Interview: Children’s-YA Author Diane Gonzales Bertrand

Diane Gonzales Bertrand’s novels include ALICIA’S TREASURE (1995), TRINO’S CHOICE (1999), and TRINO’S TIME (2001) Her bilingual picture books include SIP, SLURP, SOUP, SOUP/CALDO, CALDO, CALDO (1997), FAMILY, FAMILIA (1999), THE LAST DOLL (2001), and UNCLE CHENTE’S PICNIC (2001). Her books are published by Arte Publico. This interview was conducted via email in March 2002.

What role did books play in your childhood? What were your favorites?

I come from a family of seven children, and the least expensive form of entertainment was trips to the library. We went weekly to branch libraries or the Bookmobile and checked out books. I liked reading multiple books by the same author, and yet, I was never drawn to series books like NANCY DREW. My favorite books include IT’S LIKE THIS CAT, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, and ONE FISH, TWO FISH, RED FISH, BLUE FISH.

Do you see echoes of them in your own writing?

I started my first novel in fifth grade. When I look back at those old spiral notebooks, I’m amazed at the ability to structure a book, create dramatic scenes and form realistic conflicts for the characters. It has to be from reading so many books! And I know that my fondness for poetry comes from all the poems the nuns had us memorize in school, or from my attraction to Dr. Suess. I remember in high school that I was inspired by free verse poets like Rod McKuen and Langston Hughes, and attracted to the narratives in the music by Paul McCartney and John Lennon. All of these influences have made an impact on the language and style in my own poems, essays, and novels.

Do you remember any depictions of Latinos in books you read as a child?

Family Familia by Diane Gonzales BertrandI’d have to stretch the truth to name a children’s book that had Latino characters in them.

On TV there was Speedy Gonzalez, but in my reading, there was nothing. Actually, I didn’t start reading literature by Latinos until I was in graduate school in 1989.

At first, I felt embarrassed that I didn’t share their poverty or prejudice experiences. I was raised in an English-speaking household, so I thought since I didn’t speak fluent Spanish, my experiences weren’t “authentic.” But the urge to write my stories was too strong, and I realized that my experiences needed to be validated, celebrated, and expressed in what I knew as “truth.”

No one had brought the middle-class Latinos into literature, and I thought someone should have Latinas fall in love, set career goals as college-educated women, and show how spunky, creative, and humorous these women could be. That’s what inspired my romantic novels.

What else inspired you to write professionally?

Lessons of the Game by Diane Gonzales Bertrand

My own family inspires me, both the Gonzales family I grew up with as well as the two Bertrand children I’m raising. I saw a need for books about families like mine, and since no one seemed to be writing the books, I did. However, one of the things my college education has given me is the desire to learn about writing, especially the creative power in revision.

Because I’ve been teaching writing as I work as a writer, I learn continually about the craft of writing. My students often teach me new ways of looking at the world and new ideas about style, technique, and format. It makes me anxious to write—always—and I carry a notebook with me everywhere so I can write down what I need to, and then develop it later.

Why did you elect to write for children and teens?

The librarians in Texas put my adult novels into the category of Young Adult because they were G-rated books. They saw “role model” potential, especially for young Latino girls. But I actively began to read and write contemporary fiction for children and teens when my own children told me there was nothing interesting for them to read. Of course there were plenty of books available, but I took their complaints literally and started writing books that I thought my children, Nick and Suzanne, would want to read.

The fact that all my books, thus far, feature Latino characters was something I put into the literature on purpose because I didn’t see a fair representation of Mexican-Americans reflected in children’s literature. Now I realize there are many “gaps” in reading materials for children from different races, especially those with positive messages.

Can you tell us about your path to publication? Who helped you along the way?

It was difficult to find a book company that understood my stories. When I queried editors in bigger publishing houses, they weren’t ready for college educated Latinas, or felt there wasn’t a need for “another girl goes to the beach story”. It was incredibly frustrating because I didn’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes about Mexican-Americans, especially those who live in Texas. Other California writers, like Gary Soto, were having success in children’s literature, but I knew the Texas (Tejano) experience was different.

I found my publisher through a student in a writing workshop, Arcadia Lopez, one of the pioneers of bilingual education in Texas. She had just written her autobiography, BARRIO TEACHER. That’s how I discovered Arte Publico Press, which accepted SWEET FIFTEEN (1995). They continue to publish my work, and we’ve had an incredibly successful relationship.

