Monthly Archives: September 2013

An Interview with Tim Wendel

book cover for Habana Libre

When One More Page Books, a local indie book store in Arlington, Virginia, invited me to do a reading in tandem with Tim Wendel, who also writes about Cuba, I don’t mind admitting I felt a little intimidated. Wendel, after all, is the author of 10 books, including Summer of ’68Castro’s Curveball, High Heat and Habana picture of the author Tim WendelLibre His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, American Scholar, Gargoyle, GQ and Esquireand he teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he’s a writer in residence.

High Heat got high praise from the The New York Times. It was even designated “Editor’s Choice,” the reviewer observing that “Wendel’s writing is also all fastballs. Sensitive and scrupulous… [his writing] is a séance with the game’s past, an almost literary fantasy….”

Of Habana Libre, his most recent work, Holly Goddard Jones, author of The Next Time You See Me, describes the characters as acast of dreamers” for whom “America is more of an abstract ideal than a place that can be reached by boat. Wendel tells their story with tender complexity and rich detail.” Fortunately for me, Tim Wendel could not be a kinder, gentler, more salt of the earth sort of soul. The sort of person who immediately puts everyone at ease.

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

WENDEL: I believe in the power of stories. They can save us, and a well-told tale holds a lot about the secrets of life, especially how to stay at it even when everything seems stacked against us. Richard Ford once said that when you read something that strikes a chord within you, the natural tendency is to try and do it yourself. There’s nothing like finishing a good read and then imagining what you can do.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

WENDEL: In recent years, I’ve tried to let things sit a bit before sending them out to the world. This allows me to see the places where the story could use a bit of polish. In addition, I often do more research during the revision stage. If a scene needs a boost, it can often be found in additional detail or back story that helps with the understanding of the characters. We’re so lucky in the D.C. area, where I make my home, with the Library of Congress and National Archives close by. A trip to them or even the local library can underscore and help emphasize things, especially a pivotal scene.

book cover for Castro's CurveballHUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

WENDEL: Good question. In looking back on my work, a key theme has to be perseverance. I often write about the underdog, whether it is in my novels or narrative nonfiction. I’m also intrigued by group dynamics. Even though my writing usually has several key characters, they are often involved in a group, and how they come together is crucial to their overall success. This is certainly true with the nonfiction titles—Summer of ’68, High Heat, Going for the Gold. But it is also key on the fiction side with Castro’s Curveball and Habana Libre.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

WENDEL: I’m been extremely fortunate to have several great teachers during my career, going back to my high school days, which is saying something because I went to a rural school in western New York state. In college, I studied with a master of long-form narrative, Bill Glavin, at Syracuse University. And since then I’ve been blessed to learn from Nick Delbanco, Margot Livesey, Marita Golden, Carolyn Doty, Oakley Hall and Alan Cheuse to name a few. But I also think it’s important to seek good teachers out. I have attended several summer conferences (Sewanee and Squaw Valley) simply because somebody whose work I admired was teaching there.

HUERGO: How has teaching affected your writing?book cover for High Heat

WENDEL: It means I cannot cheat. What I mean by that is I cannot advise my students to go in one direction and then not pursue the same path with my own writing. Teaching keeps me honest about my own efforts on the page.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

WENDEL: Try to bring some degree of regularity to your craft. Certainly writing is easier when we’re inspired or a story is going well. But some of the best scenes or moments happen on the days when it all seems simply like a lot of work. But if you can put down a few lines, fill a page in your notebook, it can often lead to some effective passages and insights. Writing in this day and age is tough—no doubt about it. Between work, family, etc., finding the time can be difficult. But seize the time. It will be worth it. I wrote my first novel on the D.C. Metro. It was the only time I had back then, but I got a good book out of it.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

WENDEL: I tend to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. It keeps me from becoming stale. So, after the recent novella, Habana Libre, I’m back to writing about sports and history in a new book for Da Capo entitled Down to the Last Strike. It will be out in spring 2014 and includes a slice of memoir, which is new for me. After that I’m back to the beginning, looking through various ideas in my notebook, and I’m thinking the next one could be another novel or even a screenplay.

 

 Author Contact:

www.timwendel.com

@Tim_Wendel

 

 Nervous Author at One More Page Books:

http://www.onemorepagebooks.com/

EMH OneMorePage Books

Photo by P. M. Korkinsky

“The Power of Friendship and Latino/a Identity” by Comadre Nora Comstock

picture of Comadre Nora ComstockI have always been a reader—not a writer. Occasionally someone would bring to my attention a book by a Latino writer, and I would purchase and read it. The story filled my soul and made me yearn for more, but the idea of seeking out Latino/a writers to read and interview did not occur to me for years.

