Victor Villaseñor inhabits a world of magic and miracles. The author of nearly two dozen books, including the landmark Mexican American family saga Rain of Gold, he lives among coyotes and cacti on an old family ranch in Oceanside, California, where he writes in longhand about his visions—for peace, harmony, and a “Godvolution” in human perception beyond the prison of our five senses.
Marc Jaffe lives 3,000 miles away, in a New England college town, the product of institutions slightly less elastic in their conception of reality. Educated at Harvard and combat tested in the Marine Corps, he spent decades atop the New York literary establishment, first as president and publisher of Bantam Books, then as executive vice president at Random House and editor in chief of its Ballantine Books imprint, and later as the editor of his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin.
“My other editors that I’ve had off and on aren’t worth a shit,” says Villaseñor, reaching Jaffe by phone at his condo in Williamstown, Massachusetts, one afternoon. “They don’t even fucking understand what I’m trying to do.”
“Well—,” says Jaffe, ever a gentleman.
“You—don’t argue with me—are brilliant and understand writing,” says Villaseñor, his gravelly voice rising to a shout. “You’re the only great editor I’ve ever had!”
“I appreciate everything you’ve just said, but, uh—,” says Jaffe.
“There is no but!” insists Villaseñor.
“Oh, Victor, you’re too much.”
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
In an era of streaming content and fleeting attention spans, this literary odd couple—the Chicano supernaturalist on the California coast and the Jewish lieutenant in the Berkshires—have sustained a partnership that defies time, trends, and technology. One is earthy and barrel-chested, with a mischievous cackle and a swashbuckling sombrero; the other exudes decorum and humility, thick glasses perched on an impressive nose and creased cheeks dissolving into a regal white beard. For 50 years, they have collaborated on virtually everything Villaseñor has written, from his debut novel, Macho!, published in 1973, to Our First Lady Pope, the paean to a spiritually cleansing, feminized future he is shopping to publishers today.
At 81, Villaseñor is the junior half of the duo. Jaffe just turned 100.
They work together remotely, but without the benefit of computers, email, or Zoom. “I don’t use machines,” says Villaseñor, who describes himself as “off the charts” dyslexic, a condition that has impeded his ability to read but, he insists, enhanced his capacity for mining deeper truths. He writes early in the morning, rising at 2 or 3 a.m. when inspired, scrawling in barely legible swirls with fine-tipped Sharpies on unlined scrap paper. After he is done for the day, he tapes the sheets together lengthwise, turning his output into a Kerouac-esque scroll.
From there, a typist translates Villaseñor’s bursts of stardust and moonlight into a Word document, then prints it out double-spaced in a generous font—usually Arial 14. “I would defy anybody to go pick up a piece of his handwriting and read one sentence,” says the longest-serving of Villaseñor’s typists and aides-de-camp, Jackie Cobb, who helped assemble his manuscripts from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s. “I don’t know how my brain got used to that. Except I will say that I was in court-reporting school, so I was used to looking at things that weren’t words to the human eye and deciphering those.”
When Villaseñor at last has sufficient material for Jaffe to digest and appraise, his team overnights a hard copy to the East Coast. Then Jaffe, who began his career as an apprentice at the long-gone men’s magazine Argosy, marks up the pages with proofreading notations and mails the bundle back to Villaseñor—a cycle they’ve repeated dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times over the course of their partnership.
“I don’t want to seem too forward about the work that I did, but I was just very patient with him: I was able to put up with a lot of his quirks as a writer and help him correct them along the way,” says Jaffe, who describes Villaseñor as a world-class storyteller if not a sentence-level technician. “His style comes out of his guts.”
Raised in the traditions of his Yaqui forebears on the same patch of San Diego County bohemia that he calls home today, the son of a bootlegger and a Cinco de Mayo queen, Villaseñor figured his odds of becoming a published author were one in a million. Before landing on Jaffe’s radar, he spent a good dozen years laboring in obscurity: working construction part-time to pay the bills, blindly mailing off manuscripts, and receiving 265 rejections for his efforts—an exercise in disappointment, he has written, that required him to be “half-crazy and have lots of illusions of grandeur.”
His fictional yet vigorously researched tale of an undocumented farmworker’s plight finally reached Bantam’s West Coast rep, Charles Bloch, one of the few literary machers to call Los Angeles home. As he often did with unsolicited manuscripts, Bloch asked his daughter, Barbara, a Berkeley graduate, to give it a read. “Frankly, I was a real bitch—I sort of rejected everybody,” she says. But she loved the energy and passion of Villaseñor’s writing, and soon she loved Villaseñor himself. “The first time I met him, he introduced himself: ‘Hi, I’m Victor Villaseñor, future Nobel Prize winner.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure you are,’ ” recalls Barbara Villaseñor, who married the author in 1974. “Well, he about fell on the ground. He was used to people saying, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ ”
An endorsement from the Blochs carried great weight with Jaffe, who oversaw Bantam’s editorial operations from the 25th floor of the company’s Fifth Avenue headquarters in Manhattan. Reading the manuscript, “I said to myself, My God, this is really an amazing story, very reminiscent of Steinbeck,” recalls Jaffe, who was raised in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood, where his physician father saw patients in their brick townhouse. It was the golden age of the mass-market paperback—Jaffe had recently published The Exorcist and The Pentagon Papers—and in Villaseñor he had found an authentic voice that captured the struggles of the migrant journey. Jaffe offered $4,000 for Macho!, which was published with the immodest tagline “The First Great Chicano Novel!”
