My guest today is Jo Ann Hernandez, author of the young adult novel, The Throwaway Piece. In this fascinating, candid interview, Hernandez talks about how she started writing, the obstacles she had to face and overcome, her state of mind during the creative process, and what she finds most difficult when writing.
Thanks for this interview, Jo. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I grew up in San Antonio, TX and attended 12 years of Catholic school that I am still recovering from. I married and moved to Vermont and lived there for 23 years. I was married for ten and raised my two boys for the next 13. Then at 43, I left my sons, my cat, my house and moved to San Francisco where I knew no one to earn my Master’s in Creative Writing. I earned my degree, published my first book, and was accepted by a prominent New York agent and became homeless at the same time. I was homeless for six years then I was sick for 8 years. Now I am, more or less, up on my feet and finally home in San Antonio, TX, and writing again. Feels Great!!!!
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
I didn’t decide to become an author. It was decided for me. I thought writing was fun and too easy to be considered one’s life work. I joined a women’s artist group and they are the ones that convinced me that the universe needed my voice. Who me? What did I have to say? Now, as you will see, I can’t shut up.
Do you have another job besides writing?
No. I’ve been fired from all seven secretarial jobs I had.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
The Throwaway Piece is a story of a foster kid who doesn’t believe she has an impact on the world around her. Yet she changes the lives for the better of everyone who enters her life.
I was a foster mom for 8 years. My girls would tell me things about the places they had lived. Those episodes became the “Rules” Jewel speaks at the beginning of each chapter. Like make sure you know where the toilet paper is before you go.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I have only outlined a book once and that was for a competition. Usually the book is read into my head from a Higher Power or the universe or angels or something. I hear the story in my head chapter by chapter. Sometimes I feel like I am taking dictation. Anyway that was how my first two books were written. Now things are changing and I’m not sure how I write anymore. That’s good and scary.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Not yet. Just observation. Watching people be people.
I believe that everyone of us want three things: one, to be loved and lovable, 2, to belong to a family, to a person, to a group, somewhere that they’re glad to see you, 3, to have a voice, the power that a voice gives you. That when you say stop, they stop.
Who is your target audience?
You would think young people, but my publisher needed to fill a hole in their catalog for YA fiction and that is where I was put. I’ve been a YA author ever since. I write for people. People who want to be loved.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
This is a trick question, right? I received a letter from a young lady and she wrote about how my book impacted her life. I was deeply touched. There was one point that she said the scene in your book taught me how to handle bad times and when Jewel did that she was trying to…. I read and reread that section in the letter. I am mystified and amazed. I wrote that? When? I didn’t know I was that deeply insightful. Ha ha.
I read a lot of reviews while in graduate school. Most reviewers will say that the author was keenly aware of … or the message hidden under the phrases… or the meaning of life flowed on the pages… I believe that the author is reading this review, thinking “I wrote that. Guess I’ll have to point that out in my next book reading!”
If I have to come up with a tagline: Everyone impacts the world in some way. You may not notice, you may not be aware of it, yet you, your essence, your life changes the world. Hope you make it to the good.
Something like the movie: This Wonderful Life. What would the world be like if you weren’t in it? The next door neighbor who had never spoken to you since you moved it, plugs in her coffee pot when you leave to work, feeling all is well in the world because you are functioning after that bad thing that happened to you. Yeah!
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
I am a hermit. All I do is sit in front of the computer for days on days, seeing no one. I tell you I don’t have a life. The only dream I have is of becoming a nationally known writer. And if that is a fantasy, don’t tell me.
What do you do to placate your muse when she refuses to inspire you?
I cry. I worry that I’ve lost my ability to write. I contemplate death because there is no living without writing. I turn off the computer. I’m a mess!
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
Oh my. That question has different answers for different books and I believe for different authors. My first book, White Bread Competition, a collection of short stories, I wrote in graduate school; I had classroom deadlines for different stories. I finished the book in less than a year, then sent each story out to magazines to be published and win contests, then I chased down anyone that would take my manuscript to their editors. I had a published book within two years of moving to San Francisco.
The Throwaway Piece I wrote in 8 weeks for a novel class I was taking. Because I knew it was that good and I wasn’t ready to admit I could write that well, I joined a critique group and worked on it for a few years. Then I became ill so it sat around for a while. Then I won first prize at the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize at the University of California at Irvine and a publishing contract came with the award. Technically that book took 10 years.
