This week, TheLatinoAuthor.com is featuring author Michael Nava. Although Mr. Nava has had a very distinguished career as an appellate lawyer in the California court system, his vocation and love of writing is still a main focus. Read our interview and see what inspired him to use his writing to help give purpose, meaning, and aim to his life.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I am a third-generation Californian. My maternal family came up from Mexico beginning in around 1915 when they were driven out of central Mexico by the Revolution. The area around Guanajuato where they lived was on the bloodiest zones of the war as the different factions fought for control of the capital. My abuelita claimed that she and her sisters were hidden from Pancho Villa’s soldiers when his soldiers took over their little farm. When she told me this I was skeptical, but now I think it probably happened because all the armies raided local farms for provisions and whatever else they could take.
My grandfather was a Yaqui, de gente indigena. His family was driven out of Sonora around 1900 by the Mexican army of the dictator Porfirio Diaz who appropriated the tribe’s ancient homeland. My grandfather was born in Arizona in 1905 where the largest number of Yaquis in the United States still live. So I am descended on both sides from refugees who have been in this country for a long time. I grew up in the same barrio where my grandmother’s family settled, and where my mother still lives, in Sacramento. I was the only one of my mother’s six children to go to college. We were quite poor and it was a difficult upbringing, like that of so many other Latina/Latinos then and now. This is why I have made it part of my life to mentor young Latina and Latino students when the opportunity presents itself. I don’t want them to feel as alone as I often did.
What inspired you to write? Was this something you always wanted to do?
My need to write was inborn. As a child, I loved words. Quite literally loved them! I remember walking home from school — I must have been six or seven — repeating over and over the word “eternal” because it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. Of course, I had no idea what it meant. I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old about a rain drop (I think my mother has it somewhere). I began to write in a serious, self-conscious way when I was 12, the same time I was forced to acknowledge my homosexuality. I wrote because writing allowed me to say things about my confusion and unhappiness that I did not dare to say aloud. Not until I was in college, under the mentorship of a wonderful teacher named Ruth Barton, did I consider the possibility of becoming a professional writer. That took another ten years.
You began writing poetry and then you became a novelist? What was the catalyst that moved you in the direction to write novels?
I wrote poetry until I was in my mid-twenties because, as I said, I love words and poetry was the purest expression of language. (I still reread the great poets for inspiration and edification. Writing poetry is good training for writing fiction; it teaches concision and precision). I continued to write poetry even as a law student, and in fact won a couple of prizes for my poems while I was at Stanford. However, increasingly I found that what I wanted to express was the reality of being a young, gay man and this needed a different form. I turned to fiction.
You’ve had a very distinguished career as an appellate lawyer working primarily in the California court system, and yet you also write novels? Which do you find the most rewarding or are they equal in nature?
Writing is my vocation; law is my career. I am grateful for the law. It has given me a unique perspective on issues of social justice and a vocabulary with which to approach those issues. But telling stories is what I was born to do.
Several of your books have been focused on the theme of being gay. Will you always write with this focus, or will this change in the future. Why or why not?
I came out as a gay person to myself when I was 12 and began to come out to my friends when I was 17. This was in Sacramento in 1971 when there was still a sodomy law in California and conditions for gay people were otherwise quite oppressive. I did not choose to be gay, but I accepted that this was an integral part of me that I could not change anymore than I could change the color of my eyes. I knew there was no place for me in the Mexican-American community in which I had been raised (and, at the time, I was right. Now, thank God, my lesbian niece has had no problems being accepted). I was frightened but also angry. I did experience myself as the evil person that homosexuals were supposed to be. I experienced myself as a person struggling to live a decent, productive life and it seemed fundamentally wrong to me that I should be condemned for something over which I had no control. So I felt compelled to write that injustice, which is why I wrote so much about being gay. These days I am much more incensed about the situation of the Latino community and much more interested in our ethnic and immigrant experience so my writing is now more focused on these issues. I will, however, always populate my books with some gay and lesbian characters because this is a major part of my life experience.
Do you find that being a gay Latino author has hindered or helped you? Please elaborate.
I think being a novelty back in the late 80s and early 90s when I started to publish may have helped me with reviewers who might have been looking for something different but I don’t think it was that helpful with readers (see my answer to question 9.) Now I think my books are judged more on their literary merit than their novelty.
Of all your stories, which have been the most challenging to write and why?
My latest (and yet unpublished novel) The City of Palaces is the first of a series of four books set in Mexico on the Arizona-Mexico border, and in Hollywood between 1895 and 1929. It is based very loosely on the lives and times of the silent film start Ramon Novarro and a Yaqui boy inspired by (but not about) my grandfather. It took 15 years to write this first book. Fifteen years of research, travel, false starts, and long periods of self-doubt. So, I would say it was the most difficult task I had set for myself as a writer. I am currently working on the second book which is no walk in the park either.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in the publishing and marketing arena. Which do you find more difficult and why?
My first novel was rejected by 13 publishers before a small gay press took a chance on it. Although the Rios novels were exceptionally well reviewed, they never achieved the kind of sales that one would have expected from those glowing reviews. In part this is because big publishers don’t know how to market writers who write out of the mainstream; that’s a more labor-intensive effort than I think the big publishers are set up for. But in part, it is also true that readers generally like to read books that reflect their own experience or play into their particular fantasies. For the average straight white reader a book about a gay Latino lawyer, no matter how good the review, is not going to sound appealing because what on earth could you possibly have in common with him? These are subtle forms of racism and homophobia that affect the well-educated. Nonetheless, writers cannot dwell on these issues because those paths lead to bitterness and self-doubt. The job of writers is to write. That’s where the joy is.
What advice would you give upcoming aspiring writers?
Treat it like a job. Sit down at the same time and the same place for at least five days a week, even if it’s only an hour, and write. Discipline, not inspiration, is what separates people who would like to be writers from those who are.
Your book “The City of Palaces” is shown as coming soon. When will that be on the market for purchase and also what other projects are in the foreseeable near future for you?
I’m still looking for a publisher. If all else fails I am prepared to self-publish, but one way or another it will be available in the next year. As I mentioned, I am hard at work on the second book of the series, tentatively titled “A Name for the Dust,” and set in the border town of Douglas, Arizona, between 1913 and 1917.