Friday, December 31, 2010

A 1/2 Dozen for Novelist Chantel Acevedo

The 1/2 Dozen is a new recurring feature here at The Shared Brain of Baggott, Asher & Bode. Basically, I send a bunch of questions to established and emerging novelists who pick a half dozen to answer. I post.

Here's a 1/2 dozen from debut novelist CHANTEL ACEVEDO

who grew up in a ...

"...a highly politicized world, and one full of very real longing and sadness."

who confesses ...

"[inspiration] makes me feel so inadequate because I usually don’t write from sudden flashes of genius or creativity. For me, it’s always been about ... memory and perceptiveness."

and FINALLY someone gives us advice on LOVE ...

"Don’t marry that other boy, the one that will compete with you for joy."


I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I hate the idea of inspirations, too! God, it makes me feel so inadequate because I usually don’t write from sudden flashes of genius or creativity. For me, it’s always been about two things—memory and perceptiveness. Writers really need to hone that perceptive eye, perceptive ear. What was the Henry James line? “A writer is a person on whom nothing is lost.” It goes something like that, and I think inspiration springs from this ability to notice things. Memory goes a long way with me, too. The initial draft of LOVE AND GHOST LETTERS began with a memory that isn’t mine, really. My grandmother often told a story about being a little girl in Cuba, in Matanzas province, and being chased by an ungodly sized grasshopper. So I started with that, but I turned the grasshopper into a pig about to be butchered, for the drama of it. It all started there, before there were any real characters. There was this chase, there was a girl, and there was Cuba. The rest evolved, not from inspiration, I’d say, but from a fusion of old stories, which I twisted and manipulated into fiction.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

The hardest part is opening the document on my computer. Once I do it, the hours slip away, like time travel, or being under anesthesia. I look up from the screen and I’m three-thousand words from where I was, and the sky is dark. But to get me to actually OPEN the document is like getting a cat to willingly jump in a creek. I hate the idea of writing. A thousand things call to me—dishes, laundry, reorganizing a sock drawer—anything but writing. Writing takes a stillness that isn’t in my nature. It takes solitude, and I prefer being with people. I can go a few days without writing. I’m not one of those writers that must write each day. But eventually, the story I’m working on starts to nag me, like a ringing in the ear, and I start to feel this oppressive guilt about NOT writing, and so I open up the damn document. Then, I’m flying, and wondering what took me so long.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I don’t know if the qualities a writer needs in a partner are any different from ones everyone needs, to tell the truth. My husband is happy for me when I publish something. He urges me to write when I get lazy. He’s often a sounding board for a problematic plot point (and he’s incredibly helpful in that regard). He generally doesn’t read my work, which doesn’t bother me. I don’t know how to respond to people who do, actually. What does one do? Smile, say ‘thanks’ if they say something nice, blush a little? What if they hated it? Of course, I WANT readers! But I’m okay that my husband isn’t one of them. This is how I knew I loved him: We met in high school (I know, awwww…) and at the time I was harboring a crush on my future husband and another boy at the same time. We were taking Creative Writing together, and the three of us made up the top three students in the class. At the end of the year, our teacher chose to give me the Best Writer prize at the student assembly. The boy I didn’t marry, who had been so sweet before, snarled at me in class the next day, and said something like, “I deserved that award.” Then, in walks the future husband, unaware of what just went down. He sits, nudges my shoulder, and says, “I’m so glad you won.” That was it. I was sold. He’s still doing that, being happy for me. So that’s my advice. Don’t marry that other boy, the one that will compete with you for joy. Be with the one that will be joyous with you.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was quiet. I was, inwardly, very dramatic. Do you remember that movie, “A Christmas Story,” when the boy Ralphie is forced to suck on soap for cursing? Remember how he imagines that the soap has made him blind, and that his parents are riddled with guilt for what they’ve done? That scene always struck a chord with me. I was that kid, imagining all sorts of terrors and vengeances. But outwardly, no one would guess that about me. That was what was going on in my head. Around me, I grew up in a highly politicized world, and one full of very real longing and sadness. I’m a daughter of Cuban immigrants, and count a good many exiles among my relatives. We housed family members fresh from the island with frequency. Nearly all of them hoarded food, as if we would run out. And, my God, the stories they told! I soaked them all up, and have since used a good many. As a kid, I went to a bilingual school, where we sang the U.S. National Anthem, and then the Cuban anthem. It was a highly religious school, too, and the principal loved telling us gruesome stories about the child martyrs. Messed up stuff, which scared me, but which I was drawn to as well. I didn’t know any of this was worth writing about for a long time. My first stories were set in Watertown, New York, where my stepfather is from. He’s Irish-American, from a golfing family. They ate pork chops and applesauce and collected Belleek porcelain. When I met them, I thought, “This is the REAL America, and these are the people in the books I’ve read,” and so I wrote about them. But the stories didn’t have any spark. It wasn’t until I saw Cristina Garcia’s DREAMING IN CUBAN, back when I was in college, that I realized I could write about my childhood, my people, the island I never knew but that I feel as if I’ve got it’s dirt under my fingernails.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I’ve always got at least three books going at any given time. I’m a generous reader. I like nearly everything to some degree, and I find myself making excuses for the writer when I don’t like something. The best book I read last year was Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS. It was such a unique, edgy take on the “Oh, crap, I’m in a magical world” kind of story. For a long time, I’ve been on a Greek/Roman retelling kick. Ursula Le Guin’s LAVINIA, which retells THE AENEID, is powerful and, surprisingly, a tender love story. Barry Unsworth’s SONG OF THE KINGS, a rebooting of the Iphigenia story, is as much about the ancient world as it is about modern day America. Those are two big authors there. Readers may have missed Jane Alison’s THE LOVE ARTIST, about Ovid, which is one of the most lyrical books I’ve ever read, and Katharine Beutner’s ALCESTIS, out of Soho Press, which imagines the gods in ways that feel extraordinarily human and frightening at once. I don’t know why I love these kinds of books so much. These stories make up our root metaphors, and I think that’s why they continue to be so compelling, and worth revisiting. (Full disclosure: I love teaching World Literature, and I just finished a manuscript set in Ancient Sparta.)

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

I’d be remiss in not mentioning Lester Goran, my friend and mentor at the University of Miami. I did an MFA only because Lester, having been my undergraduate teacher, said, “You are doing this. This is what you need.” I think he knew that, had I graduated, and gone on to teach high school straight out of undergrad, with only two little short stories under my belt, I wouldn’t write again. He was the first to call me a writer, without any of that condescension teachers sometimes use. He never “yessed” me out the door. If what I wrote didn’t please him, he’d tell me. And when he loved something, he told me, too. He continues to be an amazing model for me as a writer and a teacher. I should also give credit to my high school English teacher, Michael Garcia. Back in the 10th grade, he had us do these little creative writing prompts. He called it our “Awakening Journal” and I filled mine in dutifully, expecting my ‘A,’ which I always got on writing assignments. But Mr. Garcia gave me a ‘B.’ He wrote, “You can do better,” in the margins, and he was right. No teacher had ever called me out on not drilling hard enough on a story, with an idea, etc. I hated him for about a day then I realized he was right. Learning to take criticism, good criticism, is an invaluable lesson for a writer, and I learned it early.

Chantel Acevedo’s first novel, Love and Ghost Letters won the Latino International Book Award and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book of the Year. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, and North American Review, among others. Her work has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she's the recipient of two Fulbright awards for secondary education. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University, where she teaches Creative Writing and coedits the Southern Humanities Review.

Visit her at or at Facebook where a recent post says gives instructions on how to celebrate NEW YEARS a lo cubano or at her BLOG.