Sandra Cisneros

sandra cisneros3 Sandra CisnerosWriter, poet, and performance artist Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago. She is the only girl in a family of seven of a Mexican father and Mexican-American mother. Cisneros received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has worked as a teacher to high-school dropouts, a poet-in-the-schools, a college recruiter and an arts administrator. She has received, among other awards and fellowships, the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Sandra Cisneros has published Bad Boys, My Wicked Wicked Ways, Loose Woman, House on Mango Street, Hair/Pelitos and now Caramelo. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Robert Birnbaum: Tell me what it’s like to spend such a long time on one project?

Sandra Cisneros: On writing one book? For me, it didn’t seem like it was that long. It just seemed like I had put my head down for a few seconds and then when I looked up nine years had passed. (laughs) I think everyone around me was more impatient and more exasperated than I was. I was just working and I work very slowly, so sometimes I lose touch with reality because I am so absorbed in another world. I think that people had to physically call me and say the towers had fallen. Or this and that is going on in the world—I really was in another world. Often times when I wanted to be social everyone was asleep. [I was in] my own world, when they wanted to be social, I had to apologize and avoid people. I think it’s changed my life and my whole way of socializing—the way I was before this book and the way I am now—it’s almost as if there are two different people. I was the kind of person that was very social and liked to be with an entourage and have lots of parties and have people around me. And now I find I am much more satisfied seeing people one-on-one. I avoid crowds, and I get really plagued by people as if they are bees or something. I am talking about my friends. I can only handle them one at a time.

RB: Can you connect that to anything in particular?

SC: I think some of that is the intensity of the experience of writing this book. Also the experiences I lived through in the nine years: buying a house…

RB: Fighting with the City of San Antonio about the color of the house… [Because Cisneros' house is in an area designated as a historical district, the color she chose to paint her house became a matter of controversy.]

SC: Yeah, having to become this public figure where people you don’t know come up to you and talk to you at events. And the MacArthur [Fellowship], my father’s death, all these took a toll and shaped me in some way, and I feel as if I traveled and became someone else.

RB: I asked you the question about the length of time that it’s taken you to write this book. Your answer was very specific and individual. Which leads me to think that we are given to generalizing this process of creating or writing something and in doing that we lose some understanding of it. When you describe it, it seems very natural, “You put your head down and then it was over.”

SC: Right. I was making something completely new, too. I wasn’t writing The House on Mango Street. If I was writing that, I could have gotten that done in a couple of years. I didn’t want to do something I had done before. I really wanted to expand and push myself and do something that I didn’t have a model for. I didn’t even know how to make what I wanted. I just knew that I could see it in my mind’s eye for a flash of a second and then I was in the dark. So I was mainly in the dark, experimenting with this book.

RB: There is a place in the book where the main character and narrator says, “Art can keep you from dying.” You’ve alluded to being in the dark on this book for long periods. What if you had been unable to figure it out? That is, how to write it or finish it. What might of happened then?

SC: I felt like throwing the book away several times. But don’t think I would have. Every book takes you to the terror, that terrible place of possible failure. That seems to be a pattern for me when I work on things that are pushing me to my limits. When I wrote the story “Eyes of Zapata,” which I thought was my best story in the collection, which hardly anyone ever mentions in the Woman Hollering Creek book—that took me to the same process of writing little bits and pieces in the dark and stumbling about and not knowing who’s speaking, or what am I going to do with this? I feel it’s important, but I don’t know where I am going with this and then finally at the end, all the pieces fitting together as if I had planned it from the outset. And I had, but in a very subliminal way. In this book it was the same. Except for [instead of] nine months, it was nine years.

RB: Let’s talk about the disclaimer at the beginning of the book. One might almost think that you didn’t want to take responsibility for what was in the story. But that certainly isn’t true.

I didn’t want to do something I had done before. I really wanted to expand and push myself and do something that I didn’t have a model for. I didn’t even know how to make what I wanted. I just knew that I could see it in my mind’s eye for a flash of a second and then I was in the dark. So I was mainly in the dark, experimenting with this book.

