the Utah Pride Festival draws closer (with the kickoff officially
happening Friday afternoon), more and more events are slowly being
added around the city, even if they aren't fully affiliated with
the celebration. Everything from parties and mixers to protests and
speakers will be converging on Salt Lake City next weekend, not even
counting the performers and festivities within the festival and
--- One specific person coming to town is writer Miguel Santana. Author of the novel When Alligators Sing, Trances Of Waning Love, and most recently The Marien Revelation, will be in town to chat at the University of Utah with S.H.I.F.T. as well as a public presentation at the Salt Lake City Library on June 3rd to be moderated by actor Charles Lynn Frost. Not to mention attending various Pride events himself. Prior to coming to Utah I got a chance to chat with Miguel about his works and career, plus his thoughts on writing and a few other topics.
Gavin: Hey Miguel! First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Miguel: I grew up on the Mexican border, Ciudad Ju%uFFFDrez to be exact. I came to the United States to go to college, and I have been here since. I was a teacher and have taught at all levels, from a bilingual sixth-grade classroom to Spanish college courses. The textbook industry offered me the opportunity to create a balance between my two passions, love of literature and teaching language. My most recent job was working for a Spanish publisher as an executive editor. Since January of this year, I have been devoted to my own literature.
Gavin: What drew you toward writing and what were some of your early inspirations?
Miguel: I have always felt the need to express myself in writing. However, I took Creative Writing during my senior year; this altered my life’s course. My professor, an author himself, gave me the encouragement and confidence to leave a marketing degree unfinished and to switch majors. No regrets. My love for writing emerged from my love of reading. I devoured encyclopedias and literature collections from an early age. My father, who only finished sixth-grade, knew I also liked comics, so every Saturday I would wake up to a stack of them waiting by my bed. The first novel I ever read was Don Quixote, a required fifth grade reading at the time, followed by Garc%uFFFDa M%uFFFDrquez, Isabel Allende, and other great Latin-American authors.
Gavin: You have a PhD in Hispanic Literature from the University Of Texas. What made you choose that school, and what was their program like for you while earning your degree?
Miguel: The University of Texas at Austin has a top-notch Spanish department, one of the best in the United States. Although the program was challenging and consumed the majority of my time, my love of writing required that I somehow find the time to finish my first novel. My biggest hurdle came in writing my dissertation. The difficulty I faced was identifying my area of specialization. Initially I felt I should focus on Mexican Literature; however it was limiting. One of my professors suggested I was too emotionally invested in the topic. I agreed and therefore switched to Spanish Golden Age Literature with a heavy concentration on Gender Studies.
Gavin: How did the idea for When Alligators Sing come about?
Miguel: This is a work of fiction, but the characters are based on family stories I was told growing up. Some of the characters parallel members of my own family. Others characters may be a combination of two or three. For example, Aida was very close to my own grandmother’s story: she was a Tarahumaran Indian who waited fifty years for her American soldier to return to her, as he promised before leaving for war. I always knew in my heart she was a literary character waiting to be heard.
Gavin: What was the process like for you while writing it and defining both those characters and the world around them?
Miguel: It was not difficult at all. It is a story of women who are in control of their family’s destiny. That’s the way it was in my family. I grew up and was surrounded by powerful women. The background, in terms of the development of historical surroundings, was based on their memories. These women are all great storytellers. This, in conjunction with my own exhaustive research into the history of Ju%uFFFDrez and El Paso, completed the setting.
Gavin: Did you show it to anyone prior to finding a publisher, or were you hesitant over the content?
Miguel: I shared it with friends, but not in its entirety or the sequence in which it would be published. I also had the opportunity to share it with Laura Esquivel, the author of Like Water For Chocolate; she loved it. In fact, the polish edition of When Alligators Sing has a quote from her on the cover: “The novel charms with the richness of its language and its vivid imagination”. The story represents a family saga, a collection of unfulfilled love stories, so there was nothing about it the content that I hesitated sharing.
