Research Notes · 09/25/2020

Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Donna Miscolta writes about Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories from Jaded Ibis Press.

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Sorta, Kinda Research

When your work of fiction is sorta, kinda semi-autobiographical, you rely less on research than on memory in creating that mean kindergarten teacher clad in bright primary colors and clackety-clack high heels, or that little blond girl next door whose dress-up closet included a bridal gown, a hula skirt, and child-sized stilettos, or that beleaguered high school English teacher whose eyebrows quarreled with each other in a proxy battle with his smart-aleck class. These characters and others antagonize or annoy Angie Rubio as she walks head-first into awkward mess after awkward mess.

Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories borrows generously from the catalogue of indignities and mortifications I smarted from while growing up and which I harbored in the recesses of my gut with a smidgen and a half of resentment. In creating Angie Rubio, I took care not to make her a vehicle of revenge. It wasn’t payback I was seeking. It was about remembering and maybe paying homage to a girl I once knew who wanted to make sense of the small and big worlds around her — the microcosm of the classroom and the larger events that played on the evening news and in the headlines of the newspaper. Angie happened to grow up in the same eras as I did — the Nuclear Age, the Civil Rights years, the Vietnam War, the Second Wave of Feminism, Motown, Beatlemania. She was aware of, if not necessarily conversant in, the groovy as well as the grim, the righteous as well as the wicked.

The stuff of fiction is often made up of the imprecise memory of a writer’s own experiences, wholly imagined characters and scenes, and research to lend accuracy and plausibility. They occur in any combination and proportions. I offer a few examples here.

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Memory and imagination

One Saturday afternoon when I was five, I watched a movie on TV about a white woman in a safari camp who greedily drank more than the specified amount of gorilla-sourced potion meant to restore her lost beauty and youth. The overdose had the opposite of the intended effect. It turned her into a gorilla — a tragedy and horror for the white woman. Though I was only five, I sensed the message about apes and ugliness and malevolence and was appropriately terrified. I don’t remember the name of the movie. It didn’t matter. That’s why fiction exists. I borrowed the concept of the safari movie, a popular genre in the 50s and 60s, and made up the weekly movie series Science Fiction Safari for Angie’s weekly consumption. I used my memory of the gorilla lady movie and plotted my own for Angie to watch. It was some of the most fun I had while writing this book.

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Memory over research

It might’ve been in Tiger Beat Magazine. Or it could’ve been Ingenue: The Magazine for Today’s Teenagers. Or maybe it was Teen Magazine. In my attempt on the one hand to be groovy and in the know about George Harrison’s girlfriend Patty, and on the other hand to pretend that the fashion and beauty tips and articles such as “California Boys Tell the Truth About California Girls” applied to me, I often spent my allowance on one of these magazines. I remember reading in one of them a letter to the editor from a girl who was so addled with Beatlemania that she changed her name to Jori-Page, collaging the first two letters of each Beatle’s name. A recollection this old needed to be deposited somewhere. A story in Living Color answered the call.

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Neither memory nor research

Sometimes a detail in a story is given to you from the reservoir of disgraces from someone else’s life. Once in the lunchroom at work, I was exchanging elementary school horror stories with a coworker. I told her about my kindergarten teacher who made me skip in front of the class just so she could point out that I couldn’t skip. She told me about her grade-school teacher who asked the class to raise their hands if they hated her. Ooh, can I have that, I asked. She gave it to me, and I gave it to Angie for the year she went to Catholic school.

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Memory verified by research

When Angie is in kindergarten, she is called out by her teacher during large motor skills time for failing to skip properly. Same thing happened to me. My kindergarten teacher told me that because I couldn’t skip, I shouldn’t be in kindergarten. Angie and I were similarly devastated. Who knew of such a requirement? Sure enough, decades later I check the Internet and find that Parent Toolkit.com tells parents of kindergarteners, “Your child should be able to skip with ease.” So there you have it. Angie and I failed to demonstrate kindergarten readiness.

It was easy to recall the music, movies, and political happenings of those times but not always the exact year they occurred. For instance, Things I remembered happening when I was growing up but couldn’t place them in time — the Miss America protests, the Lennon and Ono bed-in, and the Valley of the Dolls movie. I had to look them up to place them in Angie’s timeline. In case you’re wondering, the sheep was crowned in 1968, John and Yoko cuddled naked in front of the world in 1969, and the Valley of the Dolls drew record audiences and bad reviews in 1967. Those were the days, or rather years. I remember them well. For me and Angie.

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Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories is Donna Miscolta’s third book of fiction. Her story collection Hola and Goodbye, winner of the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and published by Blair in 2016, won an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She’s also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced from Signal 8 Press, 2011, which poet Rick Barot called “intricate, tender, and elegantly written — a necessary novel for our times.” Recent essays appear in pif, Los Angeles Review, and the anthology Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19.