On the Art of Writing and Self-Creation: A Conversation with Renowned Author Esmeralda Santiago

Tuesday


Photo Courtesy of the Daily News
Since the 1993 publication of the first of her three memoirs, When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago has gone on to enjoy an illustrious career as a novelist, essayist, screenwriter, humanitarian and speaker, among many distinguished titles. Ms. Santiago followed the vibrant tale of her childhood in Puerto Rico and her family’s subsequent move to New York at thirteen years old with Almost a Woman, in which she recounted her challenging adolescence and young adulthood in Brooklyn during the 1960's. The Turkish Lover, the last book in the trilogy, finds twenty-year-old Esmeralda falling in love with a charming, but possessive man on the path to self-discovery that ultimately leads her to Harvard and self-liberation. 

Before establishing herself as a staple in the Latin-American literary canon, she and her husband founded Cantomedia, a successful film company that eventually produced the screenplay of Almost a Woman for PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. She’s also written celebrated novels, including América’s Dream and Conquistadora, an epic historical drama about a determined plantation owner named Ana Cubillas set in nineteenth century Puerto Rico. I had the opportunity to discuss the novel, and so much more, with the passionate renaissance woman who speaks with gusto about everything from the writing process, to the everyday pleasures found in art, to the one major bit of life changing wisdom she would share with her incredibly ambitious, angst-ridden younger self.  

How long before first being published had you written with the intention of becoming a professional writer?

I kind of didn’t realize I was a writer until I was first published. (Laughs) I wrote for a long time without realizing that I was writing. I would write in my journals just because I needed a place to express myself. Then a lot of my jobs required writing. I was a secretary for many, many years, and so I was constantly writing my boss’ letters and his speeches. Then I became a film writer, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I thought of myself as a filmmaker. I was also a proposal writer for nonprofit organizations in Boston, working mostly with disadvantaged Latinos of all kinds. But still, I didn’t think I was a writer. My job was to write these proposals.

It really wasn’t until I wrote one essay called "Bilingual Dreamer", which was about my son asking me what language I dreamed in. People have asked me that question, but when he asked me when he was three or four years old, all of a sudden I said, “Oh, my God. Let me think about that.” So I wrote this essay and I showed it to a friend, and he suggested that I send it out. I sent it to the Christian Science Monitor. They accepted it and gave me $100 or something. (Laughs) I was like, “Woah. I’m a published writer. I have a byline.” (Laughs) That was the big encouragement. They asked me to write another one. 

Then I took this writing workshop because I didn’t think of myself as a writer. That helped me to gain confidence that maybe this was something I could do. I just continued doing essays and by then I said, “Ok. I’m a writer.” (Laughs)

What workshop did you take?

It was a workshop through the Extension School at Harvard for adults. They’re not credit classes or anything like that. You can actually get a degree from the Extension School but I already had a degree from the college and it just so happened that they were walking distance from my house. That’s why I chose that particular workshop with somebody that I didn’t know, Martin Robbins. He was the teacher and there were fifteen people. It was just convenient for me. I knew the campus and I love being in Cambridge. (Laughs

Later on, as I became more confident and my stuff was being published in the New York Times and other places I said, “If I’m really going to do this as a career, I better get a master’s degree.” Really for no other reason than that I think it is important for Latinos who can should continue their education and get graduate degrees. It sets an example for the rest of our people and also for my kids. 

By then we had moved to New York. I took a workshop at Sarah Lawrence, which was the closest college that offered a non-credit course in writing workshop. I decided this is really for me. I applied to the master’s program, got in and in the process of going through that two year program I wrote When I Was Puerto Rican for my thesis.

It was very expensive because of where I was and where I went. (Laughs) I had little kids, so I wanted a lot of flexibility and that particular program was the closest master’s program I could get into. I didn’t want to go to Columbia, that was too far. I was constantly having to move my kids back and forth. I didn’t get any financial aid because I was already forty. They really save their financial aid for younger people. But I have to say that every cent I spent on it, I got back just with the confidence and the fact that I made some really good friends there. I learned a lot about myself as a writer and the biggest lesson there was how to take criticism without bursting into tears. (Laughs)

For Conquistadora, you spent ten years researching, which included traveling to Spain and Puerto Rico. How did you pace yourself when writing for so long? 

