May 23, 2011

My Interview with Award Winning Author Eduardo Santiago

  I am excited to introduce or further acquaint you with Award Winning Author, Eduardo Santiago.
Interviewing Eduardo has provided me a delightful experience to get to know this professional yet, humble man. Eduardo is a fabulous author, and a Cuban Immigrant with a fascinating background. I am so delighted to share this chat I had with a man I want to call my friend. 

     I feel I must confess that my job was easy. Eduardo answered my questions like a wonderful long time friend. For a time, I even forgot it was posting… It was a man personally telling me a story I so longed to hear. Without further introduction, I will let you experience the same from Eduardo in his words.

Eduardo's Cuban Experience

Sammy: How old were you when you and your family left Cuba and came to America?

Eduardo: I was nine years old when we left Cuba and ten when we arrived in the states. It was difficult for our family to leave because my father had been involved in politics and had, at the time of my birth been incarcerated and there was a very good chance that, if a friend of my grandfather’s, who had some political clout, hadn’t intervened he would have been executed. So as a result of all that, exit visas were denied time and again until my aunt, my father’s sister, who was at the time living in New Jersey got a few thousand dollars together and bought us passage to Spain. Somehow getting from Spain to U.S. was easier than getting here from Cuba. We lived in Madrid for close to a year. There were others from my hometown in Madrid at the time and we created a small social circle – we did not become friends with any Spanish natives, they seemed too foreign to my parents, I guess. Also, Cubans tend to be very insular, it’s their nature. It’s not my nature though; I’m always fascinated by other cultures. But I was always odd, from day one.

Sammy: Could you share a little about the actual experience...leaving your home, country, the trip, and arriving in America?

Eduardo: I remember that, as a child, I was very eager to get to America. I anticipated that it would be earth-shatteringly different. But I also remember being disappointed because when we got here it didn’t feel so different at all. Looking back I think that if you go from a place of lack and inconvenience to a place of plenty and practicality, you don’t notice the change as much, you simply adapt and I adapted quickly. It might have been more of a culture shock to my parents because after half a lifetime of a relatively easy life they both had to go to work in factories and deal with a foreign language and a different way of life. It was a miserable time for them, but I was enjoying all the plastic toys and color television and all the stuff the U.S. has to offer kids – clean, safe, playgrounds, air conditioned classrooms and so on.

Sammy: Have you or anyone in your family made a return visit to Cuba?

Eduardo: I have been back twice exactly: For two weeks in 1996 and for one week last year, January 2010. I have cousins in Havana whom I did not grow up with but we love each other as we had. They are Maria and Lourdes; they are my mother’s brother’s daughters, so there is a strong bloodline. But regardless of the family connections, they’re just so wonderful to me. We communicate via Facebook, which just astonishes me. Before Facebook, telephone calls were expensive and difficult to place. Now we communicate often and send photographs back and forth. I’m kind of surprised that the Cuban government allows it. Progress!

Sammy: In your novel, Tomorrow They Will Kiss you touch on the fact that during this time Castro changed. In your novel, the family experienced this change personally. I found this interesting and unusually forthcoming. In the past, I have found authors tend to either avoid these dynamics or distance their characters from the issue. Could you share some insight?

Eduardo: Well, my father risked his life to help put Castro in power and when Castro turned out to be a Communist (no one, apparently, saw that coming), he felt horribly betrayed and I heard it every day growing up. It’s the bitter pill my father has to swallow ad infinitum. So in my novel I couldn’t help but bring that to light because it takes up such a huge part of my tiny brain.

Sammy: I understand in The Weight Of My Shadow you deepen the experience. Can you tease us a little on what we might expect?

Eduardo: My first novel, Tomorrow They Will Kiss, is based largely but in a very fictionalized way, on the early experiences of my parent’s generation, people who had established lives in Cuba and then had to become re-established in the U.S. The Weight Of My Shadow is more about my generation and the struggle some of us faced as we became adults – whether to embrace the traditional Cuban lifestyle and customs or to follow a more American road. People reading this may want to suggest that we split the middle, but that’s not as easy to do as it may sound. Anyway, at the time, when we were 16, 17 years old, it felt like a black or white choice. But because it’s not black or white and because there were forces pulling us in this direction and that direction, I felt that it would make an interesting novel. A novel allows me to explore these feelings and events in ways that no other artistic medium does.

