This week, TheLatinoAuthor.com is featuring author Thelma T. Reyna. She was born in Texas but has resided in Pasadena, California, for most of her life. Read our interview with Thelma and see what compelled her to pursue a career in writing.
Can you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself: where you grew up, where you currently reside, family upbringing, or anything you would like our readers to know about you?
I was born and raised in Kingsville, Texas, but have lived in Pasadena, California for most of my life. I am the second eldest of 9 children. My parents were school dropouts, with my dad dropping out of junior high and my mom out of high school shortly before graduating. Both my parents were teenagers when they married. Unfortunately, most of my siblings continued the pattern of dropout and they have suffered the consequences economically. My parents divorced after a tumultuous 20-year marriage and this was very hard on my family. As a single mom my mother supported us with almost no help from my dad, who was ill and on disability for the rest of his life after the divorce. My grandmother helped raise all of us. I talk about her in my new book and about my growing-up years. I have fond memories of my childhood, but looking back now I realize that we were poor and somewhat dysfunctional.
You worked many years in an academic environment, yet only in the last few years did you begin to publish some of your works. Was writing something you always wanted to do or did this writing passion develop later on?
I always loved writing. My first published piece was a poem in my high school’s newspaper, and then a story and an essay published in the college paper. But it was as a high school English teacher that writing and literature became an integral part of my life. During that period, I published my first “real-world” work, a short story in 1972 in the now-iconic Chicano literary journal, El Grito. A few other publications followed in the 70’s and 80’s in this journal as well as its successor, Grito del Sol, and their anthology. Then my career intervened! I focused on promotions and learning new responsibilities and my writing was pushed to the proverbial back burner. Over the next decades, I published sporadically (poems, stories, guest editorials, news articles, e.g.). You are correct that most of my publications have come recently, since 2009, with my first book and my renewed focus on publication.
Your writing focus has mostly been on short stories and poetry. Do you think you will write a novel in the future?
I’m associated most with short stories and poetry because my first 3 books are in these genres, and these are the genres in which I’ve been fortunate to win some awards. However, my book reviews and essays have been published in various blogs/websites and continue to be. My newest book, my fourth, will be published next month, and it is almost all nonfiction: commentaries and mini-essays excerpted from my writings of the past 30+ years, dealing with social and political issues that concern many of us today. Regarding a novel I haven’t written one yet, but I plan to in the near future.
Short stories and poetry each requires different writing skill sets. Of the two, which is the most challenging? Which do you prefer to write, or are they equal in nature for you?
Each requires different skills, but I like to meld them as much as possible, with my prose aiming for poetic language, and my poetry often telling narratives about people. Another of my favorite things is to write flash fiction that is actually a prose poem. A prose poem is the ultimate integration of prose and poetry, of storytelling in a compressed form. My prose poems (as I define them) have a plot, characters, a climax, tone, theme…all the ingredients of a short story, but boiled down to 2-3 pages with paragraphs and poetic/figurative language throughout. In the past year, three of my flash fiction/prose poems have been published in different places. The title piece for my first book, “The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories,” is a prose poem. Poetry and prose are very close cousins, and “flash fiction prose poems” (a sub-genre?) can be appealing to readers.
What technical writing advice can you provide to our readers for each of the two writing methods (short stories and poetry)?
Advice about good writing in general also serves us well regarding poetry and short stories specifically. One of my mantras is “edit, edit, edit.” Don’t take 15 words to say something that can be said in 5 and don’t string descriptors together like a Rumba line. If you use three adjectives, choose the most vivid one, and eliminate the rest. Focus on verbs, which are the strongest words in the English language. Oftentimes, a powerful verb is far superior to a string of adjectives to paint a picture. Avoid clichés. Rather than describing the physical appearance of someone in your poem or story, describe a facial expression, or a gesture, or the way he/she walks, something he/she does. Indirect, partial descriptions allow the reader to paint his/her own picture of the person. Finally, each word you choose—whether in a poem or story—is gold. Choose a word that is evocative, that stirs pictures or emotions automatically. This helps your writing stay “lean” and thus has more of an impact.
How and why did you choose the genres you write in?
I write in multiple genres because this challenges me and also frees me to explore how best to share ideas, opinions, feelings. Sometimes a poem is the best way to describe the death of someone I love. Sometimes a story is the best way. Sometimes an essay steps forward to say, “Use me to describe death.” Actually, death is one of my frequent themes, because it is such an unavoidable part of life, and I’ve written about death in all the genres above. The big topics of writing—love, death, and beauty, according to Edgar Allen Poe—are so universal, that they appear in every form of writing imaginable. So any genre is appropriate for the themes writers wish to explore. We let our mood at the moment, or our time limitation, or even how the creation initially presents itself in our minds determine the ultimate shape our writing takes.
What advice can you provide emerging writers who are just entering into this field?
