Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

Ana Castillo Takes the Fifth

Bookshelf with books by Elizabeth Strout

Photo by Daniel Libman

On a warm September afternoon in DeKalb, Illinois, Fifth Wednesday Journal got to spend an hour speaking with writer Ana Castillo. We sat on a couch in the Holmes Student Center of Northern Illinois University, surrounded by the buzz of student activity. We talked about Chicago and the southwest, and the amazing genre-defying career she’s had, having published poetry, short story collections, essays, memoir, novels, and even theater pieces. We began with the important role place plays in her writing.

FWJ: You’re that rare artist completely associated with a specific region, in your case the American southwest generally, New Mexico specifically. But you’re from out here originally.

Ana Castillo: Chicago born and raised. I actually moved to New Mexico twice, most recently just seven years ago when I got a homestead. The first time I moved was years ago in the nineties; I moved to Albuquerque on my own and I lived there a few years. I wrote So Far From God, and I finished my book Massacre of the Dreamers. My family was based here in Chicago, and my mother’s health was starting to decline. She needed someone to care for her, so I moved back with my son and spent ten years here. I was teaching at DePaul for five years. These winters were getting to me, and I started thinking about New Mexico again.

FWJ: It’s almost Texas where you’re at, right?

AC: I’m right on the border of Land Management. It’s almost Texas, but El Paso, Texas, and El Paso almost considers itself part of New Mexico because El Paso has been so disenfranchised by the rest of Texas. But they don’t have the regulations that New Mexico does in terms of keeping the adobe atmosphere. I live out in the desert, so it’s totally like a free-for-all. It’s growing, but it has the New Mexico landscape: old buildings, a lot of stucco, a lot of adobe. I purchased a stucco house that looks adobe-ish, but I actually made the little chapel out of adobe on my property. It was featured in Real Simple magazine when I first did it because they thought it was interesting. Some people have an altar in their house and here I go making a fifteen-hundred adobe brick chapel. New Mexico really is a place where people feel — and this sounds hokey or New Age-y to say, but there is a spiritual connection that people have or feel in that landscape. Maybe as a fellow Chicagoan who spends time there you can appreciate it.

FWJ: Absolutely. New Mexico just feels different from everywhere else.

AC: Yep. But you have to spend some time there to get it. You have to give it a chance and somehow or other it calls you back. I thought I would never go back, but I started having dreams about a particular place, and it wasn’t Albuquerque. It took me awhile, but I figured out it was Mesilla, New Mexico. So I looked there first, but the problem was it was becoming . . . well, it didn’t exactly become another Santa Fe, but it was starting to then, and realty was through the roof. So I ended up getting this place out in the desert that nobody wants to go to, but I got that connection again, and got away from the winters, and it’s inspiring me again to do what I do.

FWJ: When you were writing So Far From God, were you teaching at the University of New Mexico?

AC: I never really taught taught at UNM; I did do the graduate creative writing summer workshop with Tony Hillerman. I was doing the poetry part of it and I did that for two years. And I also taught some out of the English department as an adjunct, but I was never officially hired.

FWJ: Had you not found New Mexico, what do you think you would be writing about? Would the Chicago part of you have been more prominent in your work?

AC: I had been living in California for many years, maybe ten years in total. And in California you have to find your bearings about what to write because there is so much going on, so many different parts of it. You go to a place like northern New Mexico and at that time you could still find a lot of old families living in original family homes because not much had changed. When I first got there I did have another novel in mind, which would have been part of my own history, my own travels, Chicago. I’m one of those writers who gets affected by place immediately. As a poet and as a fiction writer and even a nonfiction writer, place hits me. In one case, I started a story, and when I had to move and go someplace else my characters had to move too, and go with me. I had to figure out, why did they move? I had to give them a reason because I have to write in that ambiance. This might be changing for me now that I’m older and there is more memory for me than new things. When I first got to Albuquerque I was working on a novel that I intended to have take place in Chicago even though I had been living in California. And I was starting to look at the Chicago that I know, the one I grew up in. But that place, New Mexico, it hits you like a ton of bricks. It only took me about a month to get started, and then I finished the novel in about six months.

