Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Tim Z. Hernandez is a novelist, poet and performance artist who lives in El Paso, Texas. His books include three volumes of poetry and two novels. His collection of poetry Skin Tax received the 2006 American Book Award, and the James Duval Phelan Award from the San Francisco Foundation. His novel Breathing, In Dust was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, and went on to receive the 2010 Premio Aztlan Prize in fiction from the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. His collection of poetry Natural Takeover of Small Things received the 2014 Colorado Book Award, and his novel Mañana Means Heaven received the 2014 International Latino Book Award for historical fiction. In 2011 the Poetry Society of America named him one of sixteen New American Poets.
Award-winning novelist, poet, and performance artist Tim Z. Hernandez lives in El Paso, where he is putting the finishing touches on a documentary that complements his latest book, All They Will Call You. Based on his research surrounding the plane crash at Los Gatos Canyon, a tragedy made famous by Woody Guthrie’s song, the book is slated to be released in January 2017.
He took time away from this important work to talk with Lone Star Literary Life via email.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Tim, you were born in Dinuba, California, and raised in central California’s San Joaquin Valley, but you have family roots in Texas. What is your family’s Texas connection?
TIM Z. HERNANDEZ: Texas is my ancestral homeland on my father’s side. My relatives have been there, in the Rio Grande Valley, since it was Mexico. All the stories that make up our familial memory take place in Texas: love, death, hopes, struggle, all of it happened on that landscape. My father was the last one born in Texas, before the family followed the migrant farmworkers’ trail north and ended up putting roots down in the San Joaquin Valley, where field work was abundant. My mother’s side comes from New Mexico, but she also spent a large part of her life in Texas. So, I heard these stories growing up, and by the time I moved to El Paso to work with the University of Texas El Paso, it many ways it felt like I was returning home.
In your youth, you lived in predominantly farm-worker communities, but you were also immersed in the arts. Would you describe your growing up days for us?
The San Joaquin Valley makes up more than half of the state of California, and certainly nearly 70% of its economy comes from agriculture, and this is what drew my family, many families, to the region. The bulk of the valley comprises small farmworking communities; Dinuba, Cutler, Orosi, Yettem, names you’d typically never hear about outside of the four walls of the valley—the only exception being Fresno (a.k.a. the Poetry Capital of the World).
As migrant farmworkers, my family traveled quite a bit, and I was fortunate to have parents who made the most of the trips. My mother was my first real teacher. She read to us, myself, and my sister, often. Books were a part of our travels. The two were linked, as far as I knew. My father was the consummate jokester/ storyteller. Between the two, my sister and I developed a deep appreciation for stories.
Later, I had a third grade teacher who would turn a light on for me. Debbie Petinak, I’ll never forget. She was the first one who taught me, and not only me but all the children of migrant farmworkers in the central valley, how to memorize and recite poetry aloud, in front of audiences. God bless her. It was teachers like her, and I can think of some today—Melissa Link, Everardo Pedraza, and many more, who are in the valley doing that kind of work, teaching poetry and art and meditation to youth, and doing so in a time where the arts have become almost a taboo subject in terms of school curriculums.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It happened on May 18, 1995. That was the day my uncle Virgil was shot and killed by the Visalia Police Department while unarmed. He lived with us, and I saw him as more of an older brother than an uncle. Until then I had wanted to be a painter, a visual artist. I was studying painting, murals mostly, and I had no aspirations to be a writer. I was twenty-one years old. But when he was killed I found myself writing words into my paintings. It was the only way I knew how to release the fire that was in me at the time. I started using the handle of the paintbrush to scratch poems into the paint. There was an urgency I felt, and eventually painting just wasn’t fast enough. I dropped the brushes and canvases and picked up a pencil and paper, and only then did I feel like the medium matched the fire. Since then I never looked back.
Your earned your BA degree in writing and literature from the first accredited Buddhist institute in the west, Naropa University, and you hold an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College in Vermont. What sort of education do you recommend to aspiring writers?
I recommend any education, so long as it’s a genuine quest for something greater than you. For me, I knew I wanted to learn from a variety of sources, I wanted range. Between eighteen years old and thirty, I had done various stints in community colleges and summer programs, but still had not acquired any degree. But I was always seeking to learn, from experiences, people, situations.
