TWENTY-FOUR QUESTIONS: A CONVERSATION WITH ALBERTO ALVARO RIOS
Other versions of this interview may be found here.
Janene Archuleta: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
AR: This is a good question, one that I’ve had to think about many times. The truth is, there never was a moment like that for me. I never had a sudden epiphany that told me, aha! I want to be a writer. Instead, I’ve just always written. And by writing I mean something far more complex than simply putting a pen to paper. By writing I also mean listening to the world, thinking about it, remembering things, being surprised at the things I remember, and so on. If I had waited for the moment you describe, I still wouldn’t be a writer today!
Laura Whitaker: Do you have a certain reader in mind before you begin to brainstorm?
AR: No, not really. But I do keep this test always in mind: Could I tell this story, or this poem, or this whatever, could I tell it across my kitchen table? That is, I do not think of a certain reader, but I certainly know that a reader is out there.
Laura Whitaker: Has it ever been hard for you as a writer to get in touch with your voice? Have you ever found yourself writing, using another’s words?
AR: No. This hasn’t really been anything I’ve had to wrestle with. I know what you mean—writers are always talking about their “voice.” I think the best advice is to just write and write and write—your voice will be in there somewhere.
Laura Whitaker: How do you use location, events and symbols to convey what you are feeling and how that helps to develop your story?
AR: Do I use events, locations, and symbols to further the meanings in my stories? I hope that’s close to what you asked. Yes, indeed, indeed. That is one big reason I write about the border so much, for example. As a place, it’s simply one more point of geography. But a border has many, many meanings as a symbol, and I base much of my writing on that edge. I don’t always start out thinking that every last thing I’m using in a story is representative of something else, but very often, after writing for so many years, the things I choose to include do often fit a greater story. I try to relax about these things, and trust that the choices I make will always add up to something greater. When I’ve tried to purposely choose something, however, I’ve found that writing is often bullied around by that choice, and I lose some freedom because I know I have to pay attention to that choice. Does that make sense?
Several students from Dr. Hubbard’s class: What inspired you to write “The Secret Lion”? Was it written from your experience or was it completely fictional?
AR: “The Secret Lion”—ah, you’ve asked a good question. No, it’s not fictional at all—that is, all the physical parts of the story happened, and those places all exist. The golf course in the hills was called Meadow Hills Country Club—and it was so hidden I truly didn’t know it was back there. We did not go to country clubs—enough said. The dialogue and thoughts in the story, however—these were “managed” by me. I remember the whole experience, but I didn’t have a tape recorder with me. So, I had to make up much of the thoughtful parts of the story and the dialogue. The story is so important to me, I didn’t want it to simply be thought of as a piece of fiction. I recently revised it somewhat and included it in my last book, a memoir about growing up on the border, called Capirotada. In that version, I don’t dramatize the story the same way. It might be of interest to some of you to take a look.
On the Writing Process
Dana Burns: After reading a little bit about you I was curious about whether or not you have a certain “ritual” you follow when writing? I remember when I was first learning how to write a paper our teacher taught us to brainstorm, outline, revise and all of that “hard” stuff. Do you take all the steps? Or do you just feel compelled and begin writing? Also I was wondering if you already have in your head the endings of your stories? Or do they come after you have written the beginning? Thanks so much.
AR: Rituals are all worth trying—unless they become habit. Then the ritual loses its magic. For me, I certainly have rituals, but they change every day. And I return to ones I’ve forgotten, sometimes, and try out ones that sound good. But the key to this is that all they do—and what they must do—is trick you into writing. The best ones trick you into your best writing. Next, do I have the endings in mind ahead of time? No, I never do, not personally. I know this technique works for many writers. But, for me, when I get to the end I’m just as surprised as anyone!
