Daniel Olivas was raised near downtown Los Angeles, the middle of five children and the grandson of Mexican immigrants. He attended St. Thomas the Apostle grammar school, and then Loyola High School. Olivas received his BA in English literature from Stanford University and law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.
As a law student at UCLA, Olivas was elected co-chair of La Raza Law Students Association (1982–1983), and served as editor-in-chief of the Chicano Law Review (1983–1984). He met a fellow law student, Susan Formaker, during their first year at UCLA. They married in 1986 in a Jewish ceremony at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. In 1988, Olivas converted to Judaism within the Reform tradition. They settled in the San Fernando Valley and had their only child, Benjamin, in 1990. In 2017, after their son graduated from college and moved out, they left the Valley and moved closer to downtown Los Angeles.
Olivas has practiced law with the California Department of Justice as a deputy and supervising deputy attorney general since 1990. Prior to 1990, he was in private practice with the now-defunct Heller Ehrman LLP. His wife is an administrative law judge. Their son received his bachelor's degree in Anthropology at UCLA.
Before becoming a fiction writer, Olivas authored numerous legal articles, essays and book reviews for the Los Angeles Daily Journal. He started writing fiction in 1998 with the publication of his first short story in the literary journal, RiversEdge published by the University of Texas-Pan American.
His first book was a novella, The Courtship of María Rivera Peña, which was published by a small and now-defunct Pennsylvania-based press, Silver Lake Publishing (not to be confused with the Los Angeles-based publisher of the same name), in 2000 and is now out of print. The novella is loosely based on Olivas's paternal grandparents' migration from Mexico to Los Angeles in the 1920s. The book received modest response and mixed praise including a review in the online journal, Critique Magazine, where book critic Christina Gosnell noted: "This novel is invaluable in its own right. Mr. Olivas is a writer who believed in it enough to tell it, and many readers can be enriched by his noble effort. But Mr. Olivas inadvertently starched the edges of this story, stiffening the softness of a passion obviously true, and consequently obscured the brilliance of all love stories: the love." Yet, critic Chris Mansel, writing for The Muse Apprentice Guild, sang the novella's praises: "What a loving and sweet study is The Courtship of María Rivera Peña. Every page you can imagine on the screen, lit beautifully and acted as well as the story was written. Daniel A. Olivas writes with the confidence and grace of a village storyteller entrusted to keep the stories alive. We are taken step by step through the history of a marriage, a relationship and a way living unknown to most. This is a story that deserves your attention."
Three short-story collections followed in quick succession, each published by Bilingual Press, an award-winning publisher affiliated with Arizona State University. These story collections established Olivas's reputation as a fiction writer.
The first of the collections, Assumption and Other Stories (2003), received praise including in a Los Angeles Times review by James Sallis who noted: "Olivas is adept at establishing character in a sentence or two; he creates an image, a moment of self-deception, in which we come to know these characters intimately and easily imagine their entire lives...." The Midwest Book Review observed that Olivas has been recognized as "one of the best and most original Hispanic American authors working today."
The second collection, Devil Talk: Stories (2004), is marked by Olivas's inclusion of stories steeped in the literary genre of magical realism. Author and book critic, Rigoberto González, writing for the El Paso Times, stated: "The pleasure of Devil Talk is that no story repeats its surprise element, so there's no guessing what happens next." The Midwest Review noted that Olivas "presents his wickedest work in these eerie tales that walk the line of darkness, from a botched robbery with deadly consequences on the same day that JFK is buried to a young man's preternatural ability to see exactly what his girlfriend is doing when he is away. An enthralling collection; the stories are so tantalizing that they are best devoured all at once."
His third collection, Anywhere But L.A.: Stories (2009), was also well received by the critics. For example, writing for the online journal, The Rumpus, critic Vinoad Senguttuvan observed: "As Olivas's displaced characters drift, their perceptions become hazy. Yet what brings them together, what gives their world clarity, is art. Art as in paintings and literature, as well as in food, drinks, and music. Dishes full of flavor, Mexican spices and smells, stand vivid in the center of the gatherings. When exiles dream of other places, those places are filled with company and art. This focus on gatherings as a place for characters to find the community they’ve lost, is one of Olivas's most powerful themes." Acclaimed author, Daniel Alarcón, offered this assessment of Olivas's third collection in a back cover blurb: "Like the cities they describe, the stories in Anywhere But L.A. shift and slide and refuse to be pinned down. Daniel Olivas is an exciting writer, whose prose rings with humor, insight, and power."
In September 2017, Olivas published another collection, The King of Lighting Fixtures (University of Arizona Press). Early reviews have been strong. For example, Kirkus Reviews called the collection, "[a]ssured and perceptive, offering a view of another Southland from Chandler’s and Didion’s." And Foreword Reviews observed that Olivas's "bold insistence on leaving a few seams visible, a few threads frayed—even on pulling the rug away entirely—makes the book resound as a fascinating exploration of both the art of storytelling and the ways in which fiction echoes the messiness of life."
In 2011, the University of Arizona Press published Olivas's first novel, The Book of Want, which received universal praise. The novel is written in the magical realist tradition but also includes postmodern elements such as sections where characters are interviewed about being in the novel itself, text messages, and a short play. Each chapter is inspired by one of the Ten Commandments; the novel begins with a prologue and ends in an epilogue. In response to the novel, the High Country News observed: "Olivas is emerging as an important voice in the social and magical realist tradition of Luis Alberto Urrea, Gabriel García Márquez and Sandra Cisneros." In a Los Angeles Magazine review, Wendy Witherspoon stated: "Olivas's brand of magical realism has a sense of humor about itself, and he succeeds in harnessing the genre’s unique ability to expose what’s beneath the surface."
