Interview with author Gary Soto
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Gary Soto, a Chicano writer who hails from Fresno, California and is considered one of the best Mexican-American writers in the United States, has published many well-received collections of poetry for both young people and adults, most notably New and Selected Poems, a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and the National Book Award.
Soto's voice as a poet gives an added dimension to his prose- writing, which again encompasses all age groups, from the much-loved series of Chato picture-books, illustrated by Susan Guevara (Putnam) to fast-paced, finely-tuned YA novels, such as the new Mercy on These Teenage Chimps, as well as collections of short stories like Help Wanted (both new in paperback, Harcourt, 2007).
His work has won many awards, including the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award and the Pura Belpré Award, on whose lists Gary Soto is a recurring name. .............................................................................................................
You write for everyone from young children to adults and cover many different genres. When you start putting something down on paper, do you know what it will be and who it will be aimed at?
Yes, I go through cycles where I will write children's and young adult literature and then kick into another gear wherein I'm writing adult novels and poems. It's sort of bob-and-weave for me. I'll give you an example. During the late 1990s I wrote exclusively adult literature - three comic novels, an essay collection, and three poetry collections. Then I switched quickly to write for my younger readers, starting in 2001. At the moment, I'm cleaning up a new poetry collection for adults.
Your first published picture book was the delightful Too Many Tamales - what is the background to your writing this story?
Too Many Tamales was a surprising hit for me, since for one week it was on the best sellers list in the San Francisco Bay Area! Then it vanished and my glory days were over! In truth, I don't recall my writing process of this book. It was probably written in a couple of days, honed, sent off, languished on a desk in New York, published, etc. Still, I understand that it's delightful as my young readers tell me so. But my memory lapse regarding the writing of that book may be indicative of my personality. Once a book is written, I don't dwell on it. I should keep a journal; I should keep the worked-on manuscript; I should do a lot of things!
What is the writing/illustrating process for your picture books?
Except for Susan Guevara, artistic genius (she who deserved the Caldecott for the three Chato books), I don't know the illustrators of my picture books. I get input from Susan Kochan, editor at Putnam. She'll pair me with one or another, and since I'm a fairly decent listener, I'll follow her suggestions. Perhaps other picture-book writers work with the artists, but this hasn't been the case for me.
Your birthplace, Fresno, California, has been the setting for several of your books. Would you say that the impact on your senses - the sights sounds and even smells - of your upbringing in Fresno, California has influenced your writing?
Fresno has influenced everything I write about. While I don't believe my work is wholly autobiographical, I do conjure up images of my hometown, both its nice parts and certainly its ugly parts. I just can't seem to get enough of Fresno. Others also don't either. There is a flourishing writers scene in Fresno and some of my amigos include Jon Veinberg, Dixie Salazar, Chris Buckley, David Dominguez - all first-rate poets and writers who can't shake the Fresno dust out of their writing.
How much do you draw on your own experiences for your writing. When you have finished a book, do you still distinguish these episodes as part of your own history or have they become separated from you, wrapped up in another character's existence?
I don't draw much from my own experiences when I write fiction, though many readers assume I do. I often find funny or sad incidents or people while I just go about my daily life and use those impressions when developing my characters.
Would you agree that whilst the substance of your writing comes from its rooting in the Chicano culture, it is dealing with universal issues such as survival, acceptance and love; and not forgetting baseball, a recurrent theme?
I hope that my writing shows how universal issues are shared by Latino characters - though their settings and names are not the standard literary fare. Take for instance my short story collection Petty Crimes, and, say, the story "The Funeral Suits". This story features two knuckle-headed kids, age twelve, who steal suits from a mortuary and discover that the backs are open, which allows for the deceased to be fitted into the suits easily. The kids wear the suits and parade around Fresno thinking that they are bad. However, they are soon stripped of these funeral suits by some real vatos locos - gang guys - who put them on and stride away. The last image implies that the vatos are headed for an early grave. It's a strong yet comical story, and Petty Crimes, possibly my best collection for young people, is filled with other similarly quirky stories. None of them is predictable.
Many of your stories are used in schools as the springboard for different project work - do you go into schools yourself and if so what do you get out of the experience? What do young people want to know?
