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

Octavio Romano

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Mas than Menos: An Interview with René Saldaña, Jr. on his new book "A Good Long Way"

Mas Than Menos
An Interview with René Saldaña, Jr. on his new book A Good Long Way


A Good Long Way is a new YA novel off of  Arte Público/Piñata Books. A day in the life of three teens from the valle de Tejas is given as the teens confront running away, domestic violence, dreams, and parental intrusion. René Saldaña, Jr. shows readers teens who want to escape home, while at the same time, gain understanding of what is "home." With almost half of raza teens dropping out of high school (even some very close to graduation), Saldaña confronts the often dramatic lives of teens, even dramtic for a small Texas town.

Raymundo Eli Rojas (Rojas): René, 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? Where are you living now? Anything else you want to share. 

René Saldaña, Jr. (Saldaña): Presently, I’m living and working in Lubbock, TX, with my family: my wife, Tina, our boys Lukas, Mikah, and Jakob, and a ton of animals: three cats, a dog, a rabbit, and a tankful of fish. 

But it’s deep South Texas where I’m originally from. I was born in McAllen in a clinic, which most recently has been converted into a sort of storefront church. Back in the late 60s when I was born, my folks tell me I cost them a whopping $90, mas o menos. For my own emotional well-being, I keep telling myself it was mas than menos. 

Above, René Saldaña, Jr. (Photo courtesy Arte Publico Press/Piñata Books)

I was raised in a little town called Peñitas and went to school in La Joya. After graduation, I left for South Carolina where I went to Bob Jones University for my B.A. in English and Creative Writing, then to Clemson University for my M.A. in English, and much later, after several years of teaching in the Texas public schools, I returned to the South to earn my Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from Georgia State University.

Rojas: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Saldaña: I had written a couple of short stories back in high school, but those weren’t enough to make me think I could be a writer. I didn’t think back then that being a writer was something a kid could be. Writers were the people whose books we were forced to read in class. By the way, I scored As on both stories, and I’ve got them stashed away in a box in our garage somewhere, but if I were grading those in a workshop setting, I’d have to nearly fail them they’re so corny and predictable. 

It was a couple guys and girls named Glenn Brown, Craig Honshell, Deanna Meadows, and Lynn Harris from undergrad who taught me to love literature like I never had in high school, and it was around this time, my sophomore, junior year in college that I began to conceive of myself as writer. I wanted to be like F. Scott Fitzgerald, you know. Or Hemingway. 

I wrote some really bad poetry, submitted it to various journals and magazines, it was promptly and summarily rejected (and rightly so, in retrospect), but this rejection made me want to defend myself as writer, to want to prove that I was the real deal, but that meant more than simply wanting to be a writer but to work at it, however long it would take, however hard the work would be.

Rojas: Can you tell us about your new book A Good Long Way (Arte Publico Press/Piñata Books)?

Saldaña: I tried placing this book with three NY publishers and one small independent press, all of whom either accepted it conditionally or outright rejected it. Mostly for the same reasons: the shifting PsOV, the shifting tenses, the shortness of it: all of this wasn’t what would attract young adults, I was told. After a few editors, all of whom I know personally and respect, told me no for basically the same reasons, I almost gave up on the book. 

I’d met Gabi, Marina, and Carmen at Arte Publico and had worked with them on another project, a bilingual mystery series about a boy detective named Mickey Rangel (my very own Encyclopedia Brownskin) and thought I’d give the manuscript at least one more shot. Dr. Kanellos (Nick Kanellos) contacted me about wanting to acquire the book. And now I’m getting nothing but rave reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and ForeWord. I knew there was a reason to keep fighting for this book, why it’s my favorite of all my titles.

Rojas: Your book is kind of a “runaway” story, are you trying to send a message?

Saldaña: I think Jessy, one of the main characters in the book, says it best: it can’t be about running away from something that’s knocking you around, but a running toward another thing that’s better. So even though there’s a physical, literal movement from the place where we’re at now, it’s to another place that has got to be a movement forward. An attempt to better ourselves and or our situation. If I’m running away from a problem, I’m not really addressing it, I’m not doing the thing I have to do to try and solve it. I’m just shifting myself physically to another place where the problem still exists for me. So if there is a message I’m sending out, it’s this: problems are going to keep hounding us until we face them and deal with them. 