Rhonda Standridge: The article “Discovering the Alphabet of Life” by Sheilah Britton touches on your writing process. It quotes you as saying, “I don’t know where these phrases come from. It’s kind of like life-fishing. You have this big artistic ear; it’s like a big net that sort of trolls through the waters of living,” and that you “hear things that other people hear, maybe you read them. But you hear or remember or see them differently, and if you have heard it, well, it’s yours.” No doubt, over the years you’ve compiled quite a collection of phrases, lines, words, and hooks. How do you organize them for future reference? Do you keep a database? Do you systematically place them in the back of one of your “notebooks”? Or do you just have hundreds of little bits of paper, napkins, café coasters, and matchbooks all stuffed in a desk drawer? I’m very interested in hearing more about your technique in this regard and about any other “tools” you use to tackle the writing process. Thanks!
AR: This is fun, this question. And you’ve done some reading, so you know about my notebooks! Well, the answer is that I do all those things. The computer has changed the writing process for writers, so my “notebook” has become my computer, I suppose. But the point of compiling things and sticking them here and there—the point is to surprise myself. When I find a little note in an unexpected place, I feel a jolt, and often it will be a reaction to the line I’ve read, a reaction that causes me to write a next line. I’m always working on many pieces of writing, so that I never get bogged down in just one thing. The worst thing a writer can do is to think! The best thing to do is to react, which includes thinking but doesn’t let it act as an impediment or a censor. When you read something, you think something—write that down. That’s what I’m always trying to do.
Rhonda Standridge: Mr. Ríos, in Britton’s article, you speak about your writing process beginning with “a phrase, a word, a line-never a whole idea” because it would “bring its own set of rules and negate the limitless possibilities that fuel” your work. I find this statement very interesting and would love for you to elaborate! For example, what are some of the rules you find imposed on you by using a “whole idea?” Also, what are some of the possibilities you are afforded by beginning your process with just a simple word, line, or phrase? Thanks!
AR: This is a good question about a complicated process. But it works something like this—keep in mind I am inventing this as I write. If I were going to write about a fire—if it were a particular fire, then I would be bound to talk about the journalistic details that need to be part of understanding the piece—who died, how many fire engines, were the pets saved. I couldn’t really lie, or exaggerate much, or change things—I couldn’t really get away with saying that they were purple firetrucks, for example. Now, if it is simply a fire I’m writing about, or fire itself—the phrase, unhinged from the event—then I could talk about the purple in the flame lighting up the firetrucks, making them reflect a purple color in the red. Do you see what happened? If I were to start with the whole idea, I would start to feel like a journalist. Released from the story, I start to feel like I can create something on my own terms. The best part is, now I could go back and apply the more creative part to the greater story—and it would be believable as a result. I hope that makes sense to you.
David Perlman: Hello Mr. Ríos. What are your literary influences, and particularly, what other author or works do you feel are related to “The Secret Lion”?
AR: This is a difficult question to answer, though I am often asked it, of course. The thing is, I have never felt like I had “literary influences” myself. I don’t feel like I came to writing through books. Rather, I came to books, in a different way, after my writing began. In this sense, I have always felt that the world—and particularly my world—was my “literary influence.” I have always written, essentially, about what I know. That said, I have since found many writers that I feel a kinship to—they seem to have found their way to writing much the way I did. My favorite writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but there are many, many more writers whose work I love. I have found a particular affinity with Latin American writers, which is no surprise. Some of these would include Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, and so on. I also love the work of the Spanish writer Merce Rodoreda and the German writer Gunter Grass. I could go on and on, but these are the first that come to mind. Secretly I read science fiction.
Christina Womack: For all the novels I’ve read, even those written by world renowned authors, I have most enjoyed the stories that I could relate to, or those that caused me to look at something or think about something in a new way. Your short stories and poems have such an effect. I am looking forward to reading more of your works. I appreciate your idea of an “alphabet” — how it is not only facts (the ABCs), but your experiences which influence the way you “read” something, as well as the double meanings of words. Most people do not even realize the factors that shape their lives. What I enjoy most about your writing style is that you cause the reader to slow down and cherish the most simple things or the most subtle experiences in your stories and poems. Thank you for taking the time to visit with our class.
AR: These are kind words (thank you!) and informed words—I’m very glad that you both read the work and thought about it.
