Lee Merrill Byrd was born and raised in New Jersey, but then relocated to the southwest. She founded Cinco Puntos Press with her husband, poet Bobby Byrd in 1985. Cinco Puntos publishes adult non-fiction, adult fiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Its focus is on “multicultural literatures of the American Southwest, the U.S./Mexico border region and Mexico.”
Lee’s debut children’s book was The Treasure on Gold Street, A Neighborhood Story (Cinco Puntos, 2003), which was named a Skipping Stones Honor Book Award and received a Southwest Book Award, a Paterson Poetry Center Prize, and a Teddy Award from the Writers’ League of Texas. She also has published Lover Boy, A Bilingual Counting Book (Cinco Puntos, 2005). Her first novel, Riley’s Fire, was published by Algonquin in spring 2006.
Let’s begin by talking about your own novel, Riley’s Fire (Algonquin, 2006). Could you tell us about the story?
Riley’s Fire is the story of a seven-year-old boy named Riley Martin. He’s a big boy, much too big for his age. He’s adventurous, inquisitive—a dreamer, an experimenter. He wants to know what will happen if he throws a match on some gasoline he’s spilled on his garage floor. The match calls to him, a destiny as persuasive as the needle on Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel.
Within hours of the fire, he and his family are flown to the Shriners Burns Institute in Galveston, Texas, where Riley spends the next three months. The fire and its consequences and its impact on the people around him, his mother especially, are not nearly as engaging as the world of the hospital and its fascinating inhabitants–“kids of all shapes and sizes and colors, bandaged and pinned together, missing arms and legs and noses, with contorted lips or strange outcroppings of skin–wounded soldiers in a complex battle,” who are there at the hospital for the sole purpose of fueling and confounding Riley’s intense imagination. Riley Martin finds out–though it’s no surprise to him–that suffering isn’t always tragic and that it forms and shapes us and bears fruit beyond what we can even imagine.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
In 1981, our two sons, Johnny and Andy, were caught inside a playhouse that had been accidentally set on fire by a friend. At that time they were 7 and 4. Johnny suffered third-degree burns over thirty-five percent of his body, Andy sixty-three percent. Within 14 hours, we were taken out of our regular lives–the hospital in El Paso wasn’t equipped to take care of severely burned children–and flown to the Shriners Burns Hospital in Galveston, Texas. As you can imagine, the fire changed our lives.
Almost from the very first day we were in Galveston, I began to write down everything that we were going through. Every impression, every smell, every person, every story went into my notebooks. It was part of the way I began to deal with–to give a shape to–what was happening to my family.
When we came home from the hospital after three months, I was often overwhelmed with how many things I had to write–wanted and needed to write–about the fire. There was the fire, the one that changed our lives. I had a dozen stories I wanted to write about that fire. And then there was fire itself, consuming and transforming. And there were the scars–so deceptive, it took so long before they actually became apparent–sometimes months–and then it took so long to see past them. And there were those kids–our own among them–who were strong and remarkable. Incredible kids.
I wrote three or four long stories, but there were many more to be told. I would start some and write notes for others. I seemed to be telling the same story over and over, but always from a different point of view–I couldn’t leave anything out. Some stories I finished, some I never did, but there was one in particular that could find no end, no safe harbor, and that story was about a boy who entered my imagination: Riley–a big over-sized boy who looked like he was ten but was really only seven, an adventurous, inquisitive, talkative boy who was the essence of all the kids we met at the hospital. I loved this boy–his jaunty aggressive ways, his reverent pursuit of understanding. He seemed to breathe in the back of my heart, but I didn’t know how to tell about a life that would be such a mix of sorrow and joy.
More than twenty years passed. I published a few of the stories about the fire, but they were only a part of the picture. I couldn’t seem to put down everything I wanted to say. There was just too much of it to pull together. Just talking about the things that happened didn’t really get to the heart of what I wanted to say, and I was really tired actually of writing about the fire. It was frustrating, so I decided to just quit writing altogether. And that was okay with me.
But then one day I remembered an editor who has also been a friend in the publishing world–Shannon Ravenel–and I asked if I could send her the story about Riley. She asked to see the rest of the stories I’d written about the fire. “Why don’t you consider putting them all together?” she suggested. I’d thought of that many times before but I never could see how to make it work. Her encouragement and the passing of so many years–just waiting–helped me to figure out the next step.
It turned out that the key was Riley. I could tell the story–all of it–from his point of view because a seven-year-old doesn’t see like an adult–thank God!–and a seven-year-old has such a wondrous, hearty preoccupation with himself that the world could spin out of control around him and he might notice, but probably not. So every story I had ever written got filtered through Riley’s eyes and it was Riley’s cheerful myopic vision of his particular tragedy that freed me finally to set down his story in a way that was completely satisfying to me. And, I hope, to the reader.
