During a film studies class at Harvard nearly 20 years ago, Manuel Muñoz was watching a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho when a background detail caught his eye.
In the scene where Janet Leigh’s character is driving along a stark high-way in California’s Central Valley, a sign appears bearing the name of Gorman, Calif., a small town located near Muñoz’s hometown, Dinuba.
“I was shocked,” says Muñoz, a University of Arizona assistant professor. Muñoz decided to become a writer that day, and to write about the Central Valley, something that critics say he does brilliantly in his debut novel, What You See in the Dark, which arrived at bookstores in March with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.
Not only does the novel flesh out Muñoz’s impressions of the area, it’s also based on the filming of Psycho in the late 1950s, when Hitchcock’s cast and crew rolled into town.
“If you can find an entry point into art, it can trigger all sorts of wonderful things,” he says. “I learned that lesson when I saw Psycho at Harvard. Part of my affection for that film is that it reminded me I had a particular place and that my place mattered. It’s always been my fear – and remains my fear – the Central Valley will be forgotten.”
Muñoz is on quite a roll. He’s the author of two collections of short stories: Zigzagger (Northwestern University Press, 2003) and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007), which was shortlisted for the 2007 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He received a 2008 Whiting Writers’ Award and a 2009 PEN/O. Henry Award for his story “Tell Him About Brother John.”
He also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
His work has appeared The New York Times, Rush Hour, Swink, Epoch, Glimmer Train, Edinburgh Review and Boston Review and has aired on National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts.
But What You See in the Dark could become Muñoz’s commercial breakthrough, the novel that vaults him to the A-list of popular Hispanic writers. Among the reviews:
“stellar first novel ... with a subtlety of Hitchcock himself.” (Publisher’s Weekly)
“Refreshingly innovative. ... Muñoz has upended the conventional crime novel. ... Nice work.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“[The characters’] voices will haunt me for some time to come.” (Julia Glass, author of The Widower’s Tale and Three Junes)
Much of Muñoz’s life reads like a movie script. Growing up in Dinuba (population 15,000), he began working in the fields with his family in fourth grade, picking and packing fruit in heat that often climbed above 100 degrees. For relief, he jotted down “silly little” stories and buried his head in books, notably The Wizard of Oz as a child and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as a teen. Both books opened with departures.
In the late 1980s, Ivy League schools began recruiting in the Central Valley, which is how Muñoz found his way to Harvard. But he says his encounter with a Harvard rep at a local college fair set the tone for turmoil to come.
“The Harvard rep was asking me what my goal was, which at the time was to be a high school teacher,” he says. “The rep was trying to convince me that for an ambition like that, a state university would be perfectly fine, that Harvard wouldn’t necessarily be the place to go to train as a high school teacher. That’s completely incorrect, of course.
“The Yale rep overheard that and wooed me over to her table. I had never heard of Yale. I had no clue. I was a very naïve student. Very isolated. When you don’t have access, you don’t know.”
Muñoz’s introduction to life outside the Central Valley was only beginning. Leaving the Fresno airport in tears, he had no idea how he was going to buy books. With just $100 in cash, he dropped $20 on the cab ride to Harvard Yard, then waded into a crowd of prep-school graduates.
“My first semester was extraordinarily difficult,” he says. “I felt isolated from everything. It made it very difficult to make friends and speak up in class. That’s one of the things I’m cognizant of as a professor. I watch my students and their behavior and try to think of ways to keep them included and make them feel they have something to contribute. Many of them are very quiet in class and then turn in a piece of writing and it’s spectacular.
“I credit the Ivies with starting the work to diversify their student bodies,” he adds. “But there’s a gesture to bring the students in, and then there’s the infrastructure that needs to be in place to assist them. Twenty years ago, it was a very lonely place for a kid of color.”
For relief, he began writing short stories. “That’s one of the reasons the writing took off, because it’s such a private activity,” he says.
Muñoz eventually found mentors at Harvard in two writers, Susan Dodd and Jill McCorkle, who encouraged him to consider an M.F.A. program. He picked Cornell, then had second thoughts until Cornell Professor Helena María Viramontes phoned his mother back in Dinuba.
“She stepped in and made it very clear to my family that they were going to give me a lot of guidance,” he says. “She understood the family dynamic of a Chicano student and what I was facing.”
Cornell was as liberating for Muñoz as Harvard had been inhibiting. He came out of the closet sexually, explored gay themes in his writing, vigorously defended his writing in the classroom and stretched his talents – all under the direction of Viramontes, whose mentoring skills influence him today at the University of Arizona.
“One of the things I remember most about Helena is that she had a line of students outside her door who weren’t even English majors,” he says. “Word had gotten around that she was a professor who was open to talking to you as a young scholar. That’s been sort of my model as how to be of service to your students as a professor.”
Muñoz moved to New York City after Cornell, took a job with a publish-er, wrote during his free hours and started sending stories to editors.
His first book of short stories, Zigzagger, received encouraging reviews:
“Muñoz has created a wholly authentic vision of contemporary California – one that has little to do with coastlines, cities or silicon,” novelist David Ebershoff wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. “Muñoz’s Central Valley is a part of California – a part of America – that has yet to see many liberations: gay, women’s, or economic liberation from restrictions imposed for so long on people with brown skin.
“If his vision is full of despair, so is the reality that his characters must endure; he is much too truthful a writer to present false hope. Zigzagger ... heralds the arrival of a gifted and sensitive writer.”
Muñoz continued to expand beyond traditional Hispanic themes in The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, his second collection of short stories. The Whiting Award confirmed Muñoz’s reputation as an elite young author, enabling him to focus on his first novel, which is set in Bakersfield.
As the novel unfolds, a young aspiring singer falls in love with the most desirable young man in town. That’s the backdrop when an actress and legendary director arrive in Bakersfield. But an ill-fated love affair between the local residents soon overshadows the making of an iconic movie.
Because the novel is based on Psycho and includes noirish elements, Muñoz says his pitch for the book met with initial resistance with some publishers, who hoped for a traditional immigrant novel. Lacking a conventional guidepost, Muñoz went through five drafts over five years, wondering at times if he was on the right course. He steered his way through the stress by recalling publishers’ objections to his first collection of gay-based short stories.
“It can be very discouraging. You think ‘Maybe I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing,”’ he says. “They felt as a Chicano writer I should have a certain set of concerns, and when those concerns weren’t necessarily evident in what I was proposing, they had no other way to read it. I was being typecast.
“A very valuable lesson Helena instilled in me was an understanding for myself about why I was writing. If I was writing to be published, to be famous, that wasn’t a particularly good reason to commit yourself to art. If there are other diverse human reasons for what you’re doing, then you’re going to meet success no matter where you go or what happens to your writing.”
Had he been born 20 years earlier, Muñoz says his options as a Hispanic writer would have been limited. But the game changed with the success of the first wave of Hispanic authors, who paved the way for Muñoz and his peers.
“The generation before realized there had to be a way to reach down to the ones who were trying to come up. They opened the doors, and they’re pulling us through. That was tremendously important to me. It’s our oblig-ation to help the next generation. The more we build the literature, the more the next generation will have access to different ideas.
“I’m very hopeful.”