Oscar Villalon is the managing editor of ZYZZYVA. Before moderating a Zócalo event asking “Are We Living in a World Ray Bradbury Tried to Prevent?” in honor of Bradbury’s centennial birthday, Villalon chatted in the green room about The Martian Chronicles, his favorite Elvis Presley karaoke song, and the importance of taking the time to be still.
What was the first science fiction book you remember reading?
Does Watership Down count? I tried to read Watership Down when I was in fourth grade, but it was disastrous. When I went in with my mom to buy the book, the bookseller who sold it to me was like, are you sure you want to read this? And I was like yes, damnit, it’s about rabbits. I made it maybe 30 pages in, and what really hammered me is I realized Richard Adams was writing some stuff in not English. But I read those first 30 pages over and over again.
The first [science fiction book] I really enjoyed was The Martian Chronicles. Looking back on it now, Bradbury wrote it in such an open and generous way that made it so easy for an 11- or 12-year-old to fall into it.
What year, past or present, would you want to time travel to?
Well I have to say this is I’d travel back in time any time before 2016, just to see if—to refer to another Ray Bradbury story, [“A Sound of Thunder”], with the butterfly effect—one could unstep, somehow, to make things a little bit different today. As far as going forward, at this point, I’m really hesitant to travel further into time to see how things go.
What do you wake up to?
Recently, I’ve been waking up to the sickly yellow light of the wildfires up here in San Francisco. So that’s waking up to a certain amount of anxiety. On the other hand, waking up with some sense of purpose, of making sure to carry on, which is not super exciting, but you know getting up, and making meals, and taking the dog out for a walk, and reading, and otherwise helping my wife and son, and doing all those little things that really make up a life.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I haven’t done karaoke in a long time but my go-to karaoke song would probably be—if it’s available—Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”
What is a hidden talent of yours?
At one time I was a three-time consecutive thumb wrestling champion at 826 Valencia [a nonprofit that supports kids in their writing].
What makes a good thumb wrestler?
I’m glad you asked. I actually wrote a booklet for 826 that they still sell as a fundraiser called “The Way of the Thumb” where I lay all this out. But I will tell you this much: Just like in boxing where you’ve got to take leather to give leather, the same thing applies to thumb wrestling. You’ve got to put the thumb out there—be willing to risk a pin.
You mentioned you've been cooking. Have you been making anything special in COVID?
Well until we had this heat wave, I was making a lot of Mexican rice. I love, love Mexican rice. It’s a great comfort food, and I haven’t made it in so long. I’m reminded of my grandmother’s Mexican rice. I can’t do it as well. But man, that has been my quarantine comfort food.
What’s the last thing that inspired you?
The other weekend we took a long drive in the area by Santa Cruz that’s now all on fire, right by the beautiful Redwoods. Up there, in the beauty of the natural world. There’s something about those forests. We’re so fortunate to have them there. When you go, you’re just riding through, windows rolled down, the smell of the woods, trees, even from the water coming below from the creeks. That’ll do it.
What’s a piece of advice you’ve been thinking about lately?
It’s not world-shattering, but really, really get as much rest as you can. Nap, if you have to. Go to bed early, if you can. You just really need to conserve your energy. We work ourselves to death; that’s literally true, but particularly now, anything you can do to just give yourself a chance to be still. Just to sleep and dream. That’s really important.