"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Interview with Diego Vázquez, Jr.: A Difficult Time Writing Sentences

A difficult time writing sentences

An Interview with Growing Through the Ugly author Diego Vázquez, Jr. 
Diego Vázquez, Jr. hit the floor running with his late 1990's novel Growing Through the Ugly. He often describes himself as reclusive at times and as a slow novelist. After a few years of trying to track him down, he emailed me a few years ago and has updated me ever since. The success of a novel is something we all envy and the Chicano(a) literary world has been wondering since Growing Through the Ugly, que tal con Diego Vázquez, Jr..

Raymundo Eli Rojas: Diego, for those who are unfamiliar with you and your works, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where were you born and raised? Education? Anything else you want to share.
Austin High School, El Paso, TX

Diego Vázquez, Jr: I was the only one in my El Paso familia who was not born in Texas or Califas. My city of birth is Chicago, yet I was raised in El Paso for most of my childhood. I first left for Califas in Jr. High School and after that I found the world at large.

Rojas: Diego, your novel Growing Through the Ugly was everywhere in the late 1990s. Just in preparing for this interview, I reread it and devour it once again in just two to three days. It has been used a lot in classes. Were you surprised at its success?

zquez: I was more surprised at how little I knew about handling success.

Rojas: How did you get into writing?

zquez: I just always wrote. I remember being in elementary school and begging my sisters to listen to my next “script for a play.” Then I would try to get them to perform the parts and I would pretend to be a world-famous director.

I forever am grateful to the only teacher in my high school career who paid attention to me.

I was a sophomore at Austin High, having just recently transferred after a failed career at the old Jesuit High School. I was not a stellar student, attending classes rarely, if at all. I did enjoy the essay tests in my English class. And the results of my efforts were announced loudly for all to hear. I would score very well on the tests and my tenth grade English teacher would berate me in front of the class telling me that I had a gift for writing, and that I had better give school a much better effort. That I was a natural-born writer, of course I was teased endlessly with the moniker “natural born.” The fact that she recognized my gift and held me to become responsible for the gift I had been given, was a huge marker in my sense of becoming a writer.

I have always carried that with me, paraphrasing her, that we are all given gifts, some of us more than others, but no matter, it is our duty to respect and learn all that we can about the gift(s) that we have been given.

zquez: You had published parts of Growing through the Ugly in the early 1990s in various journals. Can you describe the process you used/went through to write and publish Growing Through the Ugly? Any rejections, if so how did you deal with the rejections?

zquez: I reached a point during the third year of writing the Ugly where I decided I knew I had the first good 25 pages. I had a confluence of events that took place all at the same time. I found the title for the book when the poem that opens the book arrived. The poem titled, “especialmente monarcas” also had a line in it that fit perfectly for the title of the book, Growing through the Ugly

especialmente, monarcas

The importance
of butterflies
has to 
away beautiful.

And all of this took place while I discovered that the scene that I was writing was also going to be the opening of the story. So with all these wonderful things happening after three, maybe four years of writing a story that had a new title almost monthly, I sat back and looked at the best 25 pages that I had written. That was enough for me.

Back then you would send in a short cover letter and a brief excerpt by regular mail to acquisitions editors. I knew of none. I had no agent. But I had those 25 damn good pages and I knew a friend who knew the names of at least five acquisitions editors. So my cover letter was about three sentences. Hi, I am me, and this is a good piece of my next novel. (As if I already had one.) If you’re interested in the complete manuscript let me know asap. thank you.

I addressed the five envelopes to five publishing houses. Four were the big kids in New York and one was a very cool small publisher in New Mexico. I mailed my future as a novelist and expected to hear back sometime within the next six months. I expected that I would hear back because I liked those 25 pages.

Within six weeks I heard from the small press in New Mexico. They wanted to see the complete manuscript. A day later on a Saturday evening a voice mail was left for me from Jill Bialosky at Norton asking me to please send her the manuscript also. After listening to Bialosky’s message when I got home late that evening, I was struck with one small piece of reality. I had no complete manuscript.

I spent the rest of the weekend cutting and pasting from old short stories, old journalism pieces that I transformed quickly into something called fiction, and of course tossed in as many poems as possible into a collection of 125 pages which would miraculously be known as Growing Through the Ugly, a novel, forthcoming. Whew, after that I waited about two weeks and Norton made me an offer.