On Creativity and Imagination
Christina Womack: Your imagination got you into trouble as a young boy. You recognized it as a “dangerous place.” Despite the authority figures in your life (your teacher), you rebelled, so to speak, and retained that imagination. In your opinion, what was most dangerous about having a great imagination? I would think the most dangerous aspect would be that your daydreaming and dynamic thinking were not accepted by teachers. Did any of your teachers ever realize, or even appreciate, what you were actually getting out of their instructions and lectures? Also, according to your recent students, you cultivate a thinking pattern in them that allows them to “open up.” Your writing style seems to be good evidence of what your students are speaking of. You have a wonderful way of giving multi-dimensions to objects, thoughts, and characters in your works. I see you as a rich person, not because of material benefits you might have as a result of writing, but because of your many different outlooks on life. What would be a key piece of advice to help a person open up his/her mind in such a way? I grasp the various dimensions in which you describe your ideas as I read, and I would have never thought of an idea in any other way than the obvious one before I had read it in your work. To think independently in such a manner is something I would love to learn.
AR: Hello, Chris. I appreciate the comments and observations you make here. If there is one piece of advice, let me give it to you this way, in the form of a quotation from Pablo Picasso. He said something like this: If you look at a parrot and do not see the green salad that is there, then you diminish the parrot. I love that! What it means is that, inherently, everything has many angles, many edges, many ways to be understood. I first saw this as I spoke more than one language, and could see that everything—everything!—had more than one word. That suggested to me that one word was not enough for a thing, and this spilled over into my writing and my thinking.
Robin Dennis: Mr. Ríos, I am just wondering how you are able to teach your students to become more open in their writing. I think that I am in need of some help. Thank you for your time.
AR: This is a good question. One of the things I do is to have my students read two books: Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, and The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry . They are both about the imagination, really. But one of the things I really like that Rilke says—and this always makes my students very upset—is not to write love poems. But what he actually means by this is to be careful not to write about the things that matter most to you when you are just learning to write—that is, why would you write the most important things when you are the weakest writer you will be? Why not wait, and save these, so that you will be better able to address them when you are a more accomplished writer? Now, the reason I bring that up has everything to do with “opening up.” When you can hear critical feedback as a helpful thing regarding the craft of writing, and not as a personal attack on your content—you will find that opening up is far, far easier. This is just one suggestion, of course, but it really does help, especially if you think you are going to go on and write more.
Melissa Childers: What made you become a teacher?
AR: I became a teacher, mostly because, in my later years, really—I didn’t have teachers. I had plenty of managers, but that’s not the same thing. In becoming a teacher I have always tried to give what I did not get, and to make what I give be to my student’s benefit, not mine. I don’t know if that sounds corny or whatever, and I did indeed have many teachers I really loved as people. But look to yourself as well, and to books, and to the world. Look especially to what would seem not to have anything to offer—that’s the great secret. We rarely know what we think we know.
Laura Whitaker: Did you have teacher(s) that helped you to develop your writing? Does this still continue to be a process for you? I am a chaplain and it is easy for me to inquire or come up with questions to ask others; it is more difficult for me to come up with answers for those questions when I ask them of myself. Thank you for your work with us; it will be most helpful.
AR: Did I have a teacher who helped me with my writing? The serious answer is no. That’s why I became a teacher, and have stayed with it. I have always wanted to give to my students something that was never given to me. I certainly have more to say on this, but it would take up some real time! I do think teachers can help, however, or I wouldn’t have become one. In my particular circumstances, especially in elementary and high school, teachers were much more concerned with more practical, vocational applications, and writing poems and stories didn’t fit into that mindset. I appreciate your comment about the difficulty of answering questions, as opposed to simply asking them.
Kim Woodall: Hello Mr. Ríos. I think it is great that you are taking time to visit our class. How much of your work do you use in your own classroom to teach creative writing?
AR: Hello, Kim. This is a good question. How much of my own work do I use in my own classroom? None. That is, I don’t use any of my own creative work. I do, on the other hand, use essays and such that I’ve written about writing. My feeling is that the classes I teach are about my students, not me—my students and their work. Sometimes I make exceptions in special circumstances, but I often have students come back after the semester is over and they are shocked to learn that I’ve actually written books.
