Tag Archives: Hispanic literature

An Interview with Domingo Martinez

17 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is in works to become a HBO series.

Domingo Martinez is the author of the memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2013 Pushcart Prize and was a Gold Medal Winner for The Independent Publisher Book Awards. It’s currently in development as a new series for HBO by Salma Hayek and Jerry Weintraub. Martinez’s work has appeared in Epiphany, The New Republic, This American Life, Huisache Literary Journal, All Things Considered, and Saveur Magazine.

In this interview, Martinez discusses building stories out of memories, his best-ever teaching moment, and taking the piss out of Rick Perry.

To read an excerpt from The Boy Kings of Texas, an essay Martinez wrote about the impact of the Affordable Care Act among immigrant communities in Texas, and exercises based on both, click here.

Michael Noll

The essay begins with a call you made to your grandmother, and that section ends with the lines: “Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.” Those sentences are addressing such big issues–the way that poverty and cultural barriers shape people’s lives. When you write about them, how do you begin? Do you start with sentences like those and work backwards, searching for anecdotes or details? Or do you start with a story (“I phoned my 84-year-old grandmother”) and wait for the right moment to open the story up to its larger implications?

Domingo Martinez

This was an issue I had when I first started in this business, in that my particular métier in writing is in anecdotes and storytelling; I’m not a journalistic/researcher-type writer. So when I begin on a topic, I scour my memory for something in my personal past that is at once relevant and, if I’m particularly lucky, unusual or comical in the cultural collision I’ve come to symbolize. Meaning that, I suppose I start from the project and let my imagination and experience wander, and hopefully where I end up, or the memories that surface, are still framed in the original intent. That’s why I usually bend the borders a bit. Which again, I suppose is my designation as an author. Ha.

Michael Noll

This is an essay about a Mexican immigrant living in South Texas published in a Washington D.C.-based journal. In other words, most of your readers almost certainly do not share your subject’s background or geography, and so you necessarily explain things that your grandmother’s community takes for granted. And yet, I’m guessing, you probably also wanted to write something that makes sense to readers in South Texas. So, there are sentences that seem aimed at less knowledgeable readers (“Many families there lived a dual life, on both sides of the border”) and details that are more intimate (“My brother, Dan, knew a kid whose grandmother made him eat Vicks VapoRub when he had a fever.”) How do you strike that balance? How do you know how much basic background information to explain?

Domingo Martinez

There’s a certain “sweet spot” you navigate when you’re writing about a culture that is at once so familiar and intimate to you, as the author, and unknown to your reader. First of all, you have to trust your reader, and trust that they’re capable of following insinuation or inflection, enough so that when you pause and explain something, they unconsciously register that this was important enough data to
 stop the story telling and define. If you stop and define every level of foreign information, it dulls the story, and comes off as condescension in a way. The best description I’ve ever come up with was at Breadloaf, this one fantastic woman in particular who was writing her own memoir, but was stuck very much in the “macro” telling of her origins, her family, their lives in Iran. The first part of her story read like the Old Testament, and I don’t mean the good parts. I sat with her and came up with the idea of the “dual
 perspective,” for her to write in the “micro” and have a constant awareness of the “macro.” Sort of like writing in a depth, with two
 points of view. That keeps your reader submerged in the particular of a story, and brings along the larger themes and intention of your
 work. It was a breakthrough, and she actually cried and hugged me. I think it was the best moment teaching I’ve ever had, and I really don’t like teaching.

Michael Noll

You write about the Republican presidential candidates in the last election promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, more specifically, about the cuts to medical services already made by Texas governor Rick Perry. And yet in South Texas, your grandmother is rubbing WD-40 on her arthritic joints. It would seem easy to become pretty angry while drafting this essay. How do you manage your emotions when writing about such a profound political disconnect?

