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Interview with Nicaraguan-American writer Silvio Sirias
Silvio Sirias

Please welcome my special guest, award-winning Nicaraguan-American writer Silvio Sirias. He's the author two novels, Bernardo and the Virgin (Northwestern University Press, 2005) and Meet Me Under the Ceiba (Arte Público Press, 2009). This latest one garnered him the 2007 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize for Best Novel. In addition, he's published numerous pieces of literary criticism. Sirias holds a P.h. D. in Spanish from the University of Arizona. Since 2002, Silvio resides in Panama, where he continues to write and teach at Balboa Academy. For more information on the author, visit his website at www.SilvioSirias.com.

About Bernardo and the Virgin:

In 1980, with the Sandinistas newly in power, Bernardo Martinez witnesses an extraordinary thing: an otherworldly glow about the statue of the Virgin Mary in the church where he works as sacristán. Soon the Holy Virgin appears. She tells Bernardo to forget his money problems and fear of ridicule and spread her message of peace and faith to his neighbors. Though a work of fiction, Bernardo and the Virgin is based on actual events. The visitation of the Virgin Mary at Cuapa, Nicaragua, remains one of the few such events accepted by the Catholic Church in the last sixty years.

Silvio Sirias' sweeping novel tells many stories: that of a humble man touched by the transcendent; that same man as a devout boy denied the priesthood because of poverty; and those in his orbit, past and present. It is also the stormy epic of Nicaragua through the long Somoza years to the Sandinista revolution. Sirias' beautiful language mixes English with Spanish and details of dusty village life with wondrous images of Catholic mysticism. His portrayal of the rich recent past of Central America resonates with the experiences of both the natives and the thriving communities of Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and other Central American putting down roots in the United States.

Thanks for being my guest today. Why don't you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you started writing?

I was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up there until the age of eleven. My parents then moved to Nicaragua, their country of origin. This move is, without a doubt, the most significant milestone in my life as it shaped the way I see the world. During my years in Nicaragua, I also learned that Central America is a place full of wondrous, and at times heartbreaking, stories. After graduating from high school I returned to Los Angeles to attend college. I fell in love with the study of literature and eventually received a doctorate in Spanish from the University of Arizona and worked as a professor of Spanish and U.S. Latino and Latina literature for several years before moving back to Nicaragua in 1999.

Ever since adolescence I’ve enjoyed writing, but I’m a late bloomer in the writing of fiction. My college training taught me how to produce literary criticism, but after meeting and conducting interviews with several Latino and Latina novelists, I saw how much fun they were having and decided to join in.

I hear you were named one of the 2010 Top Ten "New" Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.Com. That's quite an honor.

Learning the news stunned me, and then I was elated. But once the elation wore off I was humbled. I realized that I needed to work harder in my current and future efforts to be worthy of the honor.

How did Bernardo and the Virgin come about?

Beginning in my early 30s I started looking for an engrossing story through which I could also explore the history of Nicaragua in the 20th century. I met Bernardo Martinez, who was good friends with my father, in 1999, and the more I learned about his story, the more I became certain that I had finally found the perfect vehicle for the panoramic tale I had long wanted to tell.

Critics have called Bernardo and the Virgin a tale of religious mysticism. Tell us about that.

In telling the story of Bernardo Martinez, who claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to him several times in 1980, I narrated the apparitions through his point of view — and this lens is indeed out of the ordinary and highly spiritual. Whether one believes his account or not — and acceptance or disbelief became a highly politicized issue in revolutionary Nicaragua — he maintained until his dying breath that he had experienced an intimate encounter with the divine. Nicaraguans are highly religious people who easily accept the existence of mystical experiences. Long before the reports of Bernardo’s visions Nicaraguans fervently venerated Mary — fanatically so. Because of this, tens of thousands immediately accepted the news of her visit. It is this collective belief that gives the novel its mystical dimension, I think.

I hear you're a very disciplined writer.

Yes, friends say that I’m a highly disciplined writer. That’s because when I feel I’m on to something writing feels like play, not work. But I’m not one of those supremely dedicated writers who will stay up until midnight or wake up before dawn to write. I need major blocks of time at reasonable hours; I’m talking about six to eight hours a day for months, or even years. I was fortunate to have a couple of years where I could afford to stay home and write. What a luxury! During that time, I’d work from 8 a.m. until the late afternoon, six days a week. When I’m able to take time off from my day-job I write feverishly and get a lot accomplished. But I’m back in the classroom now, which I love, to refill my bank account so that within two or three years I can stay home again to write. At present, however, I have a three-hour block in the mornings where I get as much done as I can.

How was your creative process while working on Bernardo?

The first task was to conduct the research. That’s always the most exciting part for me; it’s where I vicariously experience the story I’m preparing to write. Once I’m confident that I have most of the information I need, I sketch a general outline of all the chapters, and this includes the ending because, for the sake of my nerves, I need to know how the story ends. Then I begin to write with the help of a detailed outline of each chapter. As I write, I start each day by revising what I have written the day before. This helps my mind get back into the story. I then start a new section and write straight into the mid-afternoon. This cycle repeats itself until the rough draft is concluded. Then I will work on a chapter at a time, revising it until it is as perfect as I can get it. When I polish the last chapter I share the manuscript with my peer editors, a wonderful team that has served me faithfully.

