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Published: Thu Jul 1 2004
Eva LundsagerFirst Attempt (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
Interview with Suárez

Virgil Suárez proved to be a major force when he exploded onto the literary scene in 1989 with the publication of Latin Jazz. Suárez was praised in The New York Times for writing “in a cold, unornamental Hemingwayesque style, always straightforward and cinematic.”

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1962, Virgil Suárez emigrated with his family to Spain in 1970 and then moved to the United States in 1974. In his work, Suárez examines the themes of family ties, immigration, and exile. He is a master at exploring the experiences of characters as they struggle to preserve their identity and heritage while acclimating to life in the United States. “I write about my life,” Suárez says, “and my life informs my writing.”

Since the publication of his first novel, Suárez has produced works at an astonishing rate and asserted himself as one of the most prolific writers working today. Suárez says about his extensive output of writing: “I’ve been writing like I have a death sentence, which I do. We all do. Life is terminal.”

Suárez is the author of four novels (The Cutter, Latin Jazz, Havana Thursdays, and Going Under), eight collections of poetry (You Come Singing, Garabato Poems, In the Republic of Longing, Palm Crows, Banyan: Poems, Guide to the Blue Tongue, Vespers, and 90 Miles), and one collection of short fiction, Welcome to the Oasis. His memoirs, Spared Angola and Infinite Refuge are collections of stories, essays, and poetry. He has also edited several anthologies and has been published in hundreds of magazines, journals, and anthologies.

In addition, Suárez’s most recent and soon-to-be-published works include Landscapes & Dreams: A Poetic Collaboration Sequence (Louisiana Literature Press, 2003), The Soviet Circus Visits Havana & Other Stories (University of Arizona Press, 2004), and 90 Miles: Selected and New (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).

William Vandegrift: When you first started writing, did you begin with poems, short stories, or novels?

Virgil Suárez: I began reading. Mostly reading and falling in love with the written word. I started reading comic books, but also the classics for teenagers like Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I knew when I started high school I wanted to write. By then, because of Edgar Allan Poe’s influence, I started writing poetry. I kept writing poetry even during the time I wrote fiction.

WV: How did you develop your craft?

VS: As I said, reading is the key. I’m convinced that the best thing for a writer to do is to keep reading. Read everything. My earliest memory was of my grandmother reading to me out of the Harvard edition of Tales from a Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

WV: What were your early attempts at publication? When did you find yourself starting to break through as a writer?

VS: It was a long time before I ever published anything. The first official thing published was my novel Latin Jazz, which was really the second book I’d ever finished. I didn’t publish any poetry until the mid-1990’s. I was in the closet. People knew me as a writer of prose. Suddenly, I burst on the scene with such fervor that I think people thought I had exploded. I kept getting these calls about why or how I could publish so much. Nobody understands that I had been writing poetry for a good twenty years before I ever published a word of it.

WV: In your writing, you have a wonderful sense of place. Is this due to firsthand experience, or does this come through research?

VS: I don’t tend to do research, but I do react to things around me, and sometimes the reaction is derived from having read a poem, or seen a painting or a photograph. NPR has given me lots of good work, bless their hearts. I work from memory and sometimes I won’t write about a place until many years later. There are things about a place that need time, for example, in relation to how events connect to place. I tend to go back to a particular place to get the feel of it. Right now I am working on a novel about flea market people, and so everywhere I find myself I seek out swap meets and flea markets. I’ve been to a great many of them. I love the energy there. Slowly, over time, I feel like I can begin to write about them as setting, as atmosphere, as locale.

WV: When you get an inspiration, how do you determine if it is a poem, short story, or novel? Do you find yourself working it through several forms to determine which is the most effective?

VS: This is an excellent question. I let the material choose the genre. Many times I go after the voice, and the voice chooses the form. Lately most of the voices I have gone after come in the form of poems.

I tell all my students not to limit themselves with only one genre. Many creative writing programs have become poisoned wells because the students are only allowed to develop in one genre. I took many different workshops in my career as a student: playwriting, scriptwriting, non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and even business writing, which has come in handy these days now that I run my own business. It’s all good, that’s my favorite expression these days. Or I can repeat what Ishmael Reed called it: “Writin’ is Fightin’.”

WV: In a recent interview for The Paris Review, Amy Hempel says that she always knows the first and the last lines when she starts writing her stories. How much do you know about the final product when you begin writing? Do you know your ending beforehand or does it come to you as you are writing?

VS: When I’m writing a story, I’ve often been lucky to have the ending. Most of the time though, as I am writing a poem, I don’t have the slightest clue as to how the thing will end. It’s actually the way I prefer it because I want to be surprised. Surprises are fun for the writer; otherwise you don’t have or develop a sense of discovery.

