by Anelia Gomez-Cordova
Nan Cuba began her writing career during a hiatus from teaching after a friend offered to help her with a writing project. Step by step, Cuba went from writing articles about her experiences to becoming contributing editor of San Antonio Monthly where another editor helped her further develop her writing and become a journalist. “Two wonderful teachers who generously helped an eager novice,” as Cuba explains, that made a difference in Cuba’s writing career, and it is Cuba who now helps out new voices as a writer-in-residence at Our Lady of the Lake University.
She recently answered a few questions on her beginnings as a writer, her work, and her hopes for the literary scene of San Antonio via e-mail from her residency in Austin, Texas as part of her Dobie Paisano Fellowship.
Anelia Gomez-Cordova: How did you get started as a writer, and what is it about writing that calls to you?
Nan Cuba: While I was growing up, I took every speech class and acted (badly) in any theater opportunities that were offered in my middle and high schools. I even sang (badly) in a small group (The N Crowd). This, I was sure, would be my future. But I married and had a child while an undergraduate, so after graduation, I taught elementary school for ten years in order to put my husband through law school.
Then I took a year off to decide what I wanted to do. My husband said, “Why don’t you write a novel? You read more books than any person I’ve ever known.” I laughed, but when I told the librarian at the school where I’d last taught that I thought I could write a children’s book, she set up a desk in her home and had me come to work twice a week while she educated me about freelance writing.
After three months, she told me to pitch article ideas to the city magazine editor (San Antonio Monthly), so I did and got my first assignment, an article that made the cover of the issue. That launched my journalism career, which led to my enrollment in an MFA program where I studied fiction writing. I’d come full circle, back to thinking again about people and their stories.
I believe that writing is an act of discovery, and since much of my fiction is autobiographically based I must be trying to understand the significance of personal experiences that generate inquiry. My father used to say I always asked questions; I guess I’m still doing that.
AGC: You mentioned writing began as being put to work on a desk while learning from the librarian, did that work? Or did you discover a specific creative process that works for you?
NC: Those beginning days, working at my friend’s desk, were spent developing simple short articles based on what I knew and where I’d been. After three months, my friend told me to pitch five ideas to a magazine editor. The one he chose was based on my experience as a volunteer at the zoo. I became a contributing editor at that magazine, and that editor taught me how to be a journalist. Two wonderful teachers who generously helped an eager novice.
AGC: What have you learned about the craft as a writer?
NC: This question is like asking a neurosurgeon what he’s learned about performing brain surgery. The craft is so complex and open to such extensive innovation that a writer can spend a lifetime practicing and never totally master it. That’s one reason we put ourselves through hours of meticulous work and rework; we are driven to write the perfect lyrical sentence, find the apt metaphor, illustrate a universal truth. Like a classical violinist, we practice so the craft will be our fine-tuned instrument for expressing the inexpressible.
AGC: How do you deal with any criticism of your work, and how do you ensure that you stay true to what you want to convey?
NC: I am careful about choosing readers, people whose work I respect, who are familiar with my work and will honor my intentions. But I don’t follow every suggestion. I note confusions and translate suggestions into useful revisions. As an example, if a reader says she thinks I should change the point of view from third person to first person, I interpret that as a need to feel closer to the character, which can be accomplished without a major POV change.
AGC: You are one of the founders of Gemini Ink, a big part in the city’s creative landscape, and worked with the organization for a really long time; how did that come about? Is it where you envisioned it would be once it was up and running as an organization?
NC: The nonprofit literary center was not planned. A friend, Marylyn Croman, and I scripted reader’s theater productions that were performed by local actors, scholars, and musicians; the shows appeared in bookstores, museums, college campuses, and community centers. After two years, we also offered classes, which were held in my husband’s law office. Marylyn left right after my husband acquired the nonprofit status, and I remained as the director for eleven years.
The organization has maintained my original program design, with organic changes that signal its successful adaptation to community needs and expectations. I wanted the center to be operated, staffed, supported, and enjoyed by our community, so I’m delighted with its current status and feel immeasurable gratitude toward everyone who participated in its growth.
