Interview 17- Darlene Campos
Darlene P. Campos earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. She is from Guayaquil, Ecuador but she currently lives in Houston, Texas with an adorable pet rabbit named Jake. She is the author of Behind Mount Rushmore and is working on her second novel, Summer Camp is Cancelled. Her website is www.darlenepcampos.com
This interview will focus on her 2017 DesiLit Short fiction contest winning story ‘Mason Jars’ and more.
We will discuss your winning story, your book and much more.
Q- How did you hear of the Desi contest and what made you send your entry?
I actually don’t remember! I might’ve seen a post about it on Twitter or Facebook or maybe on Erika Dreifus’ blog The Practicing Writer which I check every Monday for submission calls. When I found out I won the Dastaan Award, I was overjoyed, but I even forgot which story I had sent in – ha! I had no idea I’d be the winner – I entered the story just to see what would happen. The announcement was a completely unexpected surprise.
Q- Your winning story embodies ‘Show, don’t tell’. Do you think your story (style) is heavily inspired by your MFA training?
Somewhat – I learned the art of showing and not telling in my undergraduate years, but in greater depth during my MFA studies. The biggest criticism I received in college was that I don’t “tell” enough in my stories, so I’m definitely working on that for better balance.
Q- The story is about Grandpa Hector’s death. In one of our chats you shared that you wrote this story after your grandfather’s death. Can you tell the readers about it?
My own Grandpa Hector died very suddenly. On May 29, 2017, I had the day off from work and my mother and I planned on taking him out for lunch as a belated birthday gift. However, when we got to his apartment, he told us he wasn’t feeling well and asked us to go to lunch with my grandmother instead. About an hour later, we took him to the ER because he still wasn’t feeling well. He was examined and the nurses (no doctors were immediately available as it was a holiday weekend) saw that he had elevated heart enzymes and chest pains, meaning he was at risk for a heart attack. He was given a room and making jokes as the sweet nurses set up his room. At one point, he turned to me and my mother and said, “I’m going to be here for three days.” I honestly thought he would be out of the hospital the next morning because he was starting to look a lot better after being treated. But, late that evening, he suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to the ICU. Eerily, he died just three days later. The night before he died, I felt a deep urge to talk to him in private before I left the ICU to go home, so I did. He wasn’t able to speak at this point due to having an oxygen mask on his face. I told him “Goodnight Grandpa, I love you.” Even though he couldn’t respond, he did look up at me and he blinked a few times. His death hit me right in the center of my heart. I miss him every single day, some days more than others. Some days, I remember him briefly and I smile, but on other days, I cry because his absence hits me all over again.
Q- Why tell the story from a small boy’s pov?
Good question! At the time, I was in the middle of writing my second novel, so Lyndon Perez was fresh on my mind. It was easy to jump into a short story starring Lyndon and his family. As to why I created Lyndon in the first place, I can’t answer that in a definite way. My characters are just born from my head as they come. For example, in addition to being a young boy, Lyndon is also Catholic. Why is Lyndon Catholic? I have no idea – he just is!
Q- Do you think the story has won because it was inspired from your life ( in a way that our best work comes from our own experiences) or…?
Hmm, I don’t know for sure. To be honest, “Mason Jars” was one of the HARDEST stories I’ve ever written. Originally, an editor from The Missing Slate asked me if I would be willing to write a story for them and I accepted the offer maybe a week or two before Grandpa Hector died. So, I needed to write because TMS asked me to, but at the same time, I had no desire to write because of the heavy grief I was feeling at the time. I had to force myself to write in the midst of everything. TMS ended up not accepting “Mason Jars,” but it worked out since then it was eligible for the DWL contest.
Q- The theme you deal with in this story ‘Death’ is a dark one but the whole story is filled with humour. How did you do that?
