Friday, January 11, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Martha Batiz

Martha Batiz was born and raised in Mexico City, but has been living in Toronto since 2003. She started publishing in 1993 at age 22. Her articles, chronicles, reviews and short stories have appeared in diverse newspapers and magazines not only in her homeland, but also in Spain, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Peru, Ireland, England, the United States and Canada.  Her first book was a short-story collection called A todos los voy a matar (I’m Going To Kill Them All, Castillo Press, 2000). Her award-winning novella The Wolf’s Mouth (Exile Editions, 2009) was originally published in Spanish both in the Dominican Republic and in Mexico (Boca de lobo, in 2007 and 2008, respectively), and was launched as an ebook by INK Press in the summer of 2015. It was translated into French by Khristina Legault as La Gueule Du Loup (Lugar Comun Press in Ottawa), and published in 2018, and a second English edition will be released in Nov. 2018 in English, under the title Damiana's Reprieve (Exile Editions). Martha's second short-story collection, titled De tránsito (In Transit), was published in 2014 in Puerto Rico by Terranova Editores, and received a special recognition in the International Latino Book Awards in San Francisco in 2015. Her newest short-story collection, and her first in English, was released at the end of 2017, under the title Plaza Requiem: Stories at the Edge of Ordinary Lives (Exile Editions), and it received the First Place in the "Best Popular Fiction" category at the International Latino Book Award in Los Angeles in 2018. Martha holds a PhD in Latin American Literature and is an ATA-certified literary translator. Besides being the founder and instructor of the Creative Writing in Spanish course currently offered by the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, she is a part-time Professor at York University/Glendon College, where she teaches Spanish and Literary Translation. In 2014, Martha was featured in Latinos Magazine and The Globe and Mail among the Top Ten Most Successful Mexicans in Canada. In 2015, she was chosen as one of the Top Ten Most Influential Hispanic-Canadians. She lives with her husband and three children in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first short-story collection, I'm Going to Kill Them All, gave me the confidence to believe that I could actually be a writer, or become a real one if I kept writing. Holding that book in my hands for the first time felt surreal. I don't think I've ever been that excited. The book didn't get too many reviews but it received a few good ones which encouraged me to keep writing. So I did take my work more seriously after that. It made me feel I had earned the right to say I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, or was striving to be one, depending on where I was and who I was talking to. My most recent work, Plaza Requiem, actually includes a couple of stories from this first book, which I self-translated into English. It feel different in English, more mature, perhaps, because my vocabulary has evolved, so in translating the stories I did improve on their register (something I could do because I was translating my own work). Plaza Requiem, however, has my best recent stories, which have brought me many satisfactions, and it is the book that has made me feel that I have somehow arrived, finally, in Canada. That I am no longer condemned to remain at the margins because of my language. In that sense, it is very different but also very similar to that first book, written so many years ago: with it I feel that I have earned the right to say that I'm a writer, or want to be writer, or am striving to be one, and not just "a writer" but a Canadian writer. The yearning is the same, but the goal seems more challenging to me. And that is also exciting.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I studied acting in Mexico and for many years I was a professional actress, working on the stage and in soap operas. I was immersed in fiction so it felt natural to go that way. Plus, I was always a good reader, an avid reader. And I always favoured fiction when it came to reading. My years as an undergraduate student, pursuing a degree in English Language and Literature at Mexico's biggest university, the UNAM, also put me deeply in touch with fiction. It was all we ever read. I did go into non-fiction during my years writing for newspaper and magazines in Mexico. I held a weekly column at the UnoMásUno newspaper in Mexico, in the Cultural section. I wrote chronicles, diverse articles, movie, theatre, opera, and music reviews, whatever I felt like writing. It was a huge privilege and I enjoyed it immensely.  I still write articles here and there whenever I have time. I am pathetic at writing poetry, however. I gave it a try and soon realized it is not for me as a writer, but only as a reader. I really enjoy reading poetry and am a fan of the Griffin Prize readings. I have a wonderful friend who introduced me to them and I try to go with her every year (I appointed myself as her companion for the event, and she's generous enough to always humour me and take me). I am not talented enough to be a poet. I wish I was, though. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Starting to write a new story usually takes me  from a few days to a few weeks, depending on how busy I have been or how much of the character or situation I have clear in my mind already. Usually I write my stories in one sitting, so I guess you could say they come quickly once I have the main ingredients in my mind. I don't make copious notes at all but it's one of the things I want to try doing in the future. My first drafts look close to their final shape, but when I write in English there's a lot of polishing to be done in order to make sure that I am not massacring the language.