Just so you know: our two sons are now 33 and 30, strong handsome men.
You’re also the author of a couple of recent bilingual children’s books, The Treasure on Gold Street/El Tesoro en la Calle d’Oro: A Neighborhood Story in Spanish and English, illustrated by Antonio Castro L. (Cinco Puntos, 2003) and Lover Boy/Juanito el Cariñoso: A Bilingual Counting Book, illustrated by Francisco Delgado (Cinco Puntos, 2006). Could you tell us about each?
The Treasure on Gold Street is a story, told in the voice of my granddaughter Hannah, about our neighbor Isabel, an older woman with mental retardation whose mind is that of a very young person. When we first moved to our neighborhood 30 years ago, Isabel came over every day to play with our kids. Now that our daughter and her family live next door, Isabel comes to play with our grandkids. In fact, Isabel has probably played with every kid on the block at some point, at least until that particular kid realized there was something different about Isabel. But different or not, Isabel is still the treasure on our street. The artist, Antonio Castro L., illustrated the book from photos that I have taken of Isabel over the years, so this book, as Kirkus noted, “is actually a work of sociology based on the lives of Byrd’s family and neighbors. An excellent introduction to the value of some of our society’s least appreciated citizens.”
Lover Boy is a bilingual counting book. I have a very affectionate grandson, Johnny Andrew, who loves to hug and kiss, so each person in his family and circle of friends gets a different number of kisses. What really makes the book so great are the colorful, lively illustrations by Francisco Delgado, who used his own son Pedro as the model. So two boys actually inspired Lover Boy—-Johnny Andrew and Pedro.
What are the challenges in writing for very young children? What advice do you have for beginning writers?
My advice to writers is always the same, whether they write for kids or for adults: write and write and write and always read. Writing and reading—-done regularly and often—-are your two best teachers.
You’re an editor/publisher at Cinco Puntos. How would you describe the house and its mission with regard to literature for young people?
Our mission has always been to publish good writing. That’s what we look for and that’s what delights us, whether we find it in books for kids or books for adults, fiction or non-fiction.
Could you fill us in on the history of the house?
My husband Bobby and I started Cinco Puntos Press in 1985. At that time, we were two writers—-I’m a fiction writer and Bobby is a poet—-with three kids, and we were sick of working for other people and wishing we had more time to write.
We went to visit Richard Grossinger and his wife Lindy Hough who run North Atlantic Press in Berkeley. At that time, they were publishing poetry and a lot of books on marital arts, although they are currently best known for publishing Walter the Farting Dog [by William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray, illustrated by Audrey Colman (North Atlantic, 2001)]. They had published a book of Bobby’s poetry, called Get Some Fuses for the House (now available through Cinco Puntos). They told us they were making about $25,000 a year as publishers. It was 1985, and that sounded really good! So, without knowing anything, we decided that we would become publishers.
We decided to name our press Cinco Puntos, after the Five Points neighborhood in El Paso where we live. For the first fifteen years we were in business, we worked out of our house. At first both of us kept our regular jobs, but eventually Bobby was able to be at home and run the press. In 1996, the press began to support us both.
The first book we published was a collection of short stories called Winners on the Pass Line by Dagoberto Gilb (Cinco Puntos, 1985).
Our second book was by storyteller Joe Hayes. It was his classic—and ours—La Llorona, the Weeping Woman (Cinco Puntos, 1987), which has been one of our best selling titles. We sometimes call ourselves “the house that La Llorona built,” it’s been such a steady seller for us. We published it in a bilingual format because this is how Joe liked to tell stories. There weren’t too many publishers doing that then.
Since we are both writers, our first inclination had been to publish fiction, and we have published some great fiction and poetry. We didn’t know much about children’s books and hadn’t imagined that we would start publishing, but we actually ended up over the years making our living (i.e. keeping the press afloat) with children’s books, most of them bilingual.
I think one of the things that makes us unique is that we live and work here in El Paso, within walking distance (maybe a couple miles) from the U.S./Mexico border. El Paso and its fronterizo life have given us a unique perspective on American culture. We’ve also had the good fortune to explore publishing slowly, one book at a time, doing the things that interest us without the pressure and hype peculiar maybe to publishers in other cities.
We are distributed nationally to the trade by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution (1.800.283.3572). Cinco Puntos Press (CPP) is a nationally known, independent, NOT non-profit, literary press that specializes in publishing books (fiction, non-fiction, and books for kids) from the U.S./Mexico border, Mexico and the American Southwest.
In recognition of our importance as a voice from this part of the world and our commitment to literature, we have received the American Book Award for excellence in publishing and been inducted into the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. We have received five publishing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and three similar grants from the Texas Commission for the Arts. We have also received two grants from the Fideicomiso para la Cultura de México y Estados Unidos (funded jointly by the Belles Artes and the Rockefeller Foundation) to publish Mexican literature in translation.