AGC: What have you seen change in the San Antonio literary landscape, and where do you hope to see it in the future?
NC: We have always had writers like O. Henry and Sandra Cisneros living in San Antonio. When I started Gemini Ink, literary events were rare, but that has certainly changed. While most city newspapers have cancelled their book page, the Express-News devotes two pages to reviews and a weekly poem, testimony to our thriving literary community. Wings Press and Trinity University Press publish books that receive national acclaim. UTSA has a respected creative writing program, and Our Lady of the Lake University, where I am writer in residence, offers an MA/MFA Program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice. My hope is that such healthy developments continue, especially with the appearance of more diverse voices.
AGC: You’ve worked in journalism; was it a hard transition between a journalistic approach to writing and the writing in your first novel Body and Bread?
NC: Yes, the transition was difficult. As a journalist, I could write compelling narration, so I relied on that skill while writing fiction. As a result, my stories contained little dialogue. When I started working on my MFA, I purposely quit writing journalism so I could focus on craft requirements of the new form.
AGC: Body and Bread has a lot of detailed information embedded in it, not only about landscape but also the Aztec culture. Did it take a lot of research? Is research something emerging writers should be aware of?
NC: Novels with detailed information, like Moby Dick, are not new. Such information deepens and expands the story, giving the reader a more profound experience. Body and Bread required extensive research. In fact, I worked with Nahuatl and Czech scholars, who helped with those linguistic entries. Fortunately, research is much easier with access to the Internet, but writers must focus on crafting the fiction and integrate the research judiciously.
AGC: For Body and Bread, why the focus on the Aztec culture? What was it about that particular culture that drew you to it or that spoke to Sarah?
NC: My first year out of college, I taught at an elementary school only a few blocks from the Westside university campus where I now have been a faculty member for eleven years. In between, I was writer-in-the-schools at locations throughout the San Antonio Independent School District, mostly on the Westside. In other words, much of my adult life has been spent working with Latino/a colleagues and students. That culture has become a part of my identity, so giving Sarah that specialization was a natural impulse. I fully realize that like an anthropologist who appropriates a culture in order to draw conclusions about it, I used the Mexihca to tell my story. I only hope that my effort honors this culture I’ve come to revere.
AGC: Do you have any advice for students wanting to break into the writing or journalism business?
NC: Anyone who wants to write professionally must read voraciously. Before creative writing classes, people learned craft by reading literary work. You should read writing that exhibits nuanced uses of language, much like an artist uses paints or a composer uses musical notes. Think about sounds and syllables in words, syntax and lengths of sentences, placement of paragraphs, pacing and rhythm. Notice how celebrated writers manipulate language in order to achieve effect. Accept the fact that mastering craft is a lifelong pursuit. Keep your standards high and be persistent. While you’re learning craft, sharpen your powers of observation. Artists are called to witness, and you must pay close attention to the world so you can honestly reflect aspects of the human experience.
Nan Cuba is the author of Body and Bread (Engine Books, 2013), winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction; it was also listed as one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” in O, Oprah’s Magazine, was a “Summer Books” choice from Huffington Post, and the San Antonio Express-News called it one of the “Best Books of 2013.” Cuba co-edited Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists (Trinity University Press, 2008), and published other work in such places as Antioch Review, Harvard Review, Columbia, and Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row. Her story, “Watching Alice Watch,” was one of the Million Writers Award Notable Stories (storySouth), and “When Horses Fly” won the George Nixon Creative Writing Award for Best Prose from the Conference of College Teachers of English. As an investigative journalist, she reported on the causes of extraordinary violence in LIFE, Third Coast, and D Magazine. She has received a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, an artist residency at Fundación Valparaiso in Spain, and was a finalist for the Humanities Texas Award for Individual Achievement. She is the founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit literary center, and teaches in the MA/MFA Program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where she is writer-in-residence. Her website is http://nancuba.com.