First, someone who truly wants to be a writer must commit to being a lifelong apprentice focused on evolution: of knowledge, skills, and understanding. A writer never stops growing or being curious about growing. Second, a writer’s prime assets are his or her inquisitiveness and observations about people, our surroundings and life in general. To me, this interest and engagement boils down to the classic “5 W’s and the H” that are allegedly the foundation of knowledge and information: who? what? where? when? why? how? These questions can help us flesh out the specifics of what we want to say. Finally, writers must learn about other writers and network with them. Learning about and supporting others, as you wish for them to support you, is crucial.
What do you feel are the most important elements of good writing? What tools are must-haves for writers to be successful?
A commitment to constant growth – an open mind – a genuine interest in people as people are the backbone of all writing. The courage to express ourselves authentically for this is the only way that our individual “voice” can emerge.
Can you provide an example of a marketing and publishing challenge you encountered and how you resolved each of these?
Marketing: There is no easy solution, but having a strong internet presence is vital and is becoming increasingly easier. It takes time and effort to build websites, Facebook pages, professional profiles, etc., but it’s unavoidable in today’s market. Thankfully, many of these venues are free. With low tech skills, I’ve been able to create an author website on GoDaddy.com; an Author’s Page on amazon.com, on LatinoAuthor.com, and a few other places; a Facebook author page; a full profile on LinkedIn; two literary websites/blogs of my own; and a guest blogger gig on two other websites. In addition, I use Constant Contact for email blasts or use my own categorized lists for targeted more informal email blasts.
Publishing: Again, there is no one solution. I’ve done the following: self-published my first book; sent two chapbook manuscripts to poetry contests and won hard-copy publication contracts; submitted my writings to local journals, print anthologies, online literary journals, ezines, and local newspapers. The goal is to target both print and electronic media and to submit writings in multiple genres, if possible, for greater publishing opportunities.
If you had to choose one person who influenced your writing career, who would that be and why?
My mother. This may sound counter-intuitive, since she never finished school and wasn’t able to prevent most of her children from dropping out. Observers might say that she didn’t role model a belief in education, that she didn’t value it. But as far back as I can remember she took pride in my academic endeavors. She freed me from domestic tasks so I could study. She bragged (much to my embarrassment) to everyone she knew about her “Thelmita” and how I did in school. She took particular interest in my writing assignments and sat with me to point out how I could improve my papers.
You see, she herself had been a stellar student prior to dropping out. Her own parents never went to school, and her dad couldn’t read and write. If my mother’s life circumstances had been different, I believe she would have been a star in college and would have been a highly successful professional. She was getting a diploma vicariously through me, I believe. My college degrees, vicariously, were hers. I knew that my schoolwork made her proud and this motivated me. She was proud of my early publications. She passed away a few years ago, just before my first book came out.
You are a self-professed blogger as well as you write for two other websites.
Can you talk a little about these particular sites and the overall message and mission of each?
The first three listed here are literary. Mine, the first two, focus on bringing attention to American Latina/o writers today, because I feel that we Latino authors are still not fully accepted into the literary mainstream of our nation. Only a relative handful of Latino authors have “broken through”—Sandra Cisneros, Oscar Hijuelos, Junot Diaz, e.g. In Latinopia.com (Jesus Trevino is the owner/host). I’m writing a series of 12 book reviews of pioneering Latina authors in the U.S. whose books are now classics and were all award-winning, ground-breaking works. The commonality among all these blogs is my belief that we must all be advocates for the inclusion, appreciation, and support of American Latino literature.
What are some of your favorite books and why? Did they influence your writing style?
Writers close to my heart encompass different cultures in America: Toni Morrison and Ray Bradbury taught me about musicality in prose. Jhumpa Lahiri taught me about the importance of restraint and simplicity in storytelling, though these also create depth and complexity. Maya Angelou’s, Cassie Premo Steele’s, and Pat Mora’s poetry demonstrated the power of passion told in everyday terms. Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo showed me the importance of voice. Gloria Anzaldúa and Luis Rodriguez showed me how to relay grief and pain.
As a writer, what do you hope your audience will take away as they read your books?
The absolute importance of family. The ubiquity of loss. The imperative for redemption of our selves after loss. The incredible courage of those who suffer and persevere, reinventing themselves in the face of setbacks. The many faces and aspects of love. The excruciating or ameliorating nature of memory.
Can you tell us about any books or projects forthcoming in the near future?
My third book, a poetry chapbook titled “Hearts in Common,” will be issued by Finishing Line Press on June 1. The book is on pre-order from now till April 5 at the publisher’s website: www.finishinglinepress.com. (Please click on “Forthcoming Titles” and scroll down to my name. Thank you so much for this!)
My fourth book, “Life & Other Important Things,” is a book without a clear-cut genre classification. It is divided into thematic sections—Family, Parenting, Peace, Education, Power, Politics, e.g. and within each section I’ve included mini-essays speaking to those issues. It’s a book meant to stir dialogue, to stir reflection about these topics. These are more vital now than before our presidential election. We as a society must stay informed of sociopolitical challenges, and be prepared to take civic action in response. Also, this book includes 21 evocative, full-color images of oil paintings by California artist/author, Victor Cass…who happens to be my son! The artwork elucidates my themes. This is our first book collaboration, and I’m tickled pink by it! This book should be published sometime in April and will be available through amazon.com and other sources.