SC: No, I actually wanted to admit that characters were based on real people. But I wanted to also say and be truthful that it’s based on real people but it isn’t autobiography. Many books that you read, they have those disclaimers that say that, “None of the events and none of the people are based on real life" and so on… Well, I don’t believe that. I think that as human beings many people touch us, especially people we love the most and we can’t help but do character sketches when we go to our art. I felt that I was taking some real filaments of my life, some real memories, but I was embroidering from that and departing from that and leaping…especially plot. So much of the plot was invented. Even if the characters were not. The characters were spun from real memories and there might be some of the plot—the trips to Mexico that were based on memory. The fight scene in Acapulco, the move to San Antonio, a lot of that was my pure imagination.

RB: In weaving this story you include what seems to be factual information about Mexican history, Mexican-American history. Some seems not quite believable. For example, you describe conquistador Hernando Cortez, when asked by the king about the topography of a particular part of Mexico, crumpling up a piece of paper and tossing it on a table. That was a wonderful description, but when I thought about it I was skeptical about whether that was a real event. It seemed too dramatic.

SC: He did.

RB: (Laughs)

SC: According to the story, to my source, that’s what he did to describe the landscape of Oaxaca. I was so startled. I found it in one of these old travel books, these guides to Mexico from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. It was a footnote.

RB: What I am speaking to, is how you discern in a novel what is fictitious and what is factual? Did Elvis Presley really…

SC: See there is another one. Elvis Presley really allegedly said that. (laughs)

RB: Presley was quoted, when he was making a movie in Mexico, as saying he wouldn’t kiss a Mexican?

SC: Yes, the newspapers reported that he said that. Whether he really said that is subject to debate. But was there a big national boycott? Yes! Did everyone get up and get pissed? Yes! That is true.

RB: Your chronology of Mexican history at the end of Caramelo is wonderfully idiosyncratic.

SC: Wacky. (laughs)

RB: Referring to Betsy Ross as an upholsterer.

SC: She was!

RB: Well, okay, but in American history texts she is commonly referred to as seamstress.

SC: I found that somewhere she was actually an upholsterer. Yeah, amazing. It was the first mention I ever saw of an upholsterer in American history. When I saw that I said, "Oh my God. Here’s someone who had the trade my father had." You never read about upholsterers. So I was thrilled.

cisneros2 Sandra CisnerosRB: The whole idea of translation fascinates me. This book was simultaneously published in Spanish and English. There are places in Caramelo where you make a point of saying that a word doesn’t quite translate well into English. You wrote this book in English. What happens in the Spanish edition?

SC: There is a beautiful essay that is only in the Spanish translation, about the process of translating the work. Liliana Valenzuela was my translator—a very, very good translator because she is also a poet and a fiction writer and a performance artist in her own right—she’s from Mexico City and she moved to Texas. I couldn’t have asked for a more qualified person—plus she’s an anthropologist. So she had this great store and wealth of information. She tried to find parallels to things, where if something was in Spanish she might put English in the text, so you would get the sense of the two languages.

RB: In the edition of Caramelo I have, there is a poem at the end of the book that doesn’t appear in the finished copy.

SC: You are talking about the final chapter, which is a pilon chapter. Pilon is what the grocer gives you as a little token of thanks. He throws in some extra of whatever it is you bought. Or a toy or candy. Just to say thank you for patronizing her store.

RB: Hmm, the groceries in Boston don’t do that.

SC: Well, the Mexicans do. And it’s called pilon and it’s not a word used in any other country an that sense. It’s a Mexican term. In your galley copy, we also had a song, it isn’t a poem. I keep seeing poems mentioned when I read reviews, but they are songs. And we didn’t get the copyright clearance for that song, unfortunately. So we had to drop that lovely title and mush the pilon explanation. That’s why you don’t see it there. Which is too bad because I sure liked that title “Chile Naughty Bitter Sweet” but that’s a literal translation from one of the lyrics.

RB: You read the audio version of Caramelo.

SC: I sure did. It was a whole week’s worth of work.

RB: I listened to nine chapters today, and your Tarzan yell is just great.

SC: Laughs.

