"Everything that has made you self-conscious about yourself all your life—about your worldview, your background, your shortcomings and challenges–is what eventually will make your voice stand out in the crowd—it's actually the only thing that can make your voice distinctive."
Veteran journalist Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was named a Dobie Paisano fellow in 2014. His first book, Barefoot Dogs: Stories, was published this month by Simon & Schuster and was selected as the Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2015. Lone Star Literary Life caught up with him by email to talk with him about the writing life.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Antonio, according to your author bio, you’ve worked in every imaginable position in a newsroom. Can you tell us what those positions have been and in which newspapers and cities?
ANTONIO RUIZ-CAMACHO: The list is long, but I'll name a few. I started as a copy editor at Reforma in Mexico City–one of the most important newspapers in my home country. At Reforma I also worked as a reporter in the Arts & Culture desk. I didn't have a designated beat; I was what we'd call the firefighter reporter, covering all kinds of stories and breaking news other, more-seasoned reporters didn't have the time to. I once had to cover a real fire—one that had destroyed an alternative theater in downtown Mexico City. Another time I was sent, completely out of the blue, to a publishers' conference with the mission of chasing down Mexican literary giant Carlos Fuentes and getting his reaction on a topic that was, apparently, very important at the time, and which I can no longer recall. Later on, I was a foreign correspondent for Mexico City's financial daily El Financiero, based in Madrid. For El Financiero I also covered natural disasters, poverty, and immigration, both in Mexico and here in the US, as special-affairs correspondent. I was editor-in-chief for the first digital-only newspaper in Latin America, called Here in Texas; I worked as a managing editor for a now-defunct chain of Spanish-language newspapers, called Rumbo. My most recent full-time job as a journalist was at Univision, where I oversaw digital content for the network's local affiliates in Texas and California.
As someone who grew up in Mexico and earned his bachelor’s degree there, what would you like Americans to know about your native country?
That both countries have much more in common than we might think, and that if you haven't been to Mexico yet, you don't know what real Mexican food tastes like.
How have your real-life experiences informed Barefoot Dogs?
People close to me, both friends and relatives, as well as many others I've met as a journalist, have suffered some of the expressions of violence depicted in the book, or have had to flee Mexico trying to run away from the wave of violence that has afflicted my home country in recent years. All of that has haunted me and left a mark in me as writer.
In the piece you wrote for Scribner’s Magazine you talked about how every story started with the image that came to you, and that you do not plot or sketch out your pieces. When you’re ready to write, what is that process like?
I do not think much when I'm writing; it's a very visceral process. I just try to put on paper the images and voices that come to my mind as I see them and hear them, even if they do not make a lot of sense at the beginning, trying to follow my gut. My reason and critical eye enter the process very late in the game, in the last stages of revision, just to make sure that the story's not missing anything essential.
As a veteran of newsrooms, a Knight Fellow, a Dobie Paisano Fellow, and an MFA graduate of the New Writers Project at UT Austin, how would you answer the question that's resurfaced in creative writing academic circles—Can writing be taught?
Some of the elements that make a writer's voice unique can't be acquired in a classroom, but can certainly be polished, calibrated: certain sensibility, a view of the world, an electricity to the written word. There are other elements that can be taught indeed: a work frame in which to develop a story, a sense of discipline around writing, and especially, and I think this is as crucial for a writer as what purists or critics of creative writing programs may call talent, how to read, not only other writers' work, but especially your own. At least in my experience, my MFA made me a better writer because it helped me, above all, to become a more informed, more disciplined, more aware, wiser if you will, reader.
Thank you for an astute answer! What advice do you offer aspiring writers—particularly writers for whom English is a second language? How about writers who may never had had the opportunity of being in a creative writing program or an MFA program?