Domingo Martinez

That was a depth I wasn’t really willing to tread in that piece, politically. Rick Perry is too easy a target to “take the piss out
 of” if you don’t mind the Britishism. So I wanted to stay away from him; he’s too cartoonish. (I do a great imitation of him, too, by the
 way.) It’s like when W was in the White House and every half-wit across the country felt he or she had the authority or superior
 to make fun of him, and that grew so tiresome so quickly. Anyhow, in this case, there is so much about Texas and its governance that I find absolutely appalling as a West Coaster from a nanny state, and probably in violation of several human rights. My younger brother lived in an apartment complex where, if he was two days late with rent, he’d be locked out of his apartment until he coughed up the full amount. I was astonished when this happened, while I was visiting. What if he was a diabetic? What if his kid lived with him? What if, like me, he had terrible asthma and his ventolin was in there? This would NEVER happen in Washington State. It just seemed so predatory. So I drove him to the Home Depot and figured out how to break in without the management knowing. That’s the sort of stuff that makes my blood boil, when it’s personal and immediate. Writing and witnessing the larger political objectives that are designed to cut support to impoverished (read: Mexican) communities in Texas, I’m overcome with more of a muted sense of defeat, especially because the Republicans in Texas are so good at getting Mexican American voters to vote for their pecuniary incentives as business owners because they hide their malicious political intentions behind a veil of religion and conservative “family values.” That disgusts me to no end, how easily Mexican Americans had been manipulated because “…Jesus wants it so. Jesus hates veterans and old people.” But that sense of defeat is as far as that goes, especially when it comes to Gramma and her weird choices in self-medication. I know her, and I know her people very well, and it wouldn’t really matter if she had access to healthcare at the Mayo Clinic: Gramma would augment her doctor’s prescriptions with WD-40 and anything else that would make sense to her, like chewing on rusty nails for the iron and sodium.

Michael Noll

Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Your memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is being adapted into a series for HBO. HBO (and cable TV in general) has a good track record of offering shows that portray communities that are often hidden from national view (Baltimore in The Wire and Albuquerque in Breaking Bad come to mind). In the past, though, attempts at portraying Mexican-American communities near the border didn’t fare so well. The writer Dagoberto Gilb has written about his frustration in writing for a series set in Juarez/El Paso a decade or so ago. Do you worry about your story making the leap to television?

Domingo Martinez

I didn’t know that about Dago; I’ll have to ask him about his experiences. He briefly mentioned he’d taken a run at a script once but he didn’t expand on it. Truth be told, I’ve just developed momentum again on this project with Salma Hayek and her producer, so I’m not feeling like I can write about it here. It’s one thing I’ve learned in this business is that things are much better left untyped, as lawyers can’t sue you on insinuation alone. (Well, they can, but a good judge would throw it out.) However, I will say this: it’s certainly proving to be a challenge from the outset, and oddly, I’m really excited about it. Also, I’m incredibly naive and unsophisticated in the ways of Los Angeles, so I’m looking forward to being used, profoundly disappointed, and thrown aside as a spiritually desiccated husk, while the likes of George Clooney step over me on the sidewalk. It’s every author’s dream. (Not the success, but getting that close to success and failing, so that you can have something to write about.)

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Describe a House

15 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing a house in a story ought to be easy. After all, real estate listings do it every day: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. For poetic purposes, maybe throw in a window and chair. Of course, more is needed—but is that more simply more detail?

One of the best examples of a house description that I’ve read in a long time comes from the first chapter of The Boy Kings of Texas. Domingo Martinez’s memoir tells the story of his family and growing up in Brownsville, Texas. It was a bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. You can read the opening pages at the website of The Diane Rehm Show..

How the Story Works

As a thought experiment, try describing the house or apartment where you live. (Seriously, give it a try.)

What happened? Odds are, you started with the property listings and then got stumped. A good description requires some organizational principle, and until you find it, you’re just listing things.

The house that Martinez describes belonged his father’s stepuncle. The two families did not get along, as Martinez explains here:

Elogio and his four sons clearly felt that Dad and his family did not belong in the Rubio barrio, since Gramma had married into the barrio when Dad was already four years old, a child from another man. Elogio was our Grampa’s usurping younger brother, and he wanted control of the family trucking business that Grampa had built. As Grampa’s stepson, Dad challenged Elogio’s succession. It was a Mexican parody of Shakespeare, in the barrio, with sweat-soaked sombreros and antiquated dump trucks.

That tension is important because it informs the way Martinez describes the Rubios’ house, property, and near-feral dogs:

The Rubios had kept these dogs unfed, unloved, and hostile. Presumably it was to keep burglars away from their prototypical barrio home: a main house, built by farmhands many years before, with subsequent single-room constructions slapped together according to the needs of the coming-of-age males and their knocked-up wetback girlfriends. As such, the houses were consistently in varying stages of construction and deconstruction, because the boys never left home; they just brought their illegitimate children and unhappy wives along for the only ride they knew, the one that headed nowhere.

Notice the word choices: slappedknocked-upwetback, illegitimate, unhappy. They’re all negative.

Now, think about what other words Martinez could have described the house (or the words that a Realtor would use): big, hand-builtramblinghomeycomfortable. But those words would be totally out-of-place in this passage. Because Martinez has clearly defined his feelings toward the inhabitants of the house, the tone of the description is established. Once you’ve got the tone, the actual descriptions tend to present themselves automatically. The trick is to give your brain some guidelines. You’re not asking it to pull up every single detail about a place, just a few. The more clearly (and, usually, more emotionally) you define the guidelines, the easier it is to write the description.

