SCHOLAR, UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR, AND NOVELIST Carla Trujillo is no stranger to hard work. Editor of two seminal texts — Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, and Living Chicana Theory, both published by Third Woman Press — Trujillo’s contributions to the field of Chicana literary scholarship have garnered her a steady stream of admirers over the years, as well as some impressive accolades. Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About won Trujillo a Lambda Literary Award as well as the Out/Write Vanguard Award.
In 2003, Curbstone Press published her first novel, What Night Brings. Winner of the Miguel Marmol prize, awarded to a first novel or short story collection that focuses on human rights. Booklist called it “a robust addition to the growing body of Latino and Latina writing” while Sandra Cisneros proclaimed it “a story … at once heartbreaking and hilarious, beautifully told by a wise and wise-cracking young girl.” Set in 1960s California, What Night Brings focuses on young Marci Cruz — smart, sassy, and wise beyond her years — who is raised in an environment that is at once tender as it is hostile. While Marci navigates a tough terrain rife with violence, poverty, and drug abuse, she slowly comes to terms with her own maturing lesbian identity, which is in direct conflict with her devout Catholic upbringing. In order for her to claim her freedom and independence, though, Marci must defy her family and church, forcing her to question her very culture and upbringing.
This past September, Curbstone Press published Trujillo’s second novel, Faith and Fat Chances, a PEN/Bellwether Prize Finalist for Socially Engaged Fiction. The book, which took Trujillo 10 years to write, tells the story of the citizens of Dogtown, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. When a developer comes up with plans to turn Dogtown into a winery, the neighborhood’s motley band of citizens — led by Pepa Romero, the local healer and unofficial mayor of the enclave — unite in their struggle to preserve and protect their small corner of the world. The result is a novel brimming with hope, hilarity, and moxie. Acclaimed novelist Helena María Viramontes wrote: “In Faith and Fat Chances, Carla Trujillo delivers a delightful but thoughtful meditation on eminent domain and atomic experiments and the communities that struggle against them with planning meetings, lawyers, news media and, of course, magic.”
Trujillo recently took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.
ALEX ESPINOZA: Your first novel, What Night Brings, focuses on Marci Cruz, a young Chicana lesbian growing up in an abusive, macho, and hyper Catholic household. Marci dreams of becoming a boy so that she can fall in love with girls and avoid the wrath of a vengeful God. Your new novel, Faith and Fat Chances, explores the complex relationship of a group of residents of a New Mexico neighborhood on the brink of change. Though your first novel’s action is filtered through one main character, your second is told by a cast of wildly different characters — a healer, a nuclear scientist, a corrupt mayor, and an owner of a jerky shop — each with their own narrative style. What were some of the challenges you faced taking on these radically different voices? What advantages does one have over the other?
CARLA TRUJILLO: Getting the voice right is always a challenge no matter what you write. Marci Cruz in What Night Brings was written in the first person. Her voice and point of view had to sustain the momentum of the novel since everything that happens is seen from her perspective. Creating a realistic 11-year-old voice was my biggest challenge, especially one as observant and opinionated as Marci. In Faith and Fat Chances, the main character, Pepa Romero, anchors the story and introduces us to a world of people living on the poor side of Santa Fe, all of whom are facing a life-changing dilemma. As a result, the novel needed other voices to represent that community, along with the key players who seek to destroy it. Delving into the hearts and minds of several different characters was challenging but fun. I needed to visualize who they were, what they cared about, and how they spoke and moved through the world. I don’t see an advantage in either format. Both were necessary to tell the stories I wished to convey.
What Night Brings takes place in a working-class community in California, and your new book takes place in New Mexico, specifically Santa Fe. I was intrigued by the way in which you offer for your readers very atypical depictions of these geographies, both already loaded with preconceptions. Do you see landscape as an extension of character development? How do you as a writer work to counter any presumptions a reader might have about the places your characters inhabit?
The landscape of a working-class town in California during the ’60s served more as background in What Night Brings simply because it was part of daily life — the cramped houses, backyard gardens, and pollution from factories, for example. This was probably similar to any working-class town across the country, yet California possesses visions of sugar plums in non-California heads, and what I was simply trying to do was offer something more realistic to the life of a working-class family. Landscape was more a function of character in Faith and Fat Chances, where most people visualize Santa Fe as dreamy adobes garnished by mountains, chile ristras, and blue skies, which of course, it does have. But since I’m originally from New Mexico and have family members who live in “regular” houses and go about their lives outside the perimeter of tourists, I wanted to stay true to this reality. The characters in the novel do their daily business with little to no interaction with tourists and the places they go to. Still, I needed to attend to the beauty of the land, the food, and that gorgeous sky and hope I’ve done it justice.
