Sunday, September 29, 2013

Scars and Madness: A New Nola Céspedes Novel, _Nearer Home_. Interview with Joy Castro--

Memoirist and novelist, Joy Castro, has been, of late, quite prolific and you, dear “La Bloga” reader, you have the privilege to receive the many gifts of her multiple publications.  Before 2012, Castro was known most for her beautifully written and searing memoir, The Truth Book.  If you haven’t read it, I strongly encourage you to get yourself a copy.  It has recently been re-issued with a beautiful cover from University of Nebraska-Press (click here!).  

I want to share the last line in The Truth Book.  It won’t give anything away from the memoir.  I’m copying it here because this very last line in her memoir is almost a preface for her subsequent publications.  She writes: “You try to be decent and treat people gently, knowing that they, too, have their scars and madnesses that, like yours, do not show.”  The themes and symbols of scars, madness, empathy, and ethical behavior continue to develop within the genre of the two literary mystery novels she has published. 

Castro’s first novel, Hell or High Water, published in 2012, has already garnered a number of honors, most recently, the 2013 Nebraska Book Award.  And last spring, Hell or High Water received 2nd place in the 2013 International Latino Book Awards in the genre of mystery fiction. 

German publication of Hell or High Water

As well, a translation of Hell or High Water has been published in Germany and translations of Hell or High Water and her newest novel, Nearer Home will be published in France by Gallimard.  Hell or High Water has been optioned for film or TV by a team of producers that includes Zoe Saldana.  Both thrillers are also available as audiobooks, read by 2011 Audie Award Finalist, Roxanne Hernandez!  Orale! 

For more on Hell or High Water, click here to read my interview with Joy Castro from last year when the book was newly out.  Now we have the second installment of the Nola Céspedes series:  Nearer Home, and it is promising to be just as, if not more “thrilling,” tighter, and quite the nail biter.  As well, Castro has continued writing memoir pieces and her second nonfiction book, Island of Bones, is now out from University of Nebraska-Press (click here!).  Island of Bones received the 2013 International Latino Book Award (for inspirational non-fiction in English) and it was a Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award for creative non-fiction. 

Montes: First of all, congratulations on the latest recognition for Hell or High Water and the French translation and publication also for Nearer Home, and the PEN and Latino Book Award for Island of Bones. 

A PEN Center USA Literary Finalist
Castro:  Thank you so much.  A lot of attention is coming to the books now, and I’m grateful.  I hope it helps them reach the readers who will love them. I’m excited that the thrillers are being translated and published abroad, so readers of German and French will have the chance to read about a Latina fighting crime in New Orleans.

Montes:  Yes, very exciting!  Enfolded within the mystery genre that Hell or High Water follows, there is a coming-of-age narrative.  Would you say, Nearer Home continues the bildungsroman or are you making a departure?

Castro:  Though Nola is 27 in Hell or High Water, she still has some growing up to do.  Most of it has to do with facing elements of her past that she has avoided.  She accomplishes that in the first novel (and it’s implied aftermath), but her growth continues in Nearer Home.  It’s not as dramatic, and I think she’s reaching a good place, but her process of growth won’t stop. 

I think that’s true for most of us.  Unless we’re stuck and stagnating, we keep growing and learning and changing throughout our llves.  I don’t know if those changes can be called “coming-of-age” anymore, but sometimes the process feels just as humbling and difficult as when we were young.  The difference is that we’re held accountable by society; we’re expected to know how to act like responsible adults.  Unfortunately, one look at the news will show how often we fail at this. 

Montes:  Yes—and the focus of these kinds of failures are highlighted within what may seem disparate worlds in Nearer Home. Nearer Home turns its attention to the world of academia as well as the world of horse racing, thoroughbreds, and political figures. Tell me about your research preparation.

Castro:  I’ve been teaching college for over 20 years now, so academia is familiar to me.  I grew up loving horses, and I had a pony when I was a little girl—a wild pony that my parents bought for $20.00 in rural West Virginia.  I tamed her—to an extent; she still bit and bucked and kicked—and rode her bareback in the hills there.  It was a good time in my life.  I was already a voracious reader, and I read a lot of books about horse training, horse racing, and so on.  When Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, I had newspaper clipping taped up on the wall in my bedroom.  I cried when I grew too tall to be a jockey.  In college in San Antonio, I worked at a stable for a while, mucking out stalls and grooming, just to be around the horses.  Political figures, I knew less about.  I read a lot of newspaper and magazine profiles of political figures to get the gist, but I still worried that I’d make Senator Claiborne, my fictional character, a caricature.  I’m not sure I succeeded in making him fully real.  His wife, who’s actually fairly pivotal to the plot, remains offstage throughout the entire book.  Political wives have it rough.  I wanted to leave her in peace.