RB: And your rooster crowing…

SC: Yeah. Kee-kara-kee-ki-ra-kee. (laughs) Yeah, I’m a real clown, so I can allow myself to do this like if it was radio drama. I had a good time.

RB: It sounds like it. There are a good number of writers who before they let go of what they have written, they have to read it out loud. That’s when they have a sense of the accuracy of what they’ve written. Is that true for you?

SC: Well, I’m a poet by training. Plus you have to remember I was also reading these on the road, during the nine years. I was never ensconced in my home just writing. I was sent out on book tours. My European publications came out and I was in Europe twice during that time. I was out there promoting Loose Woman. So there was always things for me to do. Not to mention lectures and speaking engagements, that never stopped. [It] wasn’t as if I was Emily Dickinson.

RB: I am tossing away the picture of you isolated in a garret for nine years.

SC: No, no, not all. It wasn’t until the MacArthur came that I actually started hunkering down. I also had to take off nine months when my father was ill and my father passed away. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer. So the MacArthur gave me the luxury of stopping everything and being with my father during that time. Afterwards, I got sideswiped by the purple house incident. That was like another thing and it was right on the heels of my father passing away and that took time. And then I could say no to some of the engagements and not worry about money and stay home and finish the book.

RB: I wanted to talk a little more about the audio version. I listened to it after I finished Caramelo. To me, while it is an unabridged version, I think one experiences the audio so much differently that it is almost a different thing. As the movie is to the book.

Many books that you read they have those disclaimers that say that, "None of the events and none of the people are based on real life and so on…" Well, I don’t believe that. I think that as human beings many people touch us, especially people we love the most and we can’t help but do character sketches when we go to our art.

SC: What’s missing is the songs. If we had put the songs in there, that’s a whole other copyright thing we’d be getting into. It’s so complicated with songs and who owns the rights to them. So I wasn’t allowed to sing them. Too bad.

RB: Was it always your plan to do the audio text version?

SC: Yeah. I have done the tapes of my other works and I like performing it. I perform these works in front of people so I always see them as performance too.

RB: I assume that the manuscript was completed before you did the audio. Were there things you wanted to change when you read for the tape?

SC: I found some typos. I wanted to make changes in the performance after I made the performance. Because I had to think quickly because I was reading some chapters that I had never read to the public. The ones that I had read out loud, I knew how to read, but the ones I was reading for the first time, it was like driving in the dark. I wished I had more range so I could do the woman in the iguana hat with her voice like squeezed lemon. And I didn’t get that voice down. So those were challenges for me.

RB: You’re referring to woman that the grandfather fell in love with?

SC: The sweetheart from the hot lands. She had a voice like squeezed lemon. You know those Mexican woman that have that that kind of—what do you call it, ronca. They are kind of hoarse but in a very sexy way. Not hoarse deep, they kind of wobble, their voices. I know what I mean when I hear that voice. But I can’t convey to you because I don’t have the right range in my voice. I’m not an actress enough to do that voice.

RB: Speaking of dalliances, was the character that makes an appearance in the book that ends up dancing in Paris, Josephine Baker?

SC: Yeah. I like Josephine Baker. I read a lot of biographies and she kind of popped on the page and I thought, “Oh, okay, we’ll go this way.” (laughs) I make some people intentionally make cameos and some just pop up. When I went to my desk, on the day that Senor Wences [ventriloquist famous for performing on the Ed Sullivan Show] died, I knew that I was going to include him in this story. I had to weave him into the plot because I thought he was so wonderful and I didn’t want people to forget him. Just like I didn’t want people to forget my father. He was part of my father’s time, part of that history and that generation. When I read his obituary when I was having breakfast before I went to my desk, I was so sad. For one thing I didn’t know he was still alive [he died at the age of 103]. I thought this man deserves to be included in the novel. And then other heroes of mine, Maria Sabina and Josephine Baker, made their way in because I admire them.

RB: Is it a Mexican cultural thing that Chicago has two names?

SC: No Chicago doesn’t have two names, it’s just that Uncle Old is vulgar. It sounds like two bad words.

RB: Being a gringo, I didn’t figure that out.

