Ron Gutierrez Interview with Karen Stefano
Ron, what was the inspiration for “The Strength of Silk”?
All I knew at first was that I wanted my two main characters to be a strong Latina mother and her sullen teenage daughter, and that the story would open in a cheap hotel lobby where a young man would penetrate their world. I also wanted an emotional beat in their car where mother and daughter are trapped with a secret and we see if they can finally reach out to each other. But more than that, I had no idea.
A friend invited me to lunch with a friend of hers who taught gifted children and had created a book club for them. I sat spellbound as she told me that a well-known company had a science program where a representative visited her school and gave a presentation for the kids, complete with live specimens specific to the story they’d read. I love science and that fascinated me. It sounded like a great b plot, which in this case actually guided me to my main story. I love taking an unusual b plot and trusting my gut to integrate it into the main plot so that it adds an essential layer to the main story.
It ended up being the science layer that led me to the narrative’s theme and ending. When I knew the story would be going to a dark place emotionally, the challenge was to make sure I had earned that emotional beat. I had to explore the mother’s backstory carefully; really figure out who she was. While any mother in her position would want to do what she does at the end, only she would have the background and specific character traits to really do it. I want to thank my new friend, Sheri, for that amazing conversation during lunch, without which, this story wouldn’t have happened!
Why do you write?
Storytelling is a universal part of being human. A gathering of friends isn’t complete without someone telling a story. Being able to do that in a group is a fairly common skill, but one I really suck at. If I share an anecdote, I’ll more often than not just cast an awkward silence over the table. But give me my laptop, a couple of weeks, and plenty of time for revisions, and then I can tell a story. It’s just my way. Reading is also the way I prefer to hear other people’s stories.
I’m the same way! Completely incapable of telling a story unless it’s on the page! Tell me how you get a story on the page. Tell me about your writing process.
I start the day by reading other people’s fiction, usually over coffee, shaking my mind loose from the confines of my own writing style, often making notes as to how an author achieved something I admire, used a word or emotion in a way I never thought of before. When I sit down to write I often use an hourglass, not allowing myself to get up until all the sand has fallen. This prevents me from watching the clock or thinking I have to start on the hour or the half hour, and from being distracted by knowing exactly how many minutes I have left. I have both a 15 minute hourglass and an hour hourglass depending on how ambitious the session will be, the shorter one for when I absolutely don’t think I’ve got anything in me. All I know is that it works for me. I make myself give one hundred percent attention to my writing until the last grain has fallen, meaning no internet, snacking, emails, phone calls, etc. At the end, I’ll often turn it upside down and start another session. Then another.
My process when revising is a little different. I’ll usually switch electronic devices. I write on my laptop, but I revise by reading the pages on my e-reader, while making notes on a note pad. It gives me a fresh perspective and makes the text new to me again. In this way, I’m more likely to see problems I was previously blind to.
Before submitting to a literary journal, I try to read an issue, front to back, and let my mind re-orientate around that journal. It’s rewarding to stretch the comfort level of my usual writing style to what a particular journal is doing and the type of work they’re recognizing. Without exception, when I get a story rejected, it’s because I haven’t done that and instead stayed inside my comfort level.
How do you keep yourself inspired to write?
I’ve never subscribed to the concept of inspiration as a requirement or even an incentive to write. It’s nice when I do get that rush or sense of a trajectory motivating me, but for me, it’s not a common thing. I live in a two-writer household and if we had to keep ourselves inspired we’d have a very different life, and have a lot less published or produced works. Obviously deadlines, both real and self-imposed, are a great aid. Submission deadlines in particular are wonderful because I get to play beat-the-clock as the calendar day gets closer.
Tell me about TERTULIA: How does it work? What motivated you to start it? What/who makes it work?
I started the literary salon TERTULIA with the wonderful Ann de Bruin who has been my partner in this for five years now. We’d both been in formal writing workshops and attended plenty of local readings, but we wanted to create events in intimate home spaces, where prose, poetry, music, food, and drink would be shared, and we wanted to try and do it quarterly.
The biggest motivation for me was being dismayed at how people could attend a reading at a bookstore, not meet anyone, and leave without even making a contact, much less being a participant or feeling like a member of the literary community. With the salons, we include a potluck and we socialize, making sure new people feel comfortable. We feature twelve writers who read from their work for five minutes each. We have an intermission for dessert and wine, and a special guest either from the music or literary world. We’ve had songwriters of hit songs sit down at the baby grand and give us the unplugged version of songs we grew up with, and even let us sing along. It’s an ethnically, sexually, and age diverse group. We’re always growing, and I think the diversity aspect in both who we are and what we write makes for a truly unforgettable experience. Because we meet in private homes, we can’t really advertise to the general public, so we’re a private Facebook group. Getting to know Ann or me is the best way to get invited. October 26th marks our third participation in the annual Lit Crawl LA festival so anyone there can check out the TERTULIA presentation, flag me down, say hi, and ask me about the salon.
What do you believe are the qualities that make one a good citizen in the literary community?
Get out of the house and attend literary events and conferences. Go to author readings and buy books. Know who your local reading series hosts are and get on their mailing lists. Know the editors of your local literary journals, and continue to hone your skills through formal workshops taught by professionals. Developing your networking skills is essential, and it’s important to support your fellow writers. If you write genre, get involved with the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America or Romance Writers of America, or whatever genre-specific organization is for you. Say yes to requests to get involved. If all you’re doing is writing inside your own bubble, you’re probably not doing enough to help your own writing which will suffer.
Don’t attend author events and panels to chat with people you already know or to feel inspired. Go to meet new people and to allow yourself to be challenged by the author’s advice. In addition to my work with TERUTLIA, I’m also on the organizing committee of Lit Crawl L.A. where my particular role is more technical and data-centered. Whatever your talents, there is an organization that can use your help.
What do you look for in a narrator?
It’s a struggle sometimes to give the narrator a personality that doesn’t sound like someone you’ve read a hundred times before. This is harder when you take into account that today’s readers get bored so easily. If I sense that the narrator is getting buried by an unwieldy premise or plot, or saddled with cliché observations or predictable obstacles, I know I’ll lose the reader. Personally, I like to be surprised by my narrator; find out something I don’t already know he or she is capable of showing me. If I can surprise myself in an honest and authentic way through my character, I know the reader is more likely to be surprised as well.
What’s next for you in your writing career?
I did something like 6 drafts of my novel before having a well-respected New York editor give it a thorough editorial read, complete with a 20-page meticulously written letter that speaks to every aspect of the book. She’s returned the manuscript itself to me with track change edits and notes for me to consider. It’s intense, and that is my focus now. I feel like the manuscript is on the operating table and, unlike the world of real surgery, I have to operate on a member of my own family. But honestly speaking, I’m excited, motivated, and feel lucky I didn’t start sending it out to the gate keepers of publishing without going through this process first.
Why do you think Fiction matters in this world?
Fiction is how writers take the cold skeletons of truth and give them flesh and blood. Done right, it allows readers to experience both themselves and the human condition in a new way. Non-fiction tends to have a short shelf life, and cinema often has to conform to formulas and tropes, and it can be hard to separate it from the celebrity culture we’re living in. Fiction remains one of the only places we can encounter ourselves through other people’s stories, up close and personal, without the outside constraints and influences often inherent in other forms of storytelling. The best fiction has a pulse, a beginning, middle and end, that allows us to see, even if momentarily, past the vapid media and routine demands of life that always feel like they’re threatening to consume us. That’s why it matters to me.
Ron, thank you so much for being such a wonderful literary citizen yourself and for sharing your work with Connotation Press! We can’t wait to read that novel!
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