Interview with Author Sarah Cortez

Sarah Cortez has numerous poems anthologized here and in Europe.  Winner of the PEN Texas Literary Award in poetry, her debut collection is entitled How to Undress a Cop.  One of her poems recently placed in the annual contest of Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century.  An award-winning anthologist of five volumes, her most recent is You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens for Arte Público Press.

What was the motivating factor that started you writing?

From an early age, I was convinced that being a writer was the coolest occupation under the sun—with the exception of being a soldier. Reading was introduced to me at an early age, and I adored the magic of fictional stories.

What is your genre and who is your intended audience?

I write and have been published in almost all genres: fiction, poetry, prose [including personal essay, memoir essay (a type of personal essay], journalistic pieces, academic pieces, prayers, etc.  The intended audiences differ depending upon the publisher.  I write for the adult market, the young adult or teen market, the academic market, the blue collar market, the literary market, etc.  You might also look at markets in terms of literary vs. popular, rather than looking at age ranges, but I believe that the false distinction between “literary” and “popular” is being seen as such by many perceptive readers.

A large part of what I write is poetry.  You can see an example on my website at www.poetacortez.com.   

I also write and edit a lot of crime fiction or mystery.  In fact, the last three anthologies I’ve edited (selected the stories, then worked with the authors to get them in publishable form) are in crime fiction:  “Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery,”  “Indian Country Noir,” and “You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens.”  The publishers are Arte Público Press (Houston) and Akashic Books (Brooklyn).

 

What are you currently writing?

Currently, I am writing several pieces.  I have two personal essays I am working on for national distribution.  I am also working on a book of poetry lessons for the intermediate and/or advanced poet.  The other items on my agenda include book proposals for my next three books.

How do you make time to write?

Oh, gosh, this is a difficult question to answer.  Since I have my own freelance editing/consulting business, AND I also teach classes in advanced poetry, as well as in memoir, there is precious little time for me to write my own work.  In fact, the only reason I finished a poetry ms. that I had been working on for eleven years was that I broke a bone in my foot last summer and, thus, was confined to bed.  This old-fashioned “confinement” allowed me to spend hours a day working on poems.  In fact, one of the ones I wrote just recently placed as a semi-finalist in the annual contest of Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century.  They told me that it was chosen as one of twenty out of 6,000 poems for that distinction.

What inspires you to write, other than fame and fortune?

I would say that “fame and fortune” have never inspired me to write.  I write to communicate with an audience.  I write to try to put something that is basically ineffable onto the written page.

What would you have done differently in your writing life, if anything at all?

I can’t think of any major decision that I would change.

Tell us about your marketing strategy.

It’s fascinating that we authors now live in an age where we are expected to know the marketplace and maneuver within it in ways that will both sell books and “sell” ourselves.  Many writers prefer to look with disdain upon the marketing aspect of writing, perhaps because they feel that writing is an art form and they don’t wish to sully their art.  However, none of us who are currently producing have the luxury of knowing whether we produce art or something that will be eminently forgettable.  In other words, others will decide after we die if what we wrote is “art” or not.

I feel that if a writer’s goal is communication, then he/she doesn’t have the luxury of saying that he/she won’t help market books.

With that said, I feel that the foundation of a marketing strategy is to produce excellent and brilliant work.  (In the final analysis, the work must stand on its own.)  Once an author produces a high quality product, then he/she must use any and all tools to let people know about the work:  book readings/signings, visits to universities/schools, speeches, presentations, chairing panels at academic conferences, sending out a newsletter, etc, etc.  Each author will have certain activities that they are in a unique position to do.  You must do it all.

Does your spiritual life influence your writing? If so, how?

My spiritual life is the cornerstone and anchor of everything in my life, including my creative life in writing and teaching.

What’s your literary community’s burning desire?

I have so many different literary communities that this is a difficult question to answer.  I do a lot of work with middle school and high school kids to connect them with the power and joy of writing.  If I could wave a magic wand, I would give to this particular literary community the gift of intellectual curiosity—the desire to keep learning more and more and more about everything they encounter.

I also work with many fine advanced and intermediate literary poets.  If I had a magic wand, I would give them each an impeccable ear for hearing the breath, intonation, and effect of each syllable of a poem.

It is my pleasure to work with many memoir writers, from beginning to advanced.  Here, my magic wand would be for confidence in their hard-won wisdom already attained and the persistence to find the perfect words to capture it on the page in a fresh and unpredictable way.