I like this statement that was made by the Before Columbus Foundation when we received the American Book Award for publishing in 1999:
“We always hear about passion in this business, but rarely devotion. What Bobby and Lee Byrd have created is what begins as a dream and ideal for most people. But after the hard work and constant battles take their toll, most get jaded and things get reduced to a simple business proposition. Unlike the NAFTA-mindedness of corporate publishing culture, Bobby and Lee Byrd and all of Cinco Puntos have the integrity to continue to live their dream, not just on the border, but across borders. This is one family, one publisher, which deserves our attention and respect.”
How would you describe your children’s and YA lines in particular?
Our children’s books offer, we think, a mirror into the culture on the U.S./Mexico border, especially into the folktales that are so important to the Hispanic culture, like the beloved La Llorona or the bogeyman story El Cucuy (2001).
Many of our children’s books have a political edge to them, either in a straightforward way (like The Story of Colors by Subcomandante Marcos (Cinco Puntos, 1999) or ¡Sí, Se Puede!/Yes, We Can! by Diana Cohn (Cinco Puntos, 2002)) or they make a political statement just by virtue of the fact that they are bilingual and they are reflecting a culture that hasn’t been considered much in mainstream literature, especially in children’s books.
In the past few years, we’ve been ranging outside this part of the world geographically, but not politically. We’ve done a book on homeless kids in Haiti (Selavi: A Haitian Story of Hope by Youme (2004); a wonderful new book by Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle called Crossing Bok Chitto (2006)[recommendation]; and next season we’re going to do a book called The Bee Tree (2007), which is set in Malaysia but presents the ancient culture of honey hunters and a way of life which is in danger. We’ve moved outside the border, but not outside of the political issues that we think are important.
We don’t have a large YA list, but what we have is indicative of what we’re after: reflections of culture, both Hispanic and Native American, that aren’t currently part of the YA world. I don’t think lots of writers of color are being encouraged to write for teenagers, so I try to encourage writers to do that when they call.
What are the challenges particular to the success of a regional press?
Probably overcoming being considered a regional press! I think that perception of Cinco Puntos will change as the population of the United States changes. The last census shows us that 36 million people are Latinos. They are moving all over the United States. They are moving into the middle class. They are book buyers, and they want to see themselves in books.
How about marketing–in part–bilingual books?
Marketing bilingual books depends a lot on going to book conferences. We go to lots of book conferences, particularly educational ones that focus on bilingual books, like the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), TABE (the Texas association) and CABE (California). And we are members of REFORMA, which is a caucus of the American Library Association that supports the acquisition of Spanish-language materials into libraries, and this is very important to us.
What qualities do you look for in a manuscript?
Good writing, vitality, quirkiness, energy, a writer who knows how to write and cares about his or her work, an authentic voice. Life!
How can writers and illustrators get in touch with you/the house? Any submission recommendations or pet peeves?
Illustrators can mail me a Xerox sample representative of their work or email me a link to a website with representative work. I keep these on file if the work interests me. The main point here is not to overwhelm me with lots of stuff. It’s better to send one or two really good samples than a mess of things. We always have our eye open for illustrators and artists as we travel around.
I ask writers to call me before they send anything to me. I love it when people know what Cinco Puntos does and are familiar with our work. I love it when they’ve read CPP books and really understand our list. I think any small press publisher feels the same way. I love to hear from writers–people who really write, who are committed to writing. I love to talk to writers who understand that a publisher is making an enormous commitment of time and money when they agree to publish a work and so don’t submit things lightly. I love it when writers give us their very best work.
I like to talk directly to a writer, even if they do have an agent. I do better when the writer will just call and talk to me about their work. I’m not particularly interested in the story or the plot, which many writers feel compelled to tell me, but only in the writing. I often ask writers to just mail me the first chapter or first ten or twenty pages. That way I can tell if the writing engages me.
I am probably not as anxious to talk to people or to see their work if they haven’t taken the time to find out what we do or if they assume that because we live on the border that what we are looking for is books on drugs or immigration or cactuses and coyotes. I don’t get really interested when people tell me they just wrote their first story or poem or when they wonder how you get a book published.
But, of course, whenever I say things like that, someone calls me up and says all the wrong things and I end up loving the thing they finally convince me to look at!
Do most of your books begin as submissions from writers, writer-illustrators, or agents?
Books have come to us in all sorts of odd ways. Some come by submission, some come because we got into an odd conversation with a writer at some conference, a few have come because other publishers get the manuscripts and know it’s not their book (maybe they don’t publish kid’s books) and so recommend us, some books have come through rights sale. Each book has its own miraculous story.
If you had to highlight four titles that could give us a feel for the list, which ones would you suggest for study and why?
