Sunday, November 22, 2015

_Faith and Fat Chances_: Interview with Author Carla Trujillo

Author, Carla Trujillo has just published her second novel, Faith and Fat Chances:  A Novel (Curbstone Books/NorthwesternUniversity Press) to much acclaim.  Chicana writer, Sandra Cisneros, writes: “Carla Trujillo writes with corazon . . . her work is savvy, tough, and laugh-out-loud funny.  This is the voice of the new millennium.”  Ellery Washington, Associate Professor at The Pratt Institute writes, “Trujillo’s voice is at once tender and true, epic and poetic.  She seamlessly weaves together the essential elements of great storytelling—a timeless location and unforgettable characters forced into increasingly complex situations.” This is a novel about familia that goes beyond blood relations—it’s about a community coming together to support and love each other. 
And we are very fortunate to have Carla Trujillo with us today. 

Carla Trujillo!  Thank you so much for being with us on La Bloga to talk about your new novel, Faith and Fat Chances.  The novel is set in New Mexico, where you were born, and its focus is on a hardscrabble community on the outskirts of Santa Fe, called “Dogtown” whose residents and their land are being threatened by a developer. The Los Alamos Nuclear Lab and the environmental damage it has caused is also here.  You so deftly take these big topics and place them within a struggling and diverse community of people—a well-wrought ensemble of characters who grapple with their own demons as well as each other.  As well, two of the characters are lesbian and, refreshingly, their sexual orientation is really not an issue here.  The residents of “Dogtown” are diverse and quite colorful.  It’s a story of familia, of brother and sister strife, of church and state.  So much here!  Let’s get started. 

First—how did this novel come about?

The novel is totally fiction and I had a great time writing it. I would say, though, that a partial impetus for the story came from my grandmother having to give up her little corner grocery store through eminent domain—a store that had fed all 7 of her children for decades. Another impetus came from encountering an abnormal number of New Mexican women who developed thyroid cancer (including my mother), at a young age, along with my grandfather dying of leukemia at the age of 39. I also wondered, when I visited cemeteries throughout the state, how so many (non-veteran) men and women might have died in their prime during the 1940’s. From the research I’ve conducted, the cancer and early deaths may have resulted from the deadly down winds of nuclear testing during the construction of the atomic bomb. I didn’t plan to write this kind of story, but I think it exemplifies some of the things I care about. Paradoxically, I found myself injecting humor into the narrative. Maybe it comes from observing my family—laughing alongside hardship.

Author, Carla Trujillo
What kind of research did you conduct for the novel?  For example, I’m thinking of the two issues of eminent domain and the environment (damaged by nuclear sites) in the novel.

Some of the research came from consulting books and research articles that addressed the impact of deadly down winds from nuclear testing. Other research came from visiting the Atomic Energy Museum in Albuquerque, N.M. which had a surprising amount of information regarding the destruction of lives by the bombs in Japan, and the damage to the environment and deaths of people and animals who lived downwind in New Mexico,. I also spoke with women who had developed thyroid cancer (which was only anecdotal research), and spoke with a nuclear scientist who had worked in a National Lab. Lastly, I toured various cemeteries throughout the state. Like a lot of classified research, most is unavailable to the public, but based on all these data points, I felt I had enough information to create these story lines.

My research on eminent domain also came from consulting various magazines and newspapers, along with my grandmother’s own personal experience. I also spoke with a lawyer who assisted me with technical information associated with urban development.

I loved the character of Pepa, the curandera.  Tell us about how she was developed. 

The main character, Pepa Romero, a feisty curandera who drinks, smokes, and cusses, anchors the story and guides us through a world of people living on the poor side of Santa Fe, all of whom are facing a life-changing dilemma. Pepa’s character came to me as a “fictional sister” of the tough-talking grandmother in my first novel, What Night Brings. She was also a bit of an amalgam of some the other women in New Mexico I recall at the local Bingo Hall I went to as a child with my grandmother--women who gossiped, smoked, and could eagle-eye 10 bingo cards all at once.

All of the characters, even the antagonists like Gilbert or the protagonists like Tala, are not flat characters.  You round them out with positive and negative characteristics.  How do you go about developing character?

