If you follow Texas letters for any length of time, you’ll run into Nan Cuba either literally or figuratively, and we have done both. Whether she is supporting an aspiring author event or receiving notice for her latest accolade—member of the Texas Institute of Letters, 2016 Dobie Paisano Fellow, and the like — the San Antonio author is seemingly everywhere. She took time from her busy schedule to be interviewed by email for this week’s Lone Star Listens.
NAN CUBA: The Paisano fellowship is a major international award. My husband calls it the Texas Pulitzer, but no other award anywhere in the world gives a writer a healthy stipend and invites her to live by herself for six months on 264 acres of natural wilderness. Barton Creek and its surrounding bluffs were visible from my office window in Dobie’s ranch house. Daily walks revealed the iconic roadrunner skittering beside a fence, white-tailed deer galloping across the road, Charlie the blue heron (a former fellow’s spiritual manifestation of her father) swooping from the creek bank toward the horizon, coyotes howling from what seemed like the front door, and jackrabbits munching grass each morning as I watched from the covered porch. Once one ran across the yard then dove into the brush, and when I turned, a cougar watched me from a few yards away. The next week, a large black racer snake curled into a hall corner in the house. For six weeks, I was marooned while the creek flooded its low-water crossing. Animal noises and earth smells, like the night’s stars, intensified, but best was the quiet, the solitude. I woke earlier; meditated; assessed. I wrote every day, an exhilarating ritual that almost allowed me to finish my second book. On one of my walks, I discovered a dead great horned owl lying on its side, no wound visible, waiting for me to find him. [He was] about the size of a young dog, his eyes were closed, his wings tucked to his sides, his breast white with floating downy feathers. Like him, I quietly passed into my next life on Dobie’s ranch.
I think you’ve been an inspiration for many of us who have had to delay our literary dreams. You were a debut novelist at sixty-five, but were always involved in creative pursuits, most notably as the founder of Gemini Ink, the San Antonio–based literary center. How would you describe your first big break as an author?
My first big break was having a short story published in Columbia while I was still working on my MFA. That story, along with others in my thesis, became the genesis for my novel, Body and Bread. The story’s figurative language, rhythms, and symbolic implications convinced me that I could pursue a life of practicing literary craft. In fact, when giving readings, I often share that piece.
You grew up in Temple in the late fifties/early sixties. It was very different place then than now. The I-35 corridor didn’t exist, and there really was a distance between towns and cities on the Interstate. What was growing up in Temple like?
My childhood was idyllic. Temple was a small community where people knew each other. There were two high schools—one for African Americans, one for Anglos—meaning segregation persisted, a fact that only made me curious and bothered enough to seek the opposite. My best friends and I lived in the same close-knit neighborhood, my grandparents and cousins only a few blocks away. A saintly woman was the Girl Scout leader of ten of us for eleven years. I had four brothers; as the only girl, I was my mother’s favorite. But when my father played football or rode horses with the boys, I joined in, determined to compete. Dad played semantic games and told elaborate stories with ironic endings that were usually funny. Sometimes he’d leave the story open-ended, creating mystery. He’d also pose hypotheticals, forcing us to make difficult choices. His mother was a popular public speaker who told stories and poems she’d memorized from magazines. My other grandmother was a widow who operated a news agency then retired and devoted herself to painting and making ceramics. I married my high school sweetheart, and several of the neighborhood children are still my good friends.
You are a graduate of the innovative MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. What was that experience like?
I thought I knew who I was and what I wanted until my first Warren Wilson MFA residency. The passionate discussions about craft, the intense exchanges about life, the questions, the analyses, the energy and dedication to art: these were exactly what I’d longed for but thought impossible to have. The talent, intellect, and dedication of the faculty and students gave me permission to accept my calling. These were people I wanted to emulate, their lives what I’d dreamed about. My student experience taught me the value of literature, its ability to stimulate empathy, tolerance, critical thinking. Faculty members expected excellence, their wisdom and generosity modeling a way to teach. The program’s low-residency format showed me how innovation could improve a traditional approach, giving me courage to found Gemini Ink. I’m not the same unsure, unfulfilled woman who appeared that first day. Thanks to the Warren Wilson Program, my life has a purpose. My hope is that I’ll achieve the high standards introduced to me there.
