Sunday, August 04, 2013

Interview with Alex Espinoza on his new novel, _The Five Acts of Diego León_

Amelia Montes:  Primero, felicidades Alex, on the great reviews The Five Acts of Diego León has been receiving. For our readers, I want to share with them three reviews on your novel--from Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Dagoberto Gilb:

“A story that begins in revolutionary Mexico and travels to Hollywood during the film industry's transition from silent films to talkies, The Five Acts of Diego León breaks greater silences—taboos of race and sexuality, of reinvention and assimilation—in a fantasy called Hollywoodland.” --Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street

"Fresh, surprising, and delightful. There is nowhere this gifted writer can't go."
--Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird's Daughter

“An elegant, startling vision of a Mexican in America, The Five Acts of Diego León proclaims the ascendance of a unique new talent, Alex Espinoza—a Chicano in America certain to surpass the fame of his novel’s silent Hollywood hero. Espinoza takes our literature from a mute, black-and-white era to a national stage with full-spectrum color, in high-tech surround sound.” --Dagoberto Gilb, author of Woodcuts of Women

These are fabulous reviews, Alex! Te lo mereces! I've been thinking about how you switched from fiction to historical fiction, but Still Water Saints does have hints of historical fiction. There is history within Still Water Saints, yes? 

 Alex Espinoza:  I suppose there are some elements of historical fiction in Still Water Saints. But I think of it as somewhat of an “alternate” history, one where the city of Agua Mansa was not destroyed in a flood in the 1860s, but one where the settlement thrived and grew into another Southern California working class suburb and exists alongside all the others dotting the landscape.   

 Amelia Montes:  When did you first begin creating The Five Acts of Diego León? What brought you to this story?

Alex Espinoza:  I was doing research for Still Water Saints and was nearing the completion of the manuscript and working on edits with my agent when I came across an interview with Ricardo Montalbán in the LA Times where he recounted, in great detail, the frustrations he felt as an actor of color in Hollywood. Montalbán was consistently being typecast as the “Latin Lover” and forced to play anything but a Mexican, he stated. That interview, and his memories, got me thinking about the ways in which artists of color are always being forced to make compromises that pit culture against craft. About this time I took a trip to the Pátzcuaro region of Michoacán where I met a mask maker who told me about the myth of masks and their significance for the Purépecha people. I also learned about Vasco de Quiroga, the first bishop of the region, a devout believer in Thomas Moor’s Utopia. Quiroga taught the indigenous how to be self-reliant and assigned each village along the lakeshore a specific “craft.” All of this…the Montalbán interview, the masks, Vasco de Quiroga’s legacy…got me thinking about roles and identity and the way fate shapes destinies and how we sometimes find the will and courage to challenge all of it. Diego’s story was born out of that.     

Amelia Montes:  Thank you for relating your journey to create Diego’s story.  It reveals how open, truly open you are to the world around you.  So after this trip and the history you learned in Mexico, how did you then continue to learn more.  Tell us how you conducted your research.

Alex Espinoza:  Oh, the research is always the best part, ¿que no? Where to begin? I spent many chilly winter days and nights in my pajamas, buried under blankets, watching tons of old films on Turner Classic Movies, focusing on those produced when sound was first introduced to Hollywood. I visited historical archives in Mexico City, unearthing documents and photographs from the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero Rebellion. I read countless books, both fiction and nonfiction, on everything and anything having to do with Hollywood, focusing specifically on the experiences of actors and actresses of color. And I watched the Spanish-language version of the classic 1931 film “Dracula,” which starred Lupita Tovar (the inspiration for the character of Alicia Prado in The Five Acts of Diego León), over and over again.

Amelia Montes:  I love that Spanish-language version, and have showed it to my students who prefer it over the English version. What a great way to do background research! I feel as if this is also a love letter to Hollywood (specifically a “Latino” Hollywood). Yes? Comments?

Alex Espinoza:  To some extent, yes. It’s a love letter to the Hollywood of yesterday, to the glamour, the glitz, and the sophisticated movies that were well scripted and well acted (Not that they aren’t today!). But, at the same time, I think it’s also an “angry” letter to an industry that has systematically ignored the contributions of Latinos/as over the years, an “angry” letter to an industry that consistently misrepresents us, that seems to despise us even as it tries to court us.    

Amelia Montes:  Yes.  That comes through.  As well, I’ve been wanting to ask you about Diego in terms of your first novel, Still Water Saints.  I see Still Water Saints as a bildungsroman in terms not only of Perla, but of the entire community of Agua Mansa. How is Diego, in a way, part of Agua Mansa-- regarding his own "coming of age."

