons. I think the first reason is that growing up, or being an early reader, I wasn't seeing those representations very much at all. And to a certain degree, I still don't.

But the second reason is that the further I get away from childhood, the more I'm able to use that distance to really see the story that was in front of me. So many of the stories in this collection are somewhat based on family history, but I just didn't think that I had the capacity in my youth to see how complicated they were.

And as I've gotten older, my field of vision has broadened, and I really start to take a look at perhaps, ‘How did my parents go through this particular time? What did it mean to them? What did deportation mean when they had children to take care of?’ and so forth. So I think that's what's happened over the course of my writing life and my writing career is, you know, the lenses got bigger and broader.

Williams: Are there things that you learned about yourself or about your family that have surprised you?

Muñoz: Oh, especially with my parents — their survival instincts, their survival tactics, and also just the wonderful, strange array of people that they came across over their times.

I really start to pay attention to people who seem to just pop up in periphery of whatever oral story they're sharing, and really start to wonder about, for example, a police officer who helped them fix a car when they were broken down on a highway one time.

That never made it into a story, but I often think about that: Who was that person who might have really been a roadblock in their path to get back home and instead chose to help them? Things like that I've become much more attuned to, as I've gotten older.

Williams: Worth noting that this particular award focuses on works that highlight vital contemporary issues — they're really engaging with the social issues of our time. When you're writing, are you trying to engage with social issues? Or do you think it's just circumstantial to the stories you're telling?

Muñoz: Yeah, well, it's by virtue of who I am. And working on stories that are queer, working class, and brown — these are all, in combo, not particularly exciting to publishers, but they're very much central to the way I think and feel, and also what I want to put out into the world.

I don't go to the page, thinking about those particular issues. Those are just, you know, simply where I'm coming from. But I'm glad that there are more organizations, more groups, more readers, frankly, who understand that there's such a wonderful array of writers who do come from places like that, and have really beautiful and intriguing and terrible and wonderful stories to tell us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.
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