Gavin: What made you choose to originally write the book in Spanish, rather than adapt it into English for a first run?
Miguel: When I was writing my first novel, I was still insecure about my English when it came to creative work. Academically I had no problem writing articles or term papers. But, Spanish is my native tongue and at that time, I felt more confident expressing my creativity in Spanish. Today, after years of using English in personal and professional life, I have gained more confidence. As a result, I followed a completely different process for The Marien Revelation, but I guess we’ll talk about that later.
Gavin: When it finally got released, what did you think of the public reaction to it?
Miguel: When Alligators Sing was well received. Its rights were sold to English, Italian, and Polish publishers after Grijalbo-Mondadori/Random House bought rights for the Spanish-speaking world. It surprises me that I still get letters or email inquiries. It feels odd, yet rewarding to see a story about your family presented in various languages. But, what can I say, I’m happy with what has happened.
Gavin: What made you change formats for Traces Of Waning Love, which essentially was a book of poetry?
Miguel: Traces of Waning Love is a very intimate collection of poetry that was not released to the market. A few friends and colleagues have a copy but, sadly, poetry doesn’t sell and my publisher decided that it was more of a collector’s item. As a poet I’m very dark, very intense. Most of those poems were written as an exorcism of the man I was and the person I was becoming during my twenties. It also reflects my own personal search for spirituality.
Gavin: You also penned a play called Head Of The Baptist. What was the inspiration for that, and how did it differ for you from novel to play?
Miguel: That play was a response to ”scar Wilde’s Salome and Ramun del Valle-Incl%uFFFDn’s puppet play of the same name. It is also very similar to an episode found in When Alligators Sing. I grew up attending a Spanish Golden Age theater festival in El Paso. My love for this genre pushed me to dramatize part of the novel taking into consideration the archetypes that Wilde and Valle-Incl%uFFFDn had utilized in their own works.
Gavin: In your spare time you contribute to the website LambdaLiterary.com. How is it for you as an author to also partake on a reviewer end?
Miguel: Lambda Literary has provided a space in which I can utilize the skills I developed as a researcher. I have an affinity for classical works upon which I am able to offer an interpretation through the eyes of contemporary gender studies theory. The two articles I have published there have to do with my own investigation of Spanish Golden Age literature. I’m very thankful I get to do this, but I can see myself targeting newer works as well. I have no problem reviewing others; it is my own work that is sometimes hard to judge. An author always has more in his/her head than what he/she actually puts on the page.
Gavin: Your latest book is The Marien Revelation. How did the idea come about for this book, and what made you decide to do the back-and-forth style between the two characters?
Miguel: The first time I was asked this question, it caught me by surprise. I was completing the last conciliatory edit between the English and Spanish versions of the book and had not yet put myself in a promotional frame of mind. The question came while I was attending a benefit for Studio@620 in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Alexander Payne, the Academy Award Winner of Sideways was the main attraction that evening, and it was he who asked me the question. I replied that I felt it was “the novel that I was born to write.” I have always been spiritually inclined, I was born Catholic. My family converted to Mormonism when I was ten. Religious topics have always been part of family discussions. With scholarly research came questioning and search for enlightenment. While completing my Ph.D., I began diving into gender theory and Spanish renaissance literature. I also started researching the origin of religion. It was at this time that Marien’s story came to me. I chose to tell the story in a fragmented way because this aesthetic related to her own crisis.
Gavin: You've received a lot of praise for writing a female perspective and understanding that emotion and psychology. How are you able to tap into that mindset so easily and translate that into print?
Miguel: I relate to women because I grew up among them; observing them, feeling their struggles and their joys. The fact that I’m a gay man may also help relating better with female characters. Women, in my point of view, lead more interesting lives; they live more passionately. But let me clarify that the concept of a woman, in my humble interpretation, doesn’t necessarily relate to biological gender.
Gavin: What's the reaction been like to the book since its release and what do you think of that response from the audience?