My most prized community, however, is my law enforcement community.  I have been a police officer for sixteen years and took a crippling pay cut to change from the corporate world to the law enforcement world.  For this literary community, I would give them continued courage to communicate their vision and vocation.  You see, because so many loud-mouthed people in America like to praise and protect criminals, it is easy to become discouraged and feel that there aren’t too many decent, law-abiding folks left—which isn’t true.  But because the social misfits are always louder than the decent people, they steal the show.  Yes, I would give this community the steadfastness of vision amid the social chaos of our contemporary society.

And, finally, to those readers you might have who desire to become writers, I would give persistence.  I have been studying writing for almost twenty-five years.  I’ve had good teachers and bad; I’ve had shining opportunities and depressing rejections; I’ve had glorious promises come to naught and chance meetings with strangers open doors into amazing opportunities.    And, just recently, I had a ms. of my own accepted for publication that had sat in a drawer untouched for almost eight years.  If you truly wish to become a writer—a good writer—you must be in it for the long haul, study hard, find good teachers or mentors, and work at each piece of writing until it is “perfect.”

I hope you’ll visit my website, Theresa.  www.poetacortez.com

 

I’ve been to your site, Sarah, and I can’t decide which book to choose next! I’ve read Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery (Arte Público Press) and Indian Country Noir (Akashic Books) – both that you co-edited with Liz Martinez.  The writings are evocative and the stories are told in a language that speaks to my heart. I think that my next selection will be Urban Speak: Poetry of the City. I’m making a Christmas list with your titles on it!

I thank you for visiting and sharing your experience as a writer and service oriented individual on my blog. Mostly, I thank you for your tireless efforts in fulfilling a vision that includes helping others that have sparks of creativity to build a fire that roars with the telling of their stories – all meant to be shared in this world, at this time.  This was an honor for me. 

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Interview with Steven Torres-Author

Steven Torres was born and raised in New York City, but did spend a year and a half of his youth in Puerto Rico. The author of six traditionally published novels including PRECINCT PUERTO RICO and THE CONCRETE MAZE, Steven has recently ventured into ebooks with LUCY CRUZ AND THE CHUPACABRA KILLINGS and KILLING WAYS 2: URBAN STORIES. He lives in Connecticut now with his wife and daughter and, like many writers, is working on a novel about the Nephilim. Learn more at his website: steventorres.com.

Theresa: What is your genre and who is your intended audience?

Steven: I write mystery and crime novels and I hope that people who like good fiction are my audience. I have set most of my novels and stories in Puerto Rican communities, both on the island and in New York, so anyone looking for that setting will be pleased, I think.

Theresa: What are you currently writing?

Steven: Something completely different from what I’ve ever done – a “sword and sorcerer” set in 1099 – the Crusades. So far I’m enjoying it – good to research the period. For instance, there was a well-documented case of mass cannibalism during the war.

Theresa: How do you make time to write?

Steven: I sleep very little. Often I write from about eleven at night to one or two o’clock. A lot of writing, of course, is thinking through the plot, building characters in your mind, etc. and this can be done at any time during the day. I sometimes find myself watching the movie of my stories in my head while I’m driving. Probably not the best practice…

Theresa: What inspires you to write, other than fame and fortune?

Steven: I guess I’m just a writer at heart. Stories come to me, and I write them down. For some stories I have felt a sense of advocacy at work in me – that is, I want to speak up for people and about causes. For instance, when I first sat down to write a mystery years ago, I set it in Puerto Rico mostly because I hadn’t ever heard of a mystery set on the island (there have been some, but not many). My first novel deals with some of the horrible conditions Dominican immigrants confront trying to enter Puerto Rico. My second novel is partially about domestic violence. There are voices that need to be heard. That’s inspirational.

Theresa: What would you have done differently in your writing life, if anything at all?

Steven: I probably would have gotten an agent before selling my first five books. Not that I would have necessarily gotten more money, but it is valuable to have a professional eye go over your manuscripts – someone who has read ten thousand other manuscripts.  

Theresa: Tell us about your marketing strategy.

Steven: I haven’t had one yet. That’s probably another thing I would change about my writing life. I keep hoping that one day I’ll start a Twitter or Facebook account, but the Steven Torres who would do those things hasn’t appeared yet.

Theresa: Does your spiritual life influence your writing? If so, how?

Steven: It does. It gives me a sense of right and wrong that I hope works itself out on the page. It also gives me a desire to expose some of the difficulties people face. Ultimately, it’s probably the reason I usually write about crime.

