Interview: Joy Castro
Joy Castro grew up in Miami, London, and West Virginia, and lived in Texas and Indiana before settling in Nebraska, where she is the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and directs the university’s Institute for Ethnic Studies. In addition to scholarly work on film, modernism, and Latinx and working-class literature, she has published a memoir, an essay collection, two crime novels, and a collection of short stories. Her essays and short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including Ploughshares, Quarterly West, Fourth Genre, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. Her new novel Flight Risk is forthcoming in October 2021.
In her compelling memoir, The Truth Book, Castro describes what it was like to grow up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses where she suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. She escapes to college and graduate school, but her Cuban American father’s suicide continues to haunt her. Helena María Viramontes calls The Truth Book “a heart-aching read that is both redemptive and hopeful. Castro’s voice is a candle flickering brightly in the darkness of the most painful hours of growing up.” Robert Olen Butler calls it “an utterly truthful and harrowing book…written in an achingly beautiful voice.”
Castro considers Latinx identity, the aftermath of the childhood abuse described in The Truth Book, and her roles as an educator, mother, female friend, and writer in the wonderfully varied and innovative essays in her collection Island of Bones. Publisher’s Weekly praises the voice and structure of Island of Bones: “With undeniably strong prose, Castro is equally uncompromising in her anger, intelligence, empathy, and confusion, each essay turning and enriching the one before without repetition or break in rhythm.”
CRAFT is excited to welcome Joy Castro as the guest judge of our first Creative Nonfiction Award. She graciously agreed to answer some questions from our creative nonfiction section editor, Jacqueline Doyle, via email.
Jacqueline Doyle: You have been prolific as a scholar and creative writer, and in many genres of creative writing: essay, memoir, short fiction, popular novel, literary novel. I’d love to know more about that, not to draw boundary lines between these genres, but to explore how your writing process differs (if it does) when you approach different kinds of writing. Do some genres come more easily to you than others?
Joy Castro: For me, not much about the process differs from genre to genre, whether that’s a personal essay or a crime novel or even film criticism, and no genre seems to come more easily than another.
Typically, I first do a lot of research, whether that’s a kind of field research in my own life, being observant and gathering impressions; or historical research, like the hundreds of pages of scholarly texts I’ve been reading to prepare to write a novel set in Cuban Key West in 1886; or travel research, as I did for my two New Orleans novels and “Effort,” an essay set in Seville. I love to learn and experience new things, so this part is extremely fun.
Then I write by hand—everything, even scholarship. (Even the answers to this interview.) Afterwards, I let the draft cool off for as long as possible, so that I pretty much forget it. That way, when I come back to revise, I can be as objective with the prose as I’d be with a stranger’s. Any ego-investment has long ago left the building. I type it up and work with it until I can’t make it any better, and then I send it off.
If I have faith in the merit of a project, but it’s not working, and I can’t figure out why, I ask a trusted writer-friend for help. It’s lovely to have the chance to thank people publicly, so let me say that I’ve been tremendously helped by Jennine Capó Crucet, Lorraine López, and Lynne Barrett. Heather Lundine helped me solve a knotty story once. My partner Marco Abel doesn’t really offer suggestions, but he does have exquisite taste and theoretical/aesthetic training that happens to dovetail with my own artistic ambitions. He’s like a tuning fork.
But if a piece just isn’t working, I abandon it without angst. I believe profoundly in the clean, scorched-earth feeling of letting things go.
JD: I know our CRAFT readers will be particularly interested in your views on creative nonfiction, but I’m a big fan of thrillers and a great admirer of your crime novels set in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s fascinating to see themes prominent in your other writing explored in Hell or High Water and Nearer Home; I can see why you’ve called crime fiction “the genre of justice.” Did you find it easy or difficult to shift gears when you embarked on popular fiction? Will you be writing more novels featuring the reporter Nola Céspedes?
