Sunday, September 27, 2015

How Winter Began: A Conversation with Joy Castro

Joy Castro’s latest book, How Winter Began, will be available this Thursday, October 1st and it is a must read!  Acclaimed author, Sandra Cisneros, writes:  Joy Castro’s writing is like watching an Acapulco cliff diver. It takes my breath away.” Indeed. The characters in Castro’s stories take us into the many vicissitudes of life.  Some are fearless in the choices they make, some forever blind within the spaces they find themselves.  Another acclaimed author, Lorraine Lopez, writes of How Winter Began:  “I love the stories . . . the taut narratives, the deft portrayal of characters who, though vulnerable, are stunning in their fierce determination.”  La Bloga is so fortunate today to have author Joy Castro with us!

Thank you for being with us, Joy.  There is such a rich diversity of women’s stories in How Winter Began. How did you go about choosing the stories for this collection?

Thank you so much for your interest in this book and for wanting to share my work with the readers of La Bloga!  I really appreciate it.

The stories in How Winter Began have been developing over many years now—the earliest one was first published in 1992.  When I started to organize them into a collection, the controlling question that interested me concerns how late capitalism (inextricable from racism and sexism) interrupts, disrupts, ruptures, and restructures our primal desires:  erotic desire, the bonds between parents and children, friendships, our immersive connections with nature, and so on.

In the face of that juggernaut, how do we try to survive?  Or resist?  Or refuse survival under those terms?  What do we do to exercise agency?  How do we respond to society’s call for our self-obliteration, to its desire for us to serve as mute, attractive laborers?  The stories explore these questions.

In terms of content, there are many single mothers in these stories, many absent or distant fathers.  The protagonists are often under-parented or poorly parented, even destructively parented.  Being a single mother can be joyful, but it is also extremely difficult, as I saw when our mother was raising us on her own and as I experienced when I was a single mother myself.  Coping with sexism is always a pressure for women, and then single mothers have to be the emotional center, the authority center, and usually also the economic center of the home, the breadwinner. 

This brings tremendous pressure to bear on women, who are often still quite young and whose own needs aren’t being met.  When you add in racism and poverty, things can get very complicated.  Many of the stories in How Winter Began look specifically at the mother-daughter relationships that occur in the maelstrom of multiple pressures, at how characters cope with betrayal, and how some characters come to understand, forgive, and love again after terrible pain.

Were some stories faster/easier to write than others?  Or, for some, did you spend much time in research, followed by writing out a preliminary draft, leaving it alone for days or even weeks before coming back to it?

Most of the stories stayed stored up inside, inchoate, until they were ready, and then they slipped out in one sitting, easily, like a small wet pebble slipping from your mouth.  That’s even true for the one story that grew from inadvertent historical research, “Independence Day.”  I read a scholarly journal article about Josefa out of curiosity, just wandering around in the stacks of the UNL library one day.  Later I found myself, to my own surprise, writing from Josefa’s (fictionalized) point of view, based on the outlines of her story that I’d absorbed from that article.  I’d never written historical fiction before; I’d become obsessed with her without realizing it.

I do leave the drafts alone, sometimes for months.  Then, when they’re completely cooled off, I go back and tinker and polish.  That process is mostly about sound, and about the story’s logic in the mind of the reader.  I read aloud multiple times, listening for sonic effects.  Rhythm.  It really is all about rhythm.  If the piece doesn’t work out loud, it’s not ready.  My goal is always to make the story into an experience for the reader, an immersive, sensuous experience of sound and rhythm as well as an emotional and psychological experience.

There were two stories that did give me trouble:  “A Time of Snow” and “Personal Effects.” 

With “A Time of Snow,” I knew the original ending was flat, but I couldn’t figure out why, or how to fix it.  My friend Josh Brewer pointed out that it read more like a manifesto than a story, that it felt didactic—the kiss of death.  (I love Alice Gregory <> on this point.)  Usually if a draft has the reek of didacticism, I just scrap it, and I really tried to abandon “A Time of Snow.” 

But something about the narrator Antoinette, her voice and her gutsiness, wouldn’t let me go.  The manuscript sat around for a few years, frustrating me.  Then I suddenly realized the final actions that were missing:  Julia’s action of betrayal, Antoinette’s retaliation.  Once I added those, it became a story.  My characters are often in their heads too much, as I am, and I have to remember to get them out in the world, misbehaving.

