Wednesday, March 07, 2007

I am so delighted to be able to welcome Alex Espinoza to my blog. Alex is a friend from Riverside; his beautiful first novel, Still Water Saints was released by Random House on January 30 (a week after Self Storage! We were both invited to be part of an event in Sacramento--it was Alex's first event as an author, and I was so delighted and honored to share that experience with him.) Alex is one of the sweetest, most generous and supportive people I know. His compassion infuses Still Water Saints, which Sandra Cisneros rightly calls "as perfect as the beads of a rosary. One alone is a little miracle, the whole together capable of renewing one’s faith in new fiction."

Here's the publisher's description of Still Water Saints:

“Fresh, magical, beautiful, evocative” says Lisa See, about this wonderful first novel by Alex Espinoza. Still Water Saints chronicles a momentous year in the life of Agua Mansa, a largely Latino town beyond the fringes of Los Angeles and home to the Botánica Oshún, where people come seeking charms, herbs, and candles. Above all, they seek the guidance of Perla Portillo, the shop’s owner. Perla has served the community for years, arming her clients with the tools to overcome all manner of crises, large and small. There is Juan, a man coming to terms with the death of his father; Nancy, a recently married schoolteacher; Shawn, an addict looking for peace in his chaotic life; and Rosa, a teenager trying to lose weight and find herself. But when a customer with a troubled and mysterious past arrives, Perla struggles to help and must confront both her unfulfilled hopes and doubts about her place in a rapidly changing world.
Imaginative, inspiring, lyrical, and beautifully written, Still Water Saints evokes the unpredictability of life and the resilience of the spirit through the journeys of the people of Agua Mansa, and especially of the one woman at the center of it all. Theirs are stories of faith and betrayal, love and loss, the bonds of family and community, and the constancy of change.
Alex's book is utterly transporting--I finished reading it on a bus in New York; as I blinked tears away and looked out the window, I was shocked to remember that I was on the East Coast...I had been so thoroughly immersed in the world of Agua Mansa. I was very excited to see Alex's beautiful blue cover displayed prominently in bookstores around the country. It has been getting rave reviews, too--the Washington Post calls Still Water Saints an "elegantly crafted novel", and the San Francisco Chronicle notes: "The author, too, possesses el don, and that is his beautifully impressionistic writing, which captures not only the inner lives of the novel's many characters but also the somewhat melancholy tone of a changing community, of a place that is increasingly becoming like every other place."

I had the chance to ask Alex a few questions:

--One of your characters says muralists are "artists of the people. Their work is public art, art that needs to reflect the people, their hopes and desires." When I read this, I wondered if perhaps you were talking about writing, as well--your book so beautifully reflects the people, their hopes and desires. What do you see as the function of the writer in the community?

All aesthetic concerns aside, I think a writer is a person who bears witness and embodies, to some extent, the community that he or she writes about. I think about a place like Agua Mansa, which was a real place that was wiped away by a flood in the 1860’s; all that remains of it now is a cemetery. There are so many places like that, lives like that, that go undocumented, so many communities that vanish and disappear. And I think a writer is responsible for documenting these places and these people.

And I think there is, specifically, a responsibility as a Chicano writer. I’m still trying to figure that out. Sometimes it can involve being a sort of “native informant”, bearing witness and mediating between cultures. But there’s also a responsibility to give back to your community, to share knowledge and not just horde it, to be a role model. A few weeks ago I gave a reading at a Borders in Pico Rivera. I knew no one there, but there was this great turn out, and the audience was almost entirely Latino. And I was especially gratified to see people bringing their children, sharing with them the power, the importance of the written word. There’s this hunger for literature in a lot of communities that have often been overlooked by publishers, by booksellers, by the media, and it was just so amazing and humbling to be there reading to that crowd, answering their questions, talking about the importance of education, of writing, of language, sharing my experiences. And honestly? It’s probably been my favorite reading so far.

--I loved reading about Perla writing with her gold pen, "the words
shiny, the flecks of glitter sparkling under the store's light." You
write "She wrote a list of words. She didn't think, just let them come
to her: rain, river, water, hill, mountain, car, speed, time, statues,
store, shopping, center, nice, going, trees, home, bus, learn,
remember." Is your process like this—not thinking, just letting the
words come—or do you map out your writing first?

A little of both: It depends on the character, and it depends on the situation. A writer should be vigilant and savvy enough to know when to push the process along and when to sort of let it do what it needs to do. For example, take Shawn – one of the first person narrators in the book. His voice was so relentless, so loud, so aggressive that it basically just poured out and took very little editing. Despite it being a very bleak story, it was so wonderful for me to write that chapter. I have rarely been able to replicate that, but I am always trying to reach that point again, where its almost automatic writing.

On the other hand, there are other characters who took more time and effort, and sections that took a lot more rethinking, replotting, planning, and executing. I think it’s important to determine what kind of story the character is going to require you to tell. Sometimes that’s clear, but a lot of times it’s not. For example, when I started writing Juan, the businessman with the Elvis-obsesssed mother, it wasn’t until I reached the end that I figured out what the character wanted to tell me, what he needed to tell me. And then I was able to go back and rewrite the story.

And the overall structure of the book changed a lot over time. The final novel started life as an undergraduate thesis, then got reworked and elaborated as my MFA thesis, and then became the manuscript of the novel – which has only a few traces of the theses that came before it. The undergraduate version was basically a suite of stories all centered on customers at the botanica, and Perla was a cipher. In the MFA thesis, Perla’s chapters took place over the course of a week – a really horrible week – and Perla was herself a weak, pathetic, victimized, indecisive character. When I went back to revise the manuscript, I threw out almost all of Perla’s story and recreated her. But I think I had to write what she wasn’t before I could write what she was. And it was also in that last major revision that I introduced the character of Rodrigo, the boy Perla struggles to help through the course of the year.