Your work is, in some cases, illustrated. What have illustrators brought to your stories?

Early in my work as an author, I was told that publishing a picture book will be like giving your child up for adoption. That is the best simile to describe the process. I’ve always trusted the illustrator to be another creative artist in the “raising” of my book idea.

Sip, Slurp, Soup Caldo, Caldo, CaldoWhen I was a new author, a librarian took me around a book convention and showed me examples of books that were marketed for Latino children. The illustrations showed kids in stereotypical clothes, or were translations of English books that didn’t have anything Latino children could relate to. That night I started writing about eating caldo and tortillas, developing the verse that would be published as SIP, SLURP, SOUP, SOUP/CALDO, CALDO, CALDO in 1997.

Recently, I’ve been paired with Pauline Rodriguez Howard, and we’ve become friends in this relationship of illustrator and author. Our last book together, UNCLE CHENTE’S PICNIC (2001) features illustrations of members of my own family, including my own face for Aunt Linda who bakes the chocolate cake for the picnic. I have deep respect for what the artist brings to a picture book now that I’ve seen Pauline at work.

What is the greatest challenge to you as an author?

I wish I had more time to write. I “steal” it whenever I can find it. Working full-time at the university and being a mom to teenage children, forces me to have good time management skills. When I’m writing, my biggest challenge comes in making the story fresh and interesting. I don’t want to be put into a specific category as a writer. Even though I am inspired by my experiences as a Mexican-American, I don’t want to be “limited.” I just want to write. The fact that I write stories about Mexican-Americans at this moment, doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t write other kinds of stories too. That’s my biggest worry.

I don’t want to be categorized forever like King, Steele, or Grisham are. The other big challenge is actually being a children’s author. Finding time for school visits cuts into my writing time or family time. I get requests weekly to visit schools, but since I also teach at the university, I can only do one visit a month.

Could you tell us more about your experiences as Writer-in-Residence? What have they brought to you?

When I was given the honor of Writer-in-Residence for the English-Communications department at St. Mary’s University, I relished the title because it brought a new level of distinction for my work as an author. It also came with a small reduction of classes. (I teach seven courses instead of eight each year.)

However, I’m trying to reduce the teaching load even more, but at the university level, everything changes very slowly. I have terrific Chairs who support my work and respect it. My books have won awards now, and I think the university likes the way my writing accolades reflect well on them too. My composition and creative writing students enjoy working with a teacher who is also writing. I understand their frustrations with writing because I share them in my own writing every day.

I often bring in my own works-in-progress and get their feedback during workshops, and find their comments helpful and very insightful. I give credit to my students for helping me revise a working manuscript into something worthy of publication.

What kinds of reactions to your work have you gotten from young readers?

Two things stand out in my mind. Right after SIP,SLURP, SOUP, SOUP was published, I did a signing in a Houston bookstore. After I did the story hour reading, a little girl dragged her little brother up to my table with my book in her hand.

She said, “My name is Christina and this is my brother, Miguel, and our names are in your book.”

I’ve never forgotten that shine in her eyes or the smiles of her parents as they thanked me for writing the book for their family to read together.

The other thing are the packets of letters I got from kids in Rio Grande City near the Texas border. So many of them said, “I hate to read, but I liked your book. Can you write another one?”

This is why I write.

You have been recognized by the Latino Literary Hall of Fame and the Tomas Rivera Book Award. What is your opinion of ethnic-specific awards?

For me, these awards are a small start on earning recognition across the country. In writing for a small press, I wonder if anyone outside of Texas knows of my work. When my book is a finalist or wins the awards, I know the press release will go out further than Texas.

But I must admit, earning a spot on the 2001 Lone Star reading list for the Texas librarians was a big honor because I was there with other writers published by bigger houses and many of them were much better known than me. I treasure any award my stories earn, but I value the letters from my readers even more.

Could you give an overview of progress in Latino books for children? How far have we come? Where do we still need to go? What do you see as new trends or directions?

When I started writing children’s books, there were several established writers like Gary Soto, Alma Flor Ada, and others who had great books and were reprinted in school text books.

However, I still don’t believe that all the doors are open to new writers. Sometimes I think the publishers are thinking, “Well we publish one or two Latinos. That’s enough.” I have been publishing since 1995 with Arte Publico, and continue to query editors in New York, but still haven’t had any luck. Go figure!

