"I have been in love with writing ever since. It is an art form, a gift from my father, his legacy to me."
Award-winning Latina Young Adult author Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s fourth book, All the Stars Denied, will be published in May 2018, making spring quite busy for the San Antonio–area author — as she’ll also be inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters the first week of April. Born in Mexico, McCall immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was six and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas. Lone Star Lit caught up with McCall over the weekend via email and learned about her life of two cultures, her path to publishing, and the joy of being honored for her work.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: You were born in Mexico, and then your family moved to Eagle Pass, Texas, when you were six. How would you describe those early days, and what was it like growing up in Eagle Pass?
GUADALUPE GARCIA McCALL: Those early days were filled with all kinds of sensory images; they echoed my emotions. En los estados unidos, the sights and sounds of children wearing such nice clothes and speaking in a crisp, clear language blended in with the smell of fried chicken, an unknown yet intriguing aroma wafting from the Golden Fried Chicken when we got on the city bus at the corner of Commercial and Main. That scent filtered into the bus and mingled with the sound of my sweaty legs slipping around on the plastic seats on hot summer days.
I was so young, that my little heart ached with fear and hope and love and hate. I was afraid of not learning “the English,” as my father called it, but I was also full of the hope that I saw in my mother’s eyes when she registered my sister Alicia and me in school. I loved my parents and siblings, but I hated being separated from my guelita and in Mexico. At first, I had a hard time in school because I was mistakenly put in a monolingual class. After a few weeks, the school called a meeting with my parents and it was discovered that I was a Spanish speaker and a recent immigrant, and I needed to go to Ms. Nuñez’s class. Everything was good after that. The bilingual program was so strong and I was very studious, so I flourished in school.
What first drew you to writing?
My father introduced me to writing when we still lived in Mexico, but he didn’t do it in the traditional way. He sat me on his lap every weekend and made drawings out of letters and numbers. Every curl, every swirl of a letter became a part of a little animalito or caricatura that jumped off the pages as he drew them. In his carpenter’s hands, numbers and letters became little creatures with attitude and voices and snarls and growls. I was at once astonished and delighted by them. “The S is a serpiente, sitting up on its tail,” he said, and he gave her a tiny forked tongue to smell out mice in the field. The C became a tiny cochineal bug, all curled up in her cocoon for the winter, asleep on a cactus pad. The number 2 became a beautiful swan with a long elegant neck, and all my tiny 2’s became her babies on the ocean that was my cuaderno—the journal he left with me so that I might practice my writing during the week while he was away at work en los estados unidos. I have been in love with writing ever since. It is an art form, a gift from my father, his legacy to me.
You graduated from Eagle Pass High School in 1984 and then from Sul Ross State University in 1989. For our readers not familiar with Alpine, Sul Ross, and the Big Bend area, what was that experience like?
Sul Ross was where I had to go to find myself. I was a very lost young woman at the age of nineteen. My mother had passed away almost two years before, the summer before my senior year of high school. Honestly, it is a miracle that I even graduated. I have to credit my wonderful teachers, Mr. Eduardo Cruz (Drama), Ms. Urbina (English), and Ms. Moses (my Drama sponsor) for pulling me out of the darkness, for always offering a ray of light and encouraging me to go to college. It took a year beyond graduation for me to get out to Sul Ross, but there I found myself in the midst of such wonder, such beauty, that I was able to pull myself together. How can someone’s soul not heal when you open your dorm window and see Twin Peaks asleep with rings of clouds over their bowed heads? How can your heart do anything but rejoice when the rain falls in the afternoons, kissing the parched lips of the desert sand? How can you not feel blessed when you walk up the mountain trails of Big Bend and feel the breath of God in the breeze that pushes the hair out of your eyes so you might see the wonder of desert life. His gifts are everywhere out there—everywhere.
What was your original career choice after graduating from college, and why?
I wanted to be a stage actress, to make theater my life, but I also wanted to pay the bills, so I made the decision that teaching theater arts was a good fit for me. Everything had been pointing in that direction, I just hadn’t made the decision until my junior year of college. It’s true that all through life I was always tutoring someone. In high school, I was always helping friends write essays and poems for English class. In college, I was tasked with summarizing and dramatizing historical events for my sister and her friends in the dorm so they could get through the History textbook they claimed not to understand. In one way or another, teaching was always part of my life. I was good at it. So, it came as no surprise to anyone that I became a secondary teacher.