Eduardo on The Weight of My Shadow

Sammy: The Weight Of My Shadow is told by Jorge a thirteen-year-old boy. Please, give us some insight about becoming Jorge?

Eduardo: It was actually fun to go back and look at the world from the perspective of a thirteen-year old boy. My personal adolescence was very painful, I was very sensitive and too aware of the future. I gave Jorge some of those same traits but also other qualities – Jorge is much more principled than I ever was at that age and he’s even more sensitive.  My best friends have a thirteen-year old son whom I’ve been privileged to know from birth and I gleaned a lot from him. Here’s something interesting, thirteen-year old boys believe that they can turn invisible, that if they don’t say something or lie, or make something up, the adults around them can’t see it, when, of course, quite the opposite is true. My father had an expression that used to drive me crazy. He’d say, “while you’re on your way I’ve been there and back.” That’s a rough translation of the Spanish that he used. But he was constantly letting me know that there was nothing I could do that he wasn’t aware of. I was under constant surveillance. I also got to visit with myself at seventeen and eighteen, Alfonso and Gerry's ages and that was a trip, as we said back then.

 Sammy: In previous brief exchanges you and I have shared, I came away with the distinct impression that The Weight Of My Shadow is special to you. Could you share with us some of your feelings towards this novel?

 Eduardo: Yes, because although the novel is a complete work of fiction, there is so much of me in all three of the main characters – Jorge, Alfonso, and Gerry. People who know me well who have read early drafts say it’s as if I split myself three ways in order to tell the story of an era. The era itself, the early to mid 70s in Southern California were strange years, after the effects of “The Summer Of Love” had waned and before Disco gave the culture a new focus. They were lost years in many way and also very exciting to experience. Joan Didion wrote extensibly about this era, her collections of essays, The White Album, is one of my favorite books. But she was writing from a sophisticated, adult perspective while I am doing exactly the opposite and nowhere near as brilliantly. In terms of the Cuban community it was also a crazy time – three of the “Watergate burglars” were Cubans (Bozo Rebozo anyone?) so we had that shame to deal with compounded by the sinking realization that we wouldn’t be going home any time soon, that we may be stranded in the U.S. for good.

Eduardo the Author

Sammy: Thinking back, when were you first inspired to write?

Eduardo: I always wrote, it was the only activity that seemed worthwhile to me, so as a kid I wrote stories and plays both in English and in Spanish. I was always a big reader. When I was eleven and finally could read English, I went to the local public library one Saturday afternoon, pulled down a book, found a comfortable chair and spent the whole afternoon reading. What I did not know was that my parents were going crazy looking for me. I only meant to be there for a little while but the hours just melted away and no one knew where I was. I think my parents even called the police!  I believe that it’s inevitable for an inveterate reader to want to write, but there is a huge difference between writing and making the decision to write professionally, to write to publish and try to make a living from. That did not occur to me until much later and I'm still figuring most of it out.

Sammy: Did you have a mentor?

Eduardo: I’ve had wonderful mentors over the years, namely Ann Louise Bardach who is a mad genius and knows more about Cuban history than anyone I have ever met. She’s not Cuban, she’s a Jewish woman from New Jersey. She wrote to amazing non-fiction books: Cuba Confidential and most recently, After Castro. I wrote a large part of Tomorrow They Will Kiss at her house where I had access to an arsenal of information, as well as privacy and encouragement. She was amazingly supportive. And it helped that she not only knew Cuba, she also knew New Jersey, where the novel takes place. I’m constantly taking classes, reading books about writing and about writers, most of my friends are writers and we proof each other’s work, we mentor each other.

Sammy: If you will, share a little about your work in the TV and Film industry?