I was fortunate to have met Juan Felipe Herrera (our current U.S. poet laureate) and his wife, Margarita Luna Robles, in Fresno back in the mid ’90’s, months after my uncle was killed. It was an auspicious meeting. They became my mentors, my artistic family, and they took me in and gave me guidance, and taught me artistic discipline, as well as introduced me to contemplative eastern practices. Until them, I had no clue what the possibilities were, or how I would become anything. I owe them so much. Eventually they urged me to finish school. I had heard about Naropa from Juan Felipe, and I applied because I wanted to get as far away from anything I knew, and because I wanted to delve deeper into meditation studies. After I graduated there, I kept the momentum going, and decided the Bennington College Writing Seminars would perhaps be an experience at the opposite end of the spectrum from Naropa. And I was right. One focused on experimentation and the role of poetry in social activism, and the other focused more on the craft itself, and publishing. Or at least, this was my experience. So any education is fine, but I encourage throwing oneself into the unknown whole-heartedly, so that when we emerge, we do so with a new understanding of how other parts of this world, and humanity work, outside of our comfort zones.
What do you consider to be your first big break, and how did it come about?
In 2002, at the urging of Juan Felipe Herrera, I submitted a manuscript to the James Duval Phelan Award administered by the San Francisco Foundation. Had I known that the award itself was something of a big deal, I wouldn’t have even considered submitting it. Well, it won, and suddenly I was getting emails from publishers and agents asking to see the manuscript. One of the publishers, Heyday Books, out of Berkeley, had an acquisitions editor who had roots in Fresno County. Her name was Patricia Wakida. She came out to meet me in person, and over coffee I handed her my manuscript. She left Fresno by train that day, and by the time she got back to her office in Berkeley, she sent me an email saying she had read the manuscript during the train ride, and [was] convinced that Heyday needs to publish it. This all happened in a span of tweny-four hours! I was skeptical that it would happen, but it did. And the book went on to receive the 2004 American Book Award. I had no clue how the Universe found it fit that I should be a writer, this farmworker boy from the gut of the valley, but it seemed then that there was no going back.
Your first work of fiction was Breathing, In Dust, a collection of short stories about the migrant-worker communities that follow the seasons from Wyoming’s beet fields to the vineyards and packinghouses of the Central Valley. Would you describe that book for us and your process for writing it?
That was a coming-of-age novel. The book was drawn from stories I’d heard growing up, or stories that I myself experienced. It’s not unusual that an author’s first book of stories, or novel, is taken from their own life. Makes sense. We’re trying to work out our place in the world still, and that’s what I was doing in those years. Turning the camera lens onto myself, or at least, the world as I had known it. Also, the book was a response, or perhaps in conversation with, other books from the valley that I had read and had been influenced by to a degree. Victor Martinez’s A Parrot in the Oven, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, among others. I wrote some parts while living in Fresno, and other parts while living in Colorado and attending Naropa. Funny thing is, as both an undergrad and graduate student, my focus was always poetry, but meanwhile, I was at home also trying to write stories, prose. The two were always side by side for me, one lending something to the other.
Your next work of fiction was a novel called Mañana Means Heaven, which has a fascinating backstory as you — and your mother — find a real-life character from Jack Kerouac’s books. Can you tell our readers how this book came about and how you blend fiction and history?
The book came about because I was just curious what happened to “Terry, The Mexican Girl,” in Jack’s novel On the Road. My investment was that she was from the valley, just as I was. And I felt as if I’d known her story, because it was my own family’s story. I followed my curiosity, and began researching to find out if anyone had ever written a book about her. No one had. However, there were over twenty-one Kerouac biographies that mention her name, something about her family, and her role in Kerouac’s career. Never thinking I’d actually find her alive, I was attempting to locate her son. After two years of searching, I ended up, with the help of my mother, discovering that she lived a mile and a half down the street from my house in Fresno. What’s most interesting though, is that the twenty-one Kerouac biographies that mention Bea’s name and story are all shelved on nonfiction book shelves, but my book, which is a rendering of Bea’s story drawn from my one on one interviews with her, and contains more truth than any of those books, is labeled by the Library of Congress as “fiction,” and thus sits on fiction shelves.