SC: That’s all right, Uncle Old figured it out for you. (laughs) I didn’t really censor myself with this book. I let myself go. When I read in front of audiences, there are many children and I’ve had to look and eyeball the audience before I read—in fact, the chapter on Senor Wences, I debuted that at the beginning of the tour. I’d never read it out loud except in the audio studio and my nieces and nephews were in the front row and I thought, “What am I going to do, there are some four-letter words in here?” So I announced that I would give the reading a G rating and I dropped some of the four letter words and I missed one. When a character came and threw a maldicion at another character, I forgot about that one. It was the only time while I have been performing that I fell out of character and I said, “Oops,” looked at the kids and apologized and then kept going. When I was writing The House on Mango Street I was aware that it was going to be used in the middle schools and high schools, and I wanted that audience. With this book I didn’t want to put limitations, I didn’t think it was going to be used in schools.

cisneros1 Sandra CisnerosRB: That’s surprising. That you were self-censoring.

SC: I wasn’t censoring myself. I saw it in a different light. When I wrote House I saw it as wanting to get past the censors, but I didn’t think of the children as being the censors. I thought of the administrators, so I wanted to open it to as many ages as possible. The way that I wrote things was in a subtle way. Although I didn’t shy away from difficult subjects. With this one I felt that my audience wasn’t children. They weren’t in the forefront when I was writing this.

RB: You have an audience coming to listen to you that has children in it. Do you feel that the children will be adversely affected by some of the ‘bad’ words?

SC: No, they know those words already. I feel as if they are coming to a reading and I didn’t put out any kind of advertisement that there was going to be strong language. I need to give G rating to my reading, so I just dropped some words or I substituted. School kids will laugh if they hear bad words. But I don’t want to shock their teachers or get them in trouble, so I’ll substitute words.

RB: That’s very thoughtful and considerate.

SC: I want to make sure—this the Mexican part of me—that you want to caer bien, you want to be nice. You don’t want to make waves. They have gone to a lot of trouble to bring the children.

RB: That reminds me of what I think may be startling information to many Americans, that Mexicans might actually think that Americans are rude.

SC: (laughs) That was what was so much fun for me. To hold up mirrors: from the Mexicans to see themselves from the point of view of the Mexican-Americans. Mexican-Americans to see themselves from the point of view of the Mexicans, Americans as seen by Mexicans, all those mirrors that get refracted.

RB: You have been on this book tour since the beginning of October. How has your presentation been received?

SC: If you are Mexican, they feel like crying because they feel no one has written about this and they are emotionally overwhelmed. I get a lot of weepers. If you are of another culture, say Persian or Chinese or African-American, you will come up surprised and say, “Well, I’m Persian, but this could have been my family.” People from very different cultures than mine see themselves in this book. Even the most gringo gringo will, when I see them in the audience, will be laughing at the appropriate moment. I think there is a place for them even though it is specifically about a culture that is unlike my listeners. There is a place for them to identify with. You know, you make it so specific that it does that little paradox of becoming universal. We are seeing examples of that with My Big Fat Greek Wedding where suddenly you have a specific culture but everyone can watch it and identify with it.

RB: More men than women? Women than men?

SC: No, men and women and children and young people and old people and all different kinds of people. It’s been really surprising. Sometimes when I write a certain book it brings a certain audience. Loose Woman suddenly made me aware of the gay public that I draw. With House on Mango Street it’s young people. Woman Hollering Creek, maybe more women. But this one, I see men and women of all ages. It could be that they are being ushered in by the other books. My readers are as diverse as any group you will ever see. Something that booksellers always tell me. That they are always surprised at the kind of people that come to my readings. That they are such a mix of ages and colors. It looks like people spilling out of an elevator (laughs).

RB: Do you have any sense of your place in the literary establishment?

SC: I am always curious about that because I don’t know. I’m just in my house writing away. Plus I’m not in New York; I’m in the Southwest, which alienates me even further from either coast. I always wonder. Maybe you can tell me. I always wish I could understand because I do know that sometimes I am put together in these writers’ events and I don’t know how other writers see me or how the business looks at me. I hope I will be looked upon as a writer on the level of Eduardo Galeano or Elena Poniatowska or Dorothy Allison or Studs [Terkel], people I admire. I hope I’m not just looked as a writer that is popular but as a writer of literary value.