Whether it’s a young girl coming to grips with her sexuality in a violent, male-dominated society or a community pulling together to stop a development that would destroy their homes, you aren’t afraid to tackle some big issues. How do you prevent the issues from overshadowing the characters and plot?
I like character-driven novels and believe if you have (in the words of Dorothy Allison) “a goddamn, good ass character,” you can write about anything. Yet the issues I write about are very important to me because I’ve seen and continue to see so many people impacted by them. But since I’m writing fiction that focuses on the people inhabiting the stories, I want the issues to function more as a background driver for the plot and let what happens to the characters in the story shine, not the other way around.
Do you consider yourself a political writer? If so, how have your political views shaped and influenced your work?
I write about things that move me, things based on the lives of people I’ve encountered, or whom I’ve felt compelled to write about. For example, in Faith and Fat Chances, a partial impetus for the story came from my grandmother having to give up her little corner grocery store through eminent domain — a store that had fed her and all seven of her children for decades. Another impetus came from encountering an abnormal number of New Mexican women who developed thyroid cancer (including my mother) at a young age, along with my grandfather dying of leukemia at the age of 39. I also wondered, when I visited cemeteries throughout the state, why so many (non-veteran) men and women might have died in their prime during the 1940s. From the research I’ve conducted, the cancer and early deaths may have resulted from the deadly down-winds of nuclear testing during the construction of the atomic bomb. I didn’t plan to write this kind of story, but I suppose it exemplifies the kind of person I am and what I care about. I also find myself injecting humor into the fiction I write. Maybe it comes from observing my family — laughing alongside hardship.
I know you didn’t attend an MFA program in writing, and I’m curious to hear more about your training as a writer.
First, let me say I read a great deal — writers I admire or those who have broadened my perspective about other people throughout the world. I always wanted to write fiction but knew I’d have to work hard to learn how to do it. I was also a first-generation college student, then went and got a PhD in Educational Psychology, so the next thing I had to do was expunge the academic head-set. I also quickly found out that writing fiction (well) is more difficult than I had imagined. But I told myself I had to learn how to write all over again and incorporated the mindset of discovery, as if I was a first-grader composing new sentences for the first time. I took my first fiction class in grad school and continued taking classes from various teachers for many years — most notably Sandra Cisneros and Paul Cohen. Sandra was an enormously generous and gifted teacher, but she also pushed and inspired me to do my best. She encouraged us Macondistas (members of a writing collective she established) to seek the instruction and feedback from each other and of other teachers. Paul Cohen was also a great teacher because he helped me with form and structure. I kept an open head and heart and benefited from other teachers: Thaisa Frank, Junot Díaz, Leslie Larson, and Cherrie Moraga. Lastly, I attended writing conferences such as the Macondo Writing Workshop and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which were critical to my development.
You’ve also done scholarly writing. Can you tell us a little about the difference, for you, between the two? How do you shift from one to the other? Does one type inform the other?
I find writing fiction more enjoyable, so perhaps it’s a bit easier for me to go into that mind-frame. But because of my academic training and the work I’ve done on the Berkeley campus over the years, I have to work hard to keep “intention” or “audience” out of my creative space. I give myself permission to let my characters be flawed or even “bad” so I can let my head and heart be free.
Up until recently, you worked as an administrator at UC Berkeley. Any advice for people out there who hold nine-to-five jobs and want to write a novel or short stories?
I’ve been writing for a long time holding a nine-to-five job with work challenges that infiltrate creative space and rob me of creative energy. I made it a point to allocate weekend and vacation time to writing. I block out time, ideally before doing other things. This way I get the writing work done and then can play the rest of the day. I also never check email or Facebook before or especially during writing so I don’t slip out of my “creative space,” which can be easy to do. I’d also recommend taking a class or joining a writing group. This way you’ll have to produce something on a regular basis.
What do you hope readers gain or come away understanding after they’ve finished reading Faith and Fat Chances?
I hope readers have fun and enjoy the novel. I had a great time writing it and would really love it if readers are entertained by the characters and the story. I also hope readers will bring their own knowledge and insights to what I’ve created regarding issues of gentrification, family discord, and fallout from nuclear testing; this in conjunction with the spiritual subtext running through the story.
Who are some of the writers that have influenced your work?
I’ve been influenced by writers who can not only craft a good sentence, but who move me emotionally, and create interesting characters that I can latch on to. Some of the writers I’ve admired are: Louise Erdrich, Dorothy Allison, Peter Carey, Abraham Verghese, Julia Alvarez, Sherman Alexie, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Dave Eggers, William Faulkner, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, and Ayana Mathis. I could go on …
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
I’m working on a novel about a woman married to a narco dealer who has to suddenly leave Mexico. She escapes to the US seeking a new life but knows no English, possesses little money, and has no family or friends. Of course one can never leave what one leaves behind.