JC: Thank you. If it’s not difficult, it’s not fun, so I’d say it was difficult but in a very good way. I’ve loved reading mystery novels and detective fiction since I was a child (The Bobbsey Twins series, the Sherlock Holmes stories), so I had a long familiarity with and genuine love of the genre, but when I decided to write a crime novel, I embarked on a serious self-imposed curriculum, reading twentieth-century classics of the genre and a wide swathe of contemporary crime fiction, to see what had been and was then being done and where I could intervene. With Umberto Eco, I believe that avid readers of crime novels are sophisticated consumers of that genre—that, as he explains in his book The Role of the Reader, successful genre fiction “must achieve a dialectic between order and novelty—in other words between scheme and innovation,” and that this dialectic must be perceptible to the reader. To capture crime fiction aficionados, then, I needed to educate myself about where my book would be entering the conversation.
It was great fun. I ended up repurposing a Dashiell Hammett–like narrator’s voice—sardonic, lean and mean, just the facts—for a twenty-first-century Latina from a background of poverty. I reinterpreted noir to unravel how a femme fatale might become so, played with the possibilities of an unreliable narrator who has an epiphany and becomes reliable by the end of the text—as in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” but a very expanded and feminist version thereof—and used imagery from Santería and the Cajun legend of the rougarou as mythic scaffolding, à la high modernism, so I got to have my literary fun while still writing mass-market “entertainments,” as Graham Greene classified the books he wrote for a popular audience, and making my sociopolitical points without preaching. I’ve outlined a third and fourth Nola novel and hope to write them one day. For readers who are interested, my favorite crime authors are Kate Atkinson. That was not a mistake.
JD: In her introduction to your memoir The Truth Book, Dorothy Allison observes that “the memoirist cannot step into the mental space of her subjects the way a novelist can.” You step into the mental spaces of a broad array of characters in your short story collection How Winter Began. How do stories come to you, and how do you inhabit characters who are often very different from yourself?
JC: Stories come to me in a variety of ways, as I suppose they come to most writers. Sometimes it’s a visual image I can’t shake; sometimes it’s a character composed of fragments of strangers I’ve observed. Most often, it’s a line I hear in my mind as I’m washing dishes or walking, a line spoken in a voice that then keeps on talking, and I think, Uh-oh, better get a pen. I often have to stop what I’m doing to write something down before I lose it, or even get out of bed at night if I wake up and the sentence-maker is going.
I truly wish I could explain how I imaginatively inhabit a bizarrely broad array of characters, but I can’t. What I can say is that it comes naturally, for better and for worse, and that I’ve learned the hard way that too much imaginative empathy, if explored in real life, can be hazardous and so must be kept in check. It’s best if I channel it into fiction.
JD: Was the process of writing the autobiographical essays in Island of Bones different than the process of writing your full-length memoir The Truth Book?
JC: Very. For The Truth Book, I had an unbroken three-week stream of time away from my family, academic job, and daily responsibilities. Norcroft, a writing retreat for women (now sadly defunct) on the North Shore of Lake Superior—very remote, very beautiful—had awarded me a residency. An editor and a writer had urged me to write a memoir, but I’d demurred, reluctant, not wanting the exposure. My intention had been to use the residency to work on a book of short stories (which, thirteen years later, became How Winter Began).
But then my father shot himself, and the therapist with whom I’d already been working said, “Why not use that time to write about your life?” She suggested that, if nothing else, it would be purgative or therapeutic in some way, and that if I didn’t like the result, I never had to send it out, which lent me a measure of psychological safety.
At the lodge in Minnesota, there was no wireless, no TV, no radio, no cell service. We had to walk a mile on trails through the woods to use a pay phone. Silence until 4:00 p.m. was the rule. I didn’t see any wolves, but other residents had. It was like a convent in a really wild and beautiful setting. We each got our own tiny shed to work in; mine overlooked the lake, and I just wrote in there like a demon all day and some nights. In the evenings, the three other writers and I would eat dinner together and then sit in front of the fire and talk. I remember being extremely vague when we were all telling each other about our projects, and I didn’t mention my father’s suicide the whole time, even though it had happened only the month before. I was afraid if I spoke about any of it, I’d fall apart. It was a period of great interior intensity and extremity, and it all came out in the writing.
