Monday, July 20, 2009

Celebrities who've met ME! Author Geronimo Tagatac

Last summer, intent on wooing Ooligan Press into my orbit, I surfed into the library and put all of Ooligan's published works on hold. After waiting months, the library shot back an email alerting The Weight of the Sun stood ready.

From the first paragraph I was hooked. A year later I was haunted. The short stories of Geronimo Tagatac hid deep in the recesses of thoughts and whispered, ‘Embrace this language, touch these stories...’ When the apparitions appeared I would hunt online for Tagatac, and would come up empty handed.

Last week everything changed. I stumbled on a connection, secured an email and shot out a quick request. Crazy guy that he is, Tagatac agreed to a meeting. Coffee. Friday. 10 AM.

At first blush it might seem inevitable that Geronimo Tagatac would meet me. Sure, let’s run with that. He was born on the East Coast. I was born in the Wild West. He grew up in California. I did not. He wrote a book, I wrote a manuscript. He entertained as a folk singer, I as classical pianist. He did graduate work in Asia, undergraduate study for me in Europe. He taught in Hong Kong for a year. I spent one sleepless night under Hong Kong's heaven. He has one daughter (closing in here), I have one daughter! His daughter studies journalism. I work with journalists!

So much *cough* in common. Completely foreseeable our paths should cross.

He arrived late and appeared stressed he’d mixed up the meeting place, but relaxed into our conversation, opened up and shared a world that encompassed writing, travel, the Vietnam war, study of Asia, teaching, coaching body builders, folk music--an array of topics that left me spellbound.

As a dirt poor college student he hung out with others of the same ilk, as well as some dropouts, and they taught each other what they really loved: music. “We jammed together playing late into the night and lived for that. We played folk music in coffee houses for half the cover charge and all the coffee we could drink.” He worked the circuit with Peter Grant who later became a television studio musician and Jorma Kaukonen who formed San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane. Tagatac grinned as he listed where he’d performed: Cotangent, Brass Knocker in Saratoga, The Shelter and The Offstage Theatre in Sante Fe, the Other Side in Fort Bragg, The Crows Toe in Washington D.C, stops in Myrtle Beach, Greensboro. Some of those gigs depended on hitchhiking and upon arrival supplied free drinks, and not always coffee.

The next delivery exacted a higher price. “Crazy. Got my draft notice and volunteered, otherwise they placed Filipinos as cooks, mess boys, or stewards.” He landed in special forces for the Navy.

I asked if he experienced prejudice. “I did,” he said. “When I was younger. People make assumptions based on your looks how well educated you are, how well off you are, what kind of a job you have. I found California was really, really diverse. I worked for Willie Brown, the first African-American Speaker [of the California Assembly], the second most powerful person in office. There you’re accustomed to people of color. When I first came to Oregon, I worked for an agency as a budget analyst for one budget session. People in those days, early 90's, weren't really used to seeing a person of color, in a professional setting.” Perhaps a polite way of saying the unspoken he noted, “Had some pretty funny incidents.”

Education wove itself through all seasons of Tagatac's life and propelled him to work towards a doctorate. “When I was in Vietnam, there was so much Chinese influence. I promised myself I would learn it more, and maybe even go and visit China. In those days it was a really revolutionary society.” He did visit and his study encompassed many Chinese themes, Chinese Communist revolution, Chinese foreign policy, Mandarin, he immersed himself in research and even taught in Taiwan.

I wondered what pushed him towards his writing career. “I didn’t really start writing until very late. It was always a direction. After the war, at Sante Fe State, I was a pretty restless guy, a ski bum, wrote letters to friends, descriptions of what was going on. I hitchhiked to Boulder, Colorado to climb and write to friends just anything that was on my mind.”

He married, lived in the Bay Area and in the late 1980’s started taking writing seriously. “I took classes in creative writing. Then in 1989, came to Salem and took classes at Chemeketa from Dwayne Atkinson and from Portland State University-Salem Extension studying with Martha Gies. Gies really got me serious about writing.”

His first acceptance for publication came from Writers Forum a literary journal published out of Colorado. “After that I started getting more acceptances to different places, and I just kept writing stories and sending them out, writing, and writing. I applied for and got a fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts, received a fellowship at Fish Trap, and the next year got invited to back to Fish Trap to teach.”

His book lay on the table between us, my talisman for him to find me. I fingered the bright sun-kissed cover and asked how it came to be. “Luck.” I had him repeat that. “Luck. Someone from Confluence Press asked if I had a manuscript, he took it and wanted to publish it, but Confluence was tied to Idaho College, they had budget cuts and the contract was cancelled.”