When did you first try to get a book published, and what was that path to publishing like?
I was always in pursuit of publication. When I was at Sul Ross, I had a whole batch of poems published in the university’s literary magazine. I remember I was so poor, so strapped for cash, I couldn’t afford to buy a copy of The Sage to even see them in print. My roommate Sonia, who was also from Eagle Pass and a childhood friend, bought a copy for me. I remember being so surprised that I had several poems “starred” by the English faculty. It filled my heart with pure joy. I still have that copy of The Sage in my files.
Later, as a young mother, I wrote little picture books for my sons. My husband proclaimed me a gifted writer and pressed me to send them out on submission. But I didn’t think they were ready (I think perhaps wasn’t ready), so I didn’t. Even later, in my thirties, I wrote horrible, horrible short stories that no magazine would accept (thank God for that!). It wasn’t until I wrote a series of poems for my students, to model the writing process for poetry, that I started getting published. I had been told by my colleagues they were publishable, so I sent a few of them on submission to different literary magazines all over the country, and they were getting picked up in places like the Bilingual Review, The Dirty Goat, Entre Nous, etc. That’s when I realized I might be onto something, so I put them all together into what I believed was a good collection of poetry in the vein of Gary Soto’s Neighborhood Odes.
But I didn’t submit them right away. Like a good student, I did my homework. I went to the public library and engaged the librarian’s help in the children’s section. When I told her I was a writer and I needed to find out who was publishing the best children’s books out there, she pulled out everything she had in multicultural literature. It wasn’t a big pile, but it gave me a sense of who might be interested in my manuscript. She also showed me how to use Writer’s Digest, a huge resource book from which I made a list of publishers who would take unagented submissions. I submitted my little collection of poems in 2007 to over twenty publishers. Emily Hazel at Lee and Low ultimately offered to work with me to make the collection into a novel-in-verse and the rest is history.
Your first book, Under the Mesquite, a finalist for the American Library Association’s debut author award, the Morris Award, was published in 2011. Will you tell our readers about it?
Under the Mesquite is the book of my heart, the semiautographical book we all carry inside us, the one you have to get out of your system or die if you are a writer. It is that whisper in your ear, that faded memory that comes back in the middle of a menial task and makes you hold your breath for fear your heart might burst. Under the Mesquite is the story of an immigrant child who is brought to the United States for the American dream. She has a hard time at first, but eventually becomes acclimated. Life is good until she discovers that her mother has a secret. Like a ratoncita, a sneaky little mouse, she goes around looking for clues. She looks in her mother’s old purse, but all she finds there is a desiccated, gnarled disgusting thing wrapped in tissue and sighing inside an old plastic bag. “It’s your umbilical cord,” her mother tells her, “the tie that once bound us, you and I. It’s the story of us.” There is nothing more heartbreaking than losing a loved one. Under the Mesquite is a story of family, of shattered dreams, of fractured hope, a story of lost love. Beyond being a finalist for the William C. Morris Award, I think that’s also why it won the Pura Belpré Award that year.
I understand that you are a high school teacher in the San Antonio area, but that you live out in the country. What is your creative space and process like?
In order to write, I need to have silence. I need peace and harmony all around me. I love writing outdoors, on my sunlit porch. I revised Under the Mesquite out there with nothing but the green grass and the tress and the wide blue sky around me. I wrote Summer of the Mariposas out there too. I love looking at plants and listening to birds and watching the bunnies and our roadrunners traipse by when they think I’m not paying attention. But I also love sitting back on my living room recliner with my laptop by the front window. I can be comfortable inside, but I can also look out the window and see the palm tree in my front yard waving happily in the breeze. But that’s all summer and vacation time writing. More often than not, because I have a full-time job (teaching from eight to five), I end up having to sacrifice sleep and write late into the night. I write from the moment my husband goes to bed to about two to three-thirty in the morning or until my eyes give out. Then I take a nap and get up at seven to go to work. It’s a hard life, but a very rewarding one. I am very blessed.
Your most recent book was Shame the Stars, published in 2016. Will you tell our readers about it?