La Llorona/The Weeping Woman by Joe Hayes: This is our longest lived and best-selling title. It’s a folktale greatly loved by people from Mexico and Latin America. It has an enormous attraction for young and old, rich and poor, every economic level, whether they are readers or non-readers. It’s a great teaching tool because even kids who hate to read want to find out if Joe Hayes’ version of this classic story is the “right” one, and they also want to tell you their own version.
Vatos: a poem by Luis Alberto Urrea with photos for each line or two by José Galvez. It’s essentially a photograph book, though the poem by Luis is what really gives it meaning. It’s a YALSA Reluctant Readers Quick Pick. When José sent us this book, we all said right away, Oh yes, that’s ours. I think José had tried to pitch it to other presses, but they didn’t respond. The same thing happened to us with Rudolfo Anaya and his wonderful Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez—-it was a book he couldn’t sell in New York, which we knew right away would do really well for Cinco Puntos.
Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2004)(recommendation): This is our first YA novel. It’s a great book, great literature. The response to it nationally just shows us how hungry folks are for Latino voices.
I know I’m only supposed to talk about four books, but in the same breath I want to say that I think Walking the Choctaw Road by Tim Tingle, though geared for adults and young adults, really opens up the Native American world for readers in the same way that Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood did. I get excited to see books by writers from so many different ethnic backgrounds now coming out because it shows how eager readers are to know how other cultures view the world.
Ringside Seat to a Revolution by David Dorado Romo. This is an underground cultural history of El Paso and Juarez during the years of the Mexican Revolution. David is an incredible historian and researcher. The history brings to light these years from a perspective of a Mexican, Mexican-American, fronterizo (a person with one foot on either side of the border), and puts aside much of the cowboy and Wild West history that has prevailed about this part of the world. It’s an amazing book and one that we’re really proud of.
What do you see as the job(s) of an editor in the publishing process?
In a very small publishing house like Cinco Puntos, we all work together in the publishing process. I generally do the front work on an acquisition, deciding if it’s a book I should get the rest of the people here to pay attention to. Once a book has been acquired and the production process starts, different ones of us will edit, but I usually end up doing the line editing towards the end of the process, mostly because I like detail and I worry over the final parts of a book. Before a book is finished, we all have gone over it a number of times. When the book finally arrives, it’s almost impossible to say, “This is my book,” as if one or the other of us was completely instrumental in either acquiring or editing the book. It’s really a very collaborative process.
What are its challenges?
As a publisher, it’s important to know, understand and be in agreement with what you’re publishing. I’ve gotten manuscripts before that I didn’t want to acquire, not because they weren’t good, but because I knew that I didn’t understand the cultural background associated with the manuscripts. An example that comes to mind was a story sent ten or fifteen years ago that involved crypto-Jews in the Southwest. I knew I didn’t really understand very much about crypto-Jews and why this subject had become so prominent in New Mexico in the last several decades. I also knew there is a whole lot of controversy surrounding this issue. I didn’t know enough to make a decision about whether the manuscript was reliable and I didn’t know the writer well enough to trust her understanding, so I passed on it. I also didn’t have the time or inclination to find out more about the topic.
On the other hand, I didn’t know a whole lot about Choctaw history or culture, but we were fortune to get to know Tim Tingle, a Choctaw storyteller and a solid historian. We knew that we could trust the work that he was doing. We feel the same way about Joe Hayes and his deep and rich understanding of folklore throughout the world and particularly in the southwestern part of the United States. We trust his knowledge of this subject so fully so that we can acquire his work without question.
What do you love about it?
My husband Bobby always says that publishing is like writing–it’s an act of discovery. I agree with this. Each book takes us to a new place, to new understandings, to meet new people.
It’s also a collaborative process. There’s nothing that makes me happier than working together as a group with the people at Cinco Puntos (there are six of us). We’ve also had the great pleasure of working with our kids in this business. Our daughter Susie and her husband Eddie worked for us for a number of years back in the late 1990s. Our son Johnny has now come back from Austin, where he lived for a long time, to be an important part of our business.
There’s also nothing better than hearing that people love one of the books we’ve published–it’s like hearing good things about our kids. We’re proud of each one. Publishing is a very creative, very satisfying work, and it’s a work that’s larger somehow than writing. With writing, you can only use your own voice, write out of your own understanding. With publishing, you can be part of making many voices heard. It’s exciting!
What do you do when you’re not reading, writing, or editing?
Well, our grandkids and our daughter and her husband live next door, and our son Johnny lives and works with us, so we both really enjoy being with our family.
This is what you can do with grandkids when you live on the border: Drive to Mexico ten minutes away, eat dinner, then take the kids to the feria (the fair) where lots of families congregate so they can watch their kids go on miniature ferris wheels and spinning teacups and merry-go-rounds and bumper cars. It’s fun!
People magazine gave Riley’s Fire four stars and called it “astonishingly uplifting.”