How is this work different from your second book, Meet Me under the Ceiba?

The primary difference is in the scope of the novels. Bernardo and the Virgin explores important events in Nicaragua’s history through the lives and thoughts of characters that represent ordinary people. As a result of this exploration, the pace of the narrative is leisurely. Bernardo is more like a ballad, while Meet Me under the Ceiba, which is based on an actual murder case, has more of a rock ’n' roll pace. The reader has to practice a little patience during the opening chapters of Bernardo, but there’s a big payoff when the stories begin to lock together.

Which novel has a closer place to your heart?

Both novels are very dear to me, Mayra, but for different reasons. Bernardo and the Virgin is my first-born, and like any parent a lot of my hopes and dreams about the legacy I hope to leave as a writer are contained within those pages. What’s more, I wrote Bernardo as a tribute to the people of Nicaragua. I am most grateful for everything they’ve taught me. On the other hand, the goal of Meet Me under the Ceiba was to write a fast-paced story with an unusual structure that would capture the reader’s attention from the onset and hold it throughout. By all accounts I’ve been fortunate enough to have succeeded in both attempts.

I’ve received feedback from many readers with ties to Nicaragua who have thanked me for writing Bernardo and the Virgin because they claim that the novel, in addition to telling Bernardo’s story, captures the essence of life in that country. And I’ve also heard from several readers of Meet Me under the Ceiba who have said that they had to read the novel in one sitting because they couldn’t put it down. Because of such positive feedback, and because the books are so different, the answer regarding which one is closer to my heart depends on the mood I’m in at a given time. I love them both, for varying reasons.

What’s the hardest part about being a novelist? The most rewarding?

The hardest part is being able to afford the time to right. People have misconceptions about the financial aspect of being a writer. But it’s not entirely their fault. For instance, in most films, as soon as a character who’s a novelist publishes his or her first book they become wealthy, get to ride in limos, and they hang out with celebrities in upscale New York restaurants while learning to elude the paparazzi. The reality is that very, very few novelists receive public acclaim or get to live off of their royalties. Many sacrifices are required to become and remain a novelist. The ideal situation, for me, would be to earn just enough to stay home and write full-time. I can do without the limos and the glamorous company. Regarding the most rewarding part, for me it’s been what I’ve learned along the journeys of each novel.

How has the publishing process been for you?

Because I had already published books of an academic nature, I was familiar with the world of publishers. As a writer of fiction, I’ve had nice experiences with Northwestern University Press, the publishers of Bernardo and the Virgin, and with Arte Público Press, who published Meet Me under the Ceiba. With Bernardo the road got a bit bumpy when there was a delay during a crucial promotion period, and then the editorial team that strongly supported the novel left to work with other publishers. Because of these problems, which were beyond anyone’s control, when Bernardo and the Virgin was released it went under the radar, barely getting noticed. But that’s all part of the game. Also, I confess that at the onset of my career as a novelist I was naive, believing that publishers would do all the promotion. But after learning that it was in my interest to become actively involved in this part of the business I’ve worked diligently to explore the ways I have within my means to promote my work. This is something every author needs to learn, so a writer may as well become good at it and enjoy the challenge.

What kind of themes do you like exploring?

It depends on the novel. Critics have described Bernardo and the Virgin as an “epic” account of Nicaragua in the latter half of the 20th century. And because of the broad canvas of this narrative, I had the opportunity to explore every theme that possesses me: politics, history, religion, spirituality, family, war, immigration, biculturalism, the shifting traditions, superstitions, death, and so forth. Meet Me Under the Ceiba allowed me to delve into the heart of an actual murder and then explore what’s good traits, if any, such a horrendous act can bring out in us. My third novel, The Saint of Santa Fe, deals with the disappearance of Father Hector Gallego, a young Colombian priest who accepted an assignment in the then faraway mountains of Veraguas, in Panama. He was confronted with a campesino population that lived as indentured servants, and he did what was necessary to change their lives. Sadly, however, in the process of liberating his parishioners, he offended the landed gentry as well as General Omar Torrijos, the country’s strongman before General Manuel Antonio Noriega, and this cost the priest his life. I wrote The Saint of Santa Fe to better grasp the recent history and culture of Panama, my new homeland.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve completed a third novel, but I need three to four months where I can devote myself exclusively to revising the manuscript as it’s not quite ready to send off to the publishers. The story is based on an actual event in Panama, in 1971, concerning the disappearance of a priest, a noble person, who upset the status quo in a remote mountain community. I also have a collection of essays that I will soon start circulating among publishers. In the meantime I continue to write essays and I’m researching topics with an eye toward possible future novels.

Thanks for the wonderful interview, Silvio!