So Far From GodFWJ: And then how long did you spend revising So Far From God?

AC: The novel that you see is the one I wrote with almost no changes. Very little editing. The only thing that came later was the last chapter. I added that after I turned the book in. I ended up doing that because I had written two novels before, but never one that was on contract with a publisher and an editor. Norton had asked me for an outline, and I had never done that, either. So I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll give you an outline.” I wrote it, and chapter ten has this very happy ending. And at the time I was going through all this stuff, I didn’t get the teaching job I thought I would have, and so everyone died at the end of the novel. My agent called me and said, “You know you promised them a happy ending.” So I added that last chapter. And I don’t think they even saw that original version without the ending — but what you see there is just basically what I wrote out the first time.

FWJ: Is that typical of your process, that the first draft is close to the finished product with little revision?

AC: No. No, it’s not. The newest novel that I just completed, which is going to Random House, I started in 2007, and I had many of life’s challenges that have just derailed me. It was going to be an entirely different book in every sense of the word. It’s evolved into something else. It was going to be a historical novel; it no longer is. It was going to have different characters. There is a little seed of truth, a little tiny kernel that I started out with that’s still there. I might have done a million drafts on this one.

FWJ: It seems like stuff in the real world directly impacts the things that happen to your characters. It doesn’t just affect your ability to write, but it literally alters what you’re writing about.

AC: Yes. And I would say that layering and going back and doing that finessing is much more typical of my writing process. I would love to finish the rough draft and send it out and have the publishers say, “Hey, great! We want it.” But that doesn’t happen, unfortunately. That comes with the territory. I have my own standards, so way before anybody else reads it I’ve gone through dozens of drafts. This book, for example, that I just turned in, which evolved from something totally different — nobody had read it until it got to that point. I had a two-book contract with Random House, and the second book was whatever. It’s going to be a novel, whatever. Well, I had an editor who bought the two books, but with the horrible plunging of our economy and with the reductions of most industries, she unfortunately was let go. She was the original person who bought the books, who I had pitched the ideas to. Now she’s gone. About a year and a half ago I submitted the book I had written to a new editor, one I had no relationship with, and she gave me a bunch of notes with a bunch of directions she thought the book could go, which was like basically giving me an overhaul. So I said, OK, and I went off earnestly with those notes.

FWJ: Do you take those notes seriously?

AC: Oh, yeah. Yes, I do. When I hear my colleagues whine and complain about the notes they get . . .

FWJ: I’ve heard close editing like that doesn’t even exist anymore, gone with Max Perkins.

Ana CastilloAC: It definitely still exists. No editor is going to publish a book with her signature on it without her feeling good about it. In fact, I have a friend who is with another well-known publisher, and she came to one of my memoir-writing workshops which I do that are open to the public. And I thought, this is interesting, because she’s a published novelist. Why is she coming to my workshop? She must be in trouble. Sure enough, she says, “I just got eight pages of notes from my editor, single-spaced, and I’m just going to throw the whole thing out . . .” On and on. “And now I’m just going to write something else. I’m going to write my story, my memoirs.” OK, do what you gotta do, but eventually you’re going to have to go back there. And once she said that, I was thinking, well, I got eleven pages from my editor, and I didn’t even know my editor. I knew my friend’s editor, and I didn’t even know my own editor. But still I did take those notes very seriously. I had another conversation with the first editor, the editor of record, and I had yet another conversation with my new agent even though she has nothing to do with that particular book. And so all this is to say that, yes, I do take all those notes seriously, just as I take my career very seriously. I may have started out as a renegade protest poet believing no one was ever going to publish me. But I also fought for people like myself, including all poets, to be published. To be taken seriously. To have our work out there, and maybe even to be able to make a little bit of a living off it. So here I am. And after going through all the notes and I overhauled this whole thing, and then I got a note from the second editor telling me she’s leaving the publisher. So now I don’t even have an editor, and I’ve got this manuscript. Sometimes if your editor goes, the publishing house will say, by the way, all your books are gone, too. When this happened they told me I was staying. So my book is still there, but I have no editor. And I just finished the novel, and poor me, I know. No editor. And it was the president of Random House who called to say she was still expecting the novel.

