One Plus One Equals 3: A Couple Co-Writing as ‘Alvarado’

alvarado-obrien-e1473643491502-300x300Jacqueline (Jackie) Doyle and Stephen (Steve) D. Gutierrez are San Francisco Bay Area writers and professors at California State University, East Bay. Each has an impressive writing résumé.

Jacqueline’s fiction and flash has been published in Quarter After Eight, Vestal Review, Sweet, The Pinch, [PANK], Phoebe, and 100 Word Story, while her creative nonfiction has earned two Pushcart nominations and Notable Essay listings in Best American Essays 2013 and Best American Essays 2015. Recently she won the Black River Chapbook Competition for her flash collection The Missing Girl, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in October 2017.

Stephen’s work can be found in Sudden Fiction Latino (W.W. Norton), Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and ZYZZYVA. His collections of stories and essays include Elements (FC2), Live from Fresno y Los (Bear Star Press; winner of an American Book Award), and The Mexican Man in His Backyard (Roan Press).

Additionally, the spouses co-write as the invented Alvarado O’Brien, who also has a growing list of publications, in Timber, Grist: An Online Companion, and Jellyfish Review.

This time around on 100 Words, learn about three flash aficionados at once!

Where did you grow up?

Steve: I grew up in City of Commerce in Los Angeles County, on the Eastside. My neighborhood was bounded by the Santa Ana Freeway (“the 5”) and industry and major industrial thoroughfares, but for all that was relatively quiet, peaceful, and safe.

Jackie: I grew up in suburban Mountain Lakes in New Jersey, outside of New York City—a commuter town via train, about an hour away. I found Mountain Lakes dull and conservative. Steve found it “fantastically bucolic and mind-blowing.” He didn’t have to live there, of course.

When do you first remember deciding that you were a writer?

Steve: I knew that a long time ago. I was always good at it, and encouraged by teachers to continue writing, stretching my imagination. Also—don’t laugh—an essay contest I won in the 8th grade that got me 25 bucks fortified my confidence. “Who Am I?” was the contest theme. “I am a Chicano!” I think was the first line. It was 1973 and I spilled my brown guts on the page.

Jackie: Growing up, I wrote what I thought were “novels,” but some internal censor stopped me when I got to college. It was a long time before I returned to writing, and a long time before I called myself a writer. Maybe not until my first publication, about seven years ago. Maybe not until I’d had a few long essays published, about five years ago. At first my flash publications didn’t seem to “count.” I still think of creative nonfiction as my primary genre, but I write fiction too, and I love flash.

Where and when did you two meet?

Jackie: We met in 1982 in Ithaca, New York, where Steve was doing an MFA and I was doing a Ph.D.

What draws you to short-shorts?

Jackie: Two chapters of my 600-page Ph.D. dissertation (no wonder I love flash now, something that doesn’t take forever to finish) were devoted to “The Waste Land,” and I’m still fascinated by glittering fragments. I was working on a 30-page essay about my aunt’s suicide when I woke very early one morning, still sleep-dazed, and wrote a mysterious microflash about her that seemed to rise straight out of my unconscious. It was my first published piece, in the now defunct Flashquake. Many of my more recent flash are voice-driven or story-driven, but I’m drawn to lyric flash.

Steve: Efficiency is a good thing when you’re sacrificing nothing in the bargain.

What’s your process for writing flash?

Jackie: Computer only, and I’d say I don’t usually use prompts, but several of my recent publications came from Rose Metal Press Field Guide prompts that I used in a class I was teaching (Pamela Painter’s “he said/she said,” Bruce Holland Rogers’ word loop, Nathan Leslie’s article of clothing); a microflash coming out this month (October) in CHEAP POP started with a generative exercise using fragments of poetry in a workshop by Cristina Garcia. More often my flash fictions start with a voice, frequently a character I don’t know at all who seems to come out of nowhere. Sometimes I’m struck by an item in the newspaper. For a while I was haunted by stories of missing girls and victims of abuse; many of the flash in my upcoming chapbook The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press) were written in a period when their stories seemed to be everywhere. Steve never uses prompts, and may even claim he doesn’t write flash.