It’s also worth noting that the description of the Rubios’ house is connected inextricably to the people who live in it. The main two sentences about the shape and construction of the house (beginning with Presumably… and As such…) end with the human rationale for the construction decisions (according to the needs… and because the boys never left home). The behavior and the needs of the family shape not only the house but the description of the house as well.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a house or apartment (or wherever you or a character lives) using the passage from The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez as a model:

  1. Choose your narrator or main character. If it’s you—good. If it’s a character in a story—also good. You need a primary perspective, a lens through which to view the house and everything else.
  2. Choose the house and its inhabitants. Who lives there? How are they connected to your narrator or main character?
  3. Identify the emotional angle on the house. How does the narrator or character feel about the house or the people living in it? Don’t think too hard; just brainstorm. Does the character have warm feelings? Is the character bitter, disappointed, angry, nostalgic, sad? Are the first memories or scenes that come to mind funny? Tragic? Tense?
  4. Write a quick scene/anecdote that illustrates that emotion. Focus the scene or story on a character or two and a particular moment in time. Remember, the goal is to tell a story that conveys how you or your character feels about the place.
  5. Generalize about the people who live in the house (or spend time there). This can be as simple as writing a sentence that begins, “They were the kind of people who…”
  6. Generalize how the people used the house. Did they use in a communal way (everyone eating, talking, hanging out together)? Did they isolate themselves into rooms? Did they come and go at odd hours? What sort of activities did they do there? Keep in mind the sort of people you are (previous step). If they’re the sort of people who ____, that means they spent a lot of time _____, which really made me/your character feel ______.
  7. Generalize how the house was a perfect/imperfect fit for these activities and these people. Did the house allow the people to do the activities? Were the people cramped? Did the people modify the house in order to do the things they wanted to do? In what ways did they modify their own behavior to fit the house?
  8. Describe the house. You’ve probably already written a few lines about the house. Now you’re summing them up. You might start with a sentence about the people: They were the kind of people who _____ or They spent a lot of time _____. Or, you can jump straight to the house with a sentence like this: It was the sort of house that _____ or It was a typical _____ house. Your goal is to write a description of the house that focuses on the ways it was used, the ways it fit a type of behavior, or the ways it shaped the inhabitants’ behavior. Keep in mind the cue words and phrases that Martinez uses (according to the needs… and because the boys). How can you describe the house in terms of causality?

As you likely know, people’s houses tend to become manifestations of their personality traits. The goal, then, is to write a description of a house that is as active as the people who live in it.

Good luck!

How to Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

8 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster Gone Girl.

Almost everyone who tries to write a novel hits a wall roughly a third to halfway through the book. They discover that the plot is played out and the characters have hit dead ends. Why is this?

Part of the problem is often found in the opening pages. One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages.

The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book.

An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun. The hook is made clear in the front flap: “Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?” But you have to read the first chapter to find the seeds that will sprout into the second half of the novel.

How does Sylvester integrate early hints of those secrets into the kidnapping scene that must begin the story? Find out by reading the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s read the jacket of Chasing the Sun knows that Marabela will be kidnapped. So, the novel has no choice but to begin there. Even if Sylvester had wanted to start earlier, the reader wouldn’t have stood for it. If readers know what happens next, they won’t keep reading for long. So, Marabela disappears in the first chapter. And yet what a difficult place to begin. Once the kidnapping occurs, there are certain steps that must quickly follow: calls from the kidnappers, requests for ransom, negotiations, and wrong steps by everyone involved. These events carry an incredible gravitational field. The reader’s eye will skip over everything else and move straight to the central question: then what? Good luck creating depth of character or culture or place when a woman’s life hangs in the balance. But character and culture and place are the best parts of the story and (from a practical standpoint) the triggers that will propel the plot forward after the initial burst of kidnapping energy has played itself out. As a result, the writer must imbed these things, this backstory, into the hook. Sylvester does this in a couple of ways.

First, she creates synchronous events. While Marabela is being kidnapped, her husband Andres is on a business call. Sylvester ties the events together in a few deft sentences, when Andres has to explain why his wife couldn’t come to the meeting:

He’d hoped Marabela would come with him today to help make a good impression.

“She’s so sorry she couldn’t make it. She was really looking forward to seeing you again,” he says.

“Tell her I said hello and that I hope she feels better,” Lara says.