4 - Where does prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I only worked on a "book" from the beginning when I was writing "The Wolf's Mouth". I usually write short stories because, as a mother of three (and as a graduate student who eventually became a sessional professor at several campuses all over the GTA), I have very little spare time. I identify with Carver who used to go out to sit in his car in order to write because his house was always in chaos and he didn't have time nor the space to concentrate. I don't have to write in my car, mind you (I do enough commuting in it already, thankyouverymuch), but I do have little precious time to write, so when I have it I want to feel I accomplished something. And that something is usually a short-story.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I was an actress, so I love having a stage and an audience. I think readings are a great way to engage with people who might enjoy your work, and it's also the perfect way to take your work's temperature: is your writing healthy or is it not getting the response you'd like? I think you can diagnose  your writing, and identify its flaws, if you do readings. And you can also see if you've gone in the right direction because people immediately respond and you can feel it. You can feel it in their silence, in the way they look at you, in their smiles at the end. I could get addicted to that. I wish I was invited to do more readings.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My only theoretical concern is that I don't want my academic work to show in my writing. I don't want any of the academic jargon mixed with it. I want my writing to be read and enjoyed by anyone, not just a selected few (as is usually the case in Academia). I want to stir an emotion in the people who read my work. That is very important to me, but I don't have any theories about that. My parents are musicians and from them I learned that art should take your soul on an emotional journey. It's what a good concert or what a good work of art do. So I humbly try to achieve that with my writing. I don't want to answer any questions with my work. I want to find a spot where the things that matter to me (violence, abuse against women, political and social injustice in Latin America and elsewhere) may matter to others. That's all.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers should be those wise people who warn others of what might happen (as so many science fiction works have done), and also those who show others the bleeding wounds that are usually hidden but need to be seen. I think this happens, still, with great writers. They are moral compasses, they warn us, they show us where it hurts, and help us understand why, and teach us compassion and empathy. They are sorcerers. I mean, just look at what JK Rowling did for an entire generation. Writers show people that life is not only about what you see, and what is around you. Or at least, this is what they should do, especially in this "all-about-me" era.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it essential. I appreciate a critical eye to tell me what can be improved (there's always such room for improvement, especially when you're writing in your second language, as is my case). In English, I couldn't do without. And in Spanish, I also appreciate someone helping me identify issues that I many have overlooked. I'm very easy that way. I'm not one of those writers who doesn't like to have a comma changed. I take in all the comments and criticism, and then deal with it and proceed to change those things I agree need changing, and then move on, hoping to have learned something new that can help me write better next time.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do not write the way you talk, and do not talk the way you write. Easier said than done.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to articles to translation to theatre)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have no problem moving between genres. When I'm translating I am following a set script, I just have to adhere to its rules and needs. I did write play (which I need to finish, by the way) once, and it was a lot of fun. I love the theatre. I'm just so happy whenever I'm writing that I always focus on the enjoyable part of it. Even editing is enjoyable. Any moment I get to myself to focus on my writing is a privilege.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My days are chaotic. I tend to my children, take care of my house and pets, teach (and grade), drive, cook, and everything else that moms and housewives and working women do. I write on the weekends, while everyone is sleeping. I am usually super tired but once I start writing I forget about that; I just go on. I write all night, typically from 10pm to 6 or 7am, and then I have breakfast with my family and go to sleep afterwards until lunch. I don't do this every weekend (although I would love to). I do it often enough to stay active as a writer, however.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read. This is something that is an absolute part of my routine. I read every day. No matter how tired I am. I read every night.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Funny enough, none. My home was filled with classical music because my parents were both professional musicians. So, symphonies and polonaises and sonatas are home for me. Nothing brings me home faster than listening to a concerto. I used to abhor classical music as a teenager, as a form of rebellion, of course, but with time I had to accept that I have always loved it. I listen to it almost all the time, and I have taught my children to like it, too. It's part of who we are as a family. And it has shaped who I am, as a person, too. And as a writer.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Music (classical music), and art. Visual art. I love going to museums.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I am a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates. Toni Morrison is also my hero. They have definitely left a huge mark in me, as a person, and as a writer. I admire several Canadian writers but my two favourites are Kim Echlin and Lawrence Hill.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to write a real novel. A long one. I already have a plan.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
If I had stayed in Mexico, I would have continued being an actress. I never considered anything else, really. Writing appeared in my life quite unexpectedly. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing is a portable profession. When I left Mexico and moved to the US, the place where I lived had no theatre company I could join, plus I didn't think I could act in English. But for writing all you need is a pen and some paper. Or a computer. But more than that, I felt the need to write. A physical need, an ache, a longing. I felt that, if I didn't write, I would get sick. So, writing sort of saved me. It made me feel better. It still does.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The House of Names by Colm Toibin. Wonderful read. Blackkklansmen, by Spike Lee, shook me. So current, so urgent to understand the dangerous path we're being forced to walk down again. Awful.

20 - What are you currently working on?
In February we'll officially launch Damiana's Reprieve, the new edition of my award-winning novella, so I will focus on promoting that book, which means I'm right now trying to figure out strategies to do this more effectively. On the other hand, I'm part of a Hispanic-Canadian collective called IMAGINA, and two years ago we published an anthology of short-stories called "Historias de Toronto." It was a labour of love, where we invited 12 Spanish-speaking writers who live in the GTA, to write about Toronto, no longer as outsiders but as its inhabitants. This book had a wonderful reception in our community and will appear in English next year, which is very exciting. We're working on "Historias de Montreal" right now, so after I finish teaching and grading this academic term I will dive into getting those texts ready to go to the printer---we're hoping for a launch in the Spring, this time with a book that includes over 20 writers who are Spanish-speaking and live in the GTA, Ottawa, and Montreal. We have wonderful stories there and, fingers crossed, the book will be just as successful as the Toronto one, or even more, who knows? We're doing our best. And with my students at the School of Continuing Studies, where I have been teaching for almost 10 the Creative Writing in Spanish courses, I am also preparing an anthology. I am therefore focusing on these projects for now, as well as getting ready for what I want to do for myself: my own writing.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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