I like character driven novels and believe if you have (in the words of Dorothy Allison), “a goddamn, good ass character,” you can write about anything. I have been wonderfully influenced by Sandra Cisneros and many other teachers I’ve worked with on doing whatever I can to create complex characters, an attempt, I think of trying to emulate how most people are in this world. If I feel a character is flat I’ve got to figure out how to “inhabit” them and look at things like anger, joy, shame, and fear. Here I express my appreciation to (the now deceased) Gill Dennis from the Squaw Valley Writers Conference for teaching me this.

Carla Trujillo in San Antonio, TX-- signing one of her books for Dr. Norma Alarcon (standing left)
Did you know how this novel was going to end before you finished it?  Some authors say they know the ending before they even write.  How is it for you?

Just like my first novel, What Night Brings, and this one, too, I honestly did not know how everything would end. I did want the “good-guys” to win, but wasn’t sure how I’d make it happen. I also had a goal of illustrating how complicated things can become when poor people are offered money to leave their homes. Lastly, I don’t outline my novels so that I might fully embrace the freedom of creativity without being burdened by pre-planning. Since everyone is different, I encourage writers to do whatever works best.

It is quite a feat to navigate an ensemble as you did with all these characters.  What’s your secret?

In addition to Pepa Romero, the irreverent curandera who anchors the story, the novel needed other voices to represent the community impacted by the proposed development and the key players who seek to destroy it. Delving into the hearts and minds of several different characters was challenging but fun. I needed to fully embrace each person’s complexity and visualize who they were, what they cared about, and how they spoke and moved through the world.

Who was your favorite character as you wrote the novel?  Why?

Pepa is my favorite character. She is a gifted healer but doesn’t seem to possess a giant ego about it. She is also feisty, strong, tough, and funny—a true joy to write. I hope readers will enjoy her, too.

Writer/Artist, Anel Flores with author, Dr. Carla Trujillo at a reading at University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley
Why did you call the community “Dogtown?”

Many poor communities on the outskirts of cities are often referred to as Dogtowns. There is one in Oakland, CA, and a “Dog Patch” in San Francisco. Additionally, there are lots of dogs running around my fictional community in Santa Fe, which partially influences the name.

What do you hope readers will take with them from reading your novel?

I had a great time writing it and would really love it if readers are entertained by the characters and enjoy the story. I also hope readers will bring their own knowledge and insights to what I’ve created regarding issues of gentrification, family discord, and fallout from nuclear testing; this in conjunction with the spiritual subtext running throughout the story.   

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our La Bloga readers?

I appreciate your (and La Bloga’s) support of my work. I would also love people to review Faith and Fat Chances, if so inclined.

Regarding new developments, I’ve drafted a new novel and hope that it, too, will see the light of day. Readers can keep an eye on new developments, readings, and more at: Carla

Thank you so much, Carla!

Carla Trujillo -- BIO:
Carla Trujillo was born to a working class family in New Mexico and grew up in Northern California. Her extended family and roots are New Mexican (Chicana). She received her B.S. degree in Human Development from UC Davis, and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her dissertation focused on assessing differential treatment of underrepresented students in college classrooms. She is the editor of two anthologies, Living Chicana Theory (Third Woman Press), and Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About (Third Woman Press), winner of a Lambda Book Award and the Out/Write Vanguard Award. Her first novel, What Night Brings (Curbstone Press 2003), won the Miguel Marmol prize focusing on human rights. What Night Brings also won the Paterson Fiction Prize, the Latino Literary Foundation Latino Book Award, Bronze Medal from Foreword Magazine, Honorable Mention for the Gustavus Meyers Books Award, and was a LAMBDA Book Award finalist. Her latest novel, Faith and Fat Chances (CurbstoneBooks/Northwestern University Press 2015), was a finalist for the  PEN-Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  Carla has also written various articles on identity, race, gender, and higher education. She works as the Assistant Dean for the Graduate Diversity Program at U.C. Berkeley and has focused some of her recent activities on improving the work and classroom climate using Interactive Theater. She has lectured in Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley and Mills College, and in Women’s Studies at S.F. State University. She has also taught fiction for the Sandra Cisneros Macondo Writers Program and the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writers Program.

No comments: