JANUARY 20, 2016
CONFRONTING HARD TRUTHS is something author Joy Castro does especially well. Her 2005 memoir, The Truth Book, offers a searing indictment of the author’s strict upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, exploring many of the religion’s teachings while also exposing its inherent flaws and hypocrisies. Of The Truth Book, Booklist wrote, “The unfolding fates of Castro and her brother as they endure abuse at the hands of those entrusted with their care, even though we know they emerged whole and sane, prove utterly gripping,” and the Boston Globe called it “gorgeous, disturbing, and grippingly alive.” Of her 2012 collection of essays, Island of Bones, Publishers Weekly wrote, “With undeniably strong prose, Castro is equally uncompromising in her anger, intelligence, empathy, and confusion, each essay turning and enriching the one before without repetition or break in rhythm.”
Joy Castro’s fiction includes the crime novel Hell or High Water, named a Best Book of 2012 by Kirkus. It follows Times-Picayune reporter Nola Céspedes as she investigates the whereabouts of sexual offenders who escaped into the general population after Hurricane Katrina. The New York Times Book Review wrote, “Nola pursues the story […] with a soulful affection for her battered yet still beautiful city,” while the El Paso Times called it a “gritty, suspenseful thriller.” New York Times bestselling author Dennis Lehane called Hell or High Water “[a] terrific thriller.” In Nearer Home (2013), Castro takes readers back to New Orleans as Nola investigates the death of her former journalism professor. In doing so, Nola unwittingly uncovers a set of scandals with the potential to shock the already-beleaguered city to its very core.
This past October, the University of Nebraska Press published Castro’s first book of short stories, How Winter Began. Linked thematically by the lives of women, many of whom are Latinas, this collection charts the experiences and realities of these characters with grace and dignity. Even in their darkest and most vulnerable moments, Joy Castro’s fine writing redeems her characters, often providing her readers with powerful glimmers of hope that shine a light on the resilience and power of the people she cares about so much. “Joy Castro’s writing is like watching an Acapulco cliff diver,” wrote Sandra Cisneros. “It takes my breath away every time.”
Born in Miami, Joy is currently a professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
ALEX ESPINOZA: You’ve written nonfiction and fiction, mysteries and memoirs, short stories and essays, so I think it’s fair to say that your writing embodies a wide range of styles and structures. In fact, the stories in How Winter Began are themselves varied in tone and style. It’s rather impressive to watch you navigate these different literary terrains with ease and fluidity. How do you manage to maintain a consistent literary “voice” and tone while simultaneously encompassing such a wide array of narrative structures?
JOY CASTRO: Consistency’s not really a goal or value of mine. I get bored easily, so I like experimenting with something new, something I don’t yet know how to do. When I become competent, I lose interest. Experientially for me, there’s a sense of abandon and discovery in each new project, rather than consistency. I tend to feel like I’m losing myself completely.
But if the different pieces seem consistent to readers, it might be because all the genres, all the narrators — they’re just different veils through which a single sensibility is seeing the world. Language is a veil, the textile or mesh that lets us speak. We see the world through it. Some veils have a thicker weave or a brighter color, but it’s always the same writer inside. In that way, consistency is inevitable, inescapable.
Or maybe that safe-sounding metaphor — and even the phrase “a single sensibility” — distorts a deeper, stranger, less reassuringly stable process. What is true for me is that I’ve always been plagued by a tendency toward extreme alertness and openness to sensation, to intensity — to exploring without judgment — and this produces within me a kind of endlessly proliferating alterity, or a way of trying on experimental selves, experimental experiences. The stories are just the written records of those prolonged moments of self-suspension.
In this new book, the stories tend to thematize how our current form of capitalism interrupts and restructures our most primal, intimate relationships — with each other and with nature — and sells them back to us, distorted, and what we do with that experience, and whether we can forgive ourselves and each other for the betrayals it causes. I was also noticing recently that the collection contains a lot of violence: two men get stabbed, another gets killed, and there are multiple hangings. Nature, love, and desire are juxtaposed with that.
Most of the stories explore that material via a Latina character who comes — with her own ambitions, creative drive, and desires — from a background of violence and deprivation. She tries to make her way in a world that generally fails to see her clearly, if it sees her at all. So there’s a consistency of subject matter that ties the collection together. All of the books, really.
You have a unique gift for developing compelling characters in your fiction and placing those characters in pretty harrowing situations that challenge their beliefs and assumptions about themselves and others. I’m curious to know which come first for you? Character or story? How do you keep one from overshadowing the other?
Writing, for me, functions as a kind of listening, so voice is really what comes first for me: the voice of the particular character, telling a particular tale. That’s what my mind’s ear hears — just a scrap or fragment of language — and that’s what I sit down with my notebook to record. For me, the character doesn’t exist without this particular, urgent story to tell, and the story doesn’t exist except as it’s experienced and relayed by a particular character. It’s all about the telling, the narrator’s speech-act that describes a specific episode, so character and story are genuinely inextricable. Neither precedes the other; they exist simultaneously — and then, once the story’s been written, not at all. I’m not the sort of author for whom the characters remain active in the imagination once their stories are over. They only exist for the duration of the story. If a character’s voice seems to persist, it means she has a new story to tell, as is the case with Iréne, who narrates the triptych of stories that frame How Winter Began, or Nola Céspedes, who narrates the two post-Katrina literary thrillers. Sometimes I’ll hear scraps of Nola’s voice, and I’ll think, Oh, there must be another Nola novel out there, waiting.
I do love the harrowing moments, those pivot points where we’re not quite morally ready to act but we’re forced anyway to make a choice. An impossible choice, sometimes. They’re where we really grow and change — or die flailing. Either way, they’re interesting to watch.
As I mentioned earlier, you’ve written memoir as well as fiction, and I’m curious to know where the distinction between the two lies for you. What does one afford you that the other doesn’t?
Memoir and essays allow us to stake a particular kind of sociopolitical claim in our work, a claim that holds a different epistemic status in the minds of readers than the claims that fiction makes. Memoir and personal essay assert, This really happened. It happened to me. When it matters to lend material that kind of authority, memoir is the stronger choice. I’ve wanted to stake that claim about, for example, what it was like to grow up as a Jehovah’s Witness, live with multiple types of violence, and run away at 14. I wanted to make art out of that material, yet it also seemed to matter that those experiences really occurred. That’s why I’m careful to corroborate and fact-check when I publish memoir: I know that those narratives that stake a truth-claim will be read by the general reader in a different way from the way fiction is read. My attitude about invention in memoir is not laissez-faire. There’s a specific kind of political weight with which I want that material to be received, and I work hard not to do anything that would risk that reception.
Fiction gives us the latitude to lie about the world — lie beautifully — to invent alternatives, and to speculate freely about the motivations of others. In memoir we have to be very careful about ascribing motives to other people in the narrative, or simply refrain altogether from doing so, but in writing short stories and novels, we can let our curiosity wander. We can invent the interior, secret reasons that make people do the crazy or cruel or incomprehensibly generous things they do. Since I have a nosy imagination, fiction offers a place for that kind of work. In that sense, almost all fiction is speculative fiction — morally and interpersonally speculative.
You say of your nonfiction, “There’s a specific kind of political weight with which I want that material to be received, and I work hard not to do anything that would risk that reception.” Is there a specific kind of political weight with which you want your fictional material to be received? If yes, how is that different, or the same, from the political weight your nonfiction receives?
For me, fiction is an attempt to suspend judgment, relinquish our inheritance, and bring something new into being. A new mode of vision or existence. To suspend judgment and explore, to dream, to make a way (in language) of seeing differently, to sketch out events or ways of perceiving and living that might never have happened before but could be possible and could be better: more gentle, more just, more erotic, more peaceful … To arrest, to surprise, to surprise myself. And it’s an invitation to the reader to come along with me a little way into that dream. In that way, its motivation is utopian — although I don’t construct utopias in my fiction.
The stories in How Winter Began are linked by the lives and experiences of women, and you’ve always written strong and complex female characters, especially women of color. In what ways do you hope your characters in this book as well as, say, Nola Céspedes in your novels Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, complicate larger notions of identity, race, and socioeconomic class?
I want to answer this in two ways. First, I want to push back against the question’s assumption that I do hope my characters complicate dominant notions of identity and so on. Does a straight white middle-class male writer hope that his fiction will complicate my notions of identity? Or is he just writing the stories he wants to write, populated by the kinds of characters he knows well and is interested in? My guess is that he’s not thinking about readers like me at all. Similarly, if I’m writing about strong, complex women of color, it’s because they’re the people I know well and love and want to put on paper — not to complicate any “larger” notions of anything (which are actually smaller, because restrictive). I’m not writing for someone who doesn’t believe women can be those things, and when I pick up my notebook and pen, I do not have a self-consciously educational agenda about it.