At the same time they made an offer, Henry Holt (publisher) came in a little late also wanting to see the manuscript. That turned out ok for me because once I signed with Norton, then Henry Holt immediately bought paperback rights. The final tally sheet from my five submissions was that only one publishing house did not respond.

Of the four who responded, three of them made an offer.

Rojas: After you got your novel accepted, your novel probably went through the editing and copy writing (copy writing in sense of proofing the copy) process. Can you describe your experience going through this?

zquez: For me, this was a learning experience that was jam-packed with revelations about how to write prose.

The first thing that Jill Bialosky suggested was that I go through the entire manuscript and create chapters and transitions into and out of the chapters. We spent about a year on the process and again back then… ha, as if it were a thousand years ago…the hard copy would be copy edited by Jill and then expressed back to me… so there was much back and forth through the express mail system. I got used to the packages coming and going on a weekly basis.

Eventually with the expert guidance of Bialosky, I was able to take out what looked like seven thousand poems and be satisfied with enough sentences to try to complete a story that a reader would enjoy reading.

Rojas: You've described yourself to me as a “slow novelist.” What do you mean by that term?

zquez: I write poems almost daily. At least something each day is written by me, but I have a difficult time writing sentences.

This is not a helpful trait in the novel-writing business. I think I slowed myself into trying to write the type of story that a reader will want to read more than just the first time. I want to write a novel that a reader will want to re read. I find this a very slow journey.

Currently, I am creating a new story that I am loving and so much of the feel of it brings me back to the confidence I had with the Ugly. So I know this one will get much farther than the previous two attempts at a next good novel. I have a manuscript titled Justine and one called The Fat-Brush Painter.

My current forthcoming novel, Border Town Sky, is exceeding my expectations, and I am excited to be completing it and getting it ready for the marketplace of new books.

Rojas: Your websites, aside from stating Diego Vázquez, Jr. “Poet,” “Novelist,” it also says “Storyteller.” What do you mean by "storyteller" and can you tell us a little bit more?

zquez: Yes, I have become more involved in performing story on stage. This is such a radical departure for me because I am accustomed to performing a reading but also being able to read from the pages while being on stage.

Storytelling is not a process where the audience appreciates being read to from a manuscript. I do enjoy the performance aspect of storytelling and I also like to be on a stage and create a new story on the spot.

Although when I do that and listen to a recording of it, I can always hear the difference between a polished story and one that I have created on stage. When I am polished, my story speech pattern will have very few “uhs,” and “uhms”... when I create one on the spot, my speech is filled with pauses and too many “uhs,” and “uhms”... which of course need to be edited for the next performance.

Rojas: Tell us about your involvement in poetry slams?

zquez: In Minnesota, I am known as the founder of the first and longest running poetry slam venue in the state. I started it with the sponsorship of Kieran Folliard in 1995 at Kieran’s Irish Pub in Minneapolis. Kieran and I were a good blend. I brought in good business to his pub on a slow night of the week and this in turn produced good cash prizes from Kieran. I competed on the first two slam teams from Minnesota to compete in a National Poetry Slam. We went for the first time in 1998 and competed in Austin, Texas. The next year, 1999, we were in Chicago, Illinois.

I left the slam scene shortly after securing Minneapolis as the site for the 2002 National Poetry Slam. I am still bitter about giving away poetry slam to an organization, but after securing the national poetry slam finals for Minneapolis in 2002, there was just too much to be done by one individual, and so I gave it up to an arts organization.

I am only bitter about having been completely ignored for the event itself. They did not involve me in any of the events and I was not asked to host not even one little opening-round slam. It was as if they became the founders and the driving force that secured the national poetry slam for Minneapolis. I did not enjoy becoming anonymous so quickly. But that seemed to mirror my clout as a writer too. 

By then I had still to complete a next novel that would be good enough to print.

Rojas: Diego, during the late 1990, we had many Chicano(a) authors including you, putting the Vietnam War into their works (Daniel Cano, Charlie Trujillo, Alfredo Vea, Jr., George Mariscal, Gloria Velasquez, Norma Cantu, and more). I know many of the Vietnam War films (e.g., Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket”) came out in the late 1980s, exactly 10 years before. What was it about the late 1990s that cause you and other writers to use the Vietnam War in their works?

zquez: Time and distance. I think.

Rojas: Can you tell us a little about Border Town Sky, the novel you are working on, without spoiling it?

