In the Field: Conversations with our Contributors—A. Muia
This week, we talk with A. Muia about her piece, “Dolores-Born-Without-Ears,” place-based writing, and the inspiration behind her novel.
Your piece, “Dolores-Born-Without-Ears,” is set in 1883 and tells the story of Dolores, who is married to Don Transito and taken to live with him near a gold mine to manage a store for the miners. The story takes place across the days of her husband’s slow death. What was the inspiration behind this story? How did it come to be?
This story is part of a larger work, a novel-in-stories set in Baja California in the 19th century. Many of the chapters can stand alone, but they are stronger within the context of the whole novel—the story of crumbling Spanish colonial missions in remote places in the Baja desert, and the people that intersect with those places. Dolores is one of the central characters moving through the narrative, and she appears in several of the chapters. We’ve met her in childhood, as a girl who idolizes the adoptive father who cannot show love to her. Now we see her again in adulthood. Unlike many of the chapters, this story doesn’t take place at one of the ruined missions, but at another historical site on the Baja peninsula—the gold mining town of Calmallí. It’s a desolate, dusty, mine-pocked landscape in Central Baja, with a small settlement of desperate gold miners. It’s a place of rough men, a place of wrecked dreams . . . and I wondered what would happen if Dolores were brought to that particular place. Where the land seems to work against the designs of men, and where Dolores is also working against the men in her own subversive way.
You are developing a series of stories set in a similar setting and timeframe—Baja California during the 19th century. All these pieces are developing into a novel. From your website, it sounds like this piece in Water~Stone follows one of the main characters of your in-progress novel. Was it your original intention to create a novel? Are you someone who knows how a story will end—how all the pieces will come together—or do you write to find the story?
Yes, this is part of a novel in stories, a structure which I almost discovered by accident. I’d been planning to write a conventional novel for years, and I finally set aside three months to begin. The first chapter went down well—the story of a priest who causes the death of a boy by compelling him to fish for pearls. And in the chapters that followed, the writing got bad, very bad, as I tried to drive the plot along. I felt really depressed; the thing I’d dreamt of doing for so long was pretty awful, and I knew it. Then a writer friend said I should try writing short stories for a while, an idea I resisted at first. I hadn’t read many short stories, and truthfully, I thought of short stories as a lesser form, something people wrote to train for writing a novel. But after wrestling with the failing novel for another two months, I was ready to try something I thought might clear my head. I took the first chapter and turned it into a stand-alone short story, and I fell in love with the form. I started buying old college literature survey textbooks, devouring the short stories. Studying them. I marveled at how much could be accomplished in such a small space. That first chapter was picked up quickly by Image Journal and published, and I became a devoted short-form writer. I started thinking about my novel differently: What if place, time, and theme became the unifying arc of the novel instead of a single plot? What if I set each chapter in an important place in Baja—especially at the ruined mission buildings? And what if I took the three most interesting characters and created throughlines for them throughout the novel, and then brought their stories together at the end? I started studying other novels in linked stories, like Claire of the Sealight and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. I love the flexibility and variety I’ve found in this structure. I doubt I’ll ever go back to the conventional novel.
What drew you to this place and time? Are you interested in other place-based writing? Are you working on any other projects?
I love literature of place, the kind of story that transports us fully into a physical context. I love exploring how “place” is not just a backdrop for a story, but a living, breathing locale that has agency—because place affects and influences character. I was born near Mission Santa Barbara in California, and as I got older and learned more about mission history, the more tension I felt between admiration for the beautiful structures and sorrow about the tragic legacy of colonialism and occupation and what that meant for native peoples. My original novel was set in California, but I soon became intrigued by Baja California history—which most Americans know little about. And that led to a lot of research trips, and travels on mules, and interviews with Baja California ranchers and their families. Though the Spanish missions in California are rebuilt and tidied up for tourists, many of the missions in Baja are now ruins, some in very remote places. That was a further draw for me—I love abandoned places, and the stories that once inhabited them. My next novel—a novel-in-stories, of course—will be set in the now-abandoned Northern State Hospital, a state asylum here in my own Skagit County.
This story weaves between Dolores’ and the unnamed falluquero’s point of view with vivid descriptions and intense action in between. Can you talk about why you chose to end the piece from the falluquero’s point of view?
This story actually occurs over two chapters. In the second part, we see the falluquero returning to Calmallí in hopes of finding Dolores again. When he finds that she’s left, he pursues her with the aim of “helping” her, while in denial about his own motives. In that story, the final perspective belongs to Dolores. That was important for me, because she is one of the most marginalized people in the book.
What writers inspire or influence your work? Who are some authors you enjoy?
I especially appreciate understated writing—authors like Kent Haruf, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Alan Paton. It’s probably a flaw in my own writing, being so worried about sentimentality that I can become too reserved. I lean toward outward gestures, toward surface detail, and show less of the internal workings of my characters. We observe them from a greater distance. But I hope that even without a lot of internality, the characters ring true to how people we know behave and respond. And from those recognitions, we can infer why they do the things they do—because they are familiar to our understanding of human beings.
Your work as a writing teacher for Underground Writing serves a wide community in Northern Washington, including the young people at Skagit County Juvenile Detention. What drew you to this work?
For many years I served as a jail chaplain in the county jail, and as the co-director of a nonprofit organization of homes for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. It seemed a natural fit to join the two worlds I love—advocacy and writing—by becoming part of Underground Writing, which facilitates writing workshops for underrepresented or hidden people in our county. I hadn’t worked with youth before, so in many ways we were discovering these writing explorations together. We mostly read poetry—because the session time is short—and we seek to be in dialogue with the poem, to write something in a similar vein, to ask or answer a question that arises after reading. This is a moment when the students don’t have to be concerned with spelling or grammar or handwriting. This isn’t school. It’s elevating their voices, giving them a space for expression. We’ve produced some anthologies of student work, and regularly feature their writing on our social media and podcasts. This thrills them, of course. Who doesn’t love being published? When I’m working with the youth, I often think of one of my favorite craft books, Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, and her philosophy that everyone has something interesting and important to say. That is certainly true here. I’ve been amazed at the wisdom and the honesty of these students. Recently one of them asked me: “Do you see us as criminals?” He needed to know that what we do in the workshop is real. It’s real writing, it’s truth. It’s not a program aimed at reformation. And I found myself saying that I don’t see them as others might. I don’t look them up on the internet. I don’t know what they’ve done or why they’re in detention. We’re just fellow writers, coming together around the table. Writing and listening to each other. Hearing our voices. Coming out of hiding. It’s been a joy.
A. Muia‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baltimore Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Chicago Review, Faultline, Image, The Orison Anthology, Raleigh Review, The Stockholm Review of Literature, West Branch, The Writer’s Chronicle, and other journals. She holds a post-graduate certificate in writing literary fiction from the University of Washington and an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find her online at www.amuia.net.