Humor was Grandpa Hector’s best characteristic. He was not a perfect man and had many flaws, but he was very funny. I have many memories of him telling a joke or a funny story. In turn, he passed on his humor to my mother, so I grew up around humor. Even though I incorporate humor into all of my writing, I used it a bit more in “Mason Jars” as a tribute to Grandpa Hector. In my favorite picture of him, he is seated on a couch, laughing so hard that he is red in the face. He is gone now, but at least I have his humor to reminisce on.
Q- I thought the family dynamics was one of the strengths of the story. Can you describe how you went about it?
Families are my favorite subjects in fiction. Families are more than only a set of people – they are complex, complicated figures which take serious work to unravel. As a result, I love to create families over a few, single characters. The Perez family is small, but strong in their ties. My own extended family is quite large, yet I feel closest to my immediate family, which is small as well. Small doesn’t always mean weak.
Q- There is a school of thought that one must write what you know. You mention your father in an interview while discussing your novel and the characters (Nimo being one of them). You say, ‘Nimo has a solid, loving relationship with his father. The reason why I did this is because it’s my imagination of what a good father-child relationship is like.’
This leap of imagination, of not writing what you know but the opposite of it is…?
Writing what you know is good advice. It’s pretty easy to dive right into something you’re already familiar with, but after a while, writing about the same subject matter over and over again can get tedious and boring. If I only wrote about my daily routine, I’d bore myself to sleep. The wonderful thing about writing is that it’s open to imagination. Your characters and your world are in your total control. For example, I didn’t have the greatest relationship with my father (it’s better now though!) when I was younger. So, since this relationship hardly existed, I decided to make it happen in my work. Whatever you don’t have in real life is available to you in your writing – all you need to do is write it out.
Q- Many young writers hurry into self-publishing when they think they have a book ready. You took 6 years to research your first book and also 122 rejection letters. What gave you the patience?
I didn’t want to or plan to self-publish. Self-publishing is definitely an option for some writers but it takes a lot of hard work that I don’t have the energy or business mindset to accomplish. It requires selling yourself constantly and convincing others to buy your book. I knew from the very start that I wanted to sign a contract with a publishing house. Even if it took me 1,000 rejections to be offered a contract for Behind Mount Rushmore, I was going to keep trying no matter what. I will not sugarcoat the process and say it was easy. Acquiring a book contract is tough work. It takes hours to send out query letters, it takes months to receive a response, and it takes thick skin to accept another rejection letter. But, acquiring a book contract is not impossible. It’s extremely difficult, but still possible. To any young writer reading this – never give up! Your book contract will come someday as long as you keep reaching for it.
Q- You also mention in the interview that ‘I spent about six years researching to make sure I didn’t stereotype or misrepresent the Native community in the United States. As a minority myself, I know how much it hurts to be stereotyped.’
Lionel Shriver talks about ‘culture appropriation’ in her speech.
- Did this also come out of fear of being attacked if you didn’t portray a realistic picture of the community?
- Do you think that being hyper conscious of whether you are doing justice or not to a particular community (that’s not yours) hinders creativity?
I wouldn’t say it was fear of being attacked, but rather to show respect for the community and that goes for any community. For example, in my second novel, Lyndon is Catholic. However, I am not Catholic and I was not raised Catholic at all, so my knowledge of Catholicism, up until the last couple of months, was very limited. Instead of making assumptions about Catholicism, I set out to research Catholicism by reading books, watching videos made by Catholic organizations, attending Mass at local parishes, and speaking to practicing Catholics for their insights. If you write based on assumptions, you’re going to hurt a lot of people and make yourself look like an idiot. As for hindering creativity, I feel that writers should be free to write about whatever they want, but they have to be aware of potential controversy. I had a classmate years ago who wrote a poem filled to the brim with racial slurs, but the poem had no message, or at least, it didn’t appear to have a message. It was not an anti-racism poem or anything like that. If a writer is purposely using their work to hurt or shock people, then we have a major problem. Being a writer means having creativity, but respect for others needs to come first.
