Balancing Beauty and Horror in Dreaming of You: In Conversation with Melissa Lozada-Oliva

Image of a vase of flowers casting a shadow on a yellow background.

It’s February 25th and unusually chilly in Texas. Melissa Lozada-Oliva and I are making ourselves warm and comfortable in the sitting room at the Katherine Anne Porter House. We’ve been told that Melissa has 15-20 minutes for an interview before she teaches a Master Class to an eager room of MFA students. As we start talking, I know immediately that 15-20 minutes won’t feel like enough time and it’s not. Our conversation goes for almost thirty minutes and in that time we’ve weaved in and out of multiple tangents and topics. Melissa is quick witted and extremely funny. Her voice has so perfectly transferred itself through the pages of Dreaming of You. In this cozy living room in Kyle, Texas with my recorder turned on, I don’t know which question to ask first so, I started here: 

Bianca Alyssa Pérez: So, what did you hope to find at the end of Dreaming of You; what compelled you to write the first poem that ended up being in the book and did you set out to write a novel in verse when you entered in? 

Melissa Lozada-Oliva: Yeah, I think some of the poems that ended up being in the book I wrote first and they had nothing to do with Selena. I was kind of writing these…for some reason, in 2018/2017 I started getting really into horror and genre and I think it’s because my OCD and anxiety was starting to tick up, like getting really intense. So, I had this world building anxiety about dying and all these really specific intense ways I could be killed so I was writing these sex love horror poems. 

Pérez: Wow, I love all those things together. [laughs]

Lozada-Oliva: [laughs] Yeah, I was kind of just violently single. Then, the first Selena poem I wrote was actually about Yolanda Saldivar. The actress who plays Yolanda Saldivar has played a maid in movies over one hundred times. 

Pérez: Oh, so like they’ve pigeonholed her into this role. 

Lozada-Oliva: Yeah, so I wrote this poem called “Yolanda Saldivar Gets Away with It” and it’s just like an alternate universe poem where Yolanda Saldivar kills Selena and then kills the maid and steals her maid uniform and goes off into the sunset. Then, that [poem] later became “Yolanda Saldivar Breaks Out of Prison” where she kills the security guard. Then, I think I was really set on having Selena come back to life, and I was set on writing these empathetic adjacent poems to Yolanda. My advisor was like “well, [Selena] comes back to life but, how does she come back to life or like why is she back?” 

Pérez: Right, like “what’s the origin of all of this”? 

Lozada-Oliva: Yeah, so, I was like, “okay, I guess this is a story” and then I just kind of started writing these poems that like slowly linked together. Then, it was my thesis. 

Pérez: Oh, so your thesis for your MFA?

Lozada-Oliva: Mmhmm yeah.

Pérez: Wow yeah I did not know that!

Lozada-Oliva: Yeah, so it was like 85 percent done and the Greek chorus thing, the chismosas thing, was actually just me talking in all caps. But I definitely was offended when my publishers were like “this is a novel in verse” and I was like “ewwww oh really no it’s not. It’s experimental rock opera.” [laughs]

Pérez: [laughs] You’re like “actually, it’s meant to be performed by a 500-stage crew.” 

Lozada-Oliva: [laughs] Yeah, it’s supposed to be like a play. [laughs] But no, it’s a novel in verse. [laughs] 

Pérez: Yeah, the form [in Dreaming of You] is so hybrid. There is a screenplay aspect to it, and also poetry but then you have some prose, like the letter. It is very hybrid. 

Lozada-Oliva: Yeah, yeah. I think so too. I feel like even this novel I’m writing now I can’t do traditional things ‘cause I don’t like being told what to do. I’m just writing…like five different voices in it and each voice has a different genre that speaks to their character. A part of it is just like easier for me to write that way because I have like ADD or something or whatever I’m just like I can’t write a traditional thing because I’m stupid, I think. [laughs]

Pérez: [laughs] I think your mind just doesn’t work that way and that’s totally fine.

Lozada-Oliva: Yeah, my mind is like “no.”

Pérez: Like “fuck tradition!”

Lozada-Oliva: [laughs] Yeah. 

Pérez: Do you think it’s because you’re a Virgo? I read somewhere that Virgos are very hesitant towards like authoritative individuals or institutions.

Lozada-Oliva: Oh, that makes sense. That does sound like Virgo. I hate being told what to do. [laughs]

Pérez: But yeah, I’m the same way when it comes to horror. I also have anxiety, and I think, I don’t know, maybe you’ve thought about this…but like with horror because it’s so controlled and because it’s a very produced thing on screen and it’s so tightly in a box, I feel like it makes me feel better.

Lozada-Oliva: Oh, that’s a really good way to think about it…I can’t watch horror movies because they just stay with me. 

Pérez: For sure, yeah. 

Lozada-Oliva: But I like that it’s contained and it’s there. 

Pérez: What horror movie has stayed with you? 

Lozada-Oliva: Well, I mean, this is such a millennial thing, but Hereditary

Pérez: I was just about to say! Is that a millennial thing? 

Lozada-Oliva: I kind of think so. We were all adults when that movie came out, or I was an adult when that movie came out. Then, for some reason…it sent me into this like OCD spiral where I was afraid to accept food from strangers because I thought I would –

Pérez: …Because of the chocolate cake. 

Lozada-Oliva: Yeah, I thought I would get like poisoned. Whatever that dude did with the screams…there’s like a scream Ari Aster does in every single one of his movies, it sounds like it’s like coming from your groan. It makes you want to tear off your skin. Anyway, that just like stayed with me but I think that’s so cool you can do that. You can like affect people like that [in horror]. 

Pérez: Yeah, for sure! Was that the type of horror you were trying to go for in Dreaming of You

Lozada-Oliva: Dreaming of You is kind of horror comedy. I think there’s a lot of light moments. I mean, I say this so much in interviews, but whatever, I really like the line between horror and beauty. The same reason you’re so captivated by a beautiful painting is the same reason you want to look at a car crash. Like you want to see what a body looks like…then this happened and then this happened to this person’s body like a true crime. Some sick part of us is fascinated by it. 

Pérez: Oh, for sure. 

Lozada-Oliva: Yeah, like red meat at Whole Foods [we had been talking about the capitalism of Whole Foods earlier] — it’s red and glistening and kind of beautiful. 

Pérez: It’s bloody and grotesque. 

Lozada-Oliva: It’s fucked up and violent. I like the line where things teeter over. The same thing with love and hate or sex. Sex can feel so good and then, very quickly for me, and maybe for probably for a lot of people, I think everyone, it can, all of a sudden, feel really scary. You’re not comfortable; it can feel so vulnerable. 

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