Theresa: Thanks Steven! I so enjoyed reading  The Concrete Maze. It was gritty, described a slice of real life and the narrator’s wry sense of perspective came shining through. I’ve just finished Precinct Puerto Rico Book One and am looking forward to settling down to read the rest of the series. You are an inspiration. Check out Steven’s website www.steventorres.com

 

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Keeping it Real

My insides shifted when I heard that Piri Thomas, of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, was dead today at age 83. Thomas was the author of Down these Mean Streets. Last week I posted my first blog interview with Jason Baumann Montilla who spoke of his interest in literature citing Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim and Chester Hines, African American Authors, and Miguel Piñero, another celebrated Puerto Rican playwright and author. I have to add another- Claude Brown, author of Manchild of the Promised Land.  I was reading all of these authors’ books starting at age eleven.

My family moved out of Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, when I was fourteen years old. We were trying to survive the death of my sister, who was a few years older than me, to kidney disease by moving out of a neighborhood riddled with drugs, theft and all that came with the social ills of the sixties and early seventies. We hadn’t realized that the move was a very astute real estate operation that would herald the beginning stages of the gentrification of Park Slope. Our new neighbors, in Flatbush, were horrified that I toted Down these Mean Streets into their house when I accompanied my Mom on her visits. How could such a lovely young girl read such awful descriptions of a harsh and terrible world? I read these books repeatedly with a relish. I understood and identified with the writings. No, I wasn’t shooting heroin into my veins nor craps in an alley but I recognized the voices and I understood “the overlying arch,” as my doctoral advisor would say, to a degree I’ve never seen in other books. The authors’ words catapulted my interest in reading to an extent I’ve never again experienced. They told “the truth” as far as I was concerned. They lived life and “kept it real.”

I’ve been writing how the Nancy Drew Mysteries and Cherry Ames Book Series were the staples of my development as a reader and a writer. That’s true. Then there was Joyce Carol Oates- her writings sparked for me a recognition of women’s voices and Julia Alvarez, the voice of the Latina! Yes, yes, yes, all true. But then I read, Ernesto Quinones’ Bodega Dreams and I remembered the voice of the streets- the place that I had not actually grown up in but had grown in me. In my work, I sit countless hours listening to men tell the tales of their lives on the streets. I sit in my office in a men’s shelter on the Lower East Side of NYC. They come in, we talk, they leave. I walk by them on the street at five, having shared something with them that I read about at age 11 and 14 and 16 again. My Pop told me “Those are your people” when we passed them by hanging out at street corners. At first I didn’t know what he was talking about- me a kid, wanting to read my book, as I sat in the passenger seat of his car. I didn’t know that one day I’d be listening to the stories and taking them in heart and soul. I didn’t know that one day I’d be a writer and be the keeper of millions of stories that I’d listened to, one at a time. I’ve been entrusted with a precious gift in what I do, in what has been shared with me and the experiences that have been slowly built within me.

Today, hearing that Piri Thomas had died, a spark that was untended to inside my chest flared up. There is something here that must be recognized. It is the spark of “Keeping it Real” and that is something I will do in my writing and in my life. I will do this in honoring Thomas, Brown, Piñero and all of those energies who chose to see and live life without veils of denial and fear of what “the other” would think. I will use these men as powers of example and vow to do the same.

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Latina/o Mysteries –The Saga Continues

What an eye opener! There was a great response to my last week’s blog on the search for the whereabouts of a good Latina/o Mystery.  Authors, friends of authors and, I’m sure, los primos de authors responded with clues on how to find exactly what I’d been looking for.  My list grows and, if you take a look at the comment sections, you’ll find what a great variety of Hispanic mysteries are strutting their stuff on shelves.

The call came from my informant at the local B&N. My book had arrived. I know that some people don’t trust what B&N’s got to say, but so far he’s been dependable when he sells me my goods.  Cortez and Martinez’ Hit List:  Best of Latino Mystery was waiting for me-hidden behind the counter.

Sure enough, I snuck out at lunchtime and made it to the bookstore to pick up my cache. There was a small book display with a sign heralding Hispanic Heritage month. Five of the usual suspects, I mean authors-none of whom I’d heard from this last week-had books showing on a few shelves.  I took a picture of the meager exhibit with my iphone and then my cell automatically shut off. I don’t know why that happened, it’s never happened before. It may have been some surveillance that alerted an agent to what I was up to.

I slipped my iphone into my pocket and went over to the cashier who asked me my name. Before I answered, I leaned over the counter and saw what I’d come for right there.  The book was concealed in white paper, my name surreptitiously typed on the side. Just as “Varela” rolled off my tongue, we were interrupted. A woman cut across me with her urgency.