“Personal Effects” grew from an episode I witnessed many years ago, in the winter of 1996.  For a long time, I couldn’t write about it at all—I didn’t know what it meant, or why it obsessed me, or what to do with it—and then suddenly, a couple of years ago, I could.  But even after writing it, I still had trouble controlling the material.  My draft was awkward; the different sections of the narrative just weren’t coming together.  I was helped by readers Lorraine López and Heather Lundine, and by doing after-the-fact outlining to see how the story’s segments interlocked and fit and moved.  This revealed that the failure in early drafts was primarily structural.

Once I could see the problems, in both stories, I could fix them.  The hard part is blindness—to the flaws in our work, the flaws in ourselves.  Feedback from good readers is invaluable, as is getting as much distance as possible on one’s own work.

Some of your stories are quite filmic.  I’m thinking especially of “The Noren,” and “The Notion I took.”  Do you see some of your stories in images before writing them?

Thank you!  I’m glad you think so.  That means a lot.

Such an interesting question.  Not before I start to write, but during:  once I have sat down, picked up the pen, and entered the dream.  All of the senses, too, not just vision:  smell, taste, touch, surround sound.  But with a voiceover, and that’s the part I write down:  that thread of language.  When I was drafting “A Notion I Took,” for example, I felt like my body was wet, like I was drowning, and like maybe I wanted to drown.  Writing is such a powerful and strange experience.  It takes you over.

The stories almost always begin with a line, a phrase.  Sometimes a visual image, but not as often. 

It’s a character’s voice that hooks me.  If I can’t resist the voice, if I hear it unspooling in my head—if the process of writing the first draft feels like taking dictation—then the piece usually has promise.

Tell us about the Latinas in your stories.  I’m thinking, for example, of  “The Choice I Made,” and “The Dream of the Father.”  How did these come about?

The majority of the stories in How Winter Began have a Latina protagonist.  The process is always the same:  there’s something that I witness or experience or dream, a line or a fragment, a question, a little wound that gets infected and grows into an obsession.  What if events had gone another way?  What happened before that incident that made the person behave that way or say that thing?  What might it be like to be inside that person’s mind, experiencing what she went through?  Imagination and empathy.  And then a line or a phrase occurs to me, and I start to write.

The character Iréne, whose three stories open the book (“A Notion I Took”), occur in the middle (“A Favor I Did”), and close the book (“A Choice I Made”), is one of my favorites.  I waited tables in San Antonio for several years, and Iréne’s stories got sparked by some of the things I saw and heard about during that time.  “The Dream of the Father” grew from an experience between my best friend in high school and me.  The title story “How Winter Began,” which is also about two Latina best friends in high school, is based on something that happened to one of my close relatives.  So there are splinters of real, observed life in the stories, as well as invention.

The Latinas in the books are of varied ages, cultural backgrounds, and national origins.  Iréne is Chicana; Ofelia and her niece in “Whore for a Day” are Cuban American, as is the narrator of “Musing”; Sacramento’s mother in “Dinner” is Puerto Rican and Lakota; and so on.  They’re passionate and wounded and brave, and they take huge risks with their bodies and hearts. 

Encountering Latina characters in main/whitestream literature and film, I always felt the author or director was capturing only a tiny fragment of who we are, and even that slim glimpse depicted us only in terms of the economic roles into which a racist, sexist capitalist system had forced us. 

I wanted to get behind that façade, to show the complexity, drama, and high-stakes courage of women for whom survival itself is a triumph.  My aunt cleaned houses—and that’s the only facet of her that her employers knew—but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a complicated, full, fascinating life, or that she was not an original, clever person full of desires and schemes and griefs.  As a waitress, I wore a pleasing and compliant social mask, and I know what it’s like to go into a break-room full of brown people, and what the talk is like when the masks come off, and how shocked and hurt our well-to-do white patrons would have been by how we laughed at them:  their affectations, their rudeness, their airs.  This was a very important education for me as a girl—as important as the education I got in college.  Part of my project is writing more Latinas into contemporary literature and conveying a little of the immense variety and complexity that I know to be true.

Joy Castro
You also have stories like “The River” or “The Small Heart” which are from another time, or not necessarily Latina.  Tell us about these.