Based on this novel, Olivas's role as a magical realist is discussed and analyzed in The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature (Routledge, 2012) edited by Suzanne Bost and Frances R. Aparicio. The novel won several literary awards and was a semifinalist for the 2012 Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award. In a review published in ForeWord Magazine, Janelle Adsit acknowledged the novel's blend of realism and magic as well as its place within the canon of Latino literature: "It's a work of realism...but not without a dose of the magic—linking it with important works of Latino literature. The Book of Want is one such important work."
Between 2003 and 2010, the Los Angeles Times published six of Olivas's children's stories. One of those stories, "Benjamin and the Word," was eventually republished by Arte Público Press in 2005 as a bilingual picture book. The story revolves around a boy named Benjamin who is Chicano and Jewish and who suffers bigoted taunts on the schoolyard. The book received praise including from Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, who stated: "In the pressure-cooker of elementary school, where high stakes testing is winning out over funding for anti-bias education, Olivas helps us understand the effect name-calling has on young people and how parents can effectively talk to their children about hate." And Kirkus Reviews observed: "A quiet look at prejudice, forgiveness and friendship."
Olivas edited Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, 2008), where he brought together sixty years of Los Angeles fiction by Latino writers. The volume collected not only some of the best-known Latino writers such as Luis Alberto Urrea, Helena María Viramontes, Luis Rodriguez, Kathleen Alcalá and John Rechy, it also introduced writers at the beginning of their careers such as Melinda Palacio, Manuel Muñoz, Salvador Plascencia and Reyna Grande. The anthology was well received by the critics. For example, Gregg Barrios, writing for the San Antonio Express-News, observed: "Long overdue, Latinos in Lotusland is a literary GPS guide to El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, aka the city of Angeles as seen through Latino—mostly Mexican American and Chicano—writing.... And, oh, the places they will take you." In a review published in the El Paso Times, Sergio Troncoso observed: "The panoply of characters includes pachucos, people of paper, lonely strangers, small-time journalists solving mysteries, and concrete finishers proving themselves with guts and guile in the world of work."
In 2016, Tía Chucha Press released The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles which Olivas co-edited with Neelanjana Banerjee and Ruben J. Rodriguez. The anthology includes a wide range of poetry by new, mid-career, and acclaimed writers such as Dana Gioia, Ruben Martinez, Wanda Coleman, Holly Prado, and many others. Of the anthology, Professor Frederick Luis Aldama of The Ohio State University said: “The dexterous hands of this high-octane trio of editors pull together in one exquisite volume LA's finest of polymorphous polyglot poetic voices.”
On June 1, 2014, San Diego State University Press published Olivas's first nonfiction book, Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews. The volume brings together a decade’s worth of essays that have appeared in The New York Times, La Bloga, Jewish Journal, California Lawyer, and other publications, that address a broad spectrum of topics from the Mexican-American experience to the Holocaust. The book also includes 28 interviews that Olivas conducted over the years with well-established and emerging Latino/a writers including Daniel Alarcón, Gustavo Arellano, Richard Blanco, Sandra Cisneros, Héctor Tobar, Luis Alberto Urrea, Justin Torres, Reyna Grande, and Helena María Viramontes.
Early reviews were positive. For example, the Los Angeles Review of Books observed: "Many of the subjects that Olivas addresses in this book are important to current conversations about Latino literature, especially among students and writers. And not just Latinos — conversations about using multiple languages and Latino literary traditions like magical realism require more sophistication. Olivas's Things We Do Not Talk About can be a useful tool to incite any reader into deeper thought not only about these subjects, but also about questions of authority and responsibility. These can be complicated topics, but Olivas leaves plenty of room for your own nuanced answers."
And writing for The Latino Author, Corina Martinez Chaudhry said: "The author does a grand job of showing that Latinos, although having a commonality of Spanish in most instances, are citizens that come from all walks of life and struggle to attain the American dream just like everyone else. And this is why his essays are powerful and insightful and why the title Things We Do Not Talk About fits perfectly."
In November 2017, Olivas will publish his first book of poems, Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press).
Olivas's fiction, poetry, essays, author interviews, and book reviews have appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Jewish Journal, The MacGuffin, Exquisite Corpse, High Country News, California Lawyer, PANK, and El Paso Times.
Olivas is a contributing writer to more than a dozen anthologies including Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers, edited by Rob Johnson (Bilingual Press, 2001), Love to Mamá: A Tribute to Mothers, edited by Pat Mora (Lee & Low Books, 2001), Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America, edited by Robert Shapard, James Thomas and Ray Gonzalez (W. W. Norton, 2010), and New California Writing 2012 (Heyday Books, 2012), edited by Gayle Wattawa.
Olivas is featured in Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia: Conversations with Writers and Artists (University of Texas Press, 2006) edited by Frederick Luis Aldama. Olivas was a member of Con Tinta and shares blogging duties on La Bloga.
Olivas is part of a tradition of Latino attorneys who have also become established as creative writers. This tradition includes Martín Espada, Yxta Maya Murray, Manuel Ramos, and Michael Nava.