The idea for Latina author teleconferences was born when a young Latina in her mid-twenties, who had recently graduated from college, commented on a gift I gave her: a book by an author who also happened to be a comadre. She held the book, read the title and author,  and commented that she had never read a Latina writer. I determined she meant a U.S. Latina author, and though I was stunned, I realized it was only recently that I myself had made a commitment to become acquainted with these authors.

It occurred to me that, given our age difference, there were probably a lot of Latinas/os who were not aware of these writers who were telling our stories. Certainly, in my many conversations with comadres and other friends, we never mentioned Latina/o authors, nor did I see their books prominently displayed in bookstores. I decided to change that.

Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club began as a teleconference series in 2006. In 2008, we added physical book clubs in cities where we were able to identify comadres willing to take on the coordination responsibilities.  The Association of American Publishers became our partners in this endeavor. The book club/teleconference series is now in its seventh year.

But it was another organization, Las Comadres Para Las Americas, that expanded our ability to to learn more about our lives and histories through the eyes of our Latino/a authors. Through this organization, I have had the honor of learning about the many ethnic and racial groups that make up our Latinidad. There are many labels to identify us, and each one of us chooses the one(s) that strike the right cord. It does not really matter to me, though I have recently decided that I like thinking of myself as a U.S. American of Mexican descent.

I wanted a connection to many Latinas. I wanted a community surrounding me filled with family and friends, and a place where anyone could come to feel connected. This desire was something that I carried in my heart from very early in my childhood. I was a solitary child. After being born into a family that would eventually produce ten siblings, upon my release from the hospital, I was placed into the loving arms of my aunt and uncle who raised me. I owe them my success. However, I strongly sense that being an only child until the age 10, when my cousin David was adopted into the family, fed my overwhelming need for others.

My roots were slipping away, and I was dangerously close to losing my identity. I realized that I did not want this to happen, and this was yet another personal reason for creating and building this organization: I wanted to retain my identity and my connections to my ancestors. But since I did not know my history, it was very hard to feel grounded and connected. I thought that I was alone in feeling this way, but soon found out that many U.S. Latinos had the same desire for community and a proximity to our culture as a way to preserve and celebrate who we are and where we came from.  Those who were more recent immigrants also felt isolated and were looking for others like themselves. For many who lived in areas of the country where they were surrounded by Latino culture, their reason for participating in Las Comadres was simply to get to know each other as comadres, to share resources, and build communities.

As I began to connect with other Latinas in my immediate surroundings, I found that they left our comadrazos (what we call our gatherings, a combination of comadres and abrazo) saying that what transpired in these gatherings filled their souls. Our gatherings were filling a need. Though we all mostly spoke English, meeting with others who understood and appreciated idioms, phrases, jokes, songs, etc. in Spanish, gave us an instant connection that doesn’t happen with others in mainstream English-speaking society. For example, we may be strangers, but when we hear something about chanclas, it conjures up similar images and memories for us all.  I believe this is what we share and what keeps us coming back to the next comadrazo. Even if it’s just for an evening, our gatherings connect us to our roots, our people, our language, our jokes, our laughter, our souls.

Count On Me, Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships is a collection of twelve reflections on the importance of Las Comadres in their lives. In it, Fabiola Santiago, Luis Alberto Urrea, Reyna book cover for Count on MeGrande, and Teresa Rodriguez tell their stories of survival in the United States and in Latin America, where success would have been impossible without their friendships. Favorites like Esmeralda Santiago, Lorraine Lopez, Carolina De Robertis, Daisy Martinez, and Ana Nogales explore what it means to have a comadre help you through years of struggle and self-discovery. And authors Sofia Quintero, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Michelle Herrera Mulligan look at the powerful impact the humor and humanity of their Comadres brought to the darkest moments of their lives.

As well, Las Comadres, in collaboration with Medgar Evers College, CUNY: National Black Writers Conference, the Center for Black Literature, the Foreign Language Department, and ALAS–Association for Latin American Studies has organized the Comadres & Compadres Latino Writers Conference, which will be held on Saturday, October 5, 2013, at Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn, New York (http://lascomadres.com/countonme/latino-writers-conference/).