I had a lot of other things going on at the same time and wasn’t just focusing on that. I knew I was writing a historical saga, and I knew that the research was going to be tricky because when I started this it was pre-Google. A lot of the books I could only get in Puerto Rico. I would go to Rio Piedras and any campus bookstore and pick up whatever I could find. I had to read it, understand it, and then translate it in my own way. Really become familiar with it enough for the characters to be real and to behave in ways that people in that period would.

I went to Spain to the Archivos General de Indias in Sevilla. I went to a couple of cities. I walked around Sevilla because that’s where Ana comes from. This was over the course of years in which I wrote three other books and the script for Almost a Woman for Masterpiece Theatre. It wasn’t like [writing] was the only thing I was doing. It was something that whenever I could, I would get into.

When I came to the point where it felt like I had a book, then I sent a big chunk of it to my agent, who then passed it on to my editor, who bought it. Then I really had to do it because I had a deadline. (Laughs)

You had your research done before you sent it to your agent?

I did a lot of the research first because the characters had to emerge from the research. I didn’t want it to be the other way around. My whole concept of historical novel writing is that I’m not a historian, I’m a novelist and so for me it’s about how people live in their history. I’m not writing about people who are creating their history. These are people who are reacting to the history that is happening around them, except for Ana [who is] creating [her] history. But even within that [she is] living in the context of whatever the laws of the Spanish crown are and the vicissitudes of being on an island in a colony in the nineteenth century that has very, very strict laws and so on. I just had to understand that and then feel like I was that person, to then be able to write about them with any kind of realistic sense.

Was everyone supportive even though it took awhile?

I’ve been very, very fortunate. [They] kind of knew I was writing a historical novel, but in between I’d written other things. I’ve only had two editors in my entire career which is really unusual-- and the same agent my entire career. These days in writing, it’s very unusual to be with the same people. They are just incredibly supportive and encouraging and they’ve become friends. For Conquistadora, [they] really loved the idea. I had this deadline, and then I had a stroke. [They] understood and my deadline was extended. 

When I delivered, it was like, "Yay, I knew you could to do it." That's what's been so wonderful about these three women in my life that are on my team.

It's great to have a group of women supporting each other.

I think it's really important. I have a daughter and one of the things I say to her is, "You can make a lot of friends, but make women friends because they are the ones that are going to hang out with you when you're old. (Laughs) They will stay with you. Be a good friend and have a lot of women friends." I think that's really crucial for young women.

How long does it generally take you to complete projects?

An editor would like you to have a book on their desk every 18 months, a manuscript for a book finished. Not a proposal, but an actual finished novel. That's what they would like. I don't work that way. I don't work that fast. I don't like to send stuff until I feel that I've gotten it to the point where I can't tweak it anymore and I need somebody. I also have a life. I do a lot of other things. I travel a lot. I do a lot of speaking. I have a huge family. The reality in publishing is that that's what they would like, for a book to be published every two years. To churn them out. I'm not that desperate to be published, one. I also feel like I want to have a good life. I don't want to just be working all the time. I have a different attitude.

That’s good to hear because nowadays there’s all this pressure for quantity.

A traditional publisher worries that if you don’t keep publishing, your readers will go to other books-- they will forget about you, basically. But I think each book brings a whole new set of readers anyway. Each book is so individual, except for somebody like J.K. Rowling where people are just panting for the next book. (Laughs) I think for people in my situation, I have very loyal readers who stay in touch with me through social media constantly nagging me (Laughs). I can’t even respond anymore. It’s wonderful that they want to see my work sooner than I’m doing it, but I want to feel like my life is not just about my writing, it’s about a lot of other things that are going on.

Do you have a daily routine, whether it’s a writing routine or just a general routine, that you stick to religiously?

No. I’d like to be able to say that I can, but I’d be lying. Like today, it’s 11:15, you and I are talking. I woke up earlier around 7:00. At around 10:40 is when I first sat down to look at what I’d written yesterday. Because my life is kind of crazy, I just don’t have a very strict routine. What I do do is to make sure every day I write. And so every day I write something. I try to put in-- if I’m traveling or something-- I have my computer and I work on an airplane. If it’s possible, for different reasons it [sometimes] isn’t. 

I have my journals, I always write at least ten minutes every day. I also work on my novel whenever I can get to it and then stay with it. It usually ends up being two to three hours a day. Sometimes I’ll start working at seven in the morning and then I’ll break for lunch and then work all afternoon and break for dinner and work into the evening. Then I would’ve put in twelve hours. Sometimes all I can do is a half hour. But the thing is every day I do something. (Laughs)

Speaking of your journals, do you save them? Do you read them again?