WV: How do you determine which point of view to use when telling a story?

VS: I like first person because it gives me the ability to blur the lines between real life and fiction. I often choose voices not too different than mine. I also like third person because of the distance I can achieve. I’ve utilized them all, even second person.

WV: What do you like the most about being a writer? The least?

VS: I enjoy the process of discovery. Recognizing, as Johnny Cash put it, the beast in me. I like connections to images, and the crafting of them into something linear. What I don’t like is how the time flies, and the fact that while you are writing you have to keep people out of your life. I mean not for long, but certainly during the hours you put in.

WV: How does the process of writing vary when working on a novel as opposed to short stories? How about with poetry?

VS: It is different for me to sit down to write a poem from a story because I often like to know what I’m getting into, what I’m in for…I love them both, but I sit down and ask the voice to choose. If there is a voice coming through in my head, I ask it which genre does it want to use. Often the voice chooses poetry. I can understand, especially with the short, witty stuff I’m likely to do. Novels are different. They are the monsters that consume our lives, so you have to approach them with time and reverence. I’ve been working on two new novels on and off now for twelve years. The first one needs an ending, and the second I’m still on the first part. So in between, the stories and poems keep coming, and I keep following them to interesting places. I don’t mind doing that. It keeps the work interesting, and my life simple and clear.

WV: How often do you write? How many hours do you write at a sitting?

VS: Oh my, if I can answer honestly, I’d have to say that I’ve been spending lots of time writing daily, sometimes up to twelve hours, and then a short visit during the hours of the night when I can’t sleep. Nighttime is the best because you find you are on nobody’s clock, just your own. It’s the best time to write. I’ve been writing like a monster in the last five years or so. I’ve been writing like I have a death sentence, which I do. We all do. Life is terminal, so they say. My process has to do with routine. I like to write new work in the morning, real early, then I revise in the afternoon. I always begin the new day’s work with a cup of coffee in hand. After I’ve revised a piece several times, trying to change it, really overhaul it, I send it out to a few readers, folks who are good with immediate feedback, then I let it sit for a few weeks. I write poems in batches, always coming back to keywords like “penumbra,” “stillness,” “amplitude,” “pond,” “rivulet,” etc. I fall into the rhythms easily, I think. I work on fiction the same way, though I become more obsessive in that I won’t get up from the chair until I know I’ve gotten the first draft done.

With fiction I try to connect to voice. Not mine necessarily, but of my characters. I’ve been working on my new novel, which begins: “The night Kurt Cobain shot himself, I drove back to Los Angeles through the fog of the Arizona desert.”

I sit there until it begins to sound right. Sometimes even the first 10 pages or so won’t make it because I keep coming back to the way someone begins talking after a long pause, or after a long silence. Silence fascinates me. Heck, I’ve been sitting for so long, my proctologist claims my prostate is as big as a raft. He’s right too, for I have seen the video. So be it. Comes with the work. Thank goodness I haven’t suffered too much from carpal tunnel syndrome. I learned to type when I was in the seventh grade, and I’ve been pretty good since then. Some mornings you can see the smoke rising between the keyboard and my fingertips.

WV: What is the process of revision like for you?

VS: Every work needs time. There are those revisions that I make right away—I call it layering—to get the feel of the thing right, to make sure not to forget anything, etc. And then there are the revisions, or overhauling, that I make to a piece after it has sat for a couple of weeks, sometimes months. These are important because I like to return to a piece cold and really put it under the spotlight, ask of it all the right questions. If it doesn’t hold then, I discard it. It happens with a lot of poems I write. I like to comb through my images to make sure they’ve come from the same place in my mind or heart.

WV: Do you ever read your writing after it’s published?

VS: I don’t like to reread my work. I hate it. That’s why when I give readings I will always read from the latest or new work. It’s uncomfortable because you get too used to reading the same words over and over. It’s like running into an old lover at the supermarket. It can be embarrassing and depressing. I prefer to be surprised by the language, so I focus on the new.

WV: If you could go back and rework something you’ve already published, what would it be?

VS: I don’t think too much about this question. I am always working on the next best thing. The key word is “working.” I am a WORKING writer. I want nothing, I expect nothing. I just depend on nourishment to be able to sit down and get the time to write. I am the only person I know who thinks legs and walking are overrated. I like to move with my mind. I also can’t wait to be a certified senior citizen so that I can retire. So that I can show people my ID and say, “No, can’t do it, see, I’m a senior citizen, I am running out of time, and I need to sit down and work.”

WV: The Multicultural Review described The Cutter as having a “fast-paced narrative characterized by brief, action-packed chapters.” How did you come to choose such an effective, fast-paced, minimalist style to tell Julian Campos’s story?

