"That writing thing was always in me"

“Never forget where you come from.”

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the winner of this year’s Texas Writer Award at the 2016 Texas Book Festival, is no stranger to literary honors. He was the first Latino to win the PEN/Faulkner award in 2013 for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. But the path has not been uncomplicated for the novelist/poet who came out as gay in the late 2000s at age fifty-four. As we watched his panel on poetry at the Texas Book Festival, we were struck by his insistence on continually looking forward, including talking about two new titles launching in early 2017. After the festival, he took time to be interviewed by email for Lone Star Literary Life.

Lone Star Literary Life: Ben, I understand that you were raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children. How would you describe those days?


Benjamin Alire Sáenz: Growing up on that small farm really shaped me as a human being. They were some of the most important formative years of my life. “Never forget where you come from.” I so get that. The small family farm and the memory of it that I carry inside me, has always been the ground zero of how I define myself.


To say we were poor is something of an understatement. We had no indoor plumbing, an outhouse, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a porch. There was a lot of drama. My father was a serious alcoholic who would sometimes disappear into a stupor (and all of my uncles on both sides of the family were alcoholics as well). My mother worried and worked and worked and worked. She also loved and loved and loved. But there were also many beautiful things in that world. There were grandmothers who adored me and whom I adored in return. Yes, we lived in very crowded conditions. Yes, there was no personal space, no privacy. Yes, there was nothing I could truly call my own. But I belonged to this strange and incredibly resilient family. We had chickens and always had fresh eggs. (I was assigned the task of collecting eggs beginning at the age of five). I remember the horror I felt when my father would wring the neck of a couple of chickens for Sunday dinner. I remember how the men would butcher a hog, the squeal, my boy heart wrenching in empathy for the hog—and I relished in the feast that followed—the making of tamales, the women in the kitchen, the men drinking beer and my uncles making chicharrones (pork rinds) in a big iron cast vat. We ate well. My father grew crops that fed us. He planted a row of sugar cane that all of us would chomp on during the long, hot summer days. We learned the meaning of work, knew how to hoe weeds from the rows and rows of growing cotton fields. We valued what we had because we had so little. Our poverty was cruel but it was also filled with quiet moments of tenderness and abundance. My experience has taught me that our fear and hatred of the poor is misplaced and has also taught me that there is real solidarity among the community of the poor. That solidarity is life giving and lovely and the greatest tool of survival for any and all people.


Growing up on that farm has helped me keep a sense of humility, taught me not to carry the weight of entitlement, and pushed me develop my imagination. I used to lie on the side of irrigation ditches as a boy and look up at the summer clouds and I would find animals, and the faces of angels. At night I would rearrange the stars. I remember finding a coyote up in the heavens. I would not trade those experiences for anything.


After graduating from high school, you attended seminary and were a priest for a while before answering a different calling—earning a master’s degree in creative writing. When did you know that wanted to be a writer, and was there a certain turning point?


I think that writing thing was always in me. I always loved writing. I had no problem finishing up writing projects in high school. I enjoyed writing. It was the only thing in my high school experience where I felt I was learning something— and reading books that were not assigned—or books we were not supposed to read. I used to write poetry (really bad poetry) when I was in high school and continued writing it through graduate school in the seminary. And when I was a priest I started working on a novel (that was even worse than my poetry). Still, I loved doing that, the writing thing. And when I gathered the courage to leave the priesthood, I knew what I wanted to do. I discovered that I’d made a mistake, that I’d misread my vocation—and I made a decision not to live the rest of my life living in that mistake.


I had no idea how to go about being a writer. When I left the priesthood, I became a waiter. I waited tables in Lafayette, Louisiana, and in Houston, Texas. I had a typewriter where I would bang out pieces of written material. I saved enough money to go back to school and entered the creative writing program at the University of Texas at El Paso. I was so hungry to learn and felt I knew nothing. I was thirty years old and felt as if I was starting my life over again. And I starting my life over again. Only I wasn’t starting from scratch. I’d studied philosophy and theology. I’d spent four years in Europe when I attended the University of Louvain, in Belgium. I’d traveled through Europe on a dime and a prayer. I’d spent a summer in Tanzania living at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro and I spent a summer in London, working in a home for the homeless in Kilburn (run by the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s sisters). I had a whole world of experience that I brought to my writing and I didn’t even realize it at the time. I was determined to become a writer. I had no idea if I had any talent, but I had a work ethic. I had discipline and desire in spades.


