Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Claudia Martinez and The Art of Biographical Fiction for Young Adults

Interview with Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, author of The Smell of Old Lady Perfume by Jessica Powers. This interview will appear in El Paso Magazine.

Jessica: Tell me a little bit about yourself—your age, your background, where you grew up.

Claudia: I am 30 so that’s a big milestone. I grew up in El Paso and lived there until probably 18. I grew up in Segundo Barrio. I have three brothers, two sisters, and everybody is older than me.

I went to school in California and studied literature at Claremont McKenna College. I didn’t know too many people going off to school but I had some good teachers and some friends who were ambitious, and I was able to see them [do it], so even though it wasn’t something that was traditionally in my family, I was able to see them go off to school. I ended up going to the school that was the best one and that was going to pay for everything. I didn’t apply to anything closer, really, but I was happy to go. It was a great opportunity to do something that I had always just dreamed of. So I became the first person in my family who graduated from college.

My whole family is still in El Paso except one brother who is a sergeant in the military, but everybody else is still there, so I try to make it out there every year, sometimes 3 or 4 times a year. It gets expensive to travel when you have dogs because you have to board them. Once in awhile I take my dogs with me but they don’t like traveling on an airplane too much. My dogs were all born in El Paso but I brought them out here, so they grew up in El Paso, too.

I tried moving back to El Paso [after college] but I got this opportunity so I worked for a nonprofit there in California—Association of Border Workers, associated with Mujer Obrera. [Then] I had the opportunity to come to Chicago and I’ve been here ever since. Now I work for a foundation, as the Director of Operations and Development at the Chicago Foundation for Education. We basically give out grant money to teachers to foster innovation and excellence within Chicago public school classrooms.

I still have ties to organizations in El Paso like La Fe (Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe). I have a close association with them. They affected me a lot more than the short time [that I worked] at the Association of Border Workers. La Fe is a large presence in my memory of El Paso. My brother had a position there, and I interned there one summer. When I was growing up, that was like the organization. We would go there for the doctor, but when my brother started working there, I just remember that they were doing all these art things, and design, and poetry, and murals, and I think that even though it was [always] part of my community, it was later that I realized [how much I learned from them]. That’s how I realized that nonprofit work was the kind of work that I wanted to do.

Jessica: What inspired you to write The Smell of Old Lady Perfume?

Claudia: My dad passed away when I was eleven. Back then, we didn’t really talk about it. We were kind of expected to be strong and not to burden my mom. When you grow up in a community where you have a lot of older brothers and sisters, they affect how you should act and carry yourself, and I remember them telling us to be mature about it and not be a burden to her and try to be strong, which is not very realistic for a kid that age. We just dealt with it internally, so when I started writing about it, it was an opportunity to deal with it externally.

Part of the healing process when you’re that young, you don’t necessarily feel, you try to actively forget something so you don’t feel so much pain. I had to go back and talk to my brothers and sisters to bring back some of those memories, even the good memories. In suppressing the bad memories, you unfortunately lose the good memories, because those are sometimes easier to lose than the bad ones. So then we finally started talking about it, which we hadn’t done. It was really a kind of a journey. My oldest brother was already an older teenager when my dad passed away, so his memory was clearer than my oldest sisters. They were really instrumental in helping me to remember. I was careful in approaching my mom because I didn’t want to bring back any pain for her.

My brothers and sisters have been really supportive. My sisters read so many drafts of it! I felt bad giving them another draft. It’s this last draft they haven’t read, so that by the time it came out, they would be excited about it. They have been so supportive and so great, I don’t think I could have done this without them. My brothers haven’t read it but they’re supportive in other ways.

Jessica: What do you want readers to take away with them, after reading your novel?

Claudia: I want people to feel like they can have a dialogue with somebody that they might think they can’t have a dialogue with, that they can talk about things that are tough to talk about. Even when something really bad happens, there is something positive. For me, obviously when I was that age, I never thought there was anything positive that could come of my dad passing away. This book is something at least a little positive because it allows me to talk about something really hard and hopefully it will help others to talk about something that was really difficult.

Jessica: What do you hope readers outside of El Paso will understand about El Paso after reading your novel?

Claudia: In my first draft, I didn’t say it was El Paso. I wasn’t sure people would understand about El Paso. But that’s one of the first things that Lee [Lee Byrd, editor of Cinco Puntos Press] and I talked about, was that it should be set in El Paso. Even if people don’t understand about El Paso, this is a way for them to understand it. People are understanding more and more about El Paso, more than we think. When I first left El Paso, I’d mention where I was from, and people were like, “Where’s that?” But now as I get older, I meet people from El Paso all the time or people who have been to El Paso. I think El Paso has more of a presence than we realize. When we’re there, we don’t realize that there’s that presence out there as much as when we’ve been gone for a long time.

Jessica: What’s your favorite moment in the story?

Claudia: One of my favorite moments, when I read the end, I make myself cry, which is really ridiculous because I wrote it. But it does bring back those feelings [related to my father’s death] and it brings a certain closure, which I don’t always want to experience, because when you love somebody, you don’t want closure. For me, that’s something that really strikes me, not necessarily my favorite moment but the striking moment. When it’s Christmas in the story, that’s the moment when they’re all really happy, so that’s what I like to think about.

Jessica: You went through a long process of revisions under Lee Byrd’s tutelage. Can you talk about that process? What did you learn about writing? How did that shape your relationship with Cinco Puntos Press and the Byrds?