Some problems, obviously, are greater than others, and facing them isn’t so simple. But if we want to break out of a cycle that’s keeping us from fully blossoming, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to break free of it.

Rojas: You use different “persons” (1st person, 3rd person, etc.) for you different characters? Why did you chose this method?

Saldaña: When I started the story, it was from Roelito’s point of view, but then I got to a place where he would have to tell stuff about his older brother Beto that he had no real way of telling true. It was never a question in my mind. 

When I got to that place, I simply shifted. And each perspective and tense works in a very specific way: Roelito is a ninth grader who’s not too certain of his future, so to constantly validate himself, he speaks in the first person and present tense (this because he’s got no idea what’s coming next); Beto speaks in the more egotistical third person, and in the past tense because, well, hasn’t he already lived life to know what it’s all about; and Jessy speaks in the second person, almost like a disembodied soul, based strictly on the harsh life she leads. 

It was one of the things a couple of the editors told me would have to change for them to take the book: that the shifting POV thing wasn’t working, that I’d have to choose one of the characters and tell the story through his or her eyes. But how can Jessy, messed up as her life is, be expected to tell Roelito’s story? They hardly know each other, and isn’t she busy enough trying to be next on the list of who’ll get beaten up at home? It didn’t make sense to me then, it doesn’t make sense to me today. 

I think today’s young readers are looking for more than the straightforward tellings. They’re not turned off by a differently told story. Like adult readers, they’re turned off by poor storytelling.

Rojas: What do you see as the difference in writing a YA (young adult) novel opposed to a regular novel?

Saldaña: The scope of a character’s life experiences, generally, is more limited. I mean, how can it not be? 

Roelito is in the ninth grade. Though his life is very serious to him, he doesn’t have the experiences his father has. The same goes for Jessy, whose life is most definitely harsher than Roelito’s, but it’s not as full as her own mother’s, who’s lived through some tough times, to say the least. Aside from that, there isn’t much of a difference between the two, in my opinion. 

Though writing for the YA readership does allow me certain benefits I don’t get when writing for adults. For one, I have permission to write about melodrama. Not melodramatically, understand, but about the huge drama that is a teen’s life. One friend who writes for teens as wells said she enjoys writing “first experiences,” too. 

An adult who’s lost several family members over a lifetime will look at death differently than a teen living through it for the very first time. That’s a huge plus. I also get to experiment with form writing at this level where I don’t get to as much or period when writing for adults. It’s like it’s only in its infancy with teen readers to read in different forms, while adult readers have been through the deconstructionists, the minimalists, the anti-storyists, the metafictionists. We’re doing really exciting stuff, I feel.

Rojas: I may be reading too much into your book, but I get this “get out of The Valley” train of thought, especially in your character Jessy and somewhat in Beto. El Paso writers, especially those first published in the 1980s and early 1990 were known to write on their love-hate relationship with their home. Does this ring true for writers from the Valley? For our readers, I'm talking about the Texas Valley (not San Joaquin, San Fernando, Mesilla, etc.).

Saldaña: No, it’s not so much leaving the Valley than it is finding one’s place in life. And sometimes that does mean leaving one’s place of rearing. I do tell students as often as I can that perhaps that place might be somewhere besides the Valley, but they’d never know it if they decide to stay. Or, even though I’m no longer living there, that they’ll gain a richer appreciation of home when they’re gone from it, like has happened to me. 

I didn’t much care for things Valley when I was there. Nothing was new, nothing was exotic. It was all hum-drum, boring. No one could ever write about the Valley (unbeknownst to me at the time, Americo Paredes and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith were doing it, and doing it very well), why would anyone want to? But I left for several years, and it was in that absence that I figured out I love conjunto music, I no longer see or hear a difference between us (Mexican Americans) and them (Mexican immigrants) when it comes to how we speak. 

Back in the day we called them “mochos,” because their speech was all cut up. I would never have known that my English was all cut up too unless I had left and heard my English up against the Southern English. The people transformed. Not magically or romantically, you understand, but they became something greater in my eyes. Folks worth writing about and for. The idea is to leave, even metaphorically, one’s zone of comfort to discover greater things about oneself. 

Rojas: What is your work schedule like when you're writing? How do you balance it with your day job? Can you tell our readers what your day job is? 