Shame the Stars is the book I never knew I would write. It is the book that took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go to sleep. It’s the book that chose me even though I tried not to write it (I didn’t think I had the chops to write a historical piece). It all started when my son, James, asked me if I knew what had happened to our people in Texas during the summer of 1915. He then introduced me to Dr. Benjamin H. Johnson’s book, Revolution in Texas.
After reading about the atrocities committed against Mexicanos on U.S. soil, looking at pictures of Texas Rangers sitting on horses with the bodies of alleged Mexican “bandits” they had dragged through the brush, I was horrified. I went to bed crying that night, at the thought of so many Mexicans lynched in front of their loved ones, and the heartbreak their family members must have felt when they were told they couldn’t bring them down and bury them. My main character, Joaquín del Toro, woke me up that night and wouldn’t let me go to sleep until I wrote down his story. Shame the Stars is a fictitious account of a historical injustice unearthed. This book is an attempt to shed light on our struggles and give voice to those who died fighting for their rights during La Matanza. Shame the Stars bears witness to their lives. It is evidence of our ancestral footprint in this country—the land of our forefathers.
Now, I’m going to ask you the question that I ask every author who’s also a teacher. Can writing be taught? Is it nature or nurture?
Honestly, I think writing is instinctual. We are all writers from birth. We learned how to write when we learned how to communicate. When we wailed in the crib we were writing ourselves into a desired future—a full belly, a clean pair of drawers, a cuddle, a smooch, acceptance, love. These are the things that defined a good life, and we got them in the only way we knew how, by crying. When we talked, we learned that there were other sounds involved with that desired future, so we gurgled and emulated sounds and emotional responses that brought us closer to our heart’s desire. Every new word we learned, every nuanced sound, whisper or scream, murmur or shout, brought about what we needed—attention.
And so it progressed, this acquisition of language in every shape and form we encountered, until we go to school and discover that there is yet another component to this art of survival, the written word, a symbolic representation of everything we do. When we ache, when we worry, when we admire, when we love, when we wish, when we hope, when we dream, it can all be documented. And somewhere along the line, we come to realize that this desired future can be left behind for others to find in that final form, the written word, and we polish it and pour ourselves into it, and it becomes art. So, can writing be taught, yes, absolutely, but not as something new. It isn’t new because it is already there, laying dormant in our hearts, waiting to be nurtured, tended, fed, watered. It’s always there waiting to unfurl itself and blossom.
Final question: Congratulations on being selected as an inductee into the Texas Institute of Letters. The ceremony will be held in April. How do you feel about this honor?
Finding out that a group of noteworthy authors you admire and respect have decided that you are one of them and should be honored as such is the greatest, most humbling experience any writer can have. It is at once surreal and exciting. I look at the names on the Texas Institute of Letters website and I sit in wonder and awe of them—and then I see my picture and name right there beside the great Willie Nelson, being inducted at the same time, and I am star struck! How did this happen? How did a girl from Mexico who used to play in the sunflower fields and who lived in a house with a dirt floor get inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters? I ask myself, and the answer is clear — faith. I believed and so it happened. I thank the Lord each and every day for it. It is a great honor, a humbling honor. I live in gratitude.
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Praise for Guadalupe Garcia McCall's works
Praise for Under the Mesquite
“With poignant imagery and well-placed Spanish, the author effectively captures the complex lives of teenagers in many Latino and/or immigrant families. A promising, deeply felt debut.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“This book will appeal to many teens for different reasons, whether they have dealt with the loss of a loved one, aspire to write and act, are growing up Mexican American, or seeking their own identity amid a large family. Bravo to McCall for a beautiful first effort.} —School Library Journal
Praise for Shame the Stars
“Pura Belpré winner McCall delivers an ambitious, sardonically relevant historical novel a must-read, complex twist on a political Shakespearean tragedy.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“The author keeps readers in suspense, while slowly revealing details about the characters’ involvement in the revolution. An author's note sheds light on McCall’s inspiration and research, and a glossary gives definitions of Spanish words used throughout the book. . . . A good purchase for historical fiction collections, especially where there are fans of Ashley Hope Pérez's Out of Darkness.” — School Library Journal
Guadalupe Garcia McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. Trained in theater arts and English, she now teaches English/Language Arts at a junior high school. Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals. Her debut YA novel, Under the Mesquite, won the Pura Belpré Award and was named a Morris Award finalist. McCall lives with her husband and their three sons in the San Antonio area