RB: How do you view the publishing business?

SC: I don’t know. I don’t see it that often. I see it at these big chunks of time. It’s certainly very different than it was the last time I was in New York. A lot has changed in the industry and what I feel is that everybody is much more conservative and cautious than they were in the past. I am not watching it close up. I am seeing it from such a distance, perhaps I am not the best person to ask.

I think the erotic is very spiritual and I never see that spiritual dimension when you look at collections of erotica. That’s always missing for me.

RB: What makes you feel that it is much more conservative?

SC: I think people are much more concerned about money now. There aren’t the big advances of the past. You feel the sense of nervousness about the book industry. It’s not like before. Not that I knew very much about what it was like because I was a newcomer to it, but I get that feeling that people are more conservative in their book choices and what they are going to publish and what’s a sure sell. As opposed to—just like in the economy—a sense of luxury and sense of risk taking ten years ago.

RB: Is it through the various writers conferences and seminars that you have contact with other writers?

SC: I am not in touch with other writers. I don’t have very much contact with other writers. I don’t get invited to these things or I don’t go to them. I hate panels. I speak to librarians and to conferences of English teachers. That’s what I do: teachers and librarians. And high school kids. I go out and meet the kids. I don’t hang out with writers. It’s very rare. Even when do these book fairs as I’m going to do next month, I come in and I go out. I can’t hang around with lots of people these days because I am hypersensitive. So when I am around a lot of people or a big roomful of people I get almost autistic. I get overwhelmed and really tired. So I don’t like being around large groups.

RB: I didn’t write a novel, and I feel the same way.

SC: That happens to you too, huh? You know why? I think because the kind of work you do is so intensive with people that perhaps whether you realize it or not you are just absorbing everybody’s buzz. I feel like I am in a box of bees when I am in a room with lots of people and I’m just looking for the door. I find myself getting more and more agoraphobic as time goes on. Part of it is because people’s perception of me has changed. I haven’t changed. The MacArthur suddenly made people look at me and “ching ching.” How can she help me? So I feel like a lot of people are the chupacabras [a blood-sucking mythical monster, supposedly part goat], they all come, trying to suck your blood, trying to find how can you help them. Or they look at you as somehow you have the secret to the light and you are going to be able to pass it on just by waving your hands over them. In the past I was very open and very generous, and I found that it just exploded in my face. A lot of people weren’t there for me when I needed them. So I have become a little shell shocked. Subsequently almost paranoid and frightened of people now. Maybe I’m losing out in meeting some marvelous people, but I am doing the only thing I can to save my spirit. I really felt—especially when I was finishing this book—so open and overwhelmed by people. I am still trying to recover from that.

RB: Are you planning for a vacation?

SC: I took two vacations already. When I handed in the book I thought, “I have to do something for myself. My spirit is dying and what would I like?” And I remembered that 19 years earlier I had been in Venice and I had always wanted to go back, but I didn’t have time or money. And now I had the money and the time. So I went to Venice. Then in May I took my niece for her quiencenera—I had promised her for her fifteenth birthday we could go to any city she wanted but she had to wait until I finished the book. So we went to Paris. It was fun to go with my niece, who is now eighteen.

RB: I wanted to get back to few anecdotes and details in Caramelo. The saying that “Spanish is to speak to God and English to dogs,” where does that come from?

SC: It goes further. It’s a Mexican saying. It says something like, “French is to speak to a woman, Spanish is to speak to God and English is to speak to dogs.” That’s the way it goes. I don’t know who made that up. Probably a Spaniard or a Frenchman.

RB: And was it the case that people in Mexico named their dogs Wilson, after President Woodrow Wilson who sent US troops into Mexico?

SC: Yes. My father, when we were growing up, kept wanting to name our dog Wilson. And we would say that was an awful name. I didn’t understand the historical significance until I grew up and did my history.

RB: It was interesting that Mexico’s Golden Age coincided with the Great Depression.