Alex Espinoza:  I think I see The Five Acts of Diego León more as a künstlerroman, I suppose, more a story about the maturity of a young artist who is exploring his medium, who is doing everything he can to figure himself out as an artist, testing the limits and possibilities of his craft. I guess I see the journeys Diego and Perla and Agua Mansa not so much as stories of people and places that are “coming of age” but more as those of people and places that are “coming into being,” forever forming and changing and morphing into new and exciting entities.

Amelia Montes:  A continuous “coming of age!”  Tell us the process of writing this novel. Did you divide sections to work on? How did you organize the development on the sections?

Alex Espinoza:  I started first by writing one thousand words a day, every day, following a vague plot. Once something resembling a story emerged, I began the arduous task of cleaning it up, tightening up the language, the plot, and the characters. After many attempts, after much kicking and screaming, the five actual acts emerged. Once things were separated, I would sometimes focus on specific acts, knowing each piece was part of a bigger movement and that everything needed to be precisely synchronized.

Amelia Montes:  Also on process: When you sat down to write, did you use notes or did you first just write and bring in the historical facts later?

Alex Espinoza:  Sometimes as I wrote, I looked over notes I had taken. Other times I didn’t. I brought in historical facts as they seemed relevant to the scene or moment I was writing. 

Amelia Montes:  What were the most challenging aspects in writing The Five Acts of Diego León? 

Alex Espinoza:  Constantly wrestling with my own self-doubt.

Amelia Montes:  What kinds of things do you do or do you tell yourself to push through the self doubt, which helped you write the 1,000 words a day.

Alex Espinoza:  Whenever I'm faced with self doubt, the best thing I've found to do is turn to a piece of writing that inspires me. I read it again and again. Or, I talk to my friends, other writers, or people who believe in me and my work more than I sometimes do. They help me put it all in perspective.

Amelia Montes:  What came very easily--almost like magic? What is that like when that happens?

Alex Espinoza:  Anytime I wrote scenes involving the character of Fiona Falk. She was just a joy to write, to explore, and to watch develop. Writing scenes involving her was the most fun I’d had in a long time. 

Amelia Montes:  When you finished your first draft, did you let it sit for a while or did you immediately have someone or a group read it for responses (or were you doing this all along the way?)

Alex Espinoza:  I let it sit for a long while and tinkered with it off and on before passing it along to my editors at Random House.

Amelia Montes:  What is your favorite section in the book and why?

Alex Espinoza:  There’s a scene where Diego is running through the back lots of Frontier Pictures, the fictional film studio in the book, when he imagines seeing his old friend Javier, who is back in Mexico. It’s my favorite scene precisely because it’s my own small homage to a scene from one of my favorite novels: Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust.

Amelia Montes:  What challenges do writers have today in the publishing world?

Alex Espinoza: Finding readers, I think. And getting book reviewers to review us. Book review space has dwindled down to almost nothing. 

Amelia Montes:  In the publishing world, in what ways are Chicana and Chicano writers marginalized? 

Alex Espinoza:  ¡Ay! Where to begin? Well, for one, the term "Chicano" or "Chicana" isn't one most book people know anything about. We're talking about New York City after all. The Latino presence there tends to be largely Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Cuban. Mexican Americans and Chicanos/Chicanas haven't really been a significant presence. They’re not seeing us everyday, and if they’re not seeing us, they can’t begin to understand us. However, on a recent trip to the city, I did see some signs that the Mexican and Chicano/Chicana presence was beginning to assert itself. I think, also, publishers--like the media in general--tend to gravitate towards books or stories that affirm what they already think they know about us which, as I said previously, isn't much. Thus you get a glut of books about poor "illegal" Mexicans, gang members and pandilleros, domestics, migrant workers and sex-crazed macho drunks. And if you're not writing that then chances are they won't want anything to do with you.  Anytime you offer up a different view of us Chicanos/as where we’re portrayed as anything but a maid or a gardener or an undocumented lettuce picker, say, anytime you challenge perceptions, you’re venturing into some tricky waters. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t write those stories. Or can’t. We certainly can! But we should also be able to have the ability to write stories about Chicana elementary school teachers, Chicano insurance salesmen or, God forbid, a Chicana mayor, a millionaire, or even an actor. And we should not have to educate publishers about who we are anymore. Who wants to run around always having to “explain” themselves?      

Amelia Montes:  Who is your audience for this novel?

