Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a poet, novelist, artist and writer of children’s books. He has studied at the University of Louvain, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Iowa, and Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow. He has published seven novels, five collections of poetry, and four children’s books. His work is translated into Dutch, French, Spanish, and German. Among his awards are the American Book Award, the Tomas Rivera Award, and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship.
NB: Along with Daniel Chacón, you recently started up a radio program (Words on a Wire on KTEP in El Paso, Texas) that focuses on the process and product of writing. The focus is mainly, yet not solely, on border and border-inspired writers. How did the idea for the show come about, and what purpose do you hope it will serve for the wider literary arts community?
BS: The idea began with a conversation with Daniel, as we were having dinner one night. Really, it was Daniel’s idea, and he was very excited about the whole venture. We both felt that most books which are talked about in the mainstream media are bestsellers and non-fiction books that center around politics or current events. We wanted to provide a forum for writers who are creating serious literature.
NB: Simon and Schuster released your latest book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, in February. Recently, you’ve invested your talents into crafting young voices and creating characters who develop in the multicultural borderlands milieu. Why young adult fiction? How does this interest in young/new voices relate to your work as a professor of creative writing?
BS: I consider my young adult novels to be serious literature. I take my YA books as seriously as I take my other writing. In a way, you could say I write YA books for adults. In some ways, it’s a question of marketing. The only difference between my YA fiction and my “Adult” fiction is that, in my YA novels, the protagonists are always young men in turmoil who tell their stories in the first person. I’ve never written my other novels in the first person. There is also the question of a shrinking literary market for serious literary novelists. The YA market, on the other hand, has a larger market. I’m also happy that my YA novels are taken quite seriously in and out of the YA market.
As far as it relating to my work as a professor of Creative Writing, I think all my writing is related to my teaching. A novel is a novel.
NB: Speaking of Aristotle and Dante…, I recently came across a quote in which you refer to the novel as an example of mariposa fiction. Could you clarify this genre and your book’s place within it?
BS: Mariposa fiction is a term used by Writers and Critics to describe novels whose protagonists are Latino and gay and/or deals with gay Latino themes. From that perspective, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe certainly fits into this category. That said, I don’t think of Aristotle and Dante as simply being a “gay novel” anymore than I think of my poetry and other novels as being “Latino novels.”
I write about characters who live on the border and I explore the difficult situations they find themselves in. And while my characters are always Mexican Americans, I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with issues of Latino identity. I am obsessed with the way that people come to terms with meaning in their lives, particularly on the border.
In Aristotle and Dante, the two boys discover their sexuality, each character coming to terms in different ways. But the story is also about secrets, about two families and how these two families differ from each other. The parents are a big part of the novel and the roles they play in their sons’ lives.
NB: Can you talk a bit about your experiences with novice/student writers? What do you like most about teaching creative writing at the collegiate level? What sorts of themes, characters, etc. are students writing about these days?
BS: I have always liked teaching and I have always enjoyed being around young people. Undergraduates are hungry to learn, and I feel privileged to be in the classroom as their teacher. My experience has taught me that there are a lot of talented young writers out there, but most of them won’t ever be writers. And there’s a reason for that: most student writers don’t have the discipline and the desire to convert their talent into a career. But the thing is, I teach more than creative writing. I’d like to think that I teach students the importance of critical thinking. I’d like to believe that students writers take something with them when they leave, something they can use in all the areas of their lives.
It’s interesting that after twenty years of teaching, I don’t think that what students write about has changed very much. Young people are using their writing to explore the world they live in just like they were doing twenty years ago.
NB: What challenges do you see programs such as UTEP’s Creative Writing Program facing over the next twenty years?
BS: I don’t think I can answer that question. I think our on-line MFA is the wave of the future. I also think our bi-lingual MFA is ahead of the curve. In some ways, UTEP’s creative writing program already looks like the future.
NB: What comes next for the great Benjamin Alire Sáenz?
BS: I’m correcting the galleys for my next book of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends With the Kentucky Club. The collection of stories is my first in eighteen years.
I thought I’d forgotten how to write a short story and I suppose I was hungry to jump into those waters again. I was glad to discover that I could still swim. I’m also re-working a new book of poems, Night Disappearing Into a Perfect Sky.
NB: What does the future hold for Chican@, Latin@, etc. fiction in general, and for El Paso in particular?
BS: Why do you have to ask such hard questions? I think El Paso holds a very special place in Chican@ letters. I like to call El Paso “Chicano Nirvana.” It’s a complicated borderlands, a mystery that we can never unravel or solve. I don’t know what the future holds for us. I do know that we have to continue writing and there are a lot of young people behind me that give me a lot of hope. I am already becoming the past. It is my great hope that young Latino writers will create something beautiful and lasting.
Calendar of Dust. Seattle: Broken Moon, 1991.
Flowers for the Broken. Seattle: Broken Moon, 1992.
Carry Me like Water. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Dark and Perfect Angels. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos, 1995.
In Perfect Light. New York: Rayo, 2005.
Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. New York: HarperTempest, 2006.
The Book of What Remains. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2010.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
Interview conducted by NewBorder’s fiction editor, Paul Pedroza.