SC: Because of the war a lot of the imports that would normally have come from countries in the war, the production stopped so Mexico benefited as did Argentina. And when you have a flourishing of the economy you have a flourishing of the arts. That’s when you had Siqueros and Diego Rivera and all those people creating a national identity for Mexico.

cisneros front Sandra CisnerosRB: How much are you thinking about what you are going to be doing in the future?

SC: I have lots of projects always bubbling on the back burners and I go to the one that is boiling over first.

RB: What is a sign of boiling over?

SC: It means that it’s the thing I can’t not write about. It’s the thing I want to explore next. There is actually a book of vignettes that had little seedlings that I used to have to force myself to write down the idea and put it aside, when I was writing Caramelo. There is a little book of erotica I want to write called Infinito.

RB: Infinity?

SC: Infinity. Infinito. I want write about those little erotic moments that take you to another spiritual dimension and it might just be a bowl of flowers…that you never see in a sex museum. Things that take you into that infinity symbol, that little lying down sleeping eight. Sometimes it doesn’t have to do with people at all. I think the erotic is very spiritual, and I never see that spiritual dimension when you look at collections of erotica. That’s always missing for me. So I thought, “I’ll write my own.”

RB: How far ahead do you look?

SC: Well, I’ve been thinking about this book since I was in Munich with Woman Hollering. All along while I was writing Caramelo. I would just write ideas—jot them down on little pieces of paper—and stuff them in an envelope and that what Infinito is right now. Concepts for tiny vignettes. I was thinking of Book of Embraces. Something really small with drawings and I’d like to incorporate my own drawings into this book.

RB: Is that a form? Did Eduardo Galeano take his Book of Embraces from something else?

SC: I don’t know what Galeano was influenced by. But I was influenced by Borges.

RB: But is there a genre?

SC: Cronicas. There is a Latin American term called ‘cronicas’, chronicles. And Clarise Lispector, the Brazilian writer, explores them too. But they are not necessarily small. Some of Clarise Lispector’s cronicas go on for pages.

RB: You made reference to The Book of Embraces.

SC: The Book of Embraces is my model because Galeano makes them very succinct as if they were poems. And that’s what I want to do. That’s my inspiration. The Book of Embraces is for Galeano his favorite book. And I want to do a book that’s for me because Caramelo was for my father and for the immigrants. Woman Hollering was for the community. House on Mango Street was for my students. This book is for me. And I haven’t written a book of fiction that is for me. My poems are for me. But not a book of fiction. So I thought that this would be for me.

RB: Considering that you have been quoted as saying writing Caramelo nearly killed you, what is the prospect of you writing another novel?

SC: It’d be like if you had a four-day childbirth and people saying, “Are you going to have another kid?” (laughs) Well, not soon. I don’t know that I’d want to or that I could. I could never write one like this again. Everything that I write comes when it wants to, out of its own need and it dictates its form. I don’t say, “I am going to write a novel.” I didn’t know this was going to be a novel. I thought it was short story. I never know what something is going to be until it emerges from the womb and you see the crown of its head and then you see it pushing its way up. So in my life if another book wants to be born it’s not for me to choose.

RB: Such is the intersection of art and commerce. You do something and it has commercial success and there is pressure to duplicate.

SC: People wanted me to do that with House. I could do Mango Street II or Mango Street III, like films. But why? I already did that. For me it’s important to do something else. So I’ve done this novel and maybe some other novel will demand itself. But right now I can’t see it because I’m so tired. I’m still exhausted from giving birth to this one.

Everything that I write comes when it wants to, out of its own need and it dictates its form. I don’t say, "I am going to write a novel." I didn’t know this was going to be a novel.

RB: Are you interested in making movies?

SC: With this one, yeah. Not with my other books. With my other books if people had wanted to take individual stories from Woman Hollering possibly. People wanted to do Mango Street, but it doesn’t have enough there to do the kind of film I would want to put my name on. I’d have to fill in the gaps or give it up and have faith that they wouldn’t mess it up. This one is very cinematic I think the ideal venue would be a telenovela, not a two hour feature. Wouldn’t that be great? A US made telenovela styled on the Mexican ones that would have beginning and an end…

RB: Have you watched TV lately?