By the time I left, I had the full draft of The Truth Book, handwritten in two black notebooks. I took them home, put them in a drawer, and didn’t look at them for the nine months of the fall and spring semesters while I taught at Wabash College. I had plenty to distract me. It was my tenure year. I had a 3-3 load and also took students on a study trip to England in conjunction with our course on British modernism: E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and so on. Simultaneously, I was trying to help my adolescent son cope with the horrific loss of his grandfather. There was plenty to occupy me.
When summer vacation arrived, I got the notebooks out and typed up the manuscript. I was no longer trapped in the hot emotion of drafting, so I could read it all with a cool, neutral eye and be ruthless. I edited it as if it were the work of a stranger.
The process of composing Island of Bones was quite different. Those essays accreted over a period of about twenty years, appearing in various journals, and I didn’t really think of them as important. I thought of myself as a short-story writer who happened to have also written a memoir.
My then-agent didn’t want to send out my short stories for marketplace reasons, believing (probably correctly) that they would not sell, so he urged me to write a novel instead. I didn’t really want to, so I thought, What would make this genuinely fun?, which is how the notion of writing a crime novel occurred to me. Then, while I was working on Hell or High Water, for some reason—probably I was frustrated with it or having a crisis of confidence or something; my tendency is to shift to another project when I feel thwarted, so I don’t block the flow—I suddenly realized that if I put all the essays together, there might be enough there for a book.
It wasn’t a long-planned project; it all happened very quickly and spontaneously. It was just something to do, to distract myself from Hell or High Water. As it turned out, they both appeared in the same year.
JD: How did you go about arranging the order of the essays in Island of Bones?
JC: Regarding the autobiographical content, I followed a loose chronological order, so the reader wouldn’t be confused, rather than following the order in which they were originally published. The first essay published, for example, was “Edging,” which came out in 1991 in a special Latinx issue of Mid-American Review—thank God for special Latinx issues!—but it’s the tenth essay in Island of Bones, because it covers events that didn’t happen until my twenties.
Then I edited for redundancy and submitted the manuscript to Kristen Elias Rowley, then my editor at the University of Nebraska Press and now at The Ohio State University Press. She has a light, deft hand, and we worked really swiftly together. She identified a few content gaps, so I wrote a couple of new essays to fill in some blanks, and that was that. I love the beautiful blue cover with the shell, all pale and soft and lovely—and that font! Oh, that rounded, luscious font.
JD: I’m interested in the structure of The Truth Book, which unfolds chronologically, but also includes reflections that look both backwards and forwards. Did those interludes grow organically from what you wrote, or did you map them out in advance, or add them as you revised?
JC: The leaps back and forth were entirely organic. Aside from line-level improvements—and the meditation in the final two pages, which closes the opening metaphor—The Truth Book as it appears today is pretty much identical to what’s in those notebooks. I was just as interested in capturing the workings of my mind in motion as I was in telling the story of what happened. The way memory roves, the way one image evokes another, the way those image patterns form a particular series that tells us something about the psyche generating it: I love a book that trusts me enough, as a reader, to let me do the math, so that’s the kind of book I like to write. I suppose it was my graduate training as a scholar of literary modernism that predisposed me toward that kind of stream-of-consciousness organization. I remember workshopping a section of it at Bread Loaf, where my distinguished nonfiction instructor didn’t like it at all. “No one reads Virginia Woolf anymore,” he said. I decided to take it as a compliment, as is my wont.
JD: Under what conditions do you thrive as a writer? For example, are you a daily writer who likes discipline, or a sporadic writer who waits for inspiration? Do you like writing to deadlines, or prefer an open schedule? Does teaching inspire your writing, or do you require larger blocks of free time than teaching allows?