I identify as Latina, but I’ve experienced some of the benefits of white privilege:  I am light-skinned; I do not speak with a Cuban accent.  So I have sometimes been able to observe the white world, too—like a spy.  A spy in the house of white.  And although I was poor as a child and young adult, I now have class privilege.  In two of the places where I grew up, England and West Virginia, Latinos were a tiny minority, and at both of the institutions where I’ve worked as a professor, most of my colleagues have been white.  I’ve had many personal opportunities to pay attention, to wonder about how structural and institutional privilege plays out in the most intimate ways.  Some of the stories in How Winter Began ask questions about white middle-class characters, particularly where their experience or awareness intersects with ethnic and racial difference, as with the stories you mention.

There are roughly three time periods represented in the book:  the 1960s, the 1980s, and a nebulous contemporary moment that ranges from the turn into the 21st-century until now.  The one historical story, set in 1851, is a chronological outlier and, in a way, functions as a foundation for everything else, because of its essential elements:  the racism, the economic greed, the sexual violation, the destruction.

“The River,” set in North Dakota in the early 2000s, intersects with “A Time of Snow,” which takes place in the 1960s and in that early 21st-century moment.  Antoinette, who is Mandan, is the narrator and protagonist of “A Time of Snow,” but she’s only a very minor character in “The River.”  I’m interested in the people at the edges of our lives, and how we ourselves are just peripheral at the edges of others’ lives, and how sometimes we don’t bother to try to imagine each other’s rich interior narratives and worlds.  For example, Antoinette’s story, which is such a complex narrative of failure and then rebellion—her Promethean filching of white male power—is completely opaque to the white protagonist Ilse in “The River.”  In that story, Ilse is having a full-blown epiphany that’s genuine and authentic for her, but it’s rimmed by blindness, by her lack of imagination and empathy.  I’ll make Antoinette a sandwich, she thinks, like it’s some massive social-justice breakthrough. 

And for her, it pretty much is.  It’s a step, and a valuable step.  I’m trying to meet my characters where they are, in all their blind and broken glory.  I can shift away, stand at a distance, and have a bit of a laugh at their expense, but to write with empathy, I have to dwell in their worlds, completely immersed in the way they see things.

In “The Small Heart,” the main character, a white schoolteacher, feels trapped politically and trapped in a marriage that’s not working.  She’s desperate; she’d gnaw off her own paw to get free, but she can only conceptualize ‘free’ in terms of a different man who’d love her, who would spirit her away and make it all better.  I’ve lived in the Midwest and Great Plains for eighteen years now, and the quiet, honorable, hardworking desperation of many white people in this region is familiar to me.

Readers have asked me how a collection of short stories is shaped.  How did you go about choosing which stories came first, second, etc.?

The stories arc toward rebellion, toward agency, toward redefining the terms of engagement—social, political, relational—for oneself.  I remember Sandra Cisneros talking to us at Macondo about closure.  “I don’t need a happy ending,” she said.  “I just need a little bit of hope.”  How Winter Began arcs toward hope.  The characters become stronger as the stories progress.  They begin to articulate what they want and make clearer decisions.

How Winter Began is also framed by the three Iréne stories.  I’ve always loved the symmetry and formal beauty of triptychs, their sense of closure, the visual echo of the spiritual icon.  Isn’t Isabel Allende’s The Stories of Eva Luna structured that way?  I think so.  I remember being devastated and dazzled by that book long ago.

There are a few important motifs that recur throughout the book—rivers, hanging, fertility, food as a symbol of nurturing or forgiveness—and I ordered the stories so those images would emerge, submerge, and reemerge in a rhythmic fashion.  The delicacy of rivers particularly fascinates me:  how they link and connect us, but how they can also function as boundaries or barriers.  How intertwined they are with human life.

Lastly, the title story “How Winter Began” (which unfolds in reverse chronological order, revealing a concern with origin moments) is as close to the center of the book as I could place it.  Rooted in the myth of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, it’s the hinge of the book, the key that opens the rest of it. 

I like it when artists hide things in plain sight.  The open secret.  That fascinates me.

Thank you so much for being with us, Joy.  La Bloga readers:  Check out Joy Castro's website where she has listed her upcoming appearances/readings and information regarding her previous publications.  


Joy Castro <> is the author of two literary thrillers set in post-Katrina New Orleans, two memoirs, and the new collection How Winter Began.  She edited the anthology Family Trouble and teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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