Manuel Muñoz, an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona, recently won a prestigious Whiting Writers' Award. The $50,000 prize is given annually to 10 emerging writers. Muñoz hails from Central California and received his bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University and an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University. His first book, Zigzagger, was published in 2003, and his second, The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, was published in 2007. Muñoz discussed the award, his work and his future.

What was your reaction when you found out you won the award? How are winners selected?

Complete surprise. There's a group of nominators, and they select about 100 up-and-coming writers in all genres. Then they have a separate panel, much smaller, that takes that 100, and they select 10. You never know who nominated you, and you never know who was on the panel. It's very secret. That's what makes it so prestigious and unnerving, I guess, because you don't know who was out there ... reading and supportive of your work.

You've published two novels. Who are they about? What are they about?

They are set in California, in rural towns much like where I grew up. They have lots of different characters. I think sometimes, people want to describe (the characters) as immigrant characters, which isn't true. I think there are a lot of people of Mexican heritage; sometimes, I never say if (the characters) are U.S. citizens are not, and for me, it doesn't matter. It's writing about the people who live in that community. People choose to describe them in that way. I have gay characters as well, and their struggles to come to terms with living in a place that tests them, frankly.

Are your novels autobiographical?

They are not autobiographical. They're based on experience, on things that I've heard, but I've twisted it into fiction, because real life doesn't operate the way we think a story does. Life has one beginning and one end. Stories are constructed. There might be a character who was based on somebody that I remember seeing as a kid, but I've made up a whole other life by them.

How did you first become interested in literature?

Like most writers, I was kind of lonely as a kid. You get lost in books as a way to hide. You get great pleasure from inserting yourself into that world. Then somewhere, you cross the line from reading into wanting to create that world for yourself.

Did you have any books in particular that you were inspired by?

The Wizard of Oz. I remember watching the film as a kid and being enchanted by it. When I was at the library, I took out the illustrated version. It's a big book, and it's one of the first big books I ever read. I just thought that the book was so much better. It was so transportive. I must have checked that book out 40 times from the library.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a writer?

I've gone to writers' conferences and readings around the country, and to hear people tell me that (what I write about) is something they never knew, it's really important to me. I was nominated for this prize in Ireland, the Frank O'Connor (Award). When I was there, I was really taken and moved by people I met from Ireland and from England, who--you know, Chicano life isn't even on their radar. (It was rewarding) for them to say, "Wow, I really learned something about your country and about how deep the shading of American identity can go."

What are your plans for the future?

I completed a novel, and I'm editing. It's about a female country singer in 1950s Bakersfield. I have another novel in mind, and right now, I'm just getting acclimated to teaching. It's a change in career for me. I'm just taking great pleasure in being back in this world of students who are so eager to learn and read and talk. It's really wonderful.

What about your writing career after this award?

It's coming at the right time. The award is meant to catch you at a very particular moment in your career, and the award asks the rest of the literary world to pay attention. It's a huge gift. You can put the money aside; it's really what the award is asking. It's kind of a pressure. Thank god my novel's already done. (Laughs. ) I'm very aware of how important the award really is, and I'm thankful they felt moved by my work.

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