Describe your working environment.
Anyplace I can plug my computer and my lamp into. I’ve been homeless and each time I could stay for a while, I’d buy a $50 computer desk, stick it into a corner by the bathroom, or the door to the garage or place the computer on the dining room table in the middle of everyone coming and going. Got to be I could pack my computer into the car in ten minutes flat. I had it so all the cords were plugged into one giant surge protector and I just unhooked from the tower, twisted the cords around the surge protector and packed it that way. When I found my next place to roost for a while, I’d pull it out, plug the one cord into the wall then plug the rest into my computer and get working. Now I’m settled for a while and I am inbetween the double bed and the dresser on the way to the bathroom. When the toilet runs, I feel like I am outside by a babbling brook and it aids in my writing!!!!!!
When I had a boyfriend, so many ages ago I can hardly remember, he asked me if he couldn’t find a nice place for us to live, would I still want to be with him. I told him he could find a hollowed out log on the ground, as long as it had an electrical outlet to plug my computer into. That pretty much sums it up for me.
What type of scenes give you the most trouble to write?
Ah! Description. I read another author and I can spot how bad some do description and others are magicians in how they evoke a strong sense of place. I blame the fact that I can’t smell for why I can’t write description. Ha ha.
I have to add that I am lousy in grammar and can’t spell my way out of a wet paper bag. I have the Bermuda Triangle in my brain where grammar is stored. I have hired an ESL (English as Second Language) tutor in grammar and learned. I learn from the editors that work on my pages. But once I get past tense, I’m lost. I can’t place a correct –ed to save my life. Participles and Future tenses, someone else has to fix for me. In the early eighties, I had a choice. I could write or take a lot of time to learn grammar. I decided I could make someone rich, correcting my writing. Think of it as aiding humanity!!!
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
I write until I finish. However, if I have someone to edit my work, I’ll send him or her my pages. Like right now, that I am entering competitions and contests and I have a good editor, I am sending him my pages as I write them.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
Cry a lot. Become depressed. Not! Actually I am quite confident in my ability to write. If I receive a negative review, as I did when I was sending out short stories, I figured that the editor’s spouse probably told them “no” the night before and they were still angry about it and I arrived first on their desk the next morning. I once received two rejections: one said that I needed to end the short story about five pages earlier; the second rejection read that I needed to extend the same short story five more pages to achieve a more dramatic ending. Once I sent out a story under a man’s name and one magazine wrote me back that as a man, I didn’t have any idea of what women really like to read about themselves. Rejections? Just a Bad Hair Day for someone else.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
Not being able to write. I used to be afraid that I was crazy. Now that it has been confirmed, the only thing that scares me is losing my ability to write.
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
Women’s stories. I write a lot about racism and incest. I have this false hope that my books can eradicate these two issues. Mostly I write about women finding their power.
Are you a disciplined writer?
How do you divide your time between taking care of a home and children, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?
Plan? Not hardly. If I have a sick kid, there goes my planned time. I learned to anchor myself to the keyboard at the point I am in the story. I deal with whatever crisis occurred then I go back to the keyboard, put my fingers over the keys, take a deep breath and get back to where I was before the recent tragedy.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
I wrote my first manuscript at 4 each morning before the kids woke up and I had to go to work. Now I can write whenever I want.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
I had an agent for a few years then she quit. Now I am searching again. Rough. Really rough. It’s as bad as interviewing for a job. Your self-esteem takes a beating. Yet the available information tells you that without an agent you’re up the creek. What to do? Also the expense of postage and making copies and all that, is sometimes for me a choice between eating or sending my first chapter out. And that’s why I am a fragile, skeleton frame of a person. Not!!!! Actually anyone that knows me, knows that I will post first. My writing is my all to me. This is my career, my life, my destiny, and my Plan A. I’ve never had a Plan B. Never.
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
My mind! And the obvious fact that I don’t know how to write short answers.
What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?
Critique groups are vital. Once in one group where I did one chapter of someone’s book then that person owed me one crit. I worked hard doing everyone I could. I didn’t have a life. With one of my manuscript, seven people were critiquing my manuscript because I was submitting it to a competition. The seventh person noticed that I had “bothers” when I meant “brothers.” No one else picked up on it. Whew!
Can a crit group crush you? You have to have guts to be in this business. Also if a crit group is that negative and mean, they are a sorry lot that are jealous that you are a better writer than they are and they are finding anything wrong with your writing to make themselves feel better about their lousy writing. See! I never take it personal.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?
