TCR Talks with Margaret Elysia Garcia, Author of Graft
By Maxamina Muro
In Graft, a collection of short stories set in Whittier, just outside of Los Angeles, Margaret Elysia Garcia explores Mexican goth, serial killers, saints, sexuality, and David Bowie. Garcia captures elements of Los Angeles County that are familiar to everyone who lives here, namely that suburbs just outside of the city can feel like another world. Most of the characters in these stories exhibit their own version of Hollywood glamour, whether that means trying to find a way in front of the camera, risking their lives in the process, or dressing in homage to pop stars who are paid and worshipped for their strangeness, though that imitation of strangeness is rarely appreciated in places like Whittier.
Garcia’s characters’ afflictions are universal, and yet they are pinpointed to a location on the map. They are well-rounded and full of a particular type of angst that is common in a place adjacent to where many pursue their American Dream. Perhaps the crown jewel of the collection is “At the Gate of Illumination,” in which a saintly apparition disarms and dissuades someone attacking the female protagonist, and is the same saint that all girls, at one time or another, pray to for safety during moments of duress. We talked with Garcia about this story, unintentional violence, and the influence of urban legends in her work.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: The goth subculture and the 80s features prominently in a few of the stories. I find it a bit humorous when I think of a goth stalking the relentlessly sunny SoCal streets dressed in black with heavy eyeliner. Why do you think this subculture makes its way into your stories?
MARGARET ELYSIA GARCIA: Part of the inspiration for the book of stories is the town of Whittier—where I grew up—where goths, or what we call Mexi-goths, are quite prominent. If you go to Uptown Whittier today, you’ll still see remnants of goth/punk/British mod culture, especially among Mexican American youth. Uptown Whittier nowadays is a happening, hip place to be. It’s hard to find parking. But when I was growing up, right after the earthquake in 1987, most of the area was empty lots and vacant buildings—which is why the skater/punk culture moved in—and plenty of parking. I wanted to set stories in Whittier, in this forgotten time before it was a foodie destination and a hip place to be.
Also, in Whittier none of us had cars! So here are these goths dressed in full regalia, taking the bus, walking. Whittier was lower middle class to working class. I wanted stories that reflected that reality. I myself was a bit of a goth, although not all that dramatic in clothing. [I] wore all black and kept my face pale-ish but didn’t wear chains or black nail polish—that was for what we call the Hot Topic goths of the 90s.
TCR: What music do you think your characters would listen to?
MEG: On their Walkmans, the goths in my stories are probably listening to 4AD’s This Mortal Coil, the first Throwing Muses record, plenty of Smiths, Cure, Bauhaus, and Joy Division. Goths in cars are probably listening to Sisters of Mercy and Love and Rockets. Answering this question makes me want to make a Spotify playlist.
TCR: Some of your stories veered into horror. I appreciated that, mostly, the female characters survived and there was no sexual violence depicted at all. Is that something that you conscientiously wrote, or did you find that you naturally gravitated toward stories where females were triumphant?
MEG: Good question on the violence. I never thought of myself as a horror writer but feel like I do set up noir in my stories. Unintentional horror, I suppose? But isn’t that what life is? Unintentional horror creeps around the corner. Sometimes I feel like that’s the flip side of Southern California, right? You can’t have all the glitz and glamour without the creepy underbelly. Much of the time, I feel like the sad girls that inhabit my stories have had enough thrown at them. They need to be able to survive and thrive. I believe there’s only one body count [in] “Body at King Richard’s,” where the woman didn’t get away, but that’s mostly because I wanted to depict the mind of the incel—and that mindset is never going to let the woman escape. I try never to kill anyone off without there being a good reason for the death to happen. I think this is what has made my stories hard to place: literary stories with unintentional horror.
A common theme, too, in my stories is housing. In high school, I lived with my grandparents and started to pay close attention to who people lived with. It wasn’t so common then to live with one’s grandparents. Housing defines Southern Californians. To survive in Southern California, you must secure a good housing option, and we go to all sorts of lengths to achieve this. That’s at the heart of “The Neighborly Thing.” The houses are based on two houses in my neighborhood, where I’ve always wondered about who lives there.
TCR: In “Freakout in a Moonage Suenos del Dia,” your characters are going to a Bowie concert and wearing clothes they want to wear rather than clothes associated with a particular gender. I mean, this sort of nonconformity has been going on for a long time, as well as the fight against it. And it also brings in another pop culture reference. Were you thinking about or referencing the political theater or culture wars going on today—and forever ago—when you wrote this? What sort of “culture wars” do you remember when you were growing up?
MEG: I based this story on two things. [One was] an old boyfriend who found out both his older brothers were gay when he overheard his father complaining that bringing them to the US had made them gay. I’m a huge Bowie fan, as is my own son, and his dad’s father used to live near the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. We used to talk about how people in the neighborhood saw Bowie there. I went to UCLA right out of high school and didn’t have a car, so I took lots of buses everywhere. That’s kind of where that story comes from. When my son was in kindergarten and first grade, he took to wearing eyeshadow, and his dad and I—because we didn’t want him getting bullied—had a talk with him about the eyeshadow. My kid thought we were idiots to be concerned and said that his use of eyeliner was about his love for Lou Reed and David Bowie, which is why my kids are like my favorite people on the planet—because they’re just out there doing their thing.