VS: I like writing prose that energizes me while I write. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said early in his career that he planned to keep his books short and sweet and very readable. That’s my aim. The Cutter has, for me, a riveting pace. It’s meant for the reader to read it in one sitting. You know, that full-effect thing Poe talks about. In real life we are always pressed for time, so we are always cutting to the chase. I aim to write like this. I don’t do it as much with poetry because with poetry I’m doing something else with language. I aim for my prose to be like a freight train screaming through pitch black carrying a highly-toxic cargo, glowing and burning fast.

WV: You use a completely different writing style in Latin Jazz where you tell the stories of several members of a three-generation Cuban-American family. In this novel, you utilize first, second, and third person narrators. How and why did you choose to tell this particular story using this format?

VS: I think the style for Latin Jazz developed as I interviewed the members of the real family. I taped my interviews with them and then I would listen and try to break down the way they spoke on the tape. The patriarch of that family died a few years back. I still had the tapes of him telling his stories. I sent them back so that his great-grandchildren can hear him tell those stories. Ah, technology. I was also tired, having written The Cutter, of the straight and linear Third Person Limited. I wanted to branch out and do bigger stuff. I tried to utilize every single point of view available to the writer. I think there’s even the First Person Plural in there. That’s what happens when you read your Faulkner and your Cormac McCarthy.

WV: Publishers Weekly said your poetry reads like a “photo album of verse, one which seems instantly familiar.” I strongly agree with this statement because much of your poetry resonates with images of family—do you agree with this statement about your poems being a “photo album of verse?”

VS: I think it is a valid assessment. I like to visit with my memories of people. I like to go back to places I remember. Maybe it’s a way of keeping track, though I’m not consciously aware of doing it. Then again, I’m old fashioned in that I love to look at family photos of people I don’t even know. There’s something about those ’50s and ’60s photos. Most of those people are already or quickly becoming ghosts in our lives.

WV: What do you have on your desk?

VS: I keep all sorts of things on my working table: a visual dictionary is a must. A good dictionary, a thesaurus, Tales from a Thousand and One Arabian Nights, an illustrated encyclopedia of mythology, the works of Fernando Botero, a great painter from Colombia. Some National _Geographic_s on Cuba. The work Walker Evans did on Cuba circa 1938. The list goes on. I have two studies. One is more sparse then the other, and then I have my garage workshop where I keep all my tools for wood/metal working. After I gave up breeding and showing champion canaries, I started building dioramas for which I often have to build things from scratch. I keep a journal there too, and more often than not, I am really writing, not working metal on a lathe or mill. It keeps the juices going to be creative with the hands. Hand/eye coordination—it’s the best. In my formal study I have several thousand volumes of poetry and fiction. I often will select my reading for the day while I take a break from working on a piece. I live in Key Biscayne, so it might also mean that I work around the edges of the water there, or on my way for a “colada” to the Key Biscayne La Carreta, one of the best Cuban restaurants in Miami.

WV: Amy Tan once said that if you are a minority your work might not be read as literary fiction and “it will be more likely be read as sociology, politics, ideology, or cultural lesson plans in a narrative form.”

VS: This is very true, but more so about the universities, which I don’t really like to think about too much. Universities are fictions within themselves. They are not the reality most people live with. The power universities have can be taken away, reconfigured, and dismantled. Or it can be changed from within. Take my teachings, for example. I introduce my students to writers I hope they’ve never heard anything about. The way poetry is taught in most universities—the only good poet is a dead poet—is different than the way I teach it. I begin with the still living, breathing poet. I begin with the outside poets, with the poets who will never be a part of the mainstream, like Adrian C. Louis, Sherman Alexie, Ai, Juan Felipe Herrera, Tato Laviera, etc. I know my students will know about these writers when they leave my class. That’s important to me now, so that later, when they hear “the best poet in the United States is so and so,” they can react and say, they might be the best poet, but there are “other” poets too. Poets that they care about.

WV: How do you feel about Tan’s statement about minority writers being read for the examination of race, gender, class, and sexuality?

VS: Well, any which way a writer gets read, well, it’s fine. Look at what the Nobel Prize will do now for the work of J.M. Coetzee, who is a great writer and for many decades, though a small select few knew and loved his work, didn’t have a wider audience. But now!

