Born in Miami, raised in England and West Virginia, and educated in Texas, Joy Castro is the award-winning author of two literary thrillers set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Hell or High Water and Nearer Home and two memoirs, The Truth Book and Island of Bones. Her work has appeared in magazines including Fourth Genre, North American Review, Afro-Hispanic Review, and the New York Times Magazine. Winner of the Nebraska Book Award and an International Latino Book Award, Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and editor of the anthology Family Trouble, she teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Her first collection of short fiction, How Winter Began, has just been published by the University of Nebraska press.
Joy was interviewed by Lynne Barrett for Sliver of Stone Magazine.
LB: The collection begins with “A Notion I Took,” in which Iréne, a new mother working as a waitress, jumps into the San Antonio River for 100 dollars. In the space of this action, we see the complexities of her body as that of a still-nursing mother, as an object of desire, even as a tourist attraction, the daredevil Latina. And Iréne also gives us different views of the action’s future: how stories about her “craziness” will be told; how her mother, taking care of her child, will be alarmed; how she will very rationally use the money to make a better future. You leave us in the present moment with her solitary, temporarily invisible, self immersed in the possibly dangerous truth of the water.
Many of your stories center on motherhood, whether biological or foster, and non-motherhood as salient facts of female experience. Daughterhood, too, recurs, as mothers and daughters define themselves through likeness and unlikeness, connection and rebellion, sometimes obsession, sometimes neglect. Individual characters may see their possibilities as limited, but the accumulated effect in the book is that there are an unlimited number of chances and choices. Over the course of writing these stories, did you think of them as contradicting and inverting each other?
JC: Yes, very much so. My main concern in How Winter Began is how late capitalism (inflected by sexism and racism) interrupts and restructures our most intimate and important relationships: with our lovers, with our children, with the natural world. How those bonds are ruptured and—if not destroyed—then commodified, how they are rewritten and handed back to us. I’m fascinated by the larger pressures that cause us to betray each other—and then by how we respond to those betrayals.
That’s the overarching concern, but daughters and mothers, especially single mothers, seem to be the kinds of characters in whose actions this larger question plays out for me. They’re primarily Latina women who struggle financially; that seems to be the territory that I know best and that most often captures my imagination. Those are the women I want to center in literature.
LB: There are 28 stories in this collection, some of them flash length, some longer, some concentrated within one incident, and some moving through decades. In your essay in Brevity, “On Length in Literature,” a defense of short and very short forms, you write: “Longer isn’t better. Sometimes it’s merely loose and rambling and self-indulgent. Or showy. Sometimes the impact of an entire book isn’t as strong as that of a powerful, incisive flash piece. Small doesn’t mean insignificant or reductive. Think atoms. DNA. Brief pieces can explode.”
Your shortest pieces here do indeed explode, but when the stories are put together they also give readers a different, cumulative experience. As you chose and ordered the stories in this book, how did the issue of length come in? Did you think about the timing of explosions and placing stories next to each other that were of varying lengths? Or were connections and variety in theme and subject of more importance?
JC: Thank you so much. That’s exciting to me, to hear that. When finding the order for the stories, I did work to balance various considerations. I wanted those stories that are explicitly linked to have some distance from each other, so the reader forgets about them a little bit before encountering those characters again; I wanted motifs and symbols (rivers, hangings, the preparation of food) to recur with a kind of rhythm; and I wanted the experience of reading the stories to be varied—not one long slog after another. I’m an impatient reader myself: I want payoff, I want liveliness, I want a variety of aesthetic experience as well as a variety of content.
Long ago in Texas, when I was still in grad school, I happened to go to a little brew-pub for a concert by singer-songwriter Catie Curtis. One song was hilarious, a boot-tapper, and then the next was a slow love song with gorgeous imagery, and the next was elegiac and wrenching, and then she had us laughing and tapping our toes again. The evening was a roller coaster, and I remember thinking, I want to do that.
LB: How do you see a “story collection” as a form? What possibilities did you discover in it that you may not have expected?
JC: I was excited by the way the arrangement could engage in formal play, both in dynamic and static terms. What I mean is that, in dynamic terms, the stories do describe an arc. They arc toward agency for their protagonists, who move toward taking greater control, toward taking action, toward redefining the terms of engagement for themselves. As you note, in the opening story, the ending is quite uncertain and bleak. In “Independence Day,” the protagonist takes fierce action, but it results in her own annihilation. This hopelessness changes as the collection moves forward. Possibilities open.