FWJ: Such problems!

AC: Yes, right. Such problems to have in my life. So she took it and went off on vacation and I was waiting to hear for some time what’s going to be the verdict. But she did come back and place it with a new editor. And who knows? This editor might want me to overhaul it again in a whole new direction.

FWJ: Does it have a title yet?

AC: The Last Goddess Standing. You know, the title is the thing that I started out with years ago and it’s the one part of it that hasn’t changed, even when I’ve wanted to change it. Now it’s become symbolic of what’s happening with the book so I’m really stuck with it.

FWJ: You mentioned poetry earlier. It’s rare to find someone who is accepted in the literary world as both a poet and a fiction writer. Someone like Ray Carver is really thought of as a fiction writer but his poetry is sort of tolerated. On the other side you’ve got people like Mark Strand who has been the poet laureate, but he’s got some fiction out there which hasn’t gotten much attention. You’re different in the sense that you’re accomplished in both genres.

AC: I’m happy you say that because I don’t think I’m accepted in both genres by the American academy. In my experience, when I’ve been at poetry festivals and there is one of those guys there, they don’t even speak to me. And I think with the success of my books, So Far From God in particular, where I was thrown into the view of the mainstream, readers discovered me in that milieu and hadn’t heard of any of my other work. I had been working on poetry at that point for eight years without doing anything else, not teaching or trying to make a living. I just wrote poetry, telling myself, if I’m going to make a living on it, this is all I can do. I had some success with my collection My Father Was a Toltec, so when So Far From God came out I was really very surprised when people came up to me and asked if I’ve written poetry. I found that the poetry fell to the sidelines. It already is for a lot of people just a side genre, unfortunately, so the fiction writing was so much more highlighted of what I do.

FWJ: Sure. Because you’ve published quite a bit of nonfiction, too.

AC: And articles. And I have my one official play that I wrote. Two versions of the play I wrote.

FWJ: Two versions?

AC: It’s called Psst . . . I Have Something to Tell You, Mi Amor. And it was based on the story of a torture survivor, which I had originally written as a poem in one of my books. When I was still living in Chicago, a director from the Goodman Theater approached me about dramatizing the story, which had all the elements of a play, the actual story, without changing anything about it. And then I decided to turn it into an actual drama piece, and it had a wonderful premiere there.

FWJ: You did the actual adaptation?

AC: I studied a bunch of plays over the summer and then knocked it out.

FWJ: Can I ask what the plays were that you studied?

AC: I reread a bunch of plays that I had read before. I can’t even tell you the names because I might be making it up. I could say Beckett or somebody, but you know, I had a bunch of plays on my bookshelf. But the most influential thing that happened to me that summer was that I was invited to speak in Germany where I received my PhD; some alumni had discovered me, and they had a conference, and a good friend of mine in Germany had turned into a theater agent by coincidence. A fluke. She’d been teaching but then became this agent looking at plays in English and German. We traveled together to Amsterdam and she had all these plays she had to be reading. I was with her, and I started reading them, too, all these European plays that may or may not have ever been produced, and I got to study all these contemporary styles. There was one that really impressed me. It was done with two characters in tandem and unfortunately I don’t even remember who the author was. My intention was to read the stars, you know, read Shakespeare or Garcia Lorca, but it was these I ended up reading that summer traveling around with her, and when I got back I knocked out my play just like that.

FWJ: That’s really serendipitous.