I think people more than ever are interested in finding out more about other cultures, especially from folks who are recent immigrants. It takes a while for a group to come to the U.S., and for the writers to emerge. I think it is a way of distinguishing your work from others’. It’s a good thing overall, but I think in academia, that poisoned well of fake intellectualism, people will use it against you. I’m always shocked by how prejudiced people are in academia. And they are really racist too! These liberal-hearted folks, pretending to be liberal when what they are is a bunch of gate-keeping Nazis. They are gate-keeping readers from language and good books. They tell you what to read, how to read it. They will tell you what to write and how to write it. I mean, look at the chasm they’ve created between poetry and fiction in creative writing programs. Once you come in to do poetry, you can’t do fiction.

I went to LSU in Baton Rouge where I was encouraged to jump around, try different things. I think it is important to read writers from other countries, other cultures. I have colleagues who will say things like they don’t read books by women, or female colleagues who claim they don’t read books by men. Amazing what you hear in and around universities.

In universities some folks have hunkered down to establish, or reestablish, a canon, which they can then turn around and use it to exclude folks. I was devastated recently during a campus visit to a university in Ohio to learn that they were reconfiguring the master reading list to include an “A,” “B,” and “C” list. You can imagine who the “A” writers were and these folks like Milton, Shakespeare, et al, were required, and then on the “suggested” or “elective” list they had folks like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and no other ethnic writers. It’s state-funded ignorance, that’s my take on it. A good writer is good beyond race, color, creed, gender, sexual preference, etc. A good writer gets at the truth.

WV: Eudora Welty is described as being a Southern writer, Toni Morrison as an African-American writer, Erica Jong as a feminist writer, and Sherman Alexie as a Native-American writer. You’ve been described as a Latino writer, a Caribbean writer, and a Spanish writer? How do you feel about these labels? Which label, if any, do you prefer for yourself.

VS: Labels are for marketing folks. When I’m in the classroom I expose my students to what I think are good writers. Regardless of color, gender, religious background, etc. With me it is also about reminding people of the folks I write about, who are still living in exile, who are Cubans yearning for their country to be free, so in this way I don’t reject the label so much because it focuses the words on the plight of the people I care most about. I am an American writer. I am a citizen of this country. When I think about being American I think that also includes the Americas. I live in the United States, but I write globally. God knows I get published everywhere in the world. My poetry is. Writers in the United States need to check their egos at the door. There are other writers in the world, other great writers, which is why the Nobel Prize is such a wonderful reminder. The last United States writer to win was Toni Morrison, which makes perfect sense.

I don’t blame the readers. I blame the corporate need to label to sell and prostitute the written word. Write from your world, and write it down well. It’s a simple formula I pass down to my students or anyone who is interested in writing.

We need to start making the connections back to our place in the world community. We belong with other voices on the earth. War is not the answer to what seems to be our ability to dominate the world through fear and control. History is written by the conquerors, right. Imagine the thought control we will impose on the cultures we overtake and rule. If we put the rest of the world to work cheap for us, when will they have time to develop the poem, the story, the play, and the novel? This is the crime against humanity nobody talks about when imperialism is brought up.

The body of any type of ethnic writing in the United States is a testament or record of the struggle to bring the word into the light. We are making changes to the way people read and think about cultural experience represented in books. Most ethnic writers I know have the same dilemma other folks have: to find time to write, to get published, to communicate. It’s a human struggle and it happens in all countries.

WV: What books do you insist that your students read?

VS: I insist they read books recently published by people who are still alive. Books written by writers from other parts of the world. I would never trade in Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Steamstress or Patrick Suskind’s The Pigeon or Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There or Guillermo Carbrera Infante’s View of Dawn from the Tropics or Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo or Elena Poniatowska’s Dear Diego for anything. If you write poetry, you must know and be extremely familiar and supportive of your contemporaries. Other than that, read everything.

WV: What advice do you have for writers working on their first novel or collection of short stories?

VS: Don’t listen too quickly to what editors and agents tell you. Write as best as you can. Trust your instincts, then learn to take your hits. Don’t change things only because someone tells you they’ll be able to sell it better or quicker. Learn to work with more than one editor. Be open for suggestions. Don’t give up on your book. Don’t be a poor soul at a cocktail party who claims they are novelists because they’ve been working on a novel but only have three chapters of it in the last forty years. Write your book in as much time as you need, but then be done with it. Move on.

WV: What are you working on now?

VS: I’m working on several projects. A new collection of stories. The same novel I’ve been working on for the last eight years or so. A new collection of poems I’m excited about titled The Mortician’s Guayabera. I’m working at being a better father to soon-to-be teenage daughters. I’m learning to eat better, which means I am trying to eat more and everything so that when I croak, the folks carrying me into the ground can say, “man, this guy weighs a ton, but not more than the work he left behind.”

William T. Vandegrift, Jr., a freelance writer and restaurant reviewer, has been published in several anthologies and has work forthcoming in The Kelsey Review and Quarterly West. (updated 2004)


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