JC: All conditions. It would be precious not to. I’ve written daily; I’ve been a sporadic writer when the material conditions of my life dictated that. I like writing to deadlines, and I love an open schedule even more. Teaching does not inspire my writing, though I very much love to teach. I can write happily for eight hours straight, and I definitely would if I could; I can’t wait to retire. The more unencumbered time I have, the more I write. And vice versa. It’s that simple.
JD: In your essay about writing “Grip,” you talk about the importance of patience and perspective in creative nonfiction. “Don’t rush your work; don’t force it. Keep writing and reading while you wait.” Do you sit on drafts for a long time before revising, or do you work through many drafts in close succession? Is your drafting and revision process different in different genres?
JC: I’ve done both with good results. My drafting and revision processes do differ—all the time—but in response to specific projects and pieces, not to the genre. I just try to listen for whatever approach is needed and useful.
The trick, I think, is to stay supple and alert. Listen to the work. You’re just its vessel, its servant, its conduit. What does it want? Your immediate attention, or a little desuetude? How willing to serve the work can you let yourself be?
JD: Last summer you published a lively, experimental excerpt from your novel-in-progress Flight Risk in [PANK] that lists seventeen things your main character has inherited from her mother. What can you tell us about your character and your novel?
JC: Thank you. My protagonist Isabel Morales is a sculptor and trauma survivor who keeps a lot of secrets. Her art speaks for her.
I started writing Flight Risk because fragments of letters started coming to my mind, letters from a mother in prison to her teenage daughter. Isabel, the protagonist, now in her late thirties, is that teenage daughter all grown up, navigating a troubled marriage and a wealthy social scene in Chicago, and feeling not at all at home in either. She’s a proverbial fish out of water.
When the book began, I had a huge crush on the actress Morena Baccarin, whom I’d been watching in the first season of Homeland. There was something so trapped and lost and beautiful about her character as she tries to navigate her frustration, her grief, and her desire. At the same time, my foster daughter’s mother had been writing her letters from prison. She wrote me one, too, and it broke my heart.
That combination of beauty and heartbreak is kind of my drug, so somehow those two wires got crossed in my mind, and something sparked, and that combination—together with the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Six Swans,” which is a kind of anti-Cinderella story—was the genesis of the book.
Its plot, the letters, and so on are nothing like my foster daughter’s story. That would be intrusive and exploitative, and I love her and want to protect her—even from my own imagination. Instead, I drew on my own childhood experience in rural Appalachia, my brief experience working in a clinic in Haiti, and my own difficulties navigating class difference to give Isabel her backstory.
I’m very happy to say that Flight Risk will be out in October.
JD: Hilary Mantel talked recently in Lit Hub about the artificiality of interviews, and the questions she’d like to see answered. “What I’d always like to hear about, from other writers, is their beginnings—including the part of their lives before they consciously stated, ‘I am going to write a book.’ I am especially curious about those who, like myself, come from an unliterary background—where a book was the last thing anyone expected from you.” When did you begin writing? What (or who) inspired you to write your first book?
JC: I began writing as soon as I could hold a crayon, and what inspired me to write my first book was the glory of books themselves. Just books. I adored books. I could not get enough of them. I learned to read at the age of three, and I loved books so much that I began writing my own on little memo pads that my dad gave me to draw on. I would write stories and illustrate them with pictures of animals and staple the pages together. On car trips, I would close my eyes and watch stories in my imagination, and later I would write them down. When I was six, the teacher asked our class what we wanted to be when we grew up, and everyone was saying fireman and ballerina. I said, “I want to be a writer.” I remember other kids saying that was really weird.
My family was not literary in the way that term is typically understood by middle- and upper-class people; neither of my parents went to college, and for a while my mother cleaned houses for a living. At one point, we lived on food stamps; for a while we lived in a trailer park. But when I was little, my mother did read to me, and my father was a kind, playful, and encouraging man who loved the arts. He loved to sing and had a beautiful voice; he’d acted in plays in high school in Key West. He took me to movies and musicals. The two of us sang together a lot: The Beatles, West Side Story, Camelot.