Jaffe, who counted Louis L’Amour in his stable of writers and had worked with J.D. Salinger on the minimalist design of the original Catcher in the Rye paperback, was also the first editor to embrace the transcendent qualities of Rain of Gold and to acquire this defining work of Villaseñor’s career. But Villaseñor spent so many years researching and retooling the multigenerational account of his family’s flight from revolution-era Mexico to Southern California—a 552-page epic that would be widely compared to Alex Haley’s Roots—that he blew all his deadlines; by the time he produced a finished manuscript, Bantam had new corporate bosses, and Jaffe had moved on to Random House, which could not be persuaded to bite.
Villaseñor found a new suitor in G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which offered the literary cred of a hardcover release and advanced him $75,000. But as he tells it—in a war story he has been dining out on for decades now—Villaseñor discovered that Putnam had changed the title to Rio Grande, which struck him as some John Wayne hokum, and, worse, had sent out galleys labeling the book fiction. His prose was populated with just too many fantastical events for Putnam to accept it as a historical account. Enraged, Villaseñor confronted Putnam’s publisher, the powerful Phyllis E. Grann, over lunch at a private New York club and, while gripping the blade of a steak knife until blood dripped from his fist, demanded that she sell Rain of Gold back to him.
“Then I yelled, ‘i want our child back!’ ” Villaseñor wrote in his 2012 memoir, Beyond Rain of Gold, which Jaffe edited. “ ‘You are an unfit mother! You never really loved our beautiful little child!’ ”
The Rain of Gold manuscript ended up in the hands of a small university-affiliated publisher, Arte Público Press, which bought the work for $1,500 and published it in 1991. The book went on to become a commercial juggernaut and cultural touchstone. “By now, it’s probably sold well over a million copies,” says Jaffe, who encouraged and consoled Villaseñor throughout the ordeal. “It took a lot of guts and conviction on Victor’s part.”
While editing the manuscript that would become Beyond Rain of Gold, Jaffe lingered over several pages devoted to one of Villaseñor’s speaking engagements, a talk with a group of retired nuns and priests in the woods of Wisconsin. It is a scene that captures all of the author’s exuberance for the great, wondrous symphony of the universe—a world united in one verse, one infinite vibrating song.
“It’s just a few paragraphs, not very long, and Marc said, ‘Why don’t you take that and make it into a book on its own?’ ” says Villaseñor, who initially resisted, fearing he lacked enough material. And Jaffe replied, “Victor, I know you. You could take those few paragraphs, those few pages, and make them into three volumes.”
From that nudge a decade ago, Villaseñor turned the experience into Our First Lady Pope, a waggishly provocative manifesto that imagines the end of 26,000 years of aggressive, out-of-balance masculine energy and the dawn of a new 26,000-year cycle of “balanced compassionate female energy.” “It took somebody very old and Jewish to see it,” says Villaseñor, who insists that he has lived 15 lives on this planet, his current incarnation being only his second as a man.
The tale, which spiritually oriented Beyond Words Publishing is hoping to get into the hands of a deeper-pocketed house, is not for the metaphysically squeamish: there is levitation, shape-shifting, and a porous buffer between the living and the dead. Even before Our First Lady Pope, all the author’s dream voyaging had become a little much for Barbara Villaseñor, who realized after 25 years of marriage that her husband was on a trip she could never fully comprehend. (Still an admirer, she insisted on a clause in their divorce papers entitling her to attend his Nobel ceremony, should he ever become a laureate.)
As Villaseñor’s editor, now in a freelance capacity, Jaffe has often played a doubting Thomas: “I would throw up my hands a little bit and say, ‘Come on, Victor.’ And he’d say, ‘This is the way it happened, Marc.’ ” But Jaffe doesn’t consider it his job to dissuade Villaseñor from his more far-out beliefs, not that he could. “The most important thing I think I got out of being a Marine was being part of something larger than yourself,” says Jaffe, who served in two ferocious World War II battles, Peleliu and Okinawa, earning a bronze star for his valor. “Those of us who went into it and survived—we survived in large part because we were working together for one purpose. And that has certainly served me very well.”
Knowing when to push, recognizing when to back off, encouraging the writer to take risks, catching them when they stumble, ultimately accepting that the job is to enhance and protect, not control or mold or restrict—these are the subtle, behind-the-scenes arts that the best editors practice, often with little fanfare.
“So, I go back to saying, You’re the only great editor I’ve ever had,” Villaseñor roars into the speakerphone.
“Thank you, thank you very much, Victor,” says Jaffe, finally relenting. “Let’s put that on my gravestone or something.”•