"A short story cannot be poorly written and survive."
-- Thelma Reyna
I was born and raised in Kingsville, Texas. I'm a 4th generation American with most of my roots in Texas, where my relatives still live. I moved with my husband and son (Vic, when he was a baby) to California after grad school. We've lived in Pasadena, CA ever since. I also have a daughter, Christine, who lives in Chicago.
When I'm not writing, which is rare, I pursue other interests. I took early retirement from public school administration five years ago to do three things: (1) teach at a university, (2) start my own business in something I love, and (3) write books. I've been fortunate to do all three. I teach graduate education at California State University, Los Angeles. I also own a writing consultancy called The Writing Pros, in which I work one-on-one with adults on their professional writing goals, such as a doctoral dissertation or master's thesis, writing a book, a grant proposal, etc. I serve as editor and writing coach. I also ghost-write books and write custom resumes for my clients.
Regarding my own writing: I published THE HEAVENS WEEP FOR US AND OTHER STORIES last year and just completed my second collection of short stories, which I hope to publish soon. Though I've been published off and on for 30 years or so, these are my first book-length works. I also write a blog, "American Latina/o Writers Today" and contribute monthly to the "Powerful Latinas" blog. I have a short story due to be published in the literary journal, PALABRA, anytime now, as well as poetry due to be published in CAPER literary journal in a few days.
Q: Tell us about your new collection of short stories. Do you begin with a character or a theme?
It can be either or both. Sometimes, it's an event I recall from the past, or that I've heard or read about. Most of my writing is inspired by ordinary people I've known or learned about who lead ordinary lives. Sometimes my writing is partially autobiographical. I think this is true for most writers, past and present. I believe that even mundane events experienced by everyday people can carry great import, either as individual occurrences or as cumulative experiences that someday elicit insight or deeper understandings of life. My aim is to show people experiencing these events and to show how they changed as a result of their experiences.
Short stories have long been my favorite literary genre, going back to my 16 years as a high school English teacher dissecting and discussing literature with my students and colleagues in Pasadena. Short stories are harder to write than many people think. You don't have a cast of thousands, and take hundreds of pages to leisurely tell your narrative, like you can in a novel. You have to identify the one or two, or handful of, key characters needed for your narrative. Then you have to select a few scenes--or maybe just one!--in which these people are developed for the reader. Within the space of 5-25 pages or so, you have to essentially write a "mini-novel": a literary work with an engaging plot, setting, believable characters, and a theme. You have to be very selective about which "snapshot in time" in your characters' lives you'll choose to reveal whatever your theme is.
I've read many novels that had mediocre, or even badly written, sections in them; yet the book tumbled along, with the reader still turning the pages, because there was much more still left to cover. Novels, even so-called classics, can be a mixed bag like this. A short story cannot be poorly written and survive. Each sentence, each paragraph, each page must be focused and well-written, with nothing extraneous. Short story writers like this challenge.
Also, I've had many readers tell me that their hectic schedules hardly allow them time to read novels, but a short story collection is manageable. They can read a story at a time, or several, and get closure. If the stories are good, the time between stories is spent by the reader reflecting on a story, analyzing it, creating meaning out of it. This is time well-spent. Short stories are very well-suited to modern life, modern schedules.
I haven't closed the door on writing a novel someday. At this point in my career, however, I don't feel driven to do so. There are other books churning around in my head that are asking to be written first.
Q: How does it feel to have your son follow in your footsteps and become a writer? What advice did you give him as a new writer?
I am very proud of my son and his unique accomplishments as a writer! Early on, he may have seen me publishing stories and poems here and there and seen the joy and satisfaction I felt in sharing my work. We never really talked about it, though, as something he could or should do. Vic is actually a much more disciplined writer than I am, and he published his first book before I published mine. As a little boy, barely in kindergarten, he was writing stories and illustrating them, and putting them together into books he created himself. (As an adult, he is a practicing, exhibiting fine artist as well as a writer.) I believe he wrote his first book (never published) when he was about 16 years old. Writing and art were always part of his life, throughout his childhood, and these have continued unabated throughout his adulthood. In my mind, it's almost as if his writing practice and mine ran in parallel tracks!
I think, for these reasons, he didn't actively seek, or need, my advice. When he was ready to publish, though, he asked me to proofread/edit his book. I have done so for each of his three published books, as well as the fourth book he recently completed, as yet unpublished. He has also published quite a few nonfiction pieces throughout the years, such as columns and editorial essays, and I've also edited some of these for him. In the editing process, we discuss his characters, themes, and other aspects of his works. We get into lively discussions, and I like to think that my editorial critiques help him refine his thinking and writing. Otherwise, Vic is very independent and productive.
Q: What is your writing routine?
If by "routine," you mean a schedule, I don't have one. Maybe this is because, on any given day, I'm doing different types of writing: editing a client's project, writing for my blog, guest blogging, polishing my stories, creating new stories, or writing letters/commentary to the New York Times online (which I do pretty often!). One thing is certain: I'm writing something almost every day. (I try to save weekends for my husband, who's very supportive of my writing.)
I'm a fast writer. My stories are oftentimes written in one sitting, or perhaps two. I sometimes stay up all night, for eight hours or so, to write a story. I'll think about a story before I begin writing, sometimes for days. I have the plot in mind and know how my characters are, how they act and think and feel. Very rarely do I outline a story on paper. I think I've done this only once. I edit my story as I go along, so when I finish a story, it's in pretty good shape. Then I set it aside, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for just a day or so, then polish it. The polishing may take several "rounds," or it might just occur in one more session with the story.
Sometimes I go to my favorite local cafe, usually when I want to write a new story, or when I need to revise. I write at the cafe mainly when I have a very clear purpose for being there that day. Otherwise, I write at home. I have my own office devoted totally to my work.
Q: Who are the authors / books that have inspired you?
I enjoy and admire Toni Morrison's and Ray Bradbury's poetic, vivid language. I like the simplicity yet deep complexity of Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories. I like Sandra Cisneros' authenticity of cultural presentation. A book I taught for many years, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, impressed me deeply with its highly compact, intense narrative and compelling symbolism, the best I've ever seen. For nonfiction, the historical writing of Robin Kelley, a USC professor, is high on my list. Also in my heart are my son's writings, of course!
Q: What are you writing now?
I've just rewritten a story I wrote more than 15 years ago, originally titled "Circles" and never published. It involves a beautiful young man, Salvador, who goes to war and how his being away affects the two most important women in his life: his mother and grandmother. While these women are tied together by their love of Salvador, there is an undercurrent of tension between them regarding love withheld and love misunderstood. I alternate between the mother's reminiscences of her earlier conflict with her mother, and her mother's recollections of how things were. So the story goes from one woman to the other, and it all takes place in one day, from morning till night, with several flashbacks. It's a sad story, simple and complex. I'm still trying to get it right.♥
Guest blog: http://www.powerfullatinas.com/
Writing business website: http://www.thewritingpros.com/
MEET THELMA'S SON!
Come back to The Latina Book Club on Monday, August 30, for Victor Cass' interview.