--When did you first start to write?

I think a lot of little things contributed to my starting to write. As the youngest of eleven children, reading and writing often gave me a quiet place to be in an otherwise boisterous house. Also, my parents and oldest siblings spoke only Spanish, so serving as a translator and learning to explain things clearly with words was a skill I had to develop early. Plus, I was born partially disabled. In PE, I was usually given a whistle to serve as ref or asked keep score, so I got good at watching people without them realizing I was there. I got good at observing, seeing everything, and keeping mental notes of all of it (and I think that is one thing writers do – we’re the people on the sideline, with the whistles and the scorecards, and you forget we’re there until we blow the whistles or call the fouls).

I started to write seriously, though, when I was in high school. I’d written an essay, and my teacher read it to the class. When she asked the class to guess who had written it, everyone turned around and looked at me – it was the first time I realized I had a voice on the page, but I didn’t know what that meant at the time. It really only all came together when I got to community college and took an English class where I first read poetry and fiction by Latino writers. I realized there were stories that needed to be told that were just as valid as those of the writers I’d read and loved in high school, like Poe or Twain. And that’s when it really all clicked.

--What was the initial spark for this novel?

When I was pursuing my BA at UC-Riverside, I needed a senior thesis. My mentor Susan Straight began talking about students at my level wanting to write novels, but I was intimidated of that word. Instead, I decided to write a set of linked stories dealing with my mother’s crazy home remedies (for example, sleeping with crushed tomatoes wrapped in rags on your feet to cure tonsilitis) but I abandoned the idea quickly; I couldn’t figure out a way to make these work as anything more that an incredibly artificial device.

Coincidentally, around this time, I was frequenting a botanica near my mother’s house; I was intrigued by the images I saw there, the smells, the soaps to help bring luck, the candles to help you find a job or win a lawsuit, the prayer cards, the mixing of different icons – the way a gold Buddha sat next to a statue of Santa Barbara. And I overheard stories about sick babies, dying parents, poverty, infidelity. It was very intimate and also very strange, very extraordinary and at the same time mundane. And I wanted to somehow capture that, so I came up with this idea of chronicling the lives of some of the customers who came into a botanica.

--And where did all of these amazing characters come from? They all feel so real, so whole—I would love to know if you had a clear vision of them before you sat down to write, or if you got to know them through writing about them.

I got to know of them through writing. I tried to write about people as unlike me as possible, and I wanted to write in many different voices, with a lot of tonal shifts. I wanted to be able to portray a range of facets of a community, to let Agua Mansa, California be my Winesburg, Ohio. So I have a drag queen, a speed freak, a schoolteacher, a business executive, an overweight teenager, a painter. And there were some narrators who got cut but who I hope will find homes someday: an elderly white widower, a young mother whose friend is trying to have a baby, and a college bound high school student enjoying a last night on the town before he leaves the city. Sometimes, a secondary or tertiary character in one story so interested me that I wanted to write his or her story as well.

--Several years ago, I wrote a novel (most likely never to be
published!) featuring a Santeria priestess. I spent time in local
botanicas, learning about Santeria, all the rituals, etc, and I really
appreciated your exploration of that world. What sort of research did
you do to delve into botanica life? I know you're working on a
historical novel now (which I can't wait to read!)--how do you find a
balance between research and writing?

I spent a lot of time in botanicas. I had to be careful, though; at some shops I went to, I sensed that the people got suspicious if I got too inquisitive, probably thinking I was planning on doing an expose. Far from it, though; I wanted to be respectful. I never faked illnesses, or pretended I had a bad gambling habit, or needed a limpia (a cleansing). Fortunately, coming from a big family, I had brothers and sisters who had visited botanicas, and I heard about how they were treated for various ailments or problems. And some botanica owners were more forthcoming. One gave me books to read and told me that that was how he had learned. Plus, years and years of working retail helped me to capture a lot of the day-to-day elements of running a shop – stocking merchandise, doing displays, cleaning. And to capture, I hope, that strange intimacy that can develop between a customer and a shopowner.

The new novel is historical, and while I started by reading some general histories, looking at some archival photos, and talking to family members who remembered the period in question, I didn’t want research to end up as an excuse for not writing: “I can’t start the novel until I know exactly what kind of shoes people were wearing in 1937.” I find that bouncing between the writing and the research is the best method for me.

--Any words of advice for aspiring writers?

Six suggestions:

1.) Commit yourself. If you’re going to do it, do it. No more excuses.
2.) Write regularly. Write on a schedule. Write every day. Writing’s like a muscle – if you don’t exercise it, it atrophies and gets weak. For a first draft, I write at least 1,000 words a day; I don’t worry about spelling or grammar, and I sometimes leave things out to fill in later. Then I have the clay to mold into a more finished work, which is where the real work begins.
3.) Read good work. Develop a palate for what you consider good fiction, and be inspired by that.
4. )Put yourself out there. Go to workshops. Go to readings. Meet other writers. There’s something to be said about saying to a writer that you admire, ‘I am a writer, too.”
5.) Be tenacious. Don’t give up, even in the face of rejection. I got rejected a lot before I sold my manuscript, and my work still gets rejected even with that on my resume.
6. )Trust the process. Know that your work, if it is good, if it is honest, will find its audience.

--Fabulous advice, Alex. Thank you so much for all of your thoughtful answers!

Alex just accepted a job teaching at CSU Fresno. I'm going to miss having him here in Riverside; Fresno is very lucky to be gaining him, indeed. And the world in general is very lucky to be gaining Alex as an author. Pick up Still Water Saints--you'll know just what I mean.

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