In static terms, I have always been fascinated by triptychs and the foldable, painted wooden icons of religious tradition. Things in threes. That’s echoed by the way that the three Iréne stories structure the collection, as the first, roughly middle, and final stories. Iréne changes; she has an arc; but there’s also a formal symmetry there that I find very beautiful and compelling. It’s a form that holds or contains all the movement and that has echoes of spirituality. Also in terms of a static design principle, the title story is located near the center of the book, like a hinge, rather than being placed at the beginning or the end, as title stories often seem to be.
LB: The title story, “How Winter Began” is like a hinge temporally as well as spatially. In two pages it presents the story of a violation in reverse chronological order, so that we read backwards from the bleak “after” to the unthinking “before” where the protagonist cannot envision what we know will come. I also read “How Winter Began” as a crime story that has an element of horror, because looking at the before when we know the darkness of the after we see loss with no promise of justice. In the context of the whole book, I think it operates as a warning. As we go forward to the stories that, as you say, show more agency it seems as if you also want the reader to know that for agency possibly to succeed requires more realistic knowledge of the true nature of what’s out there.
This collection follows two literary crime novels, Hell or High Water and Nearer Home. Some of your stories—I think possibly written since you began your first novel—could be defined as crime fiction. “Independence Day” is a story of justified murder and unjust punishment in Gold Rush California, where the new, American, owners of the land have also gained control of the power to define what is and isn’t crime. “Liking It Rough” shows a group of boys, fascinated with the old-time gallows in their small East Texas town, seeking a kind of vigilante justice, led by a narrator whose life path is formed by what happens. A story that comes late in the book, “Personal Effects,” is tense with the danger, horror, and magnetism of a criminal, while also showing the capacities for power contemporary life offers a young woman that were not so possible in the past. As I write that last sentence, I realize it could also be said of Hell or High Water.
How has writing longer form fiction, and specifically crime fiction, affected your short fiction?
JC: Doing the two novels gave me the writerly confidence, I think, to be more expansive in the stories, to attempt a larger stage or screen: larger in terms of sheer page length but also historical scope—to include more of a character’s life than just a revealing slice, to veer back and forth in time—across decades, if need be—to tell a more sweeping story. Working on the novels—persisting with those manuscripts over months and years—built my faith in my capacity to be (to borrow a metaphor from horse-racing) a stayer as well as a sprinter.
Each of the stories in How Winter Began was still drafted in one sitting—sometimes a very long sitting—but that confidence from writing novels allowed me to envision the short pieces more ambitiously, and to let them tackle more.
Crime fiction also schooled me in suspense and plot, which are not at all (as you know) my natural gifts. Honing that ability to withhold information and then reveal little bits of it at the right times really helped with a story like “Personal Effects.”
LB: Justice, if it does come at all, does not come via authority in your stories, which certainly reflects the realities of the worlds your characters live in. Could you talk about the tensions between “official” justice and “personal” justice and how you use them?
JC: Sure. I think this really stems from my own observations and experiences, beginning in childhood, when I lived under a fairly repressive fundamentalist regime. (I’ve joked that my first book, a memoir, should be shelved with true crime.) Watching the behavior of my family members and our religious leaders taught me at an early age to be very skeptical of authority. Systems and hierarchies are only as just, kind, and compassionate as the people who inhabit them, and their little rules and codes and laws are often written to privilege and protect those who are already powerful at the expense of those who aren’t.
As an adult, I’m often troubled by the extent to which I can read that observation onto the political and historical landscape. It’s part of the reason I care so much about teaching Ethnic Studies, in addition to literature and creative writing. In my experience, there’s usually a story of human suffering, anguish, and confusion under the official narrative of crime and justice—a story under the story. That’s the one I try to write.
LB: In addition to teaching, you’re also Director of the Institute for Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. You have a family. And you’re a visible literary citizen, for instance on Twitter, where I know if I look for @_JoyCastro I will find you highlighting and commenting on things of importance to writers and to all who are interested in suffering and struggle. How do you manage your time? Is there a balance you are aiming for rather than seeing different demands competing with each other?