Eduardo: It’s bound to happen, if you live in Los Angeles, you'll put in some time in the film and television industry. Even if you hate the industry and you think you don't work for them, you do. Without the studios, what would be L.A.'s economy? Anyway, I started out at the bottom of the bottom - writing promos for local news, I wrote stuff like:
            Something in your kitchen could be killing your kids!
            The frightening facts tonight at Eleven
            On Channel 2 Action News.
            But hey, I was getting paid TO WRITE! My job was to create alliterations that scared viewers into watching the news. It was not fun because the story was always changing (we’re not doing deadly kitchens we’re doing deadly bathrooms) while the clock was ticking and the anchor wanted to rewrite the copy and then the executive producer would get involved and it often got ugly. Even four seconds of airtime during prime time is incredibly expensive so you had to make sure that you really hit it and the next day if the news program got low ratings THEY ALWAYS BLAMED THE PROMO. But I did it for a long time and then I went on to work on bigger shows, make more money, until the day came when I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to write books!  I knew I could, I just had to find the courage to say bye bye to the big paychecks and the security and honor my humble and at the time nascent, gift.
            But those jobs, because the copy went on television live, taught me to work fast, proof even faster and get to the dramatic point quickly. To this day, I don’t know how to procrastinate. When I sit down to write short stories and novels, I do it very fast as if I have a “live deadline.” Then I revise it until it’s as perfect as I can get it, a luxury I did not have when working in news. Back then, one a good day, as soon as I had typed it, it was torn from my fingers and rushed to an anchor who immediately read it to ten million viewers. It was intense!

Sammy: I understand you are quite the champion in helping and teaching others to develop their creative writing skills. Please enlighten?

Eduardo: When I teach novel writing, first day of class, I always make a pledge to my students: I will never humiliate you, I will never tell you that your work is worthless. I will always honor your work and try to lead you to better writing. I am your cheerleader. Because I know how scary it is to put your hopes and dreams on a page and share it. For most beginning writers it’s a heart-stopping event. I’ve taught creative writing in places where egos are so fragile, like a school for gay teens who had to leave their high schools because they were being bashed and abused by their classmates into a state of nervous collapse. So for them to be able to express themselves through writing in a safe environment was essential to their survival. That was an amazing experience for me. I’ve also taught in prisons where the same rules applied, except for my own survival. I seem to be the go-to teacher for difficult situations because I’m both extremely sensitive and extremely tough. In both instances the students challenged me because neither gay teens nor inmates are known for their trusting natures. I had to prove to them that I am who I say I am, their cheerleader.

Sammy: Please, share a little about your continuous strive to further your education?

Eduardo: I did not study writing in college, I studied film and television production, so I recently enrolled at Antioch University and am pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing/fiction. I just felt that I wanted to go deeper in my field, it’s like I have this unquenchable thirst for education. It’s been great, I’ll have my degree in June, pretty awesome for my family, my father dropped out of school in the 8th grade, my mother finished high school and never touched a book again for the rest of her life. Funny how children can be from their parents – a topic that is painstakingly explored in my new book.

Sammy: What awards have you received for your abilities as a writer?

Eduardo: Tomorrow They Will Kiss took Best Historical Novel and Best First Book honors at the International Latino Book Awards and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. I’ve also earned two fellowships from P.E.N., Emerging Voices in 2004 and The Mark in 2010. They are great honors, but I really wanted the National Book Award but instead it deservedly went to my friend, Carlos Eire for his amazing autobiography, Waiting For Snow In Havana. To this day I feel that his victory was also mine because we are brothers in the struggle. I'm very proud of him.

Sammy: Tell us about your experience as a short story writer.

Eduardo: I’ve always loved short stories. I love how, when they’re good they create this brief, intense world that stays with me forever. My first loves were the short stories of J.D. Salinger and for a while I (unsuccessfully) wrote with his voice. I read at least one short story every few days. I’m also very attached to the film reviews of Pauline Kael, another prominent American voice) which are like short stories about movies. So when I first stopped working in television I concentrated on writing short stories. I felt I needed to walk before I could run. I wrote a collection of eleven because eleven is my lucky number. The collection was called The Sex Lives Of The Saints. Three of those were published by fairly distinguished literary journals, most notably, zyzzyva (who years later reprinted it as one of their best stories of the last 25 years). The collection didn’t sell but it got me an agent, B.J. Robbins. She urged me to I turn one of the short stories into a novel and that’s Tomorrow They Will Kiss. My new novel, The Weight Of My Shadow, also stems from a short story from that collection. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that some stories require more pages.

Sammy: I think that is a fabulous thought to end on…Eduardo thank you for your time, and wonderful insight into your background, and your new novel. I love Tomorrow They Will Kiss and anxiously look forward to The Weight Of My Shadow.