If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
Kurt Vonnegut, though I’m not certain what I might make him for dinner. I feel like it might be best to bring him to a diner where they still allow smoking. I imagine us having the meatloaf but barely touching it.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
I’m obsessed with time. Do I have enough?, am I using mine wisely?, etc., therefore, I fear not having enough time to write, which I most certainly do not. I have to make time, and making time means creating little quiet pockets everywhere and anywhere so I can get words out of my head and into the computer or in my numerous journals and note-taking apps. I used to be much more regimented about dedicated composition time, but at my current stage of life, that’s just not feasible. Another fear of mine is not being able to find where I placed that crumb or nugget or spark amongst all the places I keep my ideas. One running Word doc seems to help with this.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
Steve Almond, final answer. I was in Steve’s workshop at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop many years ago, around the same time that I was getting into his writing. The combination of meeting him, learning from him in live time and via his books, created a perfect storm in my writer’s heart. He’s honest and raw, and yet a million times sensitive and mindful of character. His mantra is mercy, and that too has become a recurring thread in my work.
What books are on your nightstand?
One or two works of fiction, either a literary magazine, collection, or a novel, plus, some super thick non-fiction book about history or a biography or something that I keep there to make myself feel smart. I also have something in Spanish: a textbook, novels, or magazines. I’m always trying to brush up on my second language.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
Em dash–isn’t it lovely? I like it because it’s not a comma (my least favorite punctuation mark), and the em dash is itself a slightly longer bit of time. It’s an exhale, a passing thought, a tiny dream.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
I’ve been forever trying to read Don Quixote. I assigned it to myself in high school and actually tried to cram it over a weekend because I had procrastinated before an essay exam. To this day, I still have not read it cover to cover.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
My bookshelf. Sometimes I just stare it, feel the spines, etc., to remind me that one day I might have a book on that same shelf.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
This art is dying, kid, do everything you possibly can to keep it alive.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Energize me, most definitely, however getting to the writing itself is exhausting.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Trying to make something perfect, or thinking it will be perfect, in the first round. Just get as much as you can out of your head, and then come back again and again. Revising is where the magic happens.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
I suffer from a common writer ailment: Too-Many-Projects Syndrome. I’m invariably writing something in my head all day: a novel, short story, screenplay, poem, family history, or Season 1 of a Coming Soon hit Netflix series. Finding the vein is great, but finding too many veins overwhelms the process of creating itself.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
I get reader’s block all the time. I’m a painfully slow reader to begin with, so sometimes I grind to a halt and may not pick up the book again for weeks at a time. However, I almost always finish reading every book I pick up. Only very few have I put down and quit reading completely.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Sure. They write User Agreements, Terms of Service, Cancellation Policies, etc.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I consider my mentors my friends, but do they consider me, theirs? This would include Jess Walter, Laura Hendrie, Steve Almond. I’m Twitter pals with Leigh Camacho Roarks, Claire Rudy Foster, Tabitha Blankenbiller, and Deborah Reed, plus, my good friend Larry Feign. I went to MFA school with these aforementioned souls, and I’ve loved watching them evolve as writers. They’ve kept at it, and they’ve grown that skin that only writers have.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
I’d like to go with connections, but I believe my books might stand on their own. Reason being is I have so many interests and I like to use different voices. I also believe in the audience--they want to be challenged, and being a versatile writer is critical to a thinking audience.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Getting to publication means editing, editing, editing. Becoming a ruthless self-editor who is deft with line edits, but who can also offer objective editorial advice is a skill all its own.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Paying the money for contests, reading fees, workshop attendance, and yes, getting my MFA. It was all worth it, every penny. Writers support other writers--there’s no other way around it. I will gladly pay a fee for someone to read my work. My mentors’ salaries are priceless. Contests, tip jars, bring ‘em on. Oh, and submission services. I worked with Writer’s Relief years ago, and it was entirely worth it.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I came to like authors I never knew before because of friends’ recommendations. Sometimes those recommendations were good, others not so good. I will say Joan Didion was one of those and I was blown away by what I thought I was getting into and what amazement I experienced. I also have had a reverse experience with George Saunders. I worshipped him, even tried to emulate him, for many years, but I’ve had to take a long break and I’m not exactly sure why.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I understood my grandmother’s Spanish. While Spanish wasn’t my first language, it was spoken enough within my family that I could only make some sense of it. For my grandparents, it was their first language, so they used it more often. I remember when I translated what she said, and she was shocked, amazed, and worried--now I knew what she was saying!
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Bless Me Última was the first book that I could not put down. I read it at a time when I was really getting into literature as a young man, plus, it’s kind of like a spiritual handbook for hispanos from New Mexico. It’s widely known, but often overlooked because of its specificity in Chicano literature, however, its themes of love, death, and family are universal.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Spider. I love spiders so much. I protect them and let them be. I always have, and I think they have a magical gift being able to spin webs. There’s also the perfect writer symbolism with their skill--spinning tales.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I owe thanks to those people upon whom I base my characters. Thanks because I took a little part of them and immortalized it, made it into something. I do, however, think it’s a little like theft, but it’s also a compliment.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
One big one that’s been on ice for years, plus, an ongoing autobiography and an epic family history that may never truly be finished. I also have reams of false starts, inchoate chapters, fragmented stories, and a dustbin of “almosts.”
What does literary success look like to you?
Truly, one acceptance. That one editor, that one literary port, that one reader. That’s all we need. That’s all I’ve needed. I still remember that first letter telling me my story had a home.
That and a teaching gig, a workshop, or a lecture series. Would love to do those some day.
What’s the best way to market your books?
All means necessary, being mindful of where readers traffic. Social media has its benefits, but I wouldn’t say that’s the end all, be all. A strategic tour and readings, local media outlets, and interviews will be effective, too. I also plan to hire a publicist.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Believing that you know what is truly going on inside their mind and body. I’ve received feedback from editors and readers who have said that my writing (when written as a woman) just didn’t feel like a woman. I’ve pushed myself to truly put myself in my femenine characters’ minds and ask myself: “Would she really think/feel/do or react this way?” When I’ve done that, the results are both rewarding and eye-opening.
What did you edit out of this book?
The stories in this book are the whittled down versions of often much longer, messy drafts. Each one took many passes before it was just right. “Agony in the Garden,” for example, first started like a novella with extensive backstory and longer scenes, but it ended up being a few flashbacks and one long climactic scene.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I work full time in healthcare, which I’ve done for over 15 years. I like my day job and don’t see myself leaving it, however I do wish to close the book on it before I turn 50. I am also a husband and father, which I consider to be my most important jobs. Fantasy jobs: a showrunner for a T.V. series. That, or be a skinny vegan yoga teacher who lives in Taos, New Mexico and smokes un montón de mota.
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