Our mission is to preserve and celebrate culture, to celebrate our connection to each other. In the time of Facebook, Twitter, and many other social networks, Las Comadres Para Las Americas fills Latinas’ need to connect with and lean on each other, and unlike online only networks, Las Comadres Para Las Americas offers two different ways to connect: online and in person, thus appealing to women in different situations, and offering an opportunity to strengthen friendships and cultural connections through personal interaction. We invite you to join us.

Author Contact:

Nora de Hoyos Comstock, Ph.D.

President & CEO/International Founder

Las Comadres Para Las Americas

www.lascomadres.org

Author Photo:

Michelle Talan

 

 

An Interview with Raquel Cepeda

Birds of Paradise book cover

I had the pleasure of meeting Raquel Cepeda—not in person, but over the telephone, in an interview conducted by Nora de Hoyos Comstock, founding member, president and CEO of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, an international group of comadres (“godmothers”) who work to unite us all through literature written by Latinas/os. So the first thing I experienced and recognized about Cepeda is her powerful and passionate voice. It is a voice that has had the courage to speak about Latino-American identity, immigration, hip-hop culture, and mental health issues among Latina-American teenagers.

Born in Harlem to Dominican parents, Cepeda is an award-winning journalist, cultural activist, and documentary filmmaker. Her most recent book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, is a memoir about growing up in New York City and Santo Domingo, as well as a detective story that traces her year-long journey to learn about her ancestry. Bird of Paradise,” wrote David J. Leonard, “speaks to the growing intersections of ethnography, memoir and science. It points to the changing nature of looking backward not only for exploring personal histories but those of the communities. The work points to a growing willingness among the hip-hop generation to push aside conventions, to expose personal vulnerability and uncertainty alongside of scientific discovery.”  

Raquel_Cepeda_2Cepeda’s writings have been anthologized and her byline featured in People, the Associated PressThe Village Voice, MTV News, and CNN.com. As a free-lance reporter, she has contributed to WNYC, CNN and CNN’s Inside the Middle East. She edited the critically acclaimed anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years, winner of the PEN/Beyond Margins and Latino Book Award. As the former editor in chief of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld, Cepeda was responsible for the magazine’s overhaul in September 2001, winning a Folio Award for best re-design and receiving accolades for her global take on urban culture. In 2013, she was named one of El Diario/La Prensa’s Distinguished Women and also sits on the board of City Lore and the Style Wars Restoration Project. She also directed and produced Bling: A Planet Rock, a feature-length documentary about American hip-hop culture’s obsession with diamonds and all of its social trappings, and how the infatuation with “blinging” became intertwined in Sierra Leone’s decade long conflict.

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

CEPEDA: Many things inspire me to write. My answer changes depending on the day. However, I can tell you that what compels me to write is this feeling, this sense when I’m writing that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing on earth. I remember the day I called my maternal grandmother to tell her that I sold Bird of Paradise, and she just started laughing and hollering on the other end. I was like, “Mama, why are you laughing at me?” After a few minutes—literally, she couldn’t stop laughing—she composed herself and replied, “When you were a little girl living with us in Santo Domingo, you used to pull on my hem whenever you were mad and say, ‘One day I’m going to write about this family and set the record straight!’ before storming off.” I don’t remember doing that, but I that’s exactly what I did. So, I guess becoming a writer was a part of my destiny, after all.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

CEPEDA: With Bird of Paradise, my drafting and revision process was a deeply spiritual and holistic one. I had been writing versions of this story for years and deleting, editing, putting it away and revisiting it from time to time. However, when I set out to see it through—to draft the proposal, shop and sell the book—the words just poured out of me like a tsunami. It felt like a gift from the universe. The whole thing, including the sometimes painful revision process, (you know, cutting out stories, characters, and other unnecessary fat), was ultimately personally rewarding.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?picture of Raquel Cepeda

CEPEDA: It depends on the project. I would say with Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, the most important theme is identity, or rather, the exploration of the self. We are always shifting, and so we must be able to do the work of exploring and defining ourselves outside of the ethnic/racial check-boxes we are crammed into here in the U.S.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

CEPEDA: No, there wasn’t. In my book it becomes apparent early on that the problems with our current educational paradigm in New York and the US are still as pervasive today as they were when I was growing up. I can see why many kids, especially Black- and Latino/a- Americans become disengaged or, worse, develop a low self-esteem.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