JC: In a way, it’s all one thing. Being part of the literary conversation, which happens mostly via Twitter, gives me access to issues of publishing, cultural criticism, and more, particularly as those intersect with social justice and politics. Directing the Institute for Ethnic Studies lets me support my brilliant colleagues (some of whom are faculty of color and/or first-generation college) whose work focuses on race, ethnicity, and social justice, and I learn from my colleagues’ work in ways that eventually inform my writing. The courses we teach reach thousands of students each year, and that’s meaningful and transformative for our campus. I love teaching. A good syllabus is a work of art; a great class session is a thing of beauty.
So everything feeds everything else. During crunch times, the workload can be a bit overwhelming, but I’ve always been a hard worker. I like to work, to be productive.
Probably the most challenging aspect for me, professionally speaking, has been undertaking a position of academic leadership. Managing people, managing a curriculum, managing a budget: these are not naturally my strong suits. If you’re sensitive—and I think all writers are—then having people be angry at you or disappointed in you is pretty stressful, and that’s unfortunately part of the job, as any dean or department chair can attest.
What helps is the choice to view administration as a spiritual discipline. Every day is a new chance to learn, Hey, this is not about me, an opportunity to see the self as a kind of empty vehicle employed toward useful, peaceful ends. I’ve read a lot of books and articles to help me become an effective administrator—both in the business lit (Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, and so on) and in the higher ed lit—but I’d say the book that’s been the most deeply salient is the Tao te Ching.
So that’s how the different facets of my professional life fit together. I’m not sure if things are ideally balanced— like most writers with day-jobs, I would be entirely happy to retire tomorrow—but they do seem to be mutually enriching. I don’t write every day, in case anyone’s wondering. I write when I can, and I write like a happy madwoman during school breaks and in the summers. It’s not paradise, but it all seems to work out well enough.
LB: In How Winter Began, you often use stories told inside of stories. In Iréne’s second appearance, “A Favor I Did,” Alison, a white college girl, is working at the restaurant for the summer when “The rest of us were there for life.” One night, Iréne tells her about a sexual favor she did for money. The story—and the strange intimacy of anger and truth in its telling—shocks and frightens Alison. But the telling reveals aspects of the Iréne to herself and is potentially a favor done to Alison. In “Dinner” seventeen-year-old Sacramento first meets her father and hears his thoughtlessly frank version of her conception, so different from her mother’s. When a wife calls her potential rival in “Ruthless” to frighten her and strip her of illusions, she is also preventing her rival from making her own mistakes. Unwelcome reality has the effect of a slap in these stories, but it can also be read as a help. Late in the book, in “The River,” Ilse Kirchgrader, an widow who belongs to a long-established book group, is wounded by something overheard and remembers a similar incident in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Miss Brill.” Mansfield’s character is damaged irrecoverably, but Ilse learns and is planning new connection in the end.
Unlike Mansfield, you show shock as salutary, softness too dangerous, and silence or evasion as seeming kindness that imperils. Could you talk about this, the paradox of strength or growth coming from harsh truth—both telling it and hearing it?
JC: Hearing someone else’s honest views of one’s actions or personality can be devastating—and yet so potentially fruitful. I’m interested in moments of devastation-by-language, which almost always occur under the sign of perspectivism. You see your own choices in one way; someone else sees them in another. It’s not always flattering, but it’s often illuminating. If you can bear to listen.
Teaching the personal essay, one exercise I do is to ask students to list the three most painful things anyone has ever said to them. Not done; said. Then they pick one of the three utterances and write the scene—the setting, the action, the dialogue—so that when readers get to that line, it hits them with the same devastating, gut-wrenching power with which it hit the writer when it was originally uttered. Just what needs to be there on the page, and no more. Don’t talk about how it hurt. Make it hurt.
Sometimes people say potentially painful, even malicious, things to us, but we let those roll right off. The reason we remember the painful utterances that we do remember is usually either that 1) someone has said something that so negates, so erases our sense of self that it almost shatters us—we hadn’t known we could be seen in that awful, untrue way, or 2) the person has said aloud something we secretly feared was true and horrible about ourselves, and now we know that it’s perceptible to others.