Yet on the other hand, I completely get where you’re coming from with this question, because I’m also a professor and critic who knows about the VIDA counts and that close to 90 percent of people who work in trade publishing are white (and have significant socioeconomic privilege). So then sure: if there’s still anyone out there (after Morrison, after Cisneros, after dozens of brilliant authors) who thinks that poor women of color can’t be complex, strong, fascinating, compelling protagonists — that they can’t be scrappy and intellectually rigorous and brutal and tender and stunningly generous and selfish and blind, all at once — then yes, I hope my work complicates that false assumption. I hope it blows that notion right out of the water. Forever.
Aside from writing novels and essays and short stories, you’ve edited anthologies and you are a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. How do you balance your university responsibilities (classes, students, committees) with your writing responsibilities?
I’m not sure that balancing is ever really what I manage to do; it never feels quite that neat. I do like to work hard, which helps. Since I need to have a day-job, it’s good to have an intellectually stimulating and socially meaningful one. I like contributing something of practical value to the world on a daily basis, and I’ve always cared about higher education (which was forbidden to me as a child: when I finally got to college, it was utterly transformative). Higher education changes lives, and my work teaching classes and directing the Institute for Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln makes a difference at our institution. UNL also has a very strong graduate creative writing program, and I love working with our masters and PhD students. They’re extraordinarily gifted, and it’s a pleasure to see their work grow.
As far as getting my own writing done, I draft long projects in the summers. During the school year, I revise — or write really short things. Sometimes, if I’m not getting any chances to write in a way that feels meaningful, I start to feel really out of whack, mentally and emotionally. It can be a problem.
How, if at all, has the geography in which you live shaped your writing?
Nebraska, where I’ve lived for eight years now, has a subtle beauty: mildly rolling hills, little water above ground, relatively short trees. I don’t know how much it’s affected my writing, but I do like it. I grew up in Miami, England, and rural West Virginia, then lived in Texas for 13 years, after which I moved to rural Indiana, where I spent 10 years in a small town, teaching at an all-male college. There’s not much sun there in the winter. Though the story “The Small Heart” is set in Nebraska, its grim emotional landscape feels like small-town Indiana to me. Several of the stories in the collection are set in and around San Antonio, where I went to college and had my son, and which I loved. I still miss the sound of grackles in the live oaks and the scent of cedar trees in the heat.
One of the many things I admire in your work, from your memoir The Truth Book to your latest book, is your ability to tackle some pretty heavy subject matter. From sexual abuse to poverty to crime, you confront it all with unflinching courage and grace. What inspires you to keep going? To keep excavating some of these hard truths?
By fate or happenstance, hard things have turned out to be my material. Everyone gets dealt a different hand; heavy subject matter is just what I’ve been given to work with. What inspires me is the desire to make shapes. What inspires me is the desire to see.
Violence is a provocative experience. When you experience a lot of pain, you wonder why. You begin to get curious about how pain is doled out, and to whom. You begin to ask questions about justice. And so then the hard material that happened to land on you, apparently randomly, becomes something you find yourself choosing to explore.
Sometimes I’d like to be able to write about swans on lakes and country estates, believe me, or glitzy events where characters swirl around in taffeta. I do think that would be a pleasure and a kind of relief. But someone else got stuck with those.
What challenges did How Winter Began pose that your other works didn’t? How different, if at all, was the process for writing it as opposed to one of your novels?
The process for this book was very different from writing either novel, because these stories accumulated slowly over a period of more than 20 years. I had no plan. I just wrote them as they came. Eventually I began to play with the concept of a collection, a shape — how to order them, which ones to leave out. The whole process was very gradual and organic. With the novels, I planned more. Willed more. I made maps for myself and committed for the long haul.
With How Winter Began, I loved being able to immerse myself in a character’s story so deeply — and then be done. Like, in romantic relationships, breaking up the moment you feel a hint of boredom and galloping on to the next intrigue. A story collection requires no loyalty. There’s great freedom and pleasure in that.
Can you tell us a little about what you are working on now?
For a couple of years, I’ve been working on a novel about a Latina sculptor who’s the surviving child of a maternal filicide. Her husband wants to start a family. Because of her mother’s legacy as the murderer of her own child, the sculptor fears herself and what she might do if faced with parenthood. (I think those fears are presaged a bit in the story “Bloody” in How Winter Began.) The novel is set in Chicago and Appalachia and spans a few decades. The stakes feel high — motherhood, destruction, class mobility, urban-rural tensions, the social role of art — so I’m very drawn to it. Thematically, it’s in conversation with Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, but it tackles those issues of women’s sexuality, maternity, autonomy, and art from the standpoint of a character who’s Latina and grew up in a working-poor rural home. It’s harsh and risky and weird, and I’m hoping it doesn’t fall apart.
Or maybe I’m secretly hoping that it does. Failure is exciting. You don’t learn much from success.