Miguel Garcia: Mr. Ríos, I have really enjoyed reading your poetry and short stories. I grew up on the Mexican side of the border and can identify with a lot of the imagery in your work. I have now lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years. Although I was influenced by English as a child, I really learned it as an adult. That is why I am very interested in knowing how the two languages interact in your writing. Even though you were not allowed to speak Spanish as a child after you started school and you had to “relearn” it when you were older, do you consider Spanish your first language? Does the structure of Spanish (as opposed to the vocabulary) influence your writing?
AR: Hello, Miguel. I appreciate your comments and concerns in general. Let’s see—Do I consider Spanish my first language? Yes, I’ve said this for many years. As I since thought about it, however, I’ve come to the realization that my first language was really what I’ve called the “language of listening.” What came out of my mouth was not nearly so important as what entered my ear. For me Spanish was all around me, but my mother was there, too—with a British accent. I had a zoo of sounds. Your question about the structure of Spanish is particularly interesting to me. I do absolutely think that the structure (and more) of Spanish influences my work, things much beyond simple vocabulary. If I had to say it succinctly, I would say that I write in Spanish—it just looks like English. I do occasionally write in Spanish, but when I do it’s from another time, from childhood, often. I listen hard for how ideas come to me, in what container they are being delivered, and I try to be true to it. Sometimes that container is Spanish.
Miguel Garcia: Do you write in Spanish? When you write in English, do you ever “rewrite” your work into Spanish?
AR: I do sometimes rewrite my work into Spanish, but it never works well in the sense that when I begin to do this I invariably begin to think of other things, so a whole other poem or story starts to happen. This is the curse and the grace of a writer.
Miguel Garcia: Your writing carries a lot of emotional impact. Is it even possible to “translate” that? I know that a literal translation probably wouldn’t have the same emotional meaning.
AR: I do think that translation has little to do with vocabulary and everything to do with meaning. That’s why computers have a rough time. I have many lectures on this subject!
Miguel Garcia: I am looking forward to reading more of your works. Do you have a favorite? (Or is that like asking which of your children you like best?) Thank you for taking time to share your perspectives with us.
AR: What is my own favorite? You’re right, it’s impossible for me to choose. All I ever do is suggest my latest book at the time, which currently happens to be a memoir, Capirotada. Interestingly, I will be doing what’s called a “Selected Poems” book in the near future, and it’s going to be torture. In creating such a book, you go through all your earlier work and choose the “best.” Aaaaargh.—
Phyllis Ennis: Do you feel that having parents from two different ethnic groups and the way you were raised play a key role in the topics you choose to write about? I know how it is growing up with two different rituals to follow. My mother is Spanish-Catholic and my father is American-Jew. I really enjoyed your poem “Nani”— it took me back when I was young visiting my Aunts and Uncles in Spain. They too will keep feeding you even though you are about to pop. Thank you for your time, Phyllis.
AR: Yes, yes, yes! I think this is crucial to how I write. It’s helped me to get a sense of multiple perspectives in my writing and writing process, which has helped me more than anything else. For example, there are two ways to say everything, and they are both right. This knowledge helps me immensely in my writing, showing me that there are many ways to say something. I still have an ultimate responsibility to make what I say be clear, but still there are many ways.
Melissa Childers: Have you ever told the women in your life how important they are to you (verbally) or do you let your writing tell them how much you admire them? Although we have only a small selection of your works, I noticed that they openly address the unconditional love that you had for your mother and Nani - who else influenced your life as much as they - any men?
AR: What intriguing questions and observations! I do indeed tell the women in my life that I care for them, but the moment is invariably fleeting. My writing extends the moment, and keeps it. That is a wise observation for you to make.
Some General Questions
Mandy Pierce: Mr. Ríos, thank you for taking time to answer our questions. I want to tell you I have really enjoyed reading your work that we were assigned to read. I was wondering what advice you would give a student who is considering becoming a Journalism Major?