AC: Yes. And we were talking about sense of place before and that goes back to this idea. Who would have known that my little trip to Germany and Amsterdam with my friend with her little satchel of plays would be so important. So I did the play and it was very successful and it’s been produced at various universities and it had a wonderful premier at the Goodman. It was well-reviewed, and I was very happy. It’s been done at the University of Chicago and at Cornell. I’m not pushing it anymore because I don’t want people to think, “Again, that play?” I have to write another play.

FWJ: Do you go see it when it’s produced? What’s that like?

Two Plays by Ana CastilloAC: When they’ve invited me. I have a very interesting relationship with my writing and my editors or people like the director. I’ve been told I’m different this way from other writers. I don’t get attached to it in the sense that I don’t get emotional about it. Once the work is there, the work is there. Once it’s in a director’s hands, it’s the director’s vision. When it premiered at the Goodman I had the not very brilliant idea of inviting the person on whom the work is based. The torture survivor, who also published her memoirs, and so forth. And it was packed the first night, so many people, four hundred seats, and I was sitting with her. I had been asked by the director to add a little levity somewhere in the beginning because it gets very intense, very dark. And so I did — new material. So we were watching it and here’s this new material and it flows and she’s just like, “Mmmm, OK, great.” And then the grimness comes in, and she just fell apart in my hands. And when she fell apart, I fell apart. I just started crying and we were weeping and she was clutching me, and so the first night I never even got to see the play because we were both weeping so badly. She basically had a meltdown, and I had a meltdown because she had a meltdown. I never got to see it; I didn’t even open my eyes. So the next night I went with some other people in the audience and I finally got to hear it. It was very nice to hear it because now I was so detached from [the narrative] that it was like going to see someone else’s writing. Hearing someone else saying words that you’ve written is a very nice experience.

FWJ: Were you able to be taken by surprise at all by what was on stage?

AC: Oh, yes. I was very impressed with myself. You know when you’re reading your own work and I’m up on stage I often think, how the hell did the editors let me get away with this crap? And I’m not the only one who thinks like this. I’ve talked to other writers who say — especially if they’re on a book tour — they think, how in the world did they let me publish this? I wish I could go over it one more time. So this was new to me to hear an actor doing it, and it was great.

FWJ: What’s your favorite? Fiction, nonfiction, playwriting?

AC: I can tell you what I don’t like, and that’s what I’m doing now. Nonfiction. I just finished the novel and I have a book contract with the Feminist Press for personal essays, and when I turned in that novel last summer, I had to dance around that idea of writing personal essays for a month. Because I know what that’s going to take out of me once I start working, the reflection, going back into that place emotionally. The other is the style, the transitional phrase, why am I writing this, why do you want to read this? All of those things come into question when we’re talking about writing personal essays or critical essays. You’ve got to make the personal connection with the universe in a very linear, thought-out, conscious way. No forgiveness there that you can get in So Far From God, that you can get in a poem. Readers don’t forgive you when they’re reading essays. Why am I here? If I’m not connected, I’m not interested.

FWJ: So is it easier to be honest in fiction?

AC: Yes! Fiction is total joy for a writer. It’s your world. And you only have to hold that reader in the suspension of disbelief. As long as you don’t break them out of it, if they get on board in the first few pages or in the first chapter, they’re on board with you. You can create any kind of world for them as long as they’re a good reader, meaning as long as they don’t say, “You can’t walk from Albuquerque to Chimayo in a day.” I’ve had those nasty Amazon reviewers who say, “She doesn’t know anything about New Mexico.” It’s fiction. That’s why it’s not an essay. But when you do nonfiction you have to have the qualifications. You gotta prove it. All that has to come together or your reader is gone.

FWJ: Where does poetry fit into that spectrum?

AC: My props go to the poet who really makes a commitment to poetry and isn’t writing little stories with broken lines, little anecdotes with broken lines. I think modern poetry has fallen into that camp and is just a lot of that. But if they’re actually looking at language, at the craft, which takes a combination of elements of what poetry should be, even if it doesn’t end up being in meter, then my hat goes off to her or to him. It takes an incredible amount of discipline to sit down and work on that. It could take ten years to do a book. Easily. It’s much more of a blessing from the gods to be able to do poetry, and I would like to do one more collection before I’m gone, but I know that it’s a time I have to set aside to do that.