Montes:  Many of the secondary characters that appear in Hell or High Water return in Nearer Home.  What is your process in their development this time around? 

Castro:  I like to imagine how people change over time.  For Nearer Home, I just listened to what I’d established in Hell or High Water and then let my mind wander.  The characters usually told me how they’d evolved.  That sounds a little mystical or woo-woo, but that’s how it works.  I just relax and listen. 

Montes:  Unlike Hell or High Water, Nearer Home is divided not only by chapters, but days of the week.  Why? 

Castro:  As a scholar of literary modernism, I became very interested in the representation of time.  James Joyce famously spent hundreds of pages chronicling a single day in the life of his protagonist Leopold Bloom; other modernists experimented similarly.  I’m interested in the way we perceive time, how it shrinks or elongates according to the experiences we’re having. 

Hell or High Water unfolds over a period of one month.  With Nearer Home, I wanted to try a tighter time-frame and see what that compression did to the action and character development.  I’ve outlined a future Nola Céspedes novel that takes place within twenty-four hours.  These are crime thrillers, though, so I don’t want to get too precious about it. 

Bourbon Street, New Orleans
Montes:  Your sense of detail and description is so lovely.  For example, when you describe Chloe’s hair, you write:  “the browned gold of ice tea on a sun porch.”  Great stuff.  Tell us your process in avoiding clichés in descriptive writing.

Castro:  I’m not sure that I do!  Thank you.  I try.  I just revise and revise and revise.  I reread with a cold eye and try to be ruthless.

Montes:  Yes—revision is key.  I also want to ask about your craft in creating good solid dialogue.  For example, the dialogue scenes with Bento are done so well.  What is your process?

Castro:  I listen to the characters.  When it’s going well, the process feels like dictation.  Often, though, it doesn’t go well.  Dialogue is hard for me.  I revise dialogue the way I do everything else:  read aloud, listen for rhythm and realism, and cut, cut, cut. 

Bento is unique in the books, in that he’s a highly educated expert in his field (coastal geomorphology), but English is his third language, and he knows it primarily from the classic literature he studied in school.  As a result, his dialogue is a little stilted, a little formal.  It’s an odd mix of mistakes and unexpected flourishes. 

Montes:  That comes through splendidly.  And what of another secondary character:  Fabi?  She is a Chicana who is wealthy and materialistic, a “well meaning liberal,” or as Nola says, “Fabi, our Chicana Princess.”  What is your definition of a Chicana and how did Fabi come to be? 

Castro:  With Fabi, I wanted to create a character different from typical depictions of Chicanas as domestic workers and farm laborers.  Similarly, the protagonist Nola—contrary to stereotypes about Cuban Americans (as well-to-do)—grew up poor in the projects.  I was interested in exploring the diversity among Latinas and creating something surprising.  There are two definitions of Chicana that seem to be in cultural use.  One simply means a Mexican American woman.  The other is politically inflected and includes the sacrifices and achievements of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.  The character of Fabi is ironic.  She has always been cosseted, yet enjoys claiming the cultural cachet of El Movimiento without having worked or suffered for it. She wasn’t even born at that time.  Because of this, she’s a little bit of a comic character, but I still wanted her to be sympathetic, too;  she has good qualities as well. 

Montes:  Was this an easier novel to write from the first? 

Castro:  Yes.  With Hell or High Water, I was learning how to write a novel.  It was my first attempt, and I floundered around.  It went through many, many revisions and took about four years, whereas Nearer Home took me only a single year to write.  I had a much clearer sense of what I was doing.  It also helped that I knew the characters well by that point: I wasn’t making them up from scratch. 

Montes:  What did you learn, then, during the writing of Hell or High Water that you were able to further develop or avoid in Nearer Home? 

Castro:  Plot.  I had a terrible time with cause-and-effect, with action—again, perhaps due to my training in modernist literature, in which a few reveries and an epiphany equal a story.  I love that mode.  It’s lovely.  But it didn’t quite work in crime fiction, so I had to learn—the hard, slow, foot-dragging way—how to plot.

Montes:  Who is your audience for Nearer Home?

Castro:  I wrote the books with a Latina audience especially in mind, but my thrillers are for everyone who enjoys crime fiction.  If you’re fond of New Orleans, then you’ll enjoy them—and if you know New Orleans really well, then you’ll enjoy finding the couple of mistakes I made.  Readers have written in to let me know where I goofed. 

Montes:  Even if you’ve lived your whole life in a place and write about it, some readers will still want to say something about their own perspective of place.  Hopefully, they have been kind and decent! 