AR: Ah, journalism. Journalism majors have the unenviable task of trying to learn how to take themselves out of their writing. They have to be invisible. The news, or the event, or whatever—that’s what has to be up front. For creative writers, the writer is much more evident. So, learning to be unbiased and objective—do anything in that regard that helps. And the best thing of all is what I call the “language of listening.” This goes for creative writers as well. Listening is a dying art. By this I mean that we must not simply take things in, but we must learn to value what we take in, on its own terms, rather than dismissing it or putting our own context on the words. This can be very difficult. You will know you have done this successfully when you write some words you, personally, would never, ever have said yourself—and you let them be, without further comment. At that point, you know you are not writing yourself into the story. This is much harder than it seems.
Samuel Glover: In your poem “The Cities Inside Us” what first gave you the motivation and idea to write such a poem. I think it gives a great depiction of what actually goes on in our minds and bodies every day. But what confuses me is the part about the “sound not coming out or an arm reaching out in place of the tongue.” What do you mean by that?
AR: By “sound not coming out, or an arm reaching out in place of the tongue,” what I was getting at is that we carry so many people and places and experiences inside us I’m always amazed we can keep moving forward. Our minds are so full of so much, and inside there everything is so vivid, so alive, so meaningful. I suppose, in some fashion, this is a question many philosophers have dealt with for many centuries, along with the Surrealists at the beginning of the 20th century. When someone speaks in your mind, it sometimes feels like everyone can hear.
Laura Whitaker: Can you expound on Rugged Individualism in American Writing? Why do you think Americans integrate “I” so much in their writing? Why is it so challenging for Americans to see themselves as a part of something and not easily motivated to become a part of that something? Why can we not accommodate ourselves as readily as the Spanish writers? Good stuff!
AR: This is a lot of stuff! Rugged individualism in American writing—I’m wondering if you read what I already wrote on it, in one of my essays or interviews? The structure of the English language gives a place of privilege to the “I,” and we learn this from the very beginning. This can’t help but shape our attitudes about things. Other languages work in ways that don’t require the speaker to necessarily say “I.” That’s hard for us to comprehend, sometimes, as English speakers, but it is true nevertheless. The “I” is culturally understood, or sometimes even rude. Imagine speaking without saying “I”! Part of this stems from an appreciation of the life in things as much as people. I often talk about the need for what I call “rugged pluralism” in our writing and our thinking. This is a call to the imagination, that we must all work harder at truly learning to understand—and to value—the real idea of individualism—which means that we are all individuals together.
On the September 11th Attacks
Ben Carsten: Mr. Ríos, when asked about the poem, “Taking Away the Name of a Nephew,” you said, “We cannot gauge big numbers. We cannot gauge tremendous pain. But I know what a paper cut feels like. That is immediate. I don’t want to get one; I hate them; I know what it feels like. What is the equation here? How many of these equal death? And how many more equal torture and suffering? I can’t even live with one papercut. I’m trying to gauge the unimaginable, to use something I know to begin imagining something I don’t know, and don’t want to know.” This is an amazing idea that makes it easier for me to consider certain situations rather than dismiss them. I found myself applying this comment to the recent destruction of the World Trade Center. I was wondering if this tragic event, or ones like it, cause you to respond to them with writing.
AR: I’m so glad you found that passage. When I wrote it, I really felt I had an epiphany about big events—that is, that we only have small events to gauge them by. There’s a wonderful admonition by Wordsworth to poets, and to people generally, in which he suggests that, in looking up at the stars, we had better first look at the stones in front of us. We always want to make great leaps toward understanding, but the real work is adding our small lessons together.
I have responded to the events of 9-11 with writing. Indeed, I feel that is a writer’s job. I don’t always think that you need to respond right away—time is not the measure of good or important writing, how fast or how slow you do something. But, responding is something I think we will all do in the best ways we can. For writers, that will likely be with writing. I have an essay that was published in the local paper—I’ll try to figure out how to post it if you all are interested.