One of the other problems I see is that if a Latino does get published, the only kind of stories the companies continue to seek is more culturally based stories. In other words, Maria Garcia and her family can make tortillas, but Maria Garcia can’t win a spelling bee. I’d love to write more “color blind” literature, and I know many writers who feel the same way.

Some of your books are bilingual. Why is this important?

When I was growing up in the sixties, English was the language of school, television, and everything else. My parents wanted us children to be successful, and so we were raised to speak English first. We were given our cultural heritage through food, music, family relationships, and in Church. Nowadays, “success” comes to those who can speak more than one language, so the ability to read both English and Spanish, especially in Texas, is an important asset.

Regardless if the reader’s first language is Spanish or English, he or she can read my books, and I think it’s very cool! I also know my books are used in high school Spanish classes and in ESL programs too. But the important thing about many bilingual books from smaller publishers is that the story is also a cultural one that translates well.

Why is translation so important and what does the translator bring to the story?

I’ve met the translators to my books and they are very talented people. They try to find the best word that can be universal in meaning. They work hard to avoid any slang or words that are too regional to be understood. My mother enjoys the translations and tells me she learns new words she hadn’t heard before.

You are published by Arte Publico Press, a well-respected Texas press. Could you tell us more about this experience? What are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing with a regional house?

When Arte Publico published SWEET FIFTEEN in 1995, it was the second book in their line for children and teens. Now there are dozens of titles for children and teens. They have learned how to market to educational groups and publishers, so that my early books are now in third and fourth printings.

One big advantage to publishing my stories with Arte Publico is that I know all the staff by name. And since they know me, they are willing to recommend me for a special event as their representative.

There isn’t big money to be made with a small press, but my speaking fees offer a nice bonus to what I make as an advance. The editors work hard to find talented artists and illustrators, many of who are Latinos, too. They are also open to publishing new writers, and you don’t need any agent to represent you.

However, a small publisher doesn’t mean they don’t expect quality in both content and in the writing. A writer must send them their best, not something second rate because the “good stuff” is circulating in a larger publisher. And in the case of Arte Publico, the author should be Latino.

What advice do you have for a new writer?

The Last Doll by Diane Gonzales Bertrand

Write from your heart. Whatever story, poem, or essay that moves you can move the reader too if you work hard at the craft, and revise until every word is the best one for that manuscript.

Get involved in local writing groups and join national groups like the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators. Going to conferences where you can meet editors is great!
But the most important thing is to network and find three or four writers who can meet regularly and become a critique group for your writing. Of everything I do, my fellow writers who critique my writing every other week has been the biggest source of inspiration and encouragement. They understand why I write far better than my own family and friends do.

Are you interested in speaking to writer/teacher/librarian groups or to teens via school visits? If so, could you tell us about your programs and how interested parties can contact you?

Because I teach writing, I do writing workshops for writers groups. My favorite is presenting a variety of activities to “jump start” new ideas for writing projects. I can also speak to writers who are feeling discouraged and inspire them to keep writing. My best programs for school visits are those where the students have read my novels as a class and have questions for me as the author.

I’ve also spoken in libraries, cultural centers, and as a banquet speaker; however, I always point out that my programs are always English only. I am not bilingual, even though my books are.

I can be contacted through Arte Publico Press.

What’s up next for your fans?

I’m working on two novels, and I have a historical novel in the works for the year 2003. I won’t be doing school visits during that year so I can spend time researching and writing the book. I’m looking forward to starting this project. In summer 2002, Arte Publico is releasing an updated reprint of my second romantic novel, CLOSE TO THE HEART. I’m excited about the opportunity to share this version of romance with my readers.

I’m always writing, even if what I write never gets published; writing is what I do, and I enjoy the creativity as much as the craft.

Any final words?

I’m always asked, “Diane, how do you do everything that you do?”

Everyday I juggle my writing along with the roles of teacher, wife and mom, daughter and sister. I’ve always loved the inspiration that comes from so many sources of human contact. I just hang on for the ride!

If you want to write for children and/or teens, remember they are readers that deserve the best you have to offer. I offer faith in the human spirit, hope in the promise of tomorrow, and love in family relationships. We all deserve nothing less.