Castro:  Yes, they have.  They care so much about New Orleans that they want me to get it right.  I appreciate that love for the city and that love for detail. 

Montes:  Do you feel more comfortable now, having written two mystery novels, and do you think you will continue writing in this genre or will you try another?

Castro:  I do know now that I can finish a novel. Five years ago, I didn’t know that.  So yes, I think the process has built my confidence as a writer.  My current project is a new novel, and I’m in love with it.  Short stories, though, were my first love, and I’m revising a book of stories now.  It’s called HOW WINTER BEGAN, and a wonderful press has offered a contract for it.  (I’ll be discreet, since we haven’t signed papers yet.)  I’m very excited that it will be in print.  I’ve been working on it for years. 

Montes:  So you are not working on another Nola novel? 

Castro:  I’ve outlined books 3 and 4 of the Nola Céspedes series, and I received an offer for a third installment.  I declined it, though, for the time being.  I’m currently working on a stand-alone psychological thriller.  The protagonist is a Chicago Latina with a hidden past.  When I finish it, I plan to go back and write books 3 and 4.  I think about them a lot. 

Montes:  It’s exciting knowing that we will have a mystery set in Chicago with a Latina protagonist—a Midwest Latina mystery.  Orale!  What advice do you have for writers of mystery? 

Castro:  Love the form.  Read widely. Bring your whole self to the project; be honest on the page.  Revise, revise, revise.  Be patient.  Remember that crime fiction is the genre of justice, and you can bring your political concerns to the story.  That’s the same advice I’m still giving myself.  

Montes:  There is the writing, and then there is the selling of a book.  Describe the selling of one’s book, the responsibilities:  it’s challenges and successes.  How well has Hell or High Water been doing and what will you do differently or the same with Nearer Home?

Castro:  Authors are asked to promote their books aggressively, maintain a social media presence, give public readings, visit book clubs, and so on.  I’ve done those things for both books, and I’ll continue to do them.  I especially love visiting book clubs; the warmth and kindness are so moving.  Readers don’t realize what a gift they give back to authors.  Both books have been doing fine, sales-wise, though neither has become a bestseller.  It takes a lot of work from both the publisher and author to break a book out, and some luck is involved, too.

They’re reaching their readers.  What the publishing industry knows is the word-of-mouth, person-to-person, one friend to another, is the best way of selling books, hands-down.  That organic, passionate buzz is something that all the ads in the world can’t create.  So I hope people will love the books and tell their friends about them, and that word-of-mouth will give them a long life. 

Montes:  Describe your audience reception.  What has surprised you or intrigued you regarding reader reactions to your work?

Castro:  The passion.  Readers really seem to love the books.  They get very excited when they tell me how shocked they were by the ending of Hell or High Water – how they never saw it coming, but when they went back later and reread, they could see all the clues.  That’s a great thing for an author to hear.  I always love it when I hear from Latina readers:  “I feel like you wrote this book for me.”  Because I did. 

Montes:  What else would you like to tell our “La Bloga” readers?

Castro:  A lot of people in the mainstream book industry still believe that we, as Latinas and Latinos, are not a worthwhile market segment.  You’ll still occasionally hear, “Latinos don’t read.”  Though this mistaken sentiment is changing, it’s still out there, and it affects editors’ decisions about whose manuscripts to purchase, publish, and promote. 

So I’d just remind everyone how important your choices are.  When you buy a book, or request a book from your library, you make a difference. 

Montes:  Yes, so important!  Thank you, Joy!

Castro:  Thank you for taking the time to ask about my work. 

Montes:  No need to wait, dear “La Bloga” readers—get yourself a copy of Joy Castro’s works now!  Add one of her titles to your book club list, to your own private reading, to your curriculum list for teaching.  Sending you all buenas energias for a most lovely week!  

Joy Castro BIO:  Joy Castro (click here for her website) is the author of the memoir, The Truth Book and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home.  Island of Bones, her collection of personal essays, is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine.  Publishers Weekly calls her new edited collection, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, "a must-read."  She teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she is on Twitter at @_JoyCastro


Daniel A. Olivas said...

Thank you for such a fine interview! This post demonstrates, yet again, why La Bloga does what most "mainstream" literary sites do not: offer thoughtful, in-depth coverage of Latin@ literature.

Adrian said...

What a great interview! Great conversation. I completely understand the process points that Joy discusses, particular in transitioning from her first novel to her second. I'd love to read her novel.


Linda Rodriguez said...

Thank you, Amelia, for such a fine interview with Joy. I love her books, and it's always a pleasure to read about process with a fine writer like her.