Alex Espinoza:  Anyone who loves a good story, I suppose. I hope to have given my readers an opportunity to explore another aspect of the Latino/Latina experience beyond those we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on television; the plight of the undocumented, the poor, the campesino/campesina, the domestic, and the gang member. True that those stories exist, and they are very valid stories, but the Latino/a experience in the U.S. is vast and varied. I hope to attract an audience of readers eager for a different Latino/a story, with characters that shatter stereotypes and expectations. 

Amelia Montes:  There are also very gruesome scenes in the novel as there are light and humorous. The gruesome scenes, of course, are during the Cristero period. Tell us about that period in history. When did you first learn about it? (and is this why Mexico maintains a definite separation between church and state? -- which helps us understand why Mexico has already had gay marriage (civil marriage & rights) much before the U.S?

Alex Espinoza:  I’m not a historian, so my knowledge of the period is limited to the research I did for The Five Acts of Diego León, but I first heard of the Cristero Rebellion from my mother. It remains a particularly bloody period in Mexican history, a moment of civil unrest between two powerful and opposing forces ruling the country—the Catholic church and the government. What I discovered while researching was that, by and large, the church came out looking rather innocent in the whole thing, the “victims” of a ruthless atheistic government bent on destroying it. But, upon further digging, I discovered that the church wasn’t as innocent as one would have initially thought. When my own mother, a devout Catholic, used to recount stories, she always portrayed the church rather sympathetically. But the church was just as guilty of committing heinous and violent acts against innocent people as the government. More than anything, I wanted to show both sides of the conflict.    

Amelia Montes:  Did you receive family stories about the Cristero period? Did they remember or were they involved with that movement?

Alex Expinoza:  My mother remembered attending baptismal ceremonies in remote cactus fields in Michoacán. She remembered the shortages of priests, and she told me stories of people dying without taking Last Rites. Very sad stuff. 

Amelia Montes:  Tell us about the Hollywood period. What did you find out in your research that was surprising to you.
Alex Espinoza interview at The Los Angeles Book Festival
 Alex Espinoza:  I found out that Latinos/as helped shape and influence the film industry from the very beginning. I also discovered that, despite many pressures to hide their sexuality, many gay actors and actresses in Hollywood lived perfectly happy lives while working in the industry. Sexual and racial taboos were “tolerated” in strange ways even back then.

Amelia Montes:  For the writing of this novel, what writers influenced you?

Alex Espinoza:  Nathaniel West, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and Graham Green.

Amelia Montes:  What plans do you have for a third book? 

Alex Espinoza:  Currently, I'm toying with a few novel ideas but it's too early on in the process for me to talk about them.

Amelia Montes:  Alex—it has been a pleasure talking with you about your new novel, The Five Acts of Diego León.  My students loved Still Water Saints and they are very much enjoying reading Diego León’s journeys. Wishing you all the best!

Alex Espinoza:  Amelia, the pleasure was all mine!

Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico to parents from the state of Michoacán and raised in suburban Los Angeles. In high school and afterwards, he worked a series of retail jobs, selling everything from eggs and milk to used appliances, custom furniture, rock T-shirts, and body jewelry.After graduating from the University of California-Riverside, he went on to earn an MFA from UC-Irvine’s Program in Writing. His first novel, Still Water Saints, was published by Random House in 2007 and was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. The book was released simultaneously in Spanish, under the title Los Santos de Agua Mansa, California, translated by Lilliana Valenzuela. His second novel, The Five Acts of Diego León, was published by Random House in March 2013. Alex’s fiction has appeared in several anthologies and journals, including Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California’s Inland Empire, Latinos in Lotusland, Huizache, Silent Voices, and The Southern California Review. His essays have been published in, in the New York Times Magazine, in The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity, and as part of the historic Chicano Chapbook Series. He has also reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times, the American Book Review, and NPR. Alex was the 2009 Margaret Bridgeman Fellow in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is an active participant in Sandra Cisneros’ Macondo Workshop and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
Alex is also deeply involved with the Puente Project, a program designed to help first-generation community college students make a successful transition to a university. A Puente student himself, he has since served as a Puente mentor and often visits Puente classes to talk with students and teachers about writing, literature, and the opportunities he gained through education. Currently, Alex is an associate professor of English at CSU-Fresno where he teaches literature and creative writing. As always, he is at work on his next book.

1 comment:

Olga said...

Felicidades Alex & thanks for the great interview, Amelia. I look forward to reading Espinoza's new book.