No, I never reread them. They’re really not meant for what I’m writing right now. If I have a note to add to my novel, I add it to my novel project, this program that I use that I keep very well organized. The journals are really more about what happened today. What I dreamt. Complaining about whatever. I complain a lot in my journals. (Laughs) I have them, but I never refer to them. I think if my children will find them, they’re going to find things like, “Oh, man I just hate this laundry!” (Laughs) I don’t think they’re that interesting. Every once in awhile I’ll write if I’m feeling confused about something or if I had an argument, usually with my mom or one of my siblings or my husband or one of my friends, I’ll put that in. But it’s really more to vent. 

When writing your memoirs, how do you decide how much you're going to reveal? Do you censor yourself?

No, I don’t censor myself and I don’t make the decision of how much I reveal. The great thing about a first draft is that nobody has to see it. So you can put, “Titi Genia is really an asshole. She did something so stupid, and I just can’t believe how dumb she is.” I can write that in my first draft. When I finish my first full draft, then I can make a decision whether to include that given that I know what the book is about. You really don’t know what your book is about until you put in your final period in the first draft. 

Then I’ll write, “Titi is really annoying.” I have to really present her and give examples. I can’t just give a complaint or try to get even with her or anything like that. I have to humanize all these people and so, I can’t just write a complaint-- or a compliment, either-- without seeing the other side because everyone has many, many facets. I don’t censor myself at all. I’ll [write] things that never make it into the book, and then there’s a lot of stuff that I put in there that I end up expanding on, either positively or negatively, depending on who the person was and what they did and how it goes with this particular narrative and the story I’m trying to tell.

You’re like a sculptor chiseling at her marble to create a statue. It’s a thoughtful process.

Yes, it’s very thoughtful. It has to be. Even in my memoirs I do outlines. People, especially amateur writers, hate the idea that professional writers write outlines because they’re like, “How can you be creative?” The outline is creation. (Laughs) I think that’s the first part of creation, but the thing about writing an outline-- and it’s amazing-- is that I think the more experienced the writer becomes, the more likely they are to write outlines. What an outline gives you is your first original instinctive conception of what this work should be and you’ll change it, of course. You will tweak your outline, but I think it’s the purest example of what your intentions are as a writer, why you want to write this particular book. Then it becomes very creative because you know where you’re going and you never get writer’s block. Of course, you know where you’re going, it’s very easy. I always do that. 

I approach it as a job. I try to be professional about it. I write my outline. I write a lot of notes. I do a lot of research. I do a lot of research while it’s happening as well because, for example, with Conquistadora I have this character in 1840s Spain. She’s coming to Puerto Rico, and I’m into clothes. I think, what would she wear? I have to go into great research to find out not just what women wore in the 1840s, but what women wore in 1840s Spain which was very different. They have a lot of regional dress. If she had been from the Basque Country, for example, her clothes would’ve been completely different from the clothes she brought from Sevilla. When we think of traditional Spanish women’s clothes, we’re thinking about Sevilla. If she had come from any other part of Spain, she would have worn completely different clothes.

Those kinds of little details you’re constantly having to research, making sure that you fact check them yourself. Things like, if they had fans. We imagine them having fans-- what kind of fans did they have? (Laughs) The ones that we know now are not necessarily the kinds of fan that they had in the 1840s. They had completely different technology. Those kinds of things are beyond the research. It becomes more fact checking to make sure you don’t do something really dumb by putting something that didn’t happen during the time that your character is living.

Does that ever get tedious for you?

No, it’s always interesting! It doesn’t always make it into the book, but then sometimes I’ll find out things that have been forgotten in the history. [For instance, in Conquistadora] the cholera in 1855 in Puerto Rico was really devastating. A lot of people died-- 30,000 people died-- and they don’t teach this in the schools in Puerto Rico. Even historians will make allusions to it. It’s really hard to find information on it. I had to find out what causes cholera, how [it spreads], how [it’s] manifested. I was so focused on this. I thought, I have to write about this particular thing. 

When I first wrote my original outline, there was no sense of cholera-- I didn’t know this had happened! But once I learned then I had to put it in there, and it became an important aspect in that book. It was a big plot point for Ana to see all these slaves dying at her hands, that she couldn’t help. You just don’t know what detail you’ll find out is going to be important or crucial to your story. I just enjoy it. I figure if it doesn’t make it into the book, at least it’s a really interesting thing to know about.

I love the speech you gave at the 2013 Texas Conference for Women in which you spoke about creating yourself as a work of art. Do you have a favorite, literal work of art? 