Description. I write the whole book first. Action, dialogue, plot. Then I go back and put clothes on my characters. I make sure there is a doorway where they walked through. This makes for more rewrites than maybe I need to do, but when I write I only see the action. Everything else comes later. Also writing description takes more energy than writing the other stuff. The other stuff, action, dialogue, plot, just flows out. Description is my constipation.
Who are your favorite authors? Any favorite books?
Authors that link details in their story. Holes, by Louis Scafer. Everything he mentions in the first chapter is connected to something by the end of the book. Every single thing. Can you imagine how his mind must work? Does he make a chart? Does he write on a sketch pad or on the wall so he doesn’t leave anything out? Authors that write like that I find amazing.
Ceremony, by Leslie Maron Silko is a complex and beautiful book. This is the only book I have read twice. I read it on my own and then for a class. My classmate and I compared our notes and it was like we had read two different books. Her impressions of the same story were totally different than mine. Then on page 180-181, there is a beautifully written love scene. Not one nasty, yet poetic and flowing. She is great with metaphors. I love metaphors. Just love them.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
My novel writing teacher in graduate school, who didn’t like women, told me that I was going to be one of this country’s great writers or crash and burn. Now that I’ve crashed and burned, I’m waiting to be discovered!!!!
The right answer of course is keep writing. Don’t quit. Believe in yourself and stuff like that.
What I have found that makes a difference to me is: Girlfriends. (Of course, also a boyfriend or a spouse.) Have a support system in place. If your parents don’t believe in what you are doing or don’t understand, fine. Get out there and find other writers or other creative persons, like artist, and hang with them. Their parents have told them the same thing. Yet they’ll understand why you’ll go without food to send your query. They sympathize with the 100th rejection from an agent and never tell you to quit. They’ll be your audience at your first book reading when no one else shows up. Why do you think this blogging and “social networking” is working so great. You can rant or rave. You can even sound whiny and everyone will respond with a stiff upper lip vote of confidence, grateful that you don’t live close to them! Now if I had a good voice, here is where I would go into singing purple Barney’s song: Give me a kiss and a hug. Be my friend and say I love you.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
BronzeWord’s Blog is my blog to promote writers. I also use it to announce my stuff, but lately there hasn’t been much of my stuff to announce. I am doing for others what I want done for me. Isn’t that the Golden Rule? If you have an article or a boast, email me and I’ll post it for you. You’d do the same for me, right?
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I have two projects going on at the moment. I am editing and finish writing a memoir of incest victims I have interviewed. I am telling their story as one person’s memoir – Now get this! – in second person. I’m sorry. I even collected quotes from accomplished writer’s how-to books that scorn second person. But that is how I heard the words in my head. I had no choice. Also the story is light. No heavy duty anguish, graphic violence or anything like that. Just the practical way that a person had to endure through the abuse. A kind of - I though this was the way everyone lived. You hear that a lot. This book is called The Future Forgotten: When you can’t remember the past.
Also I am writing another YA book. I like to switch stereotypes. This book is about a young man who is considered a wimp in school and is harassed by the BMOC. At the end, it is the BMOC that brings a gun to school and threatens everyone and it is the wimp that stops him. This book is called Good in the Head because I read this line in a book: “I guess you live in your head more than anyplace else. If your head is in a good place, it doesn’t matter quite as much if the rest of you isn’t.” Also John, the main protagonist, wears a mid-calf leather coat all the time. Everyone wonders why. The teachers, the principal, the students all want to know why does he wear that coat all the time, all day long, everywhere. In the last chapter, a friend he made during the book finally asks him why does he wear the coat. John explains, “When I was in my last school, they made fun of me. So I figured if I wore the coat, no one would notice and make fun of me. I don’t know why. I get boners all the time.”
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
Being able to dedicate my book to my sons.
And to guilt trip them in the hopes that one day they will add Hernández to their last name.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
As you can tell, I don’t have a formula or routine. I am organized and disorganized. I seek friendships. I desire to live off my writing and all that implies. But most of all, I am a writer. It is what I do and what I am. And I am good at what I do.
Interview by Mayra Calvani
This interview as previously published in The Dark Phantom Review.
Causes Mayra Calvani Supports
World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA)
Almost Heaven Golden Retriever Rescue & Sanctuary