Eventually, I was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in poetry at Stanford University, and that fellowship launched my career. In those two years, I wrote my first book of poetry, Calendar of Dust, and a collection of short stories entitled Flowers for the Broken. Both books were published, and that first collection of poetry won an American Book Award.


I look back and see and am amazed by the miracle of it all.


You studied with poet Denise Levertov as a Stegner Fellow. How did that experience pave the way for your writing journey?


I had long admired Denise Levertov’s poetry and admired, too, her commitment to social change and her political activism. Her book of essays, Poet in the World, became a seminal work for me. She not only became my mentor, she became a good friend and a champion of my work. It was she who helped place my first collection of poetry with a small publishing house in Seattle (Broken Moon Press). They wanted to publish her work. She told them she was already committed to her poetry publishers at New Directions. But she took out one of my poems and read it to them and said: “You publish his work.” And they did. Amazing. It was because of her great faith in my work that I learned to believe in myself as a poet and as a writer. This business is too tough, too mean, too unforgiving. If you are to survive in the publishing world, you damned well better believe in yourself and check your self-pity in at to the door. I had to write only what I believed I needed to write. I never thought about an audience (and I still don’t). I can’t be worried about what other people may think as I write a book. People will think what they think and I have no control over that. What I do have control over is my own writing. I learned to know myself, spend time with myself, learned how to discipline myself, banish my fears (or at least, keep them at bay) and sit for hours at time learning and polishing my craft.


I will never forget what Denise did for me. Dear, dear, Denise. And I will never forget her passion, her talent, her intellectual curiosity, her sense of humor, her love and profound understanding for literature and art and her abiding respect for language. I would not have the career I have today without her intervention.


At your panel at the Texas Book Festival, you said you couldn’t imagine living away from the border. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means and how does the border inform your writing?


I think one of the most important things for a writer is a sense of place. William Faulkner is the best example of this. He did not write about the world—he wrote about the American South, its painful, violent, and tender intricacies. He wrote about the physical landscapes and the inner psychological machinations that informed the identity of a place he knew intimately. And the world came to know the American South as he knew and understood it and translated for us. Faulkner had the South, and I have the El Paso/Juarez. That place has been the greatest gift I have ever received as a writer and as a human being. I cannot imagine writing out of any other space. I don’t believe that writing out of a border landscape imprisons me and condemns me to be regional and parochial. Quite the opposite. The particularities of the border that I know intimately allow me to translate those particularities into something that I hope approaches a universal experience.


One of the things I learned early on as a poet was that if a metaphor did not work on a literal level, it could not function as a metaphor at all. The border is a material reality. And I use that material reality as a metaphor for human experience. As Faulkner would have it, the only thing worth writing about is the struggle of the human heart against itself. The background for my heart struggling against itself is the U.S.–Mexico border where two countries meet, embrace, do battle, clash, survive and transcend the two countries that gave birth to its denizens. I am blessed to be one of those denizens.


You are known as a writer in poetry, fiction, and young adult fiction and have a real fluency in all venues. How did you come to have such agility in all genres?


I think it’s because I have always carried a broad sense of what it means to be a writer. I didn’t limit myself to a genre. I mean, why live your life as a writer by tying one hand behind your back? Poetry brings out the serious—perhaps dark—side of me. It brings out a meditative and reflective side of my psychological makeup that is an essential and necessary quality for a writer for a writer to develop. But that is only one side of me. Children’s books bring out the boy in me and I need that boy that lives inside of me to counter that dark side. It brings out the playful side of me, and when I use that side of me to write for kids, I become a kid too. (It’s such a relief).


My novels for adults can be harsh and dark (if hopeful). Writing for an adult audience allows me to be an adult too, and it allows me to confront the difficult realities of our time and examine the human condition, and the (perhaps mundane) struggles to remain human. I sometimes joke that being adult is overrated. But it’s important to grow up and learn to live your life in fear. I love the kind of challenge that writing literary fiction brings with it. It stretches me to confront serious questions and focus on what it means to live in this harsh and difficult universe of contradictions.


And then there’s writing Young Adult novels. This perhaps is the most enjoyable genre for me. I really am a big kid. There’s an ease to creating a young man on the cusp of manhood, no longer a child but not yet a man, dependent on adults—and yet yearning to be independent. I understand those struggles and still live with those struggles. Growing up is a lifelong thing. It doesn’t end when you leave high school or college.