I have a lot of art in my house and it changes a lot. I consider all kinds of art. I really love fabric. Some years ago, I went to visit my daughter in Santa Fe and there was this little funky hippie store that was going out of business. It might have been a smoke shop, it was filled with tchotchkes from all over the world. My husband and I went in-- my husband knows I love all these kinds of things-- and this woman was closing this place because she was not able to maintain it. She had two beautiful pieces of fabric-- I’ll show you one of them so you can see what I mean-- this is a blanket. (Holds up a red and white blanket)

Beautiful!

It’s hand embroidered-- handwoven-- beautiful piece of art that somebody made who knows where. I have no idea. I love it. Sometimes I’ll put it on the wall. I  have things like that all over the house. I collect crystals. People send me gifts like that because they know I collect stones and crystals, I have a whole collection. I love marbles. My mother-in-law gave me thousands of marbles just to play [with]. (Laughs) To me, they’re all beautiful and that’s art. That somebody can create these things. Anything that’s handmade I love-- pottery. I’m just obsessed with all of it.

You’re very well-rounded.

I’m not a hoarder, yet.

(Laughs)

It makes me happy to look at these things.

And it inspires you?

It’s inspiring. It’s inspiring in the sense that art does that regardless, whatever your art is or whatever your work is. You can be an accountant-- another thing I collect is fountain pens (holds up a pen)-- and if you’re an accountant using pens all the time and you collect pens, you get pleasure out of the beauty of this object that you use every day. 

For me, I just want everything that I touch [to bring] me happiness, joy and that I enjoy it. If something doesn’t do that, then what’s the point of having it around? So I’m not a hoarder in the sense that I have them just to have them. Everything that I have, I use. That blanket, I spent maybe 30 bucks for that thing, it might have cost, really, $2. Or it might be $50,000 and handwoven by some famous weaver, I don’t know. But the fact is, if I get cold in my office that goes [on] and I’m just like, “Oh, I love this.” I feel great that I have it, and when I’m not using it, I put it away.

It all has meaning.

It all has meaning, everything you own should have meaning. Otherwise, what’s the point?

In that same speech, you touched on being a young girl and young woman with huge dreams and aspirations receiving all these opposing messages that you were not meant to succeed in life. What is something you would love to tell the girl you once were, or any girl who finds herself in a similar place?

When she was Puerto Rican: the author as a young girl
I think I would have told the girl that she was creating her life. She wasn’t creating anybody else’s life. (Laughs) That was what I was constantly having to tell myself. My mother has certain expectations, my teachers have certain expectations, my friends have different expectations-- what are my expectations? These are the ones that matter. These are the ones that I can do something about. I can’t do anything else but be myself.

It’s really funny that you ask this because just the other day I had a conversation with two of my young nieces who are teenage girls and they are going through-- as all teenage girls will-- a lot of angst at that age. I said, “Who are you to you? Not to your mom. Not to your friends. Who are you to you? Who do you imagine you to be? That’s who you work for and towards. You don’t do it for all these other people because ultimately, you’re the one who has to live with you.”

That’s what I would’ve told myself then. All those times when I got frustrated and depressed. Usually when you’re that age, you’re dealing with the perceptions of other people rather than your internal perceptions of yourself. It’s very much what people are telling you and what people are expecting. So, I think that what I would’ve told that girl-- me (laughs)-- and what I told my nieces is, “Those people are not going to be in your life in another five years, twenty years. (Laughs)
When you get to a certain point, the girl who looked you up and down because she didn’t like your outfit, you’re never going to see that person again! And even if you do, you won’t see her in two years or five years. Who cares what she thinks about what you’re wearing? Or what you’re thinking. Don’t care so much about those people. Care about this person. This is who you need to pay attention to and this is who you’re supposed to take care of and this is who you’re supposed to please. You’re not supposed to please all those other people.”

I think I wish I had done more of that because I’m the eldest, so I had to please my mother and my father and all my sisters and brothers. I spent a lot of time compromising when I shouldn’t have… the Turkish lover, you know. (Laughs) I would tell myself not to compromise quite so much and not to be so aware of other people’s perceptions that are just completely shallow. They’re not seeing me, they’re seeing themselves, really, is what you learn when you’re my age. (Laughs) That’s all projection. A girl who looks you up and down? That is because she spent way too much time in front of her own mirror, trying to look good for everybody else. That is a waste of time.

Visit Esmeralda Santiago here.
 

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