We don’t yet know she’s been kidnapped, but we know something is going to happen (and if we’ve read the jacket, we know exactly what will happen), and so we’re aware of the irony of Lara’s statement. Sylvester doesn’t let it drop there. After the meeting, Andres’ son asks why his mom would come to a business meeting for something that doesn’t directly involve her. Watch how Sylvester uses Andres’ answer to do something crucial to the novel:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.”

Again, the statement is ironic (“a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted”). Sylvester is making a clearcut statement about the man Andres wants to be, and, later in the novel, it will inevitably turn out that he’s not this kind of man. But Sylvester is doing something else as well. She’s beginning to tell the reader the values that Andres holds dear. Just one page later, when Andres and his son are being driven home, his son accidentally rolls down the window at a stoplight:

“Señor, tres paquetes de galletas por un sol.” A young boy, no older than thirteen, pokes his head through the window. Ignacio shakes his head and starts rolling up the window when his father leans forward to stop him.

“Not so fast. You already got his hopes up. Don’t toy with the kid.” He leans over and shouts, “¡Dos paquetes! Go ahead, pay him.” He nudges his son.

“But you’re the one who—” With a stern look from his father, Ignacio stops protesting and fishes two coins out of his pocket.

The scene might seem incidental, but it tells the reader that Andres lives by a particular ethical code. Just as the novel will inevitably challenge Andres’ definition of himself as a good husband, a family guy, and trustworthy, the novel will also inevitably challenge his ethical system, forcing him to act in ways he would have previously believed unacceptable. The scene has also introduced Andres’ relationship to the larger political situation in Lima. The novel is set during the days of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group whose battle against the government cost more than 100,000 lives. It’s not accident, then, that the scene just described involves two people with a hired driver and a poor boy selling cookies. The novel is hinting at the politics that will play a large role in the story.

These seeds will become increasingly important. The kidnapping will be resolved, as it must, and that is when the real story begins—a story that is impossible without these details about Andres that can be turned on their head, a turning that will drive the plot forward again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s plant some seeds using Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester as a model:

  1. Create a synchronous event. Your novel probably has a Big Event that kicks off the story. At its most basic, it’s likely some version of a stranger arriving in town or a character leaving on a trip. The story hinges on that event, and, as a result, it’s difficult to shoehorn any character development in those scenes. So, carve out a scene that takes place at the same time or within the Big Event. It can be anything. Sylvester’s Big Event is the kidnapping, and her synchronous event is the business meeting. In a way, this is true to life. We’re never doing one thing at a time, and when something big happens, we’re almost always engaged in some other activity. Create that activity. If your character is getting ready to leave on a trip, send her to the bank, the grocery store, the mechanic, to coffee with a friend, or to the person who will take care of the dog while she’s gone. If a stranger is arriving, find out what people are doing as the stranger gets into town; they’re probably not sitting around, waiting for him.
  2. Connect the events. The connection is essential because otherwise the reader may feel like you’ve added an extraneous scene. Obvious ways to connect the events are with glimpses of someone (I saw a figure walk past the window and didn’t think much of it) or with phone calls or text messages (Ready yet?). You can also connect the events with irony (I couldn’t wait for a relaxing evening, or, they seem like they’ll make the perfect married couple). Because any novel’s initial events are given away by the jacket flap, the reader is anticipating whatever Big Event you have in store. So, if you’re dropping hints that the characters have certain expectations that won’t be met, the reader gets a sense of anticipation. Therefore, the connection that you make between events doesn’t need to be direct; it can simply hint at expectations that the Big Event will disrupt.
  3. Use that connection as an opportunity for character definition. Remember, not all character development is created equal. It’s fine to know that a character is vegan, but if you write that a character refuses to sit in an establishment that doesn’t serve vegan options, then you’re creating a scene that the reader can anticipate. A great way to create expectations in the reader is to define the character’s value system (He’s the kind of person who…). Sylvester lets Andres define himself as a good, honest husband and family man. The reason that he defines himself is because he’s thinking about his wife’s absence at the meeting. So, how can you use the connection between events as an opportunity for your characters to define themselves? If your character is leaving on a trip, let her define the kind of traveler she is (I take books and a coffee grinder, but I refuse to answer my email). If it’s a stranger arriving in town, let the character define the kind of place he lives, which will be a reflection of how he sees himself (I thought about hitting the showers but decided to knock out another couple of sets. The guys nodded at me as I came back into the weight room.) You’re setting the stage for the Big Event. Notice that these definitions contain value systems. When you establish a value, it’s a good idea to try to pressure it, even break it, in the story. The reader will be expecting nothing less.

Good luck!

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