You don't need an MFA to become a writer—and earning a degree in creative writing won't turn you automatically into one. You don't even need to be in total control of the language–no one ever is, really, regardless of whether it's your native or your second language. What you need is a burning desire to tell stories so overwhelming it keeps you up at night, a need to put those stories on paper so uncontrollable you feel you'd die if you couldn't write. If that's your case, congratulations: you're already a writer. Now you need to show up for work and be very, very disciplined and very, very serious in your commitment to writing—and to reading. Be ready to be rejected countless times and still be willing to keep going–I once heard Rolando Hinojosa-Smith say that if you can't stand rejection you shouldn't be a writer, and he's right. Read a lot, read serious stuff (some people think reading bad stuff equally helps; I disagree), read works that may feel intimidating at first because you may feel they're above your head, read books that have passed the test of time—as my friends at Brazos Bookstore in Houston say, "They're classics for a reason"—, and read them all as part of your work; read them slowly–sometimes very slowly–trying to pull them apart, trying to understand the decisions the author made. Also, and most importantly, write only to yourself, and embrace your own voice, whatever this one is, regardless of where it, and you, came from. Everything that has made you self-conscious about yourself all your life—about your worldview, your background, your shortcomings and challenges–is what eventually will make your voice stand out in the crowd—it's actually the only thing that can make your voice distinctive.
Which authors’ work do you admire? Who are some of your favorite Texas authors?
José Emilio Pacheco, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, Javier Marías, Sherman Alexie, Manuel Puig, Joan Didion—too many to count. As for Texas writers, some of them were born here, others are Texans by choice: Oscar Cásares, Ben Fountain, Elizabeth McCracken, Sandra Cisneros, Stephen Harrigan, Frank Dobie.
What would you like readers’ takeaway experience to be from Barefoot Dogs: Stories?
I hope they have fun reading it. My main aspiration as a writer is that at least one of the characters in my stories will stay with them.
Can you tell us a little bit about your next project?
I'm working on a novel that moves between Central Texas and Northern and Central Mexico, set in the late nineties.
Now that you’ve spent some time in Texas—could you describe your favorite, quintessential Texas meal?
Barbecue ribs with coleslaw and potato salad, followed by a scoop of Mexican-vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries from Amy's. And a Shiner, please.
More on Antonio Ruiz-Camacho can be found on the author's website at www.antonioruizcamacho.com.
"A straight-on jab to the soul, the kind of sharp fictional punch that wakes us up to our own flawed, fragile, essential humanity. . . .Ruiz-Camacho shows he's already a writer of the first rank, one of those rare storytellers who leaves you wanting more even as he breaks your heart." —Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
"Bravura, brilliant, moving, hilarious—it's both clear-eyed and dreamy, strange and beautiful, stories for our time, and also for all-time. That it's his first book is a wonder, and a wonderful promise."—Elizabeth McCracken, author of The Giant's House and Thunderstruck and Other Stories
"A marvelous and moving story collection; a brilliant and devastating portrait of a traumatized Mexican upper-class, waking up in horror to the reality of the country they once owned." —Daniel Alarcón, author of At Night We Walk in Circles
“Ruiz-Camacho springs out of the gate with an assured, beautiful collection of stories. Several spots made me stop and go back to them. And not a few others made me burn with envy. Great stuff.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil’s Highway and The Hummingbird’s Daughter
“A family drama signifying a national crisis. . . . these stories have a kind of staying power unusual in a first book.” —Alan Cheuse, "All Things Considered," NPR
“Ruiz-Camacho gives each minor tragedy its due, exploring the quiet cacophony of grief with the hyper-articulated rawness of someone who has been writing in English for less than a decade. The sense of newness in the language can be illuminating. The stories in this collection similarly alternate between bruising and soaring.” —Chicago Tribune
“[Ruiz-Camacho] captures a range of voices and personalities…. In deft and luminous adopted English, Ruiz-Camacho makes us feel their pain.” —Dallas Morning News
“Timely and timeless, full of ambiguity, dislocation and startlingly vivid images that are perfectly suited to the book’s overall tone.” —Austin American-Statesman
“With deftness and nuance, Ruiz-Camacho…captures the flawed but fascinating humanity of the extended Arteaga family…. Despite their myopia and unreckoned privilege, the wealthy wanderers of Barefoot Dogs never become objects of scorn or pity. And this is perhaps the most powerful testament to Ruiz-Camacho’s powers.” —Texas Observer
“In an assured debut, Ruiz-Camacho inhabits the minds of Arteaga’s extended family, as well as his mistress and the more peripheral characters of his life... Experiencing the ways in which various family members cope–or fail to–with their new reality makes for gripping, somber reading.” —Publishers Weekly