SC: No. Yeah, I do when I am on the road. I watch pay-per-view and HBO. I thought that something like that could be marketed as telenovela that we could export to Mexico. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?

RB: And the Spanish translation of Caramelo has been published simultaneously. In Spanish-speaking countries?

SC: In Spanish-speaking countries it won’t be available until next year with a different publishing house. But it’s the same translation by Liliana Valenzuela.

RB: Who is your editor at Knopf?

SC: The fabulous Robin Desser. She was with me for nine years on this project. Incredible!

RB: How important is your editor to the way you work?

SC: I don’t get comments from my editor immediately. With Robin we waited until I had the pieces there and when I was at the point of absolutely being lost and then helping me to bring them together. I work more closely with my personal editor, Dennis Mathis, who is a friend of mine, who has mentored my fiction all along. I rely on Robin too. I’m showing it to Robin, to Dennis and three other readers too. Plus my agent and two other friends for fact checking and all kinds of things. And then I just take into account all their comments and try to come up with something that I hope satisfies everybody, but especially me.

RB: Your agent, Susan Bergholz, seems to be influential in the lives of her writers.

SC: Oh yeah, other people don’t have the relationship that we have with Susan. There is only one Susan. I liked Susan from the beginning because she said it wasn’t about the dollar. That we were going to sell books to the best place that a book could go to and if that meant a small publishing house or less money…that we weren’t looking for the big swimming pool. We more interested in doing something that really had a sense of taking the work out there and it making a change in the world. So, she’s a very political person. I don’t think she could work with anyone unless her heart and soul was in it. I think it’s extraordinary even among agents to hand something in and then go to sleep and wake up and there are [her] comments on your email. (laughs) Or before email I would get a fax back with comments all over the pages I had just handed in before I went to bed. Nobody does that for you, not even your friends.

RB: Are you affected by the conservative turn in the publishing business?

SC: I’m already established. I feel it and I hear it. You can feel the nervousness.

RB: There is a current wave of young writers that seems to be selling books. Am I missing the new young Latino writers?

SC: There is a whole slew of young women writers that have first books out. But making a big splash?

RB: Mention some names please.

SC: Angie Cruz who came out with Soledad. And Frontera Street by Tanya Maria Barrientos. There is a whole bunch of books by new authors. I have to write them down. I don’t know these writers. Maybe because they are women writers—I’ll see a write up in the Latino press but not in the mainstream press. I don’t know why that is? Do you think that they were happy to jump on Junot Diaz because he is a man?

RB: I’m tempted to say that you should ask the people who did the jumping. Well, there was the Vanity Fair “Three Amigas." And Dagoberto Gilb didn’t get much attention when he was first published.

SC: Dago has certainly gotten respect in literary quarters.

RB: One last minor question. Was it the case that John Steinbeck wanted a Mexican actor Pedro Amendares to play Zapata and Elia Kazan wanted Brando?

SC: Steinbeck wanted Amendares, who played in The Pearl. A magnificent actor, he would have been fabulous as Zapata. But the director wanted Brando and that’s what he got. He looked so bad in that movie it was laughable. But you know stuff like that—I know all this trivia and I don’t know where I get it and sometimes you’ll ask me where I got it from and I can’t even remember. But I thought it was a good place to put it was in the footnotes (laughs). I ran away with the footnotes. Some people enjoyed the footnotes. Some people didn’t want the footnotes there. But you don’t have to read the footnotes. I think no matter what you do you can’t please everybody. You have to ask yourself, “Did I do what I set out to do?” As I said when I set out, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I didn’t want to write a typical linear novel. When I was in the audio studio for the tape and I finished speaking the last line of the book and I came to the end, I really felt—I said, “Okay you don’t have to worry about what the reviewers or what anyone else says because you really wrote this book for your father, and you really wanted to pay homage to his time and his history—all those people from that generation are dying or are dead." I felt that I tried my very best, that at this time in the history of the planet, this is the best I can do. That’s all you have to ask from yourself. That it’s the best you can do and that you did it without any ego involved and that you did it for somebody else. That’s the best you can do. So I’m happy.

RB: Good. Good.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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