Miguel: It may be too soon to judge. However, I believe that is a book that perhaps may be embraced more by intellectuals and others who like to be challenged. It is not summer reading. It requires attention to detail, and most of all, an open mind. I understand that I have written a book that may cause controversy. It encourages one to question assumed truth, even core elements, of Christian beliefs. I hope, however, to engage in an intelligent conversation. My belief system is a result of a dedicated bibliographical investigation. I’ve never been a follower, nor do I accept absolutes based on tradition. Tradition is a double-edge sword. If it unites us because of our commonalities with a group of people, it also preserves ideas that may not be time appropriate. My intentions have never been to impose my own belief system upon another, rather to provoke curiosity and instigate my readers’ own quest.
Gavin: Locally you're coming here for three days starting on June 2nd to speak at the U of U and participate in Utah Pride events. For those interested, what are your full set of plans while in town?
Miguel: It may be too soon to tell but I’m working on the theatrical adaptation of The Marien Revelation. Strange as it may sound, it is a musical similar in some ways to Moulin Rouge. I’m very interested in the possibility of collaborating with some of your local celebrities. I won’t mention names but they know who they are. Wink. I am both humbled and thrilled by the full schedule I have while in Salt Lake. I am fortunate enough to be meeting with some of Salt Lake’s finest citizens. I respect the amazing amount of talent that Salt Lake offers, the community should be quite proud. I worry about mentioning names, as I am afraid I will leave off one or two. Among other things, I am excited to be attending the Grand Marshall Pride Gala on Friday, June 4th.
Gavin: Moving onto national topics, what's your take on the current literary scene and the writers coming out of it?
Miguel: I have to admit that I’m a bit disconnected from what is currently out there. I’m very much a fan of the classics and having so much to read in my own field of research that I tend to overlook the newcomers. Right now I’m reading a novel by Elena Poniatowska, a Mexican writer. But, I’m starting a writer’s group in Florida later this summer. I’m in negotiations with my publisher to start my own imprint in 2011.
Gavin: Do you believe it's harder or easier for members of the LGBT community to find an audience with their works, and why?
Miguel: It’s hard for any kind of writer to make it in the field, regardless of orientation. But I find that the LGBT market is a bit more educated, has more disposable resources, and proportionally, I think there are more readers among us. This is complete speculation though. In the end, it is all about perseverance and a little bit of luck.
Gavin: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers about their work and getting published?
Miguel: Don’t be discouraged by the rejections. If you have done your work, which means finding three or four unbiased opinions that will truthfully tell you if you have a chance or not, keep trying! Develop a thick skin and learn to deal with rejection; it happens more often that one would like, but like I said before, it’s all about perseverance.
Gavin: Who are some of your favorite authors at the moment?
Miguel: For pleasure, I’m reading Poniatowska, as I mentioned before. She’s been around for quite some time so her body of work is going to take me a while. After her, I’m going to read Andrew Holleran’s works. I recently finished Grief and fell in love with the clarity of his language. I am also looking forward to Garc%uFFFDa M%uFFFDrquez’s latest.
Gavin: Do you feel like books are in decline with some being published online, or do you believe there will always be an audience there for a hand-held copy?
Miguel: That’s an interesting question. I love books. I love to touch them, to mark them, to smell them when they are old. I love having them on bookshelves. So I’m biased. Although The Marien Revelation is available in electronic format for those who prefer that medium, I believe there are others like me out there. I’m happy and understand that electronic books may reach a different market.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?
Miguel: This year I am focusing on The Marien Revelation. Although I have already started on the next novel, I am committed to Marien’s Story. I will be leading a writer’s workshop later this year.
Gavin: Aside the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Miguel: I hope that people can join us for the discussion on June 3rd, at 7PM, in the Salt Lake Main Library, hosted by Charles Lynn Frost. It should be an interesting talk about the book, about religion, homophobia, and other interesting topics. Thank you so much for a delightful interview.