How did Gemini Ink come about, and can you describe its transformation to current day?
Gemini Ink was not planned. A bookstore manager asked a friend and me to coordinate a reading, so as an anniversary celebration of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, we asked actor friends to perform readings of Joyce’s stories and novel excerpts. After that, we produced a variety of dramatic reader’s theater shows, incorporating original music and calling it the Gemini Series, noting that she and I had a twin-like love of literature. We performed these at campuses, coffeehouses, auditoriums, and museums. After the second year, we called a few writer friends and offered classes in my husband’s law office. The next semester, we moved to a house owned by a nonprofit women’s center. My friend left after the second semester, but I stayed with the organization for eleven years, managing a staff of seven, producing five reader’s theater shows each year, sending writers into twelve schools and a variety of community centers, offering classes, and serving about 5,000 people a year, some coming from across the country. We had an active board of trustees, a national advisory board, and the Friends of Gemini Ink. I started the Autograph Series, bringing a celebrated writer to give a free reading in a historic theater, because our culture needed to recognize writers as society’s rock stars.
The organization’s changes since then have been organic. The reader’s theater shows, which introduced Gemini Ink, weren’t needed anymore. The Writers in Communities program expanded to serve schools, centers, and populations throughout the city, and the summer camp for children has grown. The classes still operate much the same, while additional events have been added to meet the needs of the community. I couldn’t be prouder or more grateful. Now, as a citizen, I, too, benefit from the current staff’s dedicated work. I’ve recently been invited to join the board.
For our readers not familiar with your novel, Body and Bread, will you describe it for them?
Body and Bread is a book about grief and redemption. Sarah Pelton is a cultural anthropologist who uses her professional skills to investigate her childhood in order to understand why her brother Sam committed suicide. In the process, she discovers that he wasn’t the person she thought she knew.
Now, you’re working on a book about Henry Lee Lucas, based on your work during the Dobie Paisano fellowship. I was especially intrigued to see this. I was in Waco in the eighties when Lucas was arrested and his case came across D.A. Vic Feazell’s desk. I remember it being a national story. I remember your D Magazine pieces as well. How did you get interested in this case and involved in this story? What will be the focus of your new book?
While working as a novice journalist, I met with New York editors, pitching stories. The editor at McCall’s saw an article in my portfolio, and I told him the woman profiled had invited me to interview Henry Lucas. The editor said that Life magazine was publishing an in-depth piece on serial killers. “Would you like to talk to that editor?” he asked. Keep in mind that I was untrained and inexperienced, and the last thing I wanted was to be in the same room with a serial killer. I said yes, of course. I worked with the psychologist expert for the portion on Henry and, after that, we collaborated on a series of articles about the origins of extraordinary violence. Two and half years later, my final Lucas article was an 11,000-word story for Third Coast.
It took me thirty years to figure out how to adapt my experience to fiction. My novel is a tragicomedy called He Didn’t Kill Nobody but Mom. It’s an absurdist tale about the inmate and well-intentioned people surrounding him. Each justice-system official has an agenda that moves the story from being about the most prolific killer in history, to being about a victim of over-eager law enforcement, to being about a master conman. Fortunately, I kept all my notes, clippings, and interview tapes and transcripts, which have stoked my imagined cast of characters and their multiple voices. Hopefully, readers will find the story as wild as our current political situation.
What is your writing and creative process like?