And writing for young people, well, I am always aware that I write to give young people hope without lying to them about the very real struggles that they are experiencing, and will continue to experience, for the rest of their lives.


You’ve said on more than one occasion that you define yourself as a Chicano writer. What does that mean?


Identity. We have been struggling with human identity for centuries. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Identity and its attendant politics was not invented in the struggle for human rights in this country. Identity “politics” has always been a part of the way we think about ourselves. All identities are constructed. What, after all, is an “American” identity—does that not have an attendant politics? What does it mean to be “white?” What does it mean to be “black?” What does it mean to be “heterosexual?” What does it mean to be “gay?” These are all constructions—just as national borders and boundaries are constructions. Which brings me to the question at hand. I am gay and I am Mexican American. I can say—we all can say—“I hate labels.” Yeah, well, we can hate them all we want but we ignore the labels and identities we are given by the culture around is at our own peril. I want, like everyone else, to be known pure and simply as a human being. But I cannot ignore my gender. I am a male and the culture around me bestows a kind of privilege to my gender. That’s not my fault—but I have to deal with that, examine it—and change that, if I have the courage to say that my culture is wrong for bestowing that unearned privilege on me. I cannot ignore that truth. I cannot deny it.


So I call myself a Chicano because the world around me will call me something else—something of its own choosing. So I take a little power into my own hands. I choose what I will be called. I name myself. Chicano. That word conjures up a discomfort in many people’s minds. I get that. To call myself a Chicano is not to pay a nostalgic homage to the civil rights movement of the late sixties and early American people who have helped make this country great and have never been properly thanked for their labors.” Chicano says, I believe that I am equal, entitled to be a fully enfranchised member of a society that claims to be the greatest democracy on the planet. Chicano is an acknowledgement that the day of equality has not yet arrive. I pray—yes pray—for the day that all “labels” will no longer be necessary. I very much doubt that I will see that day arrive in my lifetime.


Legendary Texas publishers Lee and Bobby Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press brought out your Pen/Faulkner award winner, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. What are your thoughts on the state of independent publishing in Texas?


Independent publishing has always provided the literary world with alternative options. We need to have diverse ways of bringing literature into the hands of thinking, serious readers in this country. Yes, the New York publishing industry has brought us some great books. But they have also ignored great writers and great books that did not fit into the paradigm of huge profits. Where would the poetry world be in this country without independent presses? And poetry is a necessary art for the cultural health of this country.


Now to Cinco Puntos. Lee and Bobby have been ahead of the curve since they started that press. I don’t think anyone would have bet on their success and what they have accomplished. They have become not merely a regional press, but a national press. They have guts and vision and a work ethic to beat the band. They are also gracious, interesting, curious and brave human beings. I love working with them. Lee is a great editor. I mostly work with Lee regarding the editing of my books, and she has this great sense of what a book is and she knows just where to point out the weaknesses of a manuscript. She doesn’t insert herself in terms of wanting to rewrite a manuscript. She points things out and she lets you think about things and she lets you go to it. She’s great.


And it’s a team effort, from the content to the designing of the book to its cover. Amazing. Of course, it helps that we live in the same city so we can go over things face to face which is totally amazing.


When I was writing the Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, I was working with Bobby and Lee from the very beginning. But let me say, I very much doubt that most publishers would have been interested in publishing that book of short stories—not even other independent publishers. A lot of independent publishing houses are just as closed-minded when it comes to their literary tastes as New York houses. And that’s the truth. But not only did Cinco Puntos publish that book but they also nominated it for the PEN/Faulkner. That’s how much faith they had in my work. If it weren’t for their vision, my collection of short stories wouldn’t have seen the light of day.


Independent presses have been, and will remain, an essential part of our cultural literary life. What our literary culture needs to do is recognize that and celebrate that. And we need to stop being such snobs about where you’re published—as if your book is more important because it was published in a New York literary publishing house. Don’t get me wrong, I have worked with some wonderful editors in New York. My current editor at Clarion, Anne Hoppe, is one of the finest, most committed editors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. She’s a pro, a hard worker, has a great eye and a real dedication to bringing great books to the attention of the YA literary world. At it’s not an either/or proposition for me.


I love working in both worlds. And I am the luckiest of writers: I get to do that.


Your forthcoming book is a YA novel, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life. What can you tell us about it?


