This week The Latino Author is featuring Judith Ortiz Cofer. Ms. Cofer published her first book in 1987 and hasn’t stopped since. Our interview with her is very telling and provides some wonderful details about her life and how she became an author. Very enlightening!
Ms. Cofer, can you please tell our readers a little bit about your background such as where you grew up, where you currently reside, or just anything that you would like our readers to know about you?
I was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Paterson, New Jersey. I now make my home in Georgia with my husband, John Cofer. I have a daughter and an eight-year-old grandson. I am retired as the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing, Emerita, the University of Georgia.
I am the author of A Love Story Beginning in Spanish: Poems (2005); Call Me Maria (2006), a young adult novel; The Meaning of Consuelo (2003), a novel; Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000), a collection of essays; An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio (1995), a collection of short stories; The Line of the Sun (1989), a novel; Silent Dancing (1990), a collection of essays and poetry; two books of poetry, Terms of Survival (1987) and Reaching for the Mainland (1987); and The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry (1993).
My new book is The Cruel Country, a memoir published by the University of Georgia Press earlier this year.
I knew I wanted to write and teach from an early age, but I had to face the usual struggles of getting through college and graduate school while being a wife and mother. Writing for me was an apprenticeship that lasted many years. I had been writing for eight years before I published my first book of poems in 1987.
On plots and characters, can you share some creative writing tips for our audience?
For me character comes first. If I hear the voice in my head, I can usually come up with a situation that challenges that character. I recommend that writers not start with abstract ideas; start with human beings interacting. The characters themselves will work out the plot.
You’ve written many books; collection of essays, children’s books, young adult novels, adult novels, poetry, etc. Of all the books that you’ve written, which has given you the most difficulty (obstacles) and why? Which was the easiest to write?
I’d say the first novel, The Line of the Sun, was the most difficult. I first had to learn how to write a novel by reading and studying many novels by writers I admire. The book went through many drafts and took me nearly four years to complete. I don’t think writing any book is easy. Writing is a craft and an art, and if either is missing, the book will fail. But I enjoyed writing my picture book The Poet Upstairs, which explores a little girl’s imagination and her journey to poetry through a mentorship with the poet who lives in the apartment above hers. I felt I could inhabit both characters.
What are some of the methods and techniques you use to structure your books?
I study the craft, always. If I am writing a picture book, I’ll read 50 picture books; if I’m working on an essay, I read and absorb the best of the best models. Originality comes in the creation of your piece, but the foundation must be solid.
How much research goes into your writing?
As I said above, I am a student of form and fact. Although my stories may be imagined, the reader has to be convinced that she is entering a real world with real people. For example, I recently wrote a story set in 1966. I needed to know what music was playing that year. I researched the entire year and looked at the top 100 music charts. I ended up using the titles of three songs. I know as an avid reader that I want facts along with the fiction. As Robert Frost said, a good poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I think that’s true for all good writing.
Do you ever have writer’s block? If so, what techniques do you use to offset these time periods?
I don’t believe in writer’s block; I believe in gestation periods, however. If I’m not writing, I am planning and taking notes. The desire to begin a work comes when I am ready, prepared to write. I am in cancer treatment at present, and this is a different matter. Some days my mind is not clear enough nor my body strong, so I read. I read until my strength returns, and then I write. A writer is always writing, even before the words are put on paper.
Two areas where many authors struggle in is publishing and marketing. Would you agree or disagree that this is an area that is a bit tricky to navigate through? Can you elaborate on this?
Publishing is a business, and publishers will buy the product that suits them best. This is why I have several publishers. I don’t think about the business while I’m working on my art; instead I tell myself that if it’s good, it will find an audience. After spending five years working on my first novel, it took me two more years to find a publisher. I recommend that you enjoy your work. If you think about selling it, you will not do your best work; you will be trying to meet the expectations of others.
Who inspires you to write? Who do you see as a mentor and why?
Most of the time it’s a what, not a who that inspires me. I may hear music or something that triggers a memory. As with the story I am working on that I mentioned earlier, it is a song that made me think of the year 1966 and growing up in New Jersey among other Puerto Rican kids. Sometimes it is a person, but it may be a demeanor, accent, or physical feature that may lead me to a poem or narrative. As a writer, I open up all my senses to the world. I think inspiration enters you when you take everything in.
As a writer, how would you like to be remembered? In other words, what is it that you would like your audience to take away from your writing?
I haven’t given much thought to how I want to be remembered. But perhaps it would be enough if someone remembered me by one thing they’re read: “Wasn’t she the one who wrote . . .?”
You have just published the book A Cruel Country. This book is a memoir centered on your return to Puerto Rico after your mother has been diagnosed with lung cancer? How did you approach the difficult writing for this intense memoir?
I was very close to my mother, and sitting by her bedside as she was dying was, so far, the hardest thing I have ever done. But even in the deepest grief, one doesn’t stop being a writer. I wanted to honor her memory by paying close attention to her until she breathed her final breath. Whenever I took a break, I wrote down everything I had seen and experienced. This is how I faced it, by recording it. It is the only thing I know to do.
In closing, are there any future writing projects on the radar that you would like to share with our audience?
I am working on a collection of short-short stories and short essays. They will be like prose poems but without the strictures of poetry, thus allowing me to feel free to explore a subject. This project suits my limited physical resources at present, that is, until my treatment is finished.