CEPEDA: Writers should abandon inhibition before sitting down in front of their computers or before putting pen to paper: connect to the gift and let it pour out from within. Worry about revisions later. I also strongly suggest developing a routine that includes at least an hour of sweating. Starting the work day at my boxing gym almost every morning before I sat down to write enabled me to focus and build mental stamina. I would beat any frustration and blockage I may have woken up with that morning on a heavy bag. Whatever form of exercise you choose, working out the mind, body and spirit is the ultimate expression of respect for one’s own craft. Trust me: exercise is the gift that keeps on giving.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

CEPEDA: I’m working on a proposal for my next book, a memoir about gentrification, and I’m in the latter stages of production on my current documentary film, Deconstructing Latina. The paperback of Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina will be coming out in February 2014. That’s great news, especially because my hardcover was a casualty in the recently settled dispute between my parent company Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble. I’m hoping that the softcover will have an easier flight in capturing its audience. I’m also working closely with an educational specialist from the Robert F. Kennedy Center on a curriculum that would go hand in hand with Bird of Paradise, a project which I am excited about.

Author Contact:
@raquelcepeda
http://www.djalirancher.com
Photo Credits:
Heather Weston and Djali Brown-Cepeda

An Interview with Eamonn Wall

The first thing I ever learned about Eamonn Wall had nothing to do with his poetry and everything to do with his generosity. In his role as guest editor of Natural Bridge, a literary journal published by the University of Missouri, St Louis, he included one of my short stories in a special edition on exile. Without that boost in confidence, I might very well have put aside my writing. Eventually, I learned that the rhythm of a generous heart and eye run through every line he writes. And here is one of my favorites, “Returning to Dublin,” a poem in The Crosses:

To return in summer                 picture of the book The Crosses
to a suspended city and know 

there will be no end 
to daylight so long as summer 
holds over the Liffey, 

    so long 
as the gates remain open
to the heart of evening

    so long
as the last bus is held
by a single hand
and one long, dry kiss.

picture of Eamonn WallA native of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, Ireland, Wall has lived in the US since 1982. He is the Smurfit-Stone Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has written six books of poems: Sailing Lake Mareotis (2011); A Tour of Your Country (2008); Refuge at De Soto Bend (2004); The Crosses (2000); Iron Mountain Road (1997); and Dyckman-200th Street (1994). All six were published by Salmon Publishing in Ireland. His poems have also appeared in a number of journals, including The Shop, Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, West47, TriQuarterly, Crab Orchard Review, South Dakota Review, River Styx, The Recorder, New Hibernia Review, Eire-Ireland, and Nebraska Review. His essay collection, From the Sin-e Café to the Black Hills, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2000 and awarded the Michael J. Durkan Prize by the American Conference for Irish Studies for excellence in scholarship. His poetry and prose have appeared in a number of anthologies; specifically, The Book of Irish-American Poetry from the 18th Century to the Present; Irish Writing in the 20th Century: A Reader; Wexford Through Its Writers; Flood Stage, An Anthology of St. Louis Poets; and The Big Empty, Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers. His next collection, New and Selected Poems, will be published by Salmon in 2014.

 

picture of the book From the Sin-e Cafe to the Black Hills                     picture of the book Sailing Lake Mareotis                    book cover Writing the Irish West

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

WALL: What gets me thinking about poems the most is being out of doors walking or being indoors sitting quietly. In these two situations, the first more so than the second, my body and mind are guided toward composition. I hear sounds, lines come to me, memories flood in, and I begin to experience being in the world at a deeper level. Reading can also take me to this place and listening to music. In such situations, I am not distracted by nonsense or static and reminded again that I am a writer whose job is to write. To discover the world by writing about it. To communicate with an audience. But, being the eldest of eight children who grew up in a noisy and lively household, I have learned how to write, and to read, anywhere. I work most productively in two or three hour bursts.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process? How do you move from idea to poetic line?

WALL: I am an old-fashioned pen and paper poet. If I have an idea, if something catches my ear or eye, if I hear something said, or read something in a book, I will sit down and write a rough draft. I might achieve some result quickly, or, more often than not, it will take time to articulate or shape the idea. Later, I’ll go back to the notebook and add some material. Eventually, I’ll type and revise the poem. At times, these various revisions can take a few years though this is generally not the case. One thing I have learned though is that countless revisions don’t always make the poem work better. This is the idea we used to describe in Ireland as flogging a dead horse. Nowadays, this is not a politically correct comment. A student said to me once: “Why would anyone want to flog a horse–dead or alive?” I understood immediately that she was right.