View looking down on McKelligon Canyon in El Paso (courtesy: www/on-walkabout.com)

zquez: Of course it is set in a fictional El Paso. Four children, from the ages of 12,13,14,15 set off on a journey through McKelligon Canyon to get to the rendezvous site of the “visitors.” ya, nada mas. read the book… if I ever finish.

Rojas: Do you have anything else in the works? Do you ever plan to tackle a book of short stories?

zquez: I tend to have multiple writing projects. I want to finish an unfinished novel titled, Santa Eulalia has a Post Office, and my children’s story, Sonya and the Tree

I also have a collection of short stories that have been based on a lost duffel bag. About five years ago when my jefita was only 79, she was telling me a story about mi jefito who had been attached to the Marines as a Navy corpsman during World War II and he got stuck on Guadalcanal with them for 13 months of daily bombs. 

He came home with a duffel bag that was filled with letters he had written during that time since very little mail was going in or out. Well, of course when I asked where or who had the duffel bag she sadly responded that it was lost many years ago, she was just remembering that he had carried that back with him. I have been re-writing his old letters into stories. I hope I can pull it off.


Rojas: Which writers, living or who've passed on, have influenced you?
Ask the Dust (P.S.)

zquez: Pablo Neruda influenced my poetry as much as Charles Bukowski. So did Ranier Maria Rilke and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I spent a month on Edna's farm a year after the Ugly came out. John Fante in Ask the Dust, Gabriel García Márquez with Love in the Time of Cholera, and Haldor Laxness with Independent People. Of course I want to mention Cien años de Soledad but that book is beyond influencing me, it captured me and took me prisoner, and I have been blinded by the magnificence for so long that I cannot see beyond that incredible story. Jorge Luis Borges with a Universal History of Infamy, and Joan Didion, all of her early work.

Rojas: What did this last decade bring to Chicano(a) Literature?

zquez: A thousand and one brand new dreams that Chicano(a) writers are possible.

Rojas: Can you give us a name of one Chicano(a) writer, poet, or playwright we should be paying attention?

zquez: Deborah Ramos, formerly de El Paso, but now a lifelong Minnesota Chicana. Well, when she gets published, pay attention to her. Heart of the Beast Theatre in Minneapolis received NEA funding to produce her play, "Chalchiuhtlicue," which is scheduled for next year. Hopefully.

Rojas: Can you give us a name of a veterana(o) Chicano(a) writer we should be paying attention to?

Rojas: Why Trinidad Sánchez and did you know Trino?

Trinidad Sanchez, Jr.
zquez: I first met Trino in Austin, Texas during the week of the National Poetry Slam. It was an incredible meeting. As soon as I met him, he takes out some poetry he has been working on and right there on the sidewalk with pedestrians going this way and that, and the traffic moving in all directions, there is a small universe of two poets meeting for the first time. 

Trino jumps wonderfully and fully into his poems. After that, it was a whirlwind of time spent with Trino whenever possible during that week. We went to raulrsalinas' Resistencia Bookstore an institution of Chicano poetry. His bookstore was of course in the barrio, and going there with Trino was, again, an event. 

We stayed in contact for many years after that but you know how time drifts things and people. 

Rojas: If you watch TV, what are you watching on TV nowadays and what is the last movie you saw?

zquez: Can’t afford the cable bill, and my $4.00 (after $40 govt issue coupon) converter box sometimes will not cooperate with my antique TV set. But I do love Netlfix... does that count? 

I hate “Weeds.” I loved “Weeds” for the entertainment. I love that at least that show has Latinos of all shapes and power structures, but since I have been watching it five years after it started, I have much to catch up on. Yet, I just don’t like the way the Latinos come out in the series. But if you compare it to the millions of other shows that never include our voice, it still gets some bonus points for trying. In my aging process, I find myself raging more and more about how much we are Excluded from so much in the entertainment sector that includes visual media such as TV and movies. 

I am desperately trying to remember the last movie I saw… I am such a Hollywood hater that it must have been some Bollywood epic.

Rojas: Is there a website you'd like to share with our readers.

zquez: Hope it’s not too late but this is a fun thing to do this month.
National Novel Writing Month

Rojas: Diego, a big gracias for this interview and un abrazo del Chuco.


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Coming soon, review of E.A. Mares classic epic poem The Unicorn Poem.

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