“I’m in a car outside,” she said.”I can’t find parking.” I couldn’t help but think she might have been a plant. While she looked harmless enough, she implicated the security who was half hidden behind the stacks. “He said you could help me.”

The clerk wasn’t falling for her story. “Sorry, lady, you’re gonna hafta wait.”

“Excuse me,” she said, “I told you, I can’t find parking.”

“Ma’am…” Beads of perspiration formed on the clerk’s upper lip. “This lady was here first.”

“I need an Italian-American dictionary…and a latte to go with it.” The woman threw her scarf over her shoulders, and then dropped her sunglasses over her lids before stalking out through the double doors.

“Sorry for the distraction.” The young man’s voice scratched, barely a whisper. “Last week she came in asking for a frappuccino and a map.”

After making my purchase, I left. Emerging onto the avenue, I sauntered along with hundreds of other unidentified readers in Park Slope. I can understand the sense of urgency when entering a book store. I must admit I’ve been spoiled. It’s easy getting used to going on-line, picking out a book and having it instantly transported to an electronic device. How many of us would have ever assumed we’d get drive through service. Buying a book has become like going to a fast food restaurant!

Times have changed, and so have I, but one thing I will always love is a good book, whatever the form, to fall asleep to each night. Can’t wait to read my new book! I snuck it under my pillow.

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The Search for Latino/a Mysteries

I’m on the case. After browsing through many mysteries at a very popular bookstore in Brooklyn, I came home and took a picture of one of my bookshelves. I had to prove to myself that there are books written by Latinos. It’s true, there are no Latino mysteries anywhere in my apartment. The lack of them remains to me, a mystery.

I’ve had notions of various mystery storylines taking residence in my brain. I decided to check out some of the more popular Latino/a novels and this is what I found. Unfortunately , not too much! Sarah Cortez and Liz Martinez edited Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery in 2009- published by Arte Público Press. Sunny Frazier, Acquisitions Editor at Oak Tree Press gave it a great mention on her website Murder Circle.  I tried to download the book by Kindle. It doesn’t exist there. I tried to buy it at Barnes and Noble, one of the last bookstores in my neighborhood. It didn’t exist there either. They promised to order it for me. Weirdly enough, one Amazon write up says the reader will be disappointed… A potential reader may not finish that review and move on to something else. But wait! It goes on to say disappointed that the stories are not traditional tales. That does not mean that the stories are disappointing. I’m afraid that as we hurriedly read through cyber reviews that we won’t press the arrow to the next page and miss the opportunity to read a complete and favorable review. 

If my Latino Mystery curiosity attack was strong enough, I might have ridden the train up to Harlem and attempted to find my desired book at the Latino bookstore- La Casa Azul.  I’d like to support this burgeoning bookstore and I will, but after the week I had, my feet found their way home. I’m intrigued by thought of going there and seeing all the wonderful goodies that I’m sure are waiting on bookshelves for me. One blog site aptly named La Bloga does address Latino mysteries. I read about Chicana mysteries and about mysteries set in Brazil. Great stuff. Now, tell me about what we’re doing on the East coast.

When talking about Latino mysteries my spouse and I chuckled as we envisioned the various layers of a Latino/a mystery. We laughed at the thought of a gripping tale written by Latinos, about Latinos, for Latinos. I held my sides, it felt as though they were splitting or was that my pants? Why the laughter? You’ve got to remember that I’m a writer but Latina first. There were a quite few counterintuitive thoughts going on in my head. My first hand knowledge has shown me that some of us Latinos are heavy into denial. My own personal circle would rather uncover lids over pots of arroz con gandules than to delve into facts. Just writing that makes me feel as though I’ve betrayed! Betrayal! Another thing I try not to get caught at. The idea of getting past the bochinche- gossipand interpreting facts, not based on loyalty, is essential to solving a mystery. Inquisitiveness, betrayal, and delving into the unknown are ingredients for my best reads. Getting into the crux of the matter is fine fodder for an excellent mystery but may not be on the agenda of some people I’m in contact with on the daily. I’d love to seek out some good stories- not of the standard telenovela  kind (sorry Abuelita). So, I’ve begun a new chapter and promise to pass on what I’m learning. Now that I’ve ordered it, I can’t wait to receive my copy of Hit list: The Best of Latino Mystery in the mail. I’ll be sharing my thoughts with you about it when I finally get to nestle with it on my pillow at night.

I’m putting the call out here, folks! Let me know of a Latino mystery novel that has kept you spell bound. I want to read the ones I can identify with on this side of the country- and the West too! If you’ve written a Latino/a mystery contact me. Let’s talk! If you’ve been stirred in any form by what I’ve said here, let the world know.

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