Though the first draft is the most important one for me, it’s the poem’s foundation, I greatly enjoy the whole drafting process, the revisions leading me in fresh directions of discovery. It’s a kind of magic. I am very happy and quite mellow when I am working on a writing project. The key aspect in writing poems is form, in my case. Working in free-verse means being in search of the correct form for the material. I am guided by voice, breath, sound, and flow more than anything. At other times, I will be guided by more traditional metres or by assonance and alliteration. There’s a lot of back and forth, give and take, and a great deal of asking of the poem to give up the secret of its shape. I am pretty patient. Lots of things frustrate me in the world but not writing. Even when it’s hard, it’s cool. And I feel this way about prose-writing too. Even when it’s difficult, I feel I am making some progress. If a poem fails, I have learned something and not wasted time. If I want to waste time I watch CNN or Law and Order!!

HUERGO: As an Irish poet who has lived in the US for so many years, what is the significance of landscape in your writing? What is the relationship for you between landscape and identity?

WALL: Place and landscape are important for me. Always in my mind’s eye are the various landscapes of Co. Wexford where I grew up in Ireland: the town streets, the river, the mountains, and the sea. The land in Co. Wexford is the richest in Ireland for mixed agriculture: I see the barley being blown about and the cows and sheep quietly engaged. But I learned to become a writer in America, and American urban landscapes (New York and St. Louis, in particular) are important. Also, I have traveled in the American West and written about it a great deal. I dream about it. I have been formed by landscape: Irish and American. Because I carry it with me wherever I go, I do not actually miss being in Ireland. I see my identity in landscape and vice versa. As an immigrant, I have two landscapes–the Irish and American–and as a person who has moved around the US, I have multiple identities and landscapes. I am defined by multiple allegiances.  I am like many people in the contemporary world. This is an aspect of the richness that we, the immigrants, give to America. At my core, I often think, that being an immigrant is what actually defines me best. People ask me: “Are you Irish or American or Irish-American?” I say take your pick. I am happy with all three. Sometimes, I imagine that I am none of the above, that I am, for example, a man wearing a hat working on a Mexican farm or an Angolan fisherman hauling in the catch.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

WALL: Many people have made it possible for me to follow this life path. My parents always encouraged me and never made me feel that reading was an inferior and anti-masculine activity. They had great faith in education and were happy when I was reading and writing. Of course, they worried about what sort of future (income, job) a writer might have and were happy, and maybe a bit surprised, when it led to me getting a job. Though it was as a traditional academic that I got a job. For them, all things were connected and that’s how I see it too. My father was a journalist and my mother is a retired businesswoman. Neither of many parents had college degrees but this in no way curtailed their intelligence. Always curious, forward-thinking, funny, full of deep faith and a fine sense of the absurd, with a wealth of wisdom to pass along. Ours was a house of songs and stories, and so a good nurturing space for a would-be writer.

This year, I edited two volumes of Irish poet James Liddy’s essays On American Literature and Book Cover On Irish Literature and IdentitiesDiasporas and On Irish Literature and Identities for Arlen House/Syracuse University Press. James Liddy was the friend and teacher who helped me get a scholarship to come to the US to graduate school, and this was the making of me as a writer.

Friends and family provide great help when we know that they are wishing us well, when they remind us that the work we do is important. As a writer, I find this kind of community important. In my case, because I am not part of a creative writing program, I rely on various friends and colleagues scattered across the US and Ireland.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

WALL: I have two current projects. One is a volume of New and Selected Poems to be published in 2014-2015. At the moment, I am working on the new poems. I’m also working on a prose book exploring connections between Ireland and America. A few of the chapters have been published–on Rory Gallagher, the late, great Irish blues guitarist and songwriter, and on the poet Michael Coady–while others exist in draft form. I’ll add some chapters on my own experience as an immigrant in America and on immigrants in Ireland, a recent and an important phenomenon resulting from the Celtic Tiger of recent times. This book, like my first prose book, From the Sin-e Café to the Black Hills: Notes on the New Irish (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), will be a multi-genre book incorporating creative non-fiction and literary criticism, and perhaps some fiction too. But New and Selected Poems comes first.

On the back burner is fiction. I wrote and published short-stories in the early 1990s but stopped because I knew that I could not be a poet, scholar, and fiction writer as well as being a husband, parent, and a college teacher trying to figure out the tenure system in a strange country. But I have a little more time now that our children are grown and a leave is coming up, so I might give fiction another go. During the Spring semester of 2014, I will be Heimbold Chair in Irish Studies at Villanova University.

 Author Contact:

http://www.eamonnwall.net/