The gentleman forwarded the manuscript to Dennis Stovall at Ooligan Press in Portland, Oregon and months later Tagatac received an email asking for permission to publish it. “Interesting way to go, never had an agent, never been able to find an agent,” Tagatac noted with a wry smile. Who does your marketing I mused. He confessed, “That’s the thing I’m really terrible at. I’ve done readings, but I don’t have a web-site. I’m so focused on the writing, I want to write and I know I should be doing this other stuff, and more than willing, but marketing is probably the thing I’m weakest at.”

His writing felt very personal to me and I inquired how much it reflected his life. “There is a piece of me in every story, probably in the first book a lot of me in the stories.” Some of his stories were assignments he gave himself, making a bland office cubicle interesting, or challenges with themes. “I’d never found a story that dealt with a body builder, and I’d always wanted a scene in the weight room that would work. I’d been weight training, running, was a personal coach and doing all this stuff. ‘Gosh you really know this world, know how body builders think, how they work out. There’s a story in there.’” There’s also a whole technical language that accompanies that world. “I had to make it authentic without drowning people with technicalities. I wound up being able to put a love story together, demonstrating class differences, racial differences, and just put them all into one, and it worked.”

Is there a book in the wings?

“I’m in the middle of a novel right now, and just completed another collection of seventeen short stories of people trying to live two lives at the same time.” He gave an overview. “Way of the Snake is about a man with a very bureaucratic job dreaming he’s a rattle snake. Then the two worlds collide. Streak is the story of a guy working as a hair dresser. He’s lived all over the world, can’t stay away from trouble. He comes to a very quiet job in Oregon to live a very ordinary life.” Little is ordinary in Tagatac’s fictional worlds, and the thump-thump of heartbeats echoed across the table when he spoke of Who’s Counting, the barista obsessed with the number of heart beats after his transplant. I want to read that, I asserted. Tagatac grinned, “As soon it’s published.”

I asked how his writing style had changed. “I don’t know that my style has changed that much, I learned about character and about point of view and tense. You have to be consistent, who’s point of view is it in, otherwise you come up with clinkers. Clinkers break the forward motion of your story and force your reader to go back to figure it out. It stops everything.”

So willing to meet, so willing to share, it was easy to sense the teacher in his spirit. I inquired what he liked about teaching. He thought about that for a moment, and answered, “Figuring out ways to get people’s interest in anything from history, politics or fiction writing. For writing: breaking creative writing down to its basics, how to work with those basics, how to work with settings, how you create a character, how you work with plot, where you use dialogue, when to use dialogue, when to use narrative, and how to turn the story. You’re just exposing people to those things,” he noted, and fumbled his hat. “I remember before I started writing it was a mystery, something other people did.”

My burning question came towards the end—where do the words come from? “I don’t know, I always felt that they were floating around. I was writing as though I were speaking, and they were just there, and it was a really great discovery.”

I began to shut the lap top off and ventured in the last subject: Vietnam. “When you’re 22-years-old it’s exciting to be sent overseas, but it’s only when you’re over there you realize you could get killed." He faced death twice, knew within ten minutes he would be dead, then the balance of life altered. “The hardest thing in the war: you can do everything right and still die. Survival becomes a matter of luck, doesn't have anything to do with how strong you are, or how brave.”

Two weeks before he was to return home he volunteered for a mission. I couldn’t imagine why. “I think survivors guilt,” he explained.

The images he shared appeared with such clarity I could touch the broken pieces, see the man who returned self-contained, one who chose writing to survive, saved fragments of paper and then when he moved on threw them all away, time and time again, discarding the baggage of recovery. I glanced at his book, knowing I would ask him to autograph it, but unwilling to have something ordinary from this extraordinary man. I wanted to know which was his favorite story.

“My favorite story…whew…” He blew air out of his cheeks, “Hm…I’d have to say, it’s The Orchard, a coming of age story, and it’s really a story based on my relationship with my father. It’s about the kid who has always hated having to work in the field and suddenly realizes that this one last autumn in the orchard is the last time he’s really going to be part of the father. The story doesn’t really romanticize the father much; he’s a man with a sharp temper, but their lives are about to diverge and it only comes to the son at the very end of the story where we see him wearing the clothes that he bought from his earnings. He understands he’s never going to have the same relationship with his father that he did.”

Tagatac and I were at the end of our hour and I wondered if our paths would cross again, or if with a simple hand shake everything concluded. As I gathered up my things and stuffed away, I asked if he would consider an invitation to one of my local book store haunts for an author event. “Absolutely. I’ve gone all over the place, love going to different places. With small presses you really have to do a lot of the work yourself. You have to sell your book.”

On the way home, I reached into the back of the car, grabbed the book out of my bag, and read what he wrote. A simple extraordinary wish.

Thank you, Mr. Tagatac, for sharing your journey. I’m so glad you became part of mine.

Additional information: The Asian Reporter, V16, #22 (May 30, 2006), page 13.



Anonymous said...

Wow...very interesting and informative :)

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