TCR: I love that your son was into Bowie and Lou Reed in the first grade!
MEG: I don’t think I’m the best person to ask about culture wars, as I don’t believe in them and ignore them and do my own thing—kind of like Bowie—and rarely does anyone give me shit for living my own life. I hail from a gay/lesbian military family—like gay during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” days. I grew up surrounded by gay men in uniform. I grew up bicultural. My mom’s family is from Aguascalientes and Zapotecas [states in central Mexico] and settled into the area [that is] now Pico Rivera in the 1920s. My dad’s side of the family is from Scotland on one side and an illiterate hillbilly from the Ozarks on the other. I went to middle school on Ramstein Air Base in Southwest Germany. My children’s dad’s family is also from Mexico, with plenty of lesbians/gay members as well, many of whom work in the entertainment industry. I guess with this kind of background, none of us are thinking about how to live. We’re just living.
TCR: Some of your stories have the feeling of being old folktales, as if they’ve been told over and over again, passed down through generations. In particular, “At the Gate of Illumination” feels that way. What inspired you to write this?
MEG: That is intentional. In Graft, I wanted to create stories that spoke to Southeastern Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley. I really love haunted places and urban legends. “At the Gate of Illumination” and “Turnbull Canyon Road” are both real places, and I tried to incorporate little bits of legends about them into new stories. “Gate” is actually on a trail near Altadena, at a place that was glamorous in the 20s and 30s and is now a ruin. I’m a fallaway Catholic school girl at heart and love the saints stories. St. Lucia is one of my favorites. I’ve always felt that the San Gabriel Valley is severely overlooked for stories, although, thankfully, writers like Naomi Hirahara are there to expose more people to the SGV. Before her, we just had James Ellroy dumping bodies in El Monte. The area has so much character, and so many L.A. stories are just set in Hollywood, downtown, or the beach.
Also, I grew up at a time when we still had serial killers, pre-DNA evidence. I remember when I was in college, there were stories of women meeting up for photo shoots who wound up in the trunks of the pretend photographer’s car. I like how in Los Angeles and Orange County, the suburbs have tried so hard to stamp out all that is wild, but wildness is still there, and it finds a way to overtake you, whether it’s the people who are wild or coyotes. “The Body at King Richard’s” does this, too, although the focus is on the emotionless incel guy, Anthony.
I have a whole second set of short stories of the area I’m working on right now, and I’m definitely going to stick someone in Temple City or San Gabriel. I also think [that] in Orange County, where I am now and where I went to college, you have people from all over the world headed to amusement parks, and then you have people who live here who’ve never been to them. The sociology of all that is fascinating to me. Also, I think in terms of how so many of our normal places wind up in films all the time. Angelenos watch films, and we look at a car chase and say, Oh, that’s the Broadway tunnel. My kids saw a kids movie once on Santa Monica Pier, and they said, “Look, Mom, it’s Papa Kelyn’s [their grandfather’s] beach,” and to me, that kind of thing is so strange. We don’t watch films here like [people] watch films in the Midwest. We have no real disbelief; we know where everything is. You can’t fake us out that we’re in a suburb in the Midwest because we know it’s actually Whittier, Glendale, or Burbank.
TCR: I remember the serial killer who pretended to be a photographer. It’s so interesting now, though. Because of the existence of the internet, people can connect and turn to online communities to ask, Is this person legit? before they venture into a dangerous situation. Does setting a story in the current time, with all the technology we have, make it more difficult to write suspense or noir?
MEG: “At the Gate of Illumination” is pretty much set in the now, as is “Body of King Richard’s,” but I think that even though we have technology, we don’t always know how to use it well. Like, the character in “Gates” does try and check out Brian [the antagonist] beforehand, but they’ve both lied in their profile photos. I was telling my kids—teenagers—how we lived freaked out by the Night Stalker and other serial killers, but then they have school shooters and incels to contend with. I think that makes my work relatable. Every generation is terrorized by something.
TCR: I wonder if stories involving saints and angels are as prevalent today since those are the sort of stories that are primarily passed on in the oral storytelling traditions? It seems that everywhere I look, children are entertaining themselves with gadgets, and they aren’t listening to that crazy story their grandmother is telling them. Do you think those kinds of stories are still recounted in homes? Or that children pay attention to stories that aren’t on the screen in front of them?
MEG: I don’t see Gen Z as always sitting on their phones. I definitely see Latine kids still acknowledging the angels and saints and maybe relating to them in new ways. I love that St. Lucia is in one of my stories. She’s one of my favorites. My new novel I’m working on has Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Sebastian making a few appearances. I’d love to see my kids looking to saints to fill their need for superheroes with a new twist. None of us are Catholic anymore, either. But the saints were always so hardcore in their belief system and what they were willing to die for that they always have a special place in my heart. And I hope they are not forgotten. If I can do my part to keep the saints alive, great.
Maxamina Muro is an emerging fiction writer who recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from UC Riverside, where she served as fiction editor of The Coachella Review. Her short story “The ACB Agency” is in the November issue of Voices de la Luna. She has worked as a writer in children’s TV and has published nonfiction in LA Weekly, Valley Scene, LA Parent, and Orange County Parent.