Q- Your words also reminded me of Adichie’s TED Talk, ‘The danger of the only story.’ This conscious effort to undo the stereotype on your part as a writer is quite a responsibility and tougher when it is not your own. Did you think of telling your own story about your own community?
This is something I plan to accomplish in the near future. I have an idea for my fourth novel which will involve Ecuador and Ecuadorian culture in a major way.
Q- You recently finished writing a play. How do you switch from writing a novel to a short story to a play?
It was a challenge, for sure! The formatting was hard to master, but once I got the hang of it, it became much easier. I used a program called Celtx which helped me a lot. I’ve written screenplays in the past, so the format was a little similar to writing a play.
Q- Tell us a little about your second book.
Summer Camp is Cancelled follows the story of Lyndon Baines Juan Perez and his major crush on his best friend, Melody Martinez. In Lyndon’s eyes, Melody is the most beautiful, kindest, generous and smartest girl he knows. But, Melody has her heart set on Fernando Quintero, the all-star basketball player for their school’s team. Fernando is tall, handsome, strong, and popular. However, Fernando constantly belittles Melody without her knowledge and this is because Melody is also deaf. Lyndon is torn between telling Melody the truth about Fernando or setting them up on a date to make her happy. When Fernando actually shows interest in Melody, Lyndon is heartbroken, even though Melody appears to be the happiest she’s ever been. When summer rolls around, Melody goes off to summer camp and Lyndon is stuck at home caring for his injured, but extremely unpleasant Uncle Manny. While Melody is away, Lyndon and his two best friends, Ted and Javier, work together to help Lyndon win her heart when she returns home.
Q- Favourite books?
Great question! I love many, many books, but my top favorites are The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Big Fish by Daniel Wallace, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and several others. The next book on my reading list is All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deem.
Q- How did your meeting with Sherman Alexie affect your writing? What did you think of his memoir?
Oh my gosh! Meeting him was a dream come true. His writing has been a major influence on my life and my writing style. Unfortunately, I was super nervous when I met him, so our encounter was a little awkward (I was stuttering my words, etc.). Still, he was very sweet to me and understood my nervousness. I loved his memoir. It focuses a lot on his grief for his mother, which was a source of comfort to me since I read it right after Grandpa Hector’s funeral. His writing never fails to touch me.
Q- Also, what do you think is the difference between semi-autobiographical fiction and creative non-fiction?
Semi-autobiographical fiction can incorporate whatever ending the writer wants while creative non-fiction needs to be factual.
Q- What is your writing routine like and how do you earn a living?
I work as an English tutor and test preparation instructor at a local community college. That’s been my day job for the last four and a half years. I aim to write at least two to three hours a day and if I can’t meet that goal for whatever reason, I set aside at least fifteen minutes of uninterrupted writing. This uninterrupted writing time doesn’t even have to be anything super formal. It could be a bullet list of ideas I have or just some simple dialogue. It’s important to write often because as the saying goes, practice makes perfect.
Q- Hobbies besides reading and writing?
Going to the museum, walking at the park, exercising at the gym, cooking new recipes, playing with Jake, who is my sweet pet bunny, watching movies, and learning about science, technology, history, cultures, music, and several other subjects.
Q- How is immigrant writing looked at now in Trump’s America?
I don’t feel that I can give an expert answer to this, but I will try my best. There have been many political climates throughout history with hot headed leaders. There was the USSR, the Nazi Party, total dictatorships, corrupt monarchies – you name it. North Korea maintains total control of creative expression even today. What’s important is that artists get together to express their opinions under any type of political climate, whether it’s a totalitarian government or a democracy. I feel very fortunate to live in a country where I can freely express my opinion without government interference and I hope that someday the entire world can live with this same freedom. Until then, artists should keep creating based on their passions and beliefs.
Buy her book ‘Behind Mount Rushmore‘ here.
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