Claudia: Cinco Puntos has been really great. When I gave them the first draft, it was a bunch of memories just pasted together. It didn’t have any structure. So Lee Byrd really inspired me and pushed me to make it something more cohesive. I was inspired by my own memories, but I don’t think I consciously was writing for my audience. So I think Lee Byrd really inspired me to write for that audience and to be more careful who I was writing for. I kind of laugh about it now. When I talk about it to people, for me the process was almost like doing an MFA without having to pay the thousands of dollars you would have to pay for it. My interaction with Lee was like having a professor and working on a thesis, and you turn it in again and again until you get it right.

I was very happy about it. It was a learning experience, a difficult experience in a lot of ways. But it was a lot of work. At some point, I didn’t know how I was going to proceed or what I was going to do. I didn’t come into it with any real formal training or writing. I’ve always had a passion for writing since I was in sixth grade, but I didn’t have the opportunity for formal reading. My college didn’t have a writing program. Of course, when you study liberal arts, you study literature, but there wasn’t a creative writing program where I could experiment with fiction, so the closest thing was a creative journalism class and a poetry workshop, but that was the extent of the training that I had had. And so it was a very much a hands-on training, and for that, I’m really grateful to Cinco Puntos. A lot of publishers will just send you a letter that will just say, “Sorry,” or they won’t even send you a letter. For them to have interaction with me as much as they did, and to have pointed me in the direction that they did, I’m very grateful. I don’t think many writers get that opportunity from anybody, really.

The thing is that I wanted to be published by Cinco Puntos. I think I sent it out to two other places, and one of them had asked to see the manuscript but I never heard from them again. At some point, we did have our challenges—Lee Byrd had suggested I send it to others and at that point, I actually sent it out to an agent, who did request the manuscript right around the time that Lee Byrd came back and said they were ready to take me. I knew that I wanted to go with Cinco Puntos Press, not just because they went through the process with me, but because I had sent this to them for a reason.

I feel like I was meant to be published by Cinco Puntos Press. People have their dreams. For me, I wanted to do this and this was who I wanted to publish me. It was because they’re in El Paso, and I was familiar with their work, and I would go into their storefront with my nephews [when I was younger]. I liked their books and the kind of work that they had. I remember actually at some point being in a program where they gave us remaindered books and some of them were Cinco Puntos Press books—you know, books with half a cover. Cinco Puntos is a strong image of El Paso…

A lot of people are jumping on board with young adult books right now but a lot of what is being published is not very serious, and what I mean is that they’re not giving enough credit to their readers. Cinco Puntos Press really does publish quality books and that’s why I’m so grateful to them that they’re going to take that chance [on me] and put something out there that they feel so strongly on and they’re not just jumping on the bandwagon that everybody else is jumping on. I’m happy to be part of that list. I remember going to hear some authors talk about what they had put out and the publishers had wanted them to put in a sex scene—just putting it in to sell. That’s horrible to force that on a writer but that kind of stuff does happen.

Jessica: What do you miss most about El Paso? What do you miss least?

Claudia: I just filled out an expatriate survey about this. The obvious answer would be family and, because I’m in Chicago, weather. I think sometimes as much as people have an impression of El Paso, El Paso is a place that’s really difficult to explain to people. The food there for me is different, so that’s something I miss. The whole environment and the way people carry themselves, it’s different. When you’re here in Chicago, and you talk about finding role models, it’s such a new community that people don’t have role models. But in El Paso, I remember thinking I could be anything and do anything, because you could look around and you could see people doing everything and being everything. People do things that we take for granted in El Paso because people don’t have that same sense of community in other places. Community in general, that’s the way to put it, I don’t think that’s everywhere.

Jessica: Do you think you’ll ever move back?

Claudia: You know what? Yes. I want to, if I could ever just have a job where I could work from anywhere, and make decent money. I guess that’s what I like least about El Paso—it’s not an easy place to make money, at least not for me. And so if I had a lump of cash, and I could choose where to live, I would choose El Paso. I know that I’m going to end up back there.

Jessica: What are you working on now?

Claudia: I’m working on a book that’s Chicago-based. It’s young adult, about a bakery, about the business community and what happens to a predominantly Mexican neighborhood when it’s gentrified. It’s basically about what happens when you have to adapt. Do you adapt or do you fight it? I worked for a non-profit when I first moved here in a neighborhood that was predominantly Mexican and it’s starting to change. There was a lot of economic development and ways where people could find benefit from the changes in the community—do you complain about those changes or do you create something that is going to help you benefit from them? There are so many people you have to fight against and it’s a losing battle. So should you give up? That’s the question I’m trying to explore.

Jessica: Is there anything else you want to comment on?

Claudia: Well, this is my first interview….Oh, I should mention that I’m going to be on a panel at the REFORMA conference with you [J.L. (Jessica) Powers] in the fall. It’ll be my first official thing anywhere—but the nervousness hasn’t sunk in yet. Also, I want people to know that I was born in Ju├írez and raised in El Paso…I went to Hart School [in Segundo Barrio], which is the model for the school that Chela goes to.

J.L. (aka Jessica) Powers is an author, a historian of Africa and a prolific essayist, book critic and interviewer. She grew up in El Paso and now lives in the Bay Area. You can reach her at jlpowers at evaporites.com. Her first novel for young adults is The Confessional from Random House.