Saldaña: Normally I begin writing at around 11P.M., when my wife and I have put the kids to bed, once I’ve wound down from the day. I’ll listen to Leno or Letterman (neither one of them is as funny as they used to be, and they’re no longer relevant, so I listen to their monologues more as white noise than for the content).

Now, Jimmy Falon is funny, so if I make the mistake of not turning off the television early on, I’m sucked into his silliness. But I’ll pull out the computer, check email and some online news sources, more winding down, then I get to the work itself.

Rojas: Are there any writers that influenced you?

Saldaña: Back in college, it was the Modernists, mostly the Americans: Fitzgerald, Hemingway. But then I discovered Ralph Ellison (the first writer of color I’d ever read, in my memory), and then on my own through one of those bookclubs, James Baldwin.

Go Tell It on the Mountain
Notice, I’m not mentioning any Latino/a writers. I didn’t even know I should’ve been looking out for Mexican American writers. How weird is that since I grew up in a region much like El Paso: brownskins all around, you know. I didn’t even get to read Anaya’s Bless me,Ultima. But I’d have to credit Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain and “Sonny’s Blues” as an early influence. And then later, his Another Country blew me away.

And later, when I was looking for brown writers, I was given a copy of Magic of Blood by Dagoberto Gilb. This is in the early late, late 1990s, very early 2000s. And talk about a book that caused me to think of writing in a whole different way, a writer who thought very highly of his craft.

Rojas: I always ask these to all authors/poets: What did this last decade bring to Chicano(a) Literature?

Saldaña: To me, it has to be the emergence of a younger reading audience, who are in great need of knowing we have a literature that deals with them directly. That we make up part of the greater American tapestry, like Gilb (see Pluma Fronteriza's interview with Gilb) has said before, that our literature is also a part of that tapestry. It isn’t something to be dismissed or disqualified. It is something serious, but if we want our kids to grow up “knowing” we’ve got to ensure that they’re reading us in and out of class.

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

Y No Se Lo Trago La Tierra... and the Earth Did Not Devour Him (Bilingual Edition)
Saldaña: Gilb, most definitely. I think of him as a true craftsman. A writer never satisfied with a work until it’s been worked over and again and again until it’s ready. He’s writing about very real Mexican Americans, a working-class Chicano like no one else is writing about. Tomas Rivera did the same in …y no se lo trago la tierra, but for a different Mexican American, the migrant worker. It’s raw and gritty writing. It’s gripping, what he’s doing with these characters and their lives. He’s writing their everyday lives, but about something deeper at the same time.

Writers, too, can learn a great deal from his writing: how he puts stories together, how he uses flashbacks, how he ends his stories. All of it is intentional and so meant to be looked at consciously and carefully. Look at “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” or “Al in Phoenix” (both stories in Gilb's Magic of Blood) for his ars poetica. We’re not reading him in high school like we need to be doing. In college. Outside of school just because.

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

Saldaña: One of our greatest poets, our wisest voices, raulrsalinas. It’s sad he died, but he left behind a wealth of words. I had the joy of knowing him, watching him present at readings and schools, and that vato could command an audience, even a high school gym filled with teens who seemingly don’t care about anything.

And this one group I’m thinking about specifically was spell-bound. He had, and continues to have a great wisdom to share. I wish we were studying his poems more and more in regular lit classes and not just in Chicano studies classes. This poet will go down in history as one of the best poets, period. Not Chicano or Indio or Brown or Pinto, but POET, punto final.

Rojas: Our readers like to know if our spotlighted writers are human, so if you watch TV what are you watching on TV nowadays, and what is the last movie you saw?

Saldaña: I love The Biggest Loser, and my wife and I can’t miss Parenthood, which is such smart writing.

Rojas: What are you currently reading?

Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and LongingSaldaña: I’m finally getting a chance to read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, though I don’t think it’ll be as good a read as Kavalier and Clay. I’m also reading Gary Soto’s Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing and Walter Dean Myers’ Bad Boy: A Memoir.

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

Saldaña: My blog, that I update only occasionally, is renesaldanajr.blogspot.com.

Rojas: René, thanks for granting us this interview.


Tomorrow: Retro Review: 

How bad is Sandra Cisnero's Bad Boys?, a review of the Mango Publication's classic chapbook.

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