I was forbidden to go to college—it didn’t mesh with my mother’s religious beliefs—so certainly no one expected me to become a writer, or even to hold a white-collar job. But my parents both somehow innately valued the arts; my mother had even written a few stories of her own, which she typed up and kept, and when I was about ten, she typed one of my own stories for me. (It was about a horse.) So there was a form of tangible support, of encouragement. Despite everything that was hard about my childhood, I was very lucky in that way.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that my grandfather, who spoke only Spanish, had published a volume of poems in Key West in 1918, and it wasn’t until after my father died that I learned that my great-grandfather had written a memoir chronicling the evolution of the Cuban anticolonial rebel base on Key West in the late 1800s. No one mentioned that while I was growing up. I knew they ran a printing press in Key West, because I was allowed to play outside it as a child, but I didn’t know they’d written things themselves.
JD: You include more than twenty talented memoirists in your anthology Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, all well worth reading. Are there any new essay collections or memoirs that you would particularly recommend?
JC: I loved Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, which I stayed up all night in Santa Fe to read the very day I’d purchased it at the bookstore at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she’d gotten her MFA. It was completely random that I ran across it; she hadn’t blown up yet. I just picked it up and thought, Hmm, this looks interesting, and then her voice gripped me by the throat and would not let me go. I love what I’ve read of Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias.
A craft book that knocked me flat is Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World, which every creative writing workshop teacher in this country should read immediately, and I also really like Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison, which pairs beautifully (I say this for creative nonfiction teachers) with the Andy Goldsworthy documentary Rivers and Tides. As far as craft books go, Catapult’s got it going on.
JD: One of the things I love about Island of Bones and How Winter Began is the variety of lengths and styles in both collections, and the interest you’ve expressed in compressed prose. “Short works for me,” you say in your essay on “Grip,” “Compression. Urgency. Get in, get out.” (“Grip” in Fourth Genre was the first essay of yours that I read, and I was bowled over.) What will you be looking for in good creative nonfiction as you read for the contest?
JC: Thank you. I’ll be looking for intensity, urgency, necessity: something that surprises yet feels organic—not contrived, not forced, not striving to shock or sensationalize or impress but just genuinely unique due to the lived conditions from which it arises. Something vulnerable, something risky, something that doesn’t waste time.
I dearly love to see a mind in motion, the voice of a questing, vulnerable subject with a lot at stake, and I love to see formal experimentation when that’s melded to content and purpose in a meaningful way.
That said, my tastes are catholic, and my mind is very open.
JD: Thank you for agreeing to judge the contest and taking the time to answer these questions!
JC: Entirely my pleasure. Thank you for these beautiful questions.
JOY CASTRO is the award-winning author of a short story collection, How Winter Began, two crime novels, Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, a memoir, The Truth Book, and an essay collection, Island of Bones. Her essays and short stories have appeared in many anthologies, and in journals such as Ploughshares, Quarterly West, Terrain, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Mid-American Review, North American Review, Seneca Review, Afro-Hispanic Review, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, [PANK], Salon, and The New York Times Magazine. She edited the anthology Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, and coedited special issues of Brevity on Female Nonfictions After the VIDA Count and on Race, Racialization, and Racism. She serves as series editor of Machete: The Ohio State Press Series in Literary Nonfiction. She has been the recipient of the Nebraska Book Award and International Latino Book Award, a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, an alternate for the Berlin Prize, Writer in Residence at Vanderbilt University, and visiting writer at numerous universities. She is the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches creative writing, literature, and Latinx studies. Find more at joycastro.com.
JACQUELINE DOYLE is the author of an award-winning flash fiction chapbook, The Missing Girl. She has published essays in journals such as The Gettysburg Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Fourth Genre, and flash nonfiction in journals such as The Collagist, matchbook, Hotel Amerika, The Pinch, and Sweet. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s Sunday Short Reads, longlisted in the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions, and has earned six Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She is a professor emerita at California State University East Bay, and creative nonfiction section editor at CRAFT. Find more at jacquelinedoyle.com.