FWJ: You write your poetry in big batches then, instead of a poem here or a poem there until you’ve accumulated a book?

AC: What happened with the last collection is my play went into production, and I must have gone into some state of denial. You know, “I can’t be having a play produced in downtown Chicago having never written one before . . .” I was teaching at the time and off for the summer, so I was also supposed to be working on a new novel. I was having a very hard time with the editor I had. She hated everything I showed her. I went home looking for something else, and I had one poem that I had written in the past year, and it was a very dark poem, written in a night of despair. And when I reread it I saw that it was very sad, very suicidal. It was twenty-seven pages long, and I decided to sit down and start cleaning it up. And then sort of cheering it up, too. And as I cheered it up the story grew longer and longer, and there were more stories to tell, all in three-line stanzas. And before I knew it, six weeks went by, and I had three hundred pages. It was several stories about — who knows who the narrator is when you write a poem, but it was about this original narrator. Then I was going into Greek mythology and Aztec mythology and I was telling about the history of Mexicans and I was picking up on all this stuff Watercolor WomenI might have put in a novel, but instead I was escaping. I had these three hundred pages, and I thought, I really am going to have to stop. I mean, I always wanted to write an epic, but maybe this wasn’t the time. So I finished it and turned it in to that editor who never liked anything I wrote, and she said it was very nice, but where was her novel. And I said, “This is a novel. It’s a novel in verse.” So I turned it over to a small press, God bless them. They published a lot of poetry, a lot of poetry from other countries. This was Curbstone. They just folded up and sold everything to Northwestern. But they published my novel in verse, and it was called Watercolor Women / Opaque Men, and it won the Best of the Independent Publishers award in 2005. It was like I got it out in one summer. But now I have to go back and write a novel.

FWJ: So you stay in one mode as you work?

AC: Everybody’s different, but normally if I’m in prose mode I don’t go back and write a poem at night or something like that. I would really like to go back and do a play or two as part of the oeuvre, and I’ve been thinking about the second play. I don’t normally think about it because I don’t live in a theater atmosphere. So I’m going to have to just sit down and say, OK, I’m going to write a play now. It’s going to be one summer or one winter, and I’ll say, now I’m going to write my play.

FWJ: Are you strict about your work habits?

AC: When I was young I thought of myself as a nocturnal person, and I used to write at night. My first novels and most of my short stories I would get inspired by the silence of the night when everyone else was asleep and that whole thing. You have your busy day behind you. I have a son who’s an adult now, but being a single mom and raising him on my own, I had to start working around his schedule. Also, I taught and had to earn a living, so I had to learn to write whenever I could write. At this point I’m not teaching, but my writing schedule is pretty much something in my twenties I never thought would be the case, which is that I get up, make my coffee, and I go to my computer. And I pretty much can knock out a six-hour day right now. With The Guardians, the last time I published, I was doing twelve hours. Nothing else. You don’t even want to stop to eat. You just go get something from the kitchen and then bring it back and you eat it. Now I’ve had a lot of life distractions, so my focus doesn’t stay as long as I would like. I would like to rebuild that again.

FWJ: Do you get anxious if you aren’t writing as much as you think you should?

AC: No, because I’m a very hardworking person, a disciplined person. I know once my days aren’t broken up so much that I can make myself go back to it.

FWJ: How do you see yourself, then, as a fiction writer who also writes poems? A novelist or a short story writer? Are you an essayist who writes plays? If you were to have business cards printed up, what would they say? Ana Castillo . . .

AC: Writer.

Ana Castillo's website

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Daniel Libman is a past fiction editor and book reviews editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. His story collection Married But Looking was recently published by Livingston Press. Read Dan’s article about his writing life on the Writer’s Rainbow blog.

This interview appeared in the Spring 2012 Issue 10 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.