You are currently an assistant professor at the University of Texas El Paso’s Bilingual MFA in Creative Writing program, teaching aspiring writers the craft. How has publishing changed since you started in the business?
Considering I’ve only “been in the business” for twelve years now, I haven’t seen it change much. Perhaps more emphasis on electronic copies now, but otherwise, I’m too new still to have a real perspective on this question.
El Paso has been very fertile creative ground for a lot of writers. What are your impressions of the city?
I love El Paso. Like I said, it feels like home to me. The terrain is very unpretentious, and the people are genuine, and hard-working, and you get the sense that history resides in every rock, mesquite, and mound of dirt. That the city is yoked by way of culture, history and economy with Ciudad Juarez, makes for a lively artistic breeding grounds. Perhaps because it is la frontera, it’s something of a liminal space, a place of possibility and transition, and the landscape there holds the dreams, hopes, and sacrifices of millions of people, past and present, and this can be felt just by walking the down street and letting the sun warm you.
What’s next for Tim Z. Hernadez? Are you currently working on your next book?
I’m getting to release what I consider to be my most dynamic project to date, All They Will Call You. This is a research project six years in the making. It is based on the Woody Guthrie/ Martin Hoffman song, “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee),” about the Mexican migrant workers who were being deported by plane in 1948 and came crashing down in Fresno County. The remains of the Mexican passengers were buried in a mass grave in Fresno, and they would remain anonymous for over six decades. I found their names, and went looking for their stories. This book is the result. In tandem with the book I’ve been working on a documentary about the subject, and that will also be released next Spring. The book is set to be released January 28, 2017.
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Praise for Tim Z. Hernandez’s MANANA MEANS HEAVEN
“Hernandez’s intimate knowledge of life amid the agricultural fields of central California and his ability to conjure the thoughts and emotions of the young Bea Franco make for a graceful and melancholy tale.” —Associated Press
“The story of Bea Franco—née Bea Renteria, a.k.a. Jack Kerouac’s ‘Mexican girl,’ or Terry, from his novel-cum-Beat-generation-manifesto On the Road—is a mesmeric tale born of Hernandez’s passionate curiosity. Based on extensive research and investigation, part fact, mostly fiction, and years in the making, this novel will thrill the millions of readers who have read Kerouac’s book and/or seen the movie adaptation. But no prior knowledge of Kerouac or his works is required: this is an entirely fascinating, standalone story in its own right.” —Booklist
“Through documents, interviews, and dogged research, Tim Z. Hernandez pieces together her life and the significance of that chance encounter that shaped both of their lives forever.” —New York Times
“A beautifully realized portrait of Bea Franco.” —Los Angeles Times
“Whether or not you are a Kerouac fan, Tim Z. Hernandez has created an important entry for the Kerouac canon that also stands on its own merits as a well-crafted novel about love and loss. Bravo.” —Rick Dale, Daily Beat
“Hernandez’s portrayal offers a telling counterpoint to Kerouac’s rendering, reclaiming Franco’s agency and offering a depth and insight into her circumstances and the life of women like her who, both on the page and in everyday life, are too often consigned to anonymity.” —Zyzzyva
“Hernandez gives incredible depth and dimensionality to the love story of Jack Kerouac and Bea Franco.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“Seductive and fascinating.” —Fresno Bee
“Hernandez's choice to write [Bea’s] story as fiction is gutsy, inspired, and does honor to Kerouac, who fictionalized the real-life characters he met in On The Road. The result is an earthy and soulful tale, a version of their improbable love affair that feels as true as Kerouac’s.” —Catch & Release
“There is no other novel like this in American publishing — Bea Franco’s story and her relationship with Jack Kerouac are vital, compelling, and absolutely necessary. Central California, with its history of immigration and agriculture, along with labor camps and workers, is a landscape presented in a different way here, and the women in these places are exactly the characters America desperately needs right now. They are all created in a singular way here.” —Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here and Highwire Moon
“With Mañana Means Heaven, Hernandez offers us the new big bold Beat—a power love, a love we never lost, a groundbreaking, soul-devouring mega tour de-force!” —Juan Felipe Herrera, U.S. poet laureate and author of Half of the World in Light
“We become more savvy readers of Kerouac through the eyes of Hernandez's muse.” —The Los Angeles Review
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