Either way, it’s a very key and revelatory insight to our core sense of identity. The exercise works really well. Write all three of those scenes, I tell students, and you’re on your way to a memoir. Plus, it’s nice to not have those painful moments stored up inside anymore. They’re out on the page where you can get some distance from them, turn them this way and that, hold them up to the light, see what might have been motivating that other person. . . Now it’s an object, a potential work of art, a thing to be shaped, instead of a seed of poison gnawing away at you inside.
In fiction, when those utterances happen, it’s usually a pivotal moment, a moment when a character must make a choice, a moment of change and drama. So I find those instances very rich.
I also really like your insight about how often the stories in How Winter Began feature embedded narratives. I hadn’t really thought about that, but you’re right. And I do love novels with embedded narratives: A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. A very few years ago, I became quietly obsessed with matryoshka dolls, the Russian nesting dolls. Near my home in Lincoln, there’s a Russian store, and I kept finding myself there, compulsively handling the matryoshka dolls. I finally broke down and bought a set, which I keep on my shelf at home.
It’s probably no accident—in terms of my having been compulsively drawn toward them—that they’re all female, one inside another. Hidden or revealed, they’re always there, always dwelling in that interlocked relationship, always part of each other.
You can take out the littler ones, but then the big one’s empty.
LB: That’s a wonderful nonfiction exercise. I can’t help but think how in fiction we can transpose it in inventing dialogue—and position ourselves not just with the person spoken to but the speaker. Again, a way of making something new from that seed of poison.
Besides Mansfield, are there other writers who have mattered to you in the sense not just of influence, but of prompting you to write to counter them?
JC: Yes, profoundly. In terms of influence: Jean Rhys, Milan Kundera, George Eliot, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich, and Toni Morrison—and then the high modernist writers of short fiction and novels, who were those I loved and studied in graduate school: Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, and the little-known Margery Latimer. Specifically within the genre of crime fiction: Kate Atkinson, Dashiell Hammett, and Dennis Lehane.
Jean Rhys is probably my favorite. I love trusting the intelligence of the reader in a radical way, just leaping into the void of the story you have to tell. Rhys does that. She’s also so understated, so sly, so canny and uncanny at once.
In terms of authors whose vision I’m actively working to counter, there are so many who’ve erased or sidelined or diminished or actively distorted the kinds of characters I care about, I honestly wouldn’t know where to start.
LB: One last question: You’re about to have this book come out. What part of this process do you enjoy? And can you tell us some places where those who want to hear you speak will find you, over the next few months
JC: I love seeing and holding the physical object of the book, and How Winter Began is a beauty. The designer at the University of Nebraska Press, Annie Shahan, did a gorgeous job with the cover, selecting (and somehow obtaining) part of a painting by the Spanish surrealist Remedios Varo. Her paintings are so clever and deft.
I also really enjoy giving readings. Ten years ago, when The Truth Book came out, I didn’t. I was terrified. Very nervous. The whole idea of speaking in public at all, much less reading my own work aloud to strangers—well, it was difficult. Of course I knew it was an honor and all: the gift of people’s time. But it was still hard.
Now, after ten years of publishing and touring, I truly do love to give readings, whether they’re at bookstores or universities. I work to make each reading into an experience for listeners: an emotional experience, an aesthetic experience. I love connecting with people who love books.
I’ve also really enjoyed visiting with book clubs who’ve selected one of my books. That’s always fun—and there’s usually wine…
I like festivals, too, now, and conferences. I just had to accept that my shyness would always make that kind of interaction a challenge. Many writers I admire struggle with this. Some don’t, but many do. If you’re a shy writer, know that you’re not alone. You just have to pace yourself. I’ve dined quietly by myself in a lot of hotel rooms, far from the madding crowd.
How Winter Began is being published by a small press, and I didn’t hire an independent publicist, so I don’t have an aggressive touring schedule this fall. I look forward to visiting the Downtown Omaha Lit Fest on October 17th, the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Conference in Philadelphia on November 5th, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts on January 2nd. My guess is that word-of-mouth will slowly build momentum for this book, and I’ll be doing more readings later on.
For more on Joy Castro’s speaking schedule and her writing, go to: http://joycastro.com/
Joy Castro photo by Shae Sackman