When and why did you decide to co-write—and how do you do it?

Jackie: We have completely different styles, so it’s not easy, and sometimes not fun at all!

The first time I’d just read a lyric essay by two poets in Otoliths and passed it on to Steve. “Let’s try this!” I gave him a lyric paragraph to riff on, he immediately turned it into a narrative, we went back and forth and ended up with “Night of the Virgin,” published in Timber.

The second time was creative nonfiction (at least what Steve and I call creative nonfiction), without as much give and take. The editors at Grist sent us some questions about collaboration and asked us to write an introduction to “Imaginary Friends,” which was hell, much harder than writing the essay itself.

Our co-written flash was the most fun. I saw the call from Jellyfish Review for flash on “Bad Sex,” and said to Steve one morning, “We should write a flash on bad sex.” Later that morning Steve e-mailed from work with the first section, the scene with two guys in a bar, only the original version opened, “First thing the wife says is, ‘We should write about bad sex.’ Jeez, what a way to get going in the morning, I tell you. What a way to greet the day!” When I wrote the second section in the hair salon, Steve thought the flash was finished, but I didn’t. I supplied some more dialogue for the guys in the bar and asked him whether he could take it further. Which he did, and that’s my favorite part of “Three Conversations”; I love the way it ends.

We love it, too! How did you come up with your nom de plume?

Jackie: It was Steve’s idea, as we were brainstorming on something that would combine our Mexican and Irish heritages.

What, IYHO, is the future of flash? What will its writing and publishing look years from now?

Jackie: Flash was always here, under different names, and will survive and thrive with new publishing technologies. I hope there will still be readers in 20, 30 years, but I wonder what they will look like.

Steve: More novel-length flash works will appear. Flash sequences that trace the rich arc of characters’ lives as in a good novel will climb the bestseller lists.

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one flash story with you, what would it be?

Steve: I’m thinking cruel fate dumped me there, a dreadful irony at work, so of course I’d want to reread “Appointment in Samarra” by Somerset Maugham to rue my foiled plan to beat death.

Jackie: Too hard to answer! I tell my students to read all that they can in Brevity, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and 100 Word Story. I’d want their archives on the desert island.

Do you have stories of your own that are special to you?

Steve: I have long hybrid work that is really close to me that’s been recently published in Waccamaw and Change Seven. I also have flash in The East Bay Review.

Jackie: I’m so excited about my upcoming flash chapbook, which features my recent story in Monkeybicycle, among others. I’m also working on a full-length memoir-in-essays (Do-It-Yourself Night) with a number of essays I care about. I’m very honored that two have earned Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. Another essay from the collection-in-progress was published recently in Ghost Town.

What has writing flash fiction taught you about living life?

Jackie: Life is short? When you start writing late in life, you already know that. It’s part of what propels me to write. Virginia Woolf said that it’s “moments of being” that give significance to our lives; good flash operates on that principle, I think.

If you could go on a road trip with an author, who would it be and where would you go?

Steve: I hear I’ve been invited on just such a road trip with the loveliest of writers, to the coast, to the mountains, to the California desert and beyond, to America…. Where else?

Jackie: Steve Gutierrez! Almost anywhere.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Steve: Listen, don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for nothing. Write with nothing in mind but pleasure.

Jackie: Don’t be afraid to fail.

To your older self?

Jackie: Keep trying new things.

Steve: Listen… Death is nearer. Smile and work and be kinder than ever to everybody, every day, every living moment afforded you. In writing, never stop, only renew the unheard song in you.

* * *

New on 100 Word Story! Read Cassiopeia, by Jackie, and Lil, by Steve!

Live in the Bay Area? Jackie reads in the Rolling Writers Series on November 4, 7 p.m., Octopus Literary Salon, 2101 Webster St., Oakland.

2 Responses to “One Plus One Equals 3: A Couple Co-Writing as ‘Alvarado’”

  1. Ooh! These two were my writing professors in college. LOVE them!

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