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 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.”
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 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 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.”
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.