The story is told from Salvador’s point of view. He is seventeen, and he and his best friend, Sam (Samantha) are starting their senior year at El Paso High. Sal was raised by his adoptive father, an artist who is gay and Latino, but has never felt adopted. He adores his father and his working class Mexican-American uncles and aunts. He particularly adores Mima, his grandmother, who is a lovely Mexican-American matriarch. They have a special bond. As we go through the book, we learn how Sal came to be adopted.


So many things befall Sal and Sam (they call each other Sally and Sammy) as their senior year begins. Mima has inoperable cancer and Sal and his father are devastated. Sal begins to act out and starts getting a little violent, using his fists to punch people out. He is confused and surprised by his own actions. Sam, who really is like a sister to Sal, has an absent mother who is preoccupied with looking for the right man. In a sense, Sam is raised in Sal’s household. The book is about belonging and family and faith and asks the question: What actually constitutes “family.”


I’m very proud of this book. I think it’s the best YA book I’ve ever written and I’m really excited about its publication on March 8. Oh, I’m going to go on a whirlwind book tour and I’ll be traveling the country, talking to young people, librarians, school teachers, and general audiences (I mean, there are millions of adults who read YA lit).


But I also have a new book of poems coming out in June from Cinco Puntos Press, The Last Cigarette on Earth. And I’m really psyched about that book. I haven’t published a book of poems in years. And I’m so happy to be working with Cinco Puntos Press again. I’m also working on a new collection of short stories to be published by Cinco Puntos and a new children’s book that I will aslo be publishing with them. And I’m working on the sequel to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. And. After I’m done with those projects, I’m going to return to writing a novel for adults with the Spanish Civil War. I plan on living in Spain for a few months when the time comes. Yeah, I’ve retired from teaching from UTEP after twenty-three years of teaching. But there is no rest for the wicked. I am finally living the life that I have always wanted to live: the life of the working writer. Yeah: Caution. Writer at Work.


Last question. So, what is your drink of choice at the Kentucky Club?


Ahhh, I’ve given up on drinking as a part of my career. I once had a very dangerous romance with mood-altering substances. Writers and their romances with self-destructive behaviors. I guess I just didn’t want to end my days like Hemingway, with a shotgun pointed at my own throat. See, there’s that darkness again. Okay, so I still smoke. But I love waking to the taste of water. Sweet!


But, back in the day, when I would arrive at the Kentucky Club with a group of friends, I always had a margarita (but only because the waiters knew me and would serve me one—on the house). I never really warmed to margaritas. I never really warmed to sweet drinks at all. I liked my bourbon neat or perhaps with a few rocks. (By the way, I had my first drink at the Kentucky Club when I was seventeen). What I drank when I went to the Kentucky Club: Negra Modelo, a very fine Mexican dark beer. Cheers! Long live the Kentucky Club!


Praise for Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

“Sáenz's moving collection of short stories hinges on the intergenerational clientele of the titular borderland watering hole just south of the U.S.-Mexican divide on Avenida Juárez…there's much to enjoy in these gritty, heartfelt stories.” —Publishers Weekly


“Seven excellent stories … [by] a versatile writer … Sàenz writes prose that is tender, occasionally fierce, and always engaging. Read every word of his stories lest you miss some clever twist, some subtle irony, some gentle nuance of poetic imagery that he has labored to create.” —Booklist


“Seven stunningly evocative short stories … a haunting tableau of characters wrestling with the boons and burdens of existence … Saenz, with these masterfully hewn stories, presents this hardscrabble yet tenacious city as beautiful in its contradictions, disquieting in its ambiguities, and heartbreaking in its quotidianness. Filtered through this book are the lives of its singular people: doomed, broken, resourceful, and, above all else, faithful—to the city and to the parts they play in its intricate dimensions.” —Texas Books in Review


“Though the prolific Benjamin Alire Sáenz has been writing books in every genre for the past two decades, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is only his second short-story collection. But the wait was definitely worth it … [The story ‘He Has Gone to Be with the Women’] is nothing short of a masterpiece … In one story, a school counselor says the following about his troubled charges: ‘They came to me with a thirst in their eyes, a thirst, such a thirst and I knew that I could never give them the rain they deserved, the rain they so desperately needed.’ That might as well be the Kentucky Club speaking, since every protagonist in this heartbreaking collection of stories finds his way to a confession stool at the bar. They find no solutions to their ills, just a sensitive ear that has heard it all before but is willing to listen once again.” — Rigoberto González, former president of the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, special to the El Paso Times