Linda Lovell: Yes, please do post your essay! We would like to read it.
Read the Essay: Alberto Ríos, “The Night of No Airplanes”
Christina Womack: I loved that essay! I remember my husband and I wandering around in our yard those first several nights after the attack — something that we normally would do —and trying so hard to find one single airplane. Even during the day we couldn’t see all the streaked clouds, which aren’t really clouds at all, but exhaust trails being whipped this way and that by wind.
As panic-stricken as the entire U.S. was during those first weeks, it was amazing to see how quickly we adjusted to the absence of planes and everything else normal that ceased to happen or that changed so completely. It was even more strange to me that when things gradually began to return to “normal” it was alarming to hear a plane fly by. The first time I heard one after the attack, I almost panicked. I remember I was in the car driving in to work and heard a jet liner above me that was flying quite low. Even though it was probably getting ready to land in Highfill [Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport], I thought it was a plane in trouble and was so completely startled I almost ran off the road!
My generation has never had anything hit home so completely as these recent events. Listening to NPR today on the radio, a commentator was saying how ultra-sensitive everyone has become: radio stations aren’t playing songs which would remotely remind someone of the terrorist attack; people aren’t speaking figuratively in ways that would make them guilty of taking advantage of their good fortune of not being harmed in the attacks; and New Yorkers, with their notorious reputation of being “rude”, have proven they are like everyone else in their feelings of camaraderie and citizenship. If nothing else good comes out of the attacks, I do hope America continues to count its blessings and is thankful for what it has.
AR: I’m very pleased and heartened that you enjoyed the essay. After writing it, I was reminded of many other things, which I’ll probably use to either write another essay or add to this one. In particular, I will never forget a small airplane showing up one day in Nogales—and half the town came out to look at it. There was an airliner that went over once a day, which as kids we would go out and look at, but this wasn’t that airliner. Smoke came out of the back of the airplane, and it looked like it was in trouble. Seeing an airplane was news enough, but one that had smoke coming out of it—the way they did in the movies when they were hit—this was something. The great joke of that afternoon, the great and funny joy, was that it turned out to be a strange advertising experiment. This was in the late 50s or early 60s. The plane flew around and around, and eventually it created the Pepsi logo. I never forgot that afternoon.
There’s another thing you bring up—that ultra-sensitivity about so many things related to those horrible events. The Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team is currently playing in the National League pennant series against Atlanta. Meanwhile, Seattle is playing New York—which is suddenly having a Cinderella season. Who wants to be the team that beats them? It’s a strange feeling.
Ben Carsten: I thought the title “The Night of No Airplanes” itself was a great thought. Now, I will forever remember that day not only for all of the reasons that I already would have but also because there were no airplanes. I am particularly fond of the statement, “I don’t want to be on the receiving end of incoming missiles, and I don’t want anyone else to be, either.” As I read it, I was struck by the simplicity of it, it seemed almost childish, and yet it could have been spoken from the lips of any of us. I like it, a lot.
From Alberto Ríos: A General Thanks to Everyone
I’d like to thank all of you who participated in these discussions. The questions were challenging, and a pleasure to answer. I’m always surprised at the directions in which conversations invariably take us as human beings. There’s something hopeful in that observation. Talking to each other, simply said, has value. Let me also say that I spent some time reading all your responses to my work, specifically “The Secret Lion.” Your responses were elegant and insightful—you did a very nice job. These were like small essays, and I was both surprised and pleased. It’s a curious thing to read people commenting on one’s own work. Curious, curious. Okay, okay—it’s fun! I hope you will all continue to be interested in and engaged with literature. I know it’s sometimes very difficult to see the practical sense of spending time with a short story or a poem. Don’t be fooled, however. Ideas—meaningful words, in whatever form they take—have always added something to the human heart. It’s funny how we think of the heart as both romantically impractical on the one hand but physiologically essential on the other—and yet we use that one word for both: heart. It’s worth thinking about. Once again, thank you all. And don’t let fear anywhere near that heart of yours. It has too many other things to do, and, I trust, always will.