Once I begin a project, I’m a bulldog. I can work for eight hours straight, with my husband bringing food on a tray. If I get stuck, I research a relevant topic, reread passages of books that illustrate what I’m trying to do, write notes about characters’ agendas and expectations, practice their voices, then knock out a draft. The craft is so complex, it takes a lifetime to master, but with practice, the options become more apparent, and the challenges more exciting. Writing fiction is like cooking. At first, you follow the recipe exactly, sometimes mixing ingredients in the wrong order or scorching the sauce; but eventually, you work intuitively, using aromas, textures, and sounds to guide you. I write while hearing the narrator’s or the characters’ voices, intuitively incorporating sensory perceptions, significant details, rhythms, imagery, and figurative language. But I have to revise more than most: cutting, rephrasing, adding details, improving metaphors, expanding tropes, striving always for the mysterious, usually difficult, truth.
You are the writer-in-residence at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, so I’m going to ask the question that I ask everyone who teaches writing. Is writing a natural gift, or can novices be taught to string sentences together with some degree of lyricism?
The best teachers are the authors of critically praised writing. Chekhov never studied writing; Jane Austen didn’t have an MFA. Francine Prose published a book called Reading Like a Writer, and I teach a class with the same title. Analyzing a writer’s reasons for choosing a word, phrase, sentence, detail, or character’s action, is a lifelong learning tool. Take a story apart, like a mechanic studies the inner workings of a car engine. Graph the plot. Create a timeline.
After I’d been writing journalistic articles for a year, my mother said, “You talk different.” That was true because I’d learned to be more attentive to language. That’s the first lesson while studying craft. Then one learns to observe and listen, noticing that everyone is complex, ambiguous. A teacher can introduce methods for depicting that, but the student must be an astute and honest witness, which can’t be taught. A teacher can introduce techniques for incorporating setting, but the student must understand how the setting reflects aspects of her character. A teacher can share examples of dialect and speech patterns, but a student might be deaf to those differences. A teacher can demonstrate how to revise, but the student must do the work.
When I thanked the founder of the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College, Ellen Bryant Voigt, for my incredible training, she said, “We only saved you some time.” Students can learn craft fundamentals, but they must read widely, closely observing the writers’ choices, then witness attentively, thinking deeply about implications, honoring the imagination, manipulating language, aiming for truth.
For many years you’ve called San Antonio home. What makes San Antonio such a mecca for writers?
San Antonio is a confluence of cultures, nurturing and inspiring creativity. The city honors its history, proudly preserving ancient architecture, yet celebrating contemporary art. Writers are supportive, applauding professional successes while welcoming newcomers. The city’s action is unrushed, our atmosphere calm. Perfect for imagining a story.
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Praise for Nan Cuba’s BODY AND BREAD
“Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” — O, The Oprah Magazine, May 2013
“Cuba’s piercing coming-of-age saga vibrates with youthful yearnings.” —Booklist
“A stunning debut novel . . . Body and Bread is a beautiful examination of family dynamics in the wake of suffering, and the ways that grief continues to shape our lives far beyond the death of a loved one.” —San Antonio Express-News
“Years after her brother Sam’s suicide, as her family prepares to sell their farm, anthropologist Sarah Pelton digs into the secrets Sam left behind while attempting to live fully without him.” —Huffington Post
“The plot’s literal events center on young Sarah’s gradual estrangement from her family and adult Sarah’s efforts to help her late brother’s widow and child. But as with Salinger, Cuba’s plot is almost incidental. Her writerly strengths lie in morsels of feeling perfectly put, and experiences rendered with unsettling aptness.” —Texas Observer
Nan Cuba earned the MFA in fiction from the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers and is the founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit literary center (geminiink.org). She was the spring 2016 Dobie Paisano Fellow and received a Fundación Valparaiso Residency Grant in Mojácar, Spain.
She is currently writer-in-residence at Our Lady of the Lake University, where she teaches in the MA/MFA Program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice. As an investigative journalist, she reported on the causes of extraordinary violence in publications such as and Magazine. Her stories, poems, and reviews have appeared in Antioch Review, Columbia, Harvard Review, Printer's Row, and StorySouth, among others. She is co-editor of Art at Our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists (Trinity University Press, 2008).