I only visit schools that have shown an extraordinary commitment to my work. At those schools where the students know much of my writing (not just one piece in an anthology or textbook), we have a great time because they are actually interested in meeting me, the author, not just some guy that the school has brought in for Authors' Day. Their questions and observations are much more profound.
Your writing is very much bound up with the Latino perspective. In your opinion, how close does a person have to be to a culture to be able to write about it?
It's impossible to write about the Latino experience because it's too broad; you need to think in terms of Chicano, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Central American, Cuban, etc. I'm wise enough not to write about Cubans, for instance, as I don't have that living experience inside me. And as for the particular Puerto Rican experience, say Puerto Rican in New York City, the same applies. I don't have any business trying to cook up a narrative. The genuine readers would quickly catch on that I'm a fake, a phony, that Consumer Fraud should be called. As a Chicano from California, I keep most of my stories, thus my characters, located in the San Joaquin Valley. This is what I know best.
Are there issues which you think are particularly relevant to young adults and which you try and get across in your writing?
In my writing I don't even think about issues. In fact, I think that fiction which sets out purposely to exploit a particular contemporary issue is not a good enough reason to exist. If I read a review that says something like "a timely issue handled with sensitivity," I would know to avoid it. The book will be awful, yet awarded with prizes!
Your book Pacific Crossing is about Mexican-American Lincoln and the relationship he builds up with Japanese Mitsuo and his family, when he stays with them on an exchange visit to Japan to practise the martial art Kempo. It is a wonderful exploration of cross-cultural relations. What research did you do for this book?
I studied this fascinating martial art, namely Shorinji Kempo, a world wide organization headquartered in Japan. I wasn't a particularly gifted student - I dropped out just before I got my black belt - but since I had practiced it for years, studied it, applied its philosophy to my life, I felt very comfortable conjuring up a couple of characters and sending them to Japan as exchange students. I had always wanted to be an exchange student, but never got the chance.
You started out writing poetry: did you write for yourself or did you / do you have an audience in mind?
Poets may write for others even though these "others", I'm afraid, are a small audience. Still, poetry writing is a high order, a serious artistic calling. I started in 1973 as a student poet at Fresno State College and have been at it ever since. I don't think much about audience as it's so small, why worry? It may be that poets are writing for other poets or, in turn, writing for poetry itself. It's like karate. Why practice the form of self-defense if it's never going to be applied? It's for the art itself, I believe. I wish I could find the language inside me to describe the feeling when I've written a strong poem.
May I ask what you are working on at the moment?
I'm working on a collection of poems for adults called Human Nature. It's a a beefy collection, full of humor and pathos. The saddest poem is called "A True Story" and is about me walking around gloomily after eating a breakfast of ashes, sprinkled with ashes, and liquefied by ashes - think gloom here, OK? Then I come upon a dog eating an apple; the dog is riding shotgun in a beat up Volkswagen Bug and is really going to town on this apple. The dog looks at me for a second or two, and I suddenly blossom with happiness because I can see the dog truly enjoying his fruit. This sounds imaginary, but is actually something I experienced: a dog was eating an apple and, strangely, as the driver shifted gears a part of the apple fell from the dog's chops into the street. I raced over and just looked at the half-chewed apple. It was like looking at the Queen's jewels. It lit up my eyes. I was dazzled by the sight of what makes a dog happy.
At the moment I've got sixty-plus poems, which I hope to whittle down to fifty in the next week or so. And after this? ¿Quien sabes?...
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor
Posted September 2007
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By Gary Soto:
Mercy on These Teenage Chimps
A Fire in My Hands (Harcourt, new edition 2006)
Chato Goes Cruisin', illustrated by Susan Guevara (Putnam, 2005)
Chato and the Party Animals, illustrated by Susan Guevara
Baseball in April and Other Stories (Harcourt, 2000)
Snapshots from the Wedding, illustrated by Stephanie Garcia
Chato's Kitchen, illustrated by Susan Guevara
Too Many Tamales, illustrated by Ed Martinez (Putnam,1993).
Visit his website.
More on the web:
an interview following the publication of The Afterlife and a complete list of his YA books published by Harcourt;
another interview, including a recipe with his favorite food: frijoles (beans)!
A more complete biography with links to some examples of his poetry.
Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Make sure to take a look at our online literary journal, just a click away: WaterBridge Review