Darkly Divine Comedy

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen local author Jim Lopez. I recently caught up with him since he returned to Chico, which he describes as “a great place to cool my head.” Jim is a portrait of contrasts—a former CSU adjunct professor, Harvard University (the Divinity School) graduate, and a traveler of note. His mild manner speaks little of the varied and interesting life he has led. One particular run-in with him years ago still amuses me: he and a friend were arriving home on a Sunday morning, bloody and ebullient after some kind of scuffle, when most people were just leaving their homes for coffee or church. Ten minutes later he was talking extensively about Dante and the Romantics, and their relevance to the Western Canon.

A writer’s personal history is linked, in some way or another, to his or her writing. It’s no different in Jim’s case and he had this to say: “Often times there is no separation between art and life, and that is why art lends itself as a truer form of spirituality than organized religion.” He grew up in Los Angeles barrios, and his family life was chaotic. By the age of thirteen he was fully immersed in a life of drugs and alcohol. He was expelled from the eighth grade, remanded to SODA Homes (Status Offender Diversion Alternatives) in South Central L.A., dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade, got clean, graduated, and made his way to Cambridge where he earned a Master’s degree.

He brings to mind another author and Harvard Divinity graduate, Chris Hedges, who also writes about life at its heaviest and darkest. How do these soft-spoken men, divinity scholars, vacillate so wildly between heaven and hell? It can make a mind reel with the contrast of darkness and light. Jim’s writings are reminiscent of Henry Miller and are prone to explicit obscenity and curious mysticism. Like Miller, he has a restless lust for travel, and a refreshing lack of self-importance, inspiring moments with ineffable charm.

I’m not going to lie; Jim’s interviews are more amiable than his fiction. He waxes on the lost art of conversation, and cites ancient poets and philosophers, both while revealing his troubled youth. His writing, on the other hand, foams at the mouth with assaulting will and charge. His stories are alternatingly filthy and beautiful, funny and tragic. I didn’t expect to find myself cracking up as much as I did. I fully expect to be entertained when reading fiction, but am infinitely more grateful when I am surprised.

Tell me about the project that you are finishing up? 

I’m working on a collection of poems and a short essay on Surrealism titled, Maudlin Ballads: An Elegy Regarding the Death of Surrealism. In graduate school I gravitated toward the Surrealist writers and poets, but I am not a poet. There are so many “poets” today, who are merely versifiers. The word “poet” is derived from the Greek word poiesis. If one is imbued with poiesis, one’s work brings forth that which is wonderful and leads to transformation. Most poets don’t offer anything inspiring, nor do they say anything that leads to transformation. One might argue that poets are born, not developed.

Maudlin Ballads is my gratitude for the Surrealists. Each poem is illustrated; some by me and others by Stephan Maich.

Have you always known that you wanted to write? When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? 

In 1997 I decided not to pursue my Ph.D., and decided I was going to write fiction. I had no idea how to be a writer, so I had to start over. I knew I had a gift for telling stories, but I had to learn how to create characters in a way that would make people want to turn the page.

I was kind of surprised by how funny your writing is. 

My humor has always hinged on the absurd and obscene. My friends, who came from stable families, enjoyed hearing my tragic stories told with a straight face. The comedic value of this can be limitless.

Comedy is important to me, especially in my writing. Writing requires more from the audience than any other art form, so it has to be entertaining, funny, and moving on many levels. Humor is essential and I love tragic comedy.

Traveling seems to be a central theme for you personally, and in your writing. 

Mobility is everything. Not being able to move or experience new things is a mental and emotional hell. If I only relied on money, I never would have gone anywhere. I felt trapped in the neighborhood I grew up in. Everyone was poor. There were few opportunities other than joining the military or learning a trade. When I was eleven I started exploring Los Angeles at large. This lead to a desire to see more of the United States, so I just kept going and didn’t worry about money or how. I’ve traversed the entire U.S. nineteen times so far. All that was required was curiosity, will, a little hard work, a belief in one’s ability to negotiate through scarcity, faith, and courage. My writing has a tendency to reflect these themes, which develop character.

Good writing is just that, courageous—and like magic, it has the ability to suspend a mind from its own grip and temporarily make us forget everything we think we know. I hope that Jim cools his head for a while in Chico. It’s nice to know that someone who appreciates the lost art of conversation could be having coffee somewhere down the street, available to make you laugh with one of his wildly entertaining stories.

Jim Lopez’ collection of short stories, Abstracts of an American Pageant, can be purchased at http://jimlopez. org. His book can also be found on Amazon. He is also the creator and editor of ANTIQUE CHILDREN: A Mischievous Literary Arts Journal (www.antiquechildren.com), which generously spreads the work of other authors and artists.

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