© Copyright 2011 Ray Santisteban
Q: What inspires you to write?
A: I think the best answer can be found in the 25th anniversary edition of The House on Mango Street. Inside there you'll find an essay longer than any of the stories! This will tell you what inspired me to write that book in particular, but that's also pretty much what inspires me to write even now. I hope you'll go to your library or bookstore and check it out.
Q: Is The House on Mango Street based on your life experiences or your imagination?
A: See answer 1 above.
Q: Was your family supportive of your dreams or were they upset?
A: I grew up with six brothers and my mother and father. My brothers teased me a lot when I was a girl, but they were pretty supportive as adults, I have to admit, especially my older brother, Keeks. He's an artist too, so we always understood one another. My other five brothers all appreciate the arts too.
My father supported my desire to go to college ever since I declared I wanted to go when I was in middle school. I didn't realize he wanted me to go to college to find a husband until years after I'd finished my degrees. "All that college wasted, and still no husband!" he blurted out one day, and then I knew. He shook his head and worried about me until I won my MacArthur Fellowship two years before he died. By then he realized I was fine and stopped worrying about me.
My mother was a frustrated artist herself, so she cleared the path for me to become a woman of letters. She encouraged me to go to school first and foremost. It was important, she said, for a woman to be able to take care of herself. I don't think she expected me to become famous as an artist. It surprised us both. But it's my mother who took me to the library every week.
Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?
A: Yes. Go to school, read, write, go the library and read everything you can, find other writers, spend time alone thinking, write, write, write. And when you have courage, share your work with supportive readers who can be honestly critical of your writing. Revise. Finally, study with accomplished writers — a workshop is a convenient way to do this, since most writers who live on the sale of their books are too busy writing to read aspiring writers' work. But fortunately (or not) most writers have to have second jobs, often as teachers, so there are workshops all over nowadays, at libraries and community centers as well as colleges. Before my books started to sell, I supported myself partly by running a workshop out of my kitchen. I went around to laundromats putting up fliers to get people to join.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm writing a book of essays, a collection of fiction, a collection of poetry, and a little booklet on writing called Writing in My Pajamas. I also have a children's book, Bravo Bruno, that has just been accepted by La Nuova Frontiera in Rome. I'm thrilled artist Leslie Greene has done the marvelous illustrations for this book. And finally, Have You Seen Marie?, a story illustrated by Ester Hernandez, will be published this fall by Knopf.
Q: Do you have children?
A: No. I have books. I have no regrets.
Q: Is it true that you are leaving San Antonio? Why do you feel the need to leave now? What do you plan on doing next? How has your relationship to San Antonio changed?
A: Yes, I am indeed finishing my time in San Antonio, Texas. I feel I need to retreat and focus on my own writing, and my lectures are now taking me to a new international level. Recently I have worked a great deal on my nonprofit foundations, but that work never ends, so I'm going into sanctuary to focus on my writing. I don't know where I'll live next, but I'm hoping to travel for at least three years and explore possibilities. I haven't ruled out living outside of the United States.
Q: Your website is filled with pictures of your pets. How important are they to you? What kind of role do animals play in your life? How many do you own and what are their names?
A: I'm afraid I'm like a mother with her kids: too many pictures of the family! I didn't intend to turn my home into an animal shelter, but I live near the river where many animals are abandoned. I once fostered dogs and found them homes, but this too takes a lot of time away from my writing... and a lot of money. I am currently downsizing my herd and looking for a home for my two library cats.
At the moment I have five dogs, three cats, and a parrot. They are my teachers, and I feel very lucky whenever I can spend time with them. I learn about living in the present moment from them. They connect me to my best self, my creative self. They make me laugh every day.
We call the parrot Buddha Bird because she has little Japanese bells she likes to ring at odd moments to remind me to return to the present moment.
Q: Do you personally update your Facebook page? What is your opinion of the growing role social media are playing in the world?
A: I don't update my Facebook page; my publisher takes care of that, and I'm grateful. It's hard enough keeping up with my website and my own email and snail-mail.
I never go on Facebook, due to my usual exhaustion and lack of time. Writing requires me to shut down and be quiet, to hear the things inside my heart. Writing on the internet is the opposite: it requires me to chatter and say the things rattling around inside my head.
Because my work demands so much concentration, I avoid online social networking. I have enough distractions already, like my compulsion to do laundry. It's hard to sit at my desk without wanting to get up to grab a snack or clean. Writing is about sitting down and writing, especially when you don't feel like it (which in my case is practically always).
I think the Internet has great usefulness for political organizing, but personally I feel it gives a false impression of communication between individuals. Some of the most awkward communicators I know are always on Facebook but don't know how to talk to a person in the flesh. But I'm not the authority. I never go on Facebook, remember?
Q: Spirituality seems to play an important role in your life. What brought this about? How did you come to settle on your views? Are you a Buddhist?
A: I try to live a Buddhist life, but I hesitate to call myself strictly Buddhist. I'm also a devotee of the Virgen de Guadalupe, but I'm not a practicing Catholic. I'm constantly searching for my spiritual path, a quest I pursue as an individual, not as part of a religious group.
I cannot conceive of writing without a sense of the spiritual. I believe the creative act is a spiritual act, which to me means working from the heart, from truth, from a place of love, from our highest self. In other words, from a place of humility in service to others.
Q: Do you have any words for the young women who look up to you? For the Latina women of all ages who admire your work?
A: I do! But my words are in my lectures, essays, and stories.