Gessy Alvarez Interview with Karen Stefano
“So Close, yet So Far” is an excerpt from your novel-in-progress, The Last Kingdom in Astoria, correct? Please, tell me what that novel is about.
The novel is an odyssey story between a recently widowed father and his daughter. It takes place during a blackout that affected parts of Queens, New York in 2006 for over a week. The daughter disappears on the first night of the blackout, and the father must go out to find her. He’s been emotionally disconnected from his daughter since his wife died of cancer two years prior. So the blackout is not only the setting but also acts as the overarching metaphor for the plot.
I love the voice in this excerpt you have shared. How did you achieve it? What do you think is the trick or the magic to a strong voice on the page?
Because the novel is very much a work-in-progress, I think it’s a bit premature to say I’ve successfully achieved anything yet, but thank you for the compliment. Voice is one of those essential elements that can’t be planned, or at least, I can’t plan for it. Either it’s there or it’s not. And voice is not just an element of fiction but also nonfiction. No matter what you write, whether a complete invention or a story based on real-life, the voice acts as an artificial tool. As writers, we manufacture and manipulate voice to create the necessary effect for something we want to communicate.
I don’t think there’s magic behind it. I believe it’s faith that drives it. Faith that you know your character intimately, you understand his or her history, and that you can speak for them with confidence and compassion. Voice is a big gamble. But so is the whole process of writing. Somehow we as writers believe that what we are spending all this time on is going to say something that is bigger than we are. And then there’s the responsibility of making it work once it’s committed to print.
Tell me about your journey as a writer. How did you get started?
I was that weird kid that was privy to adult situations at an early age. I was a first-generation American and the only English speaker in my Dominican/Ecuadorian family, which meant I had to be a translator for my parents and my grandmother. I was forced to learn to maneuver through difficult situations out of need. The adults in my life depended on me to get them through those difficult situations. I didn’t like being around kids my own age. So rather than socialize with kids at school, I was the observer. I kept to myself and watched the other kids do kid things, but I had no clue how to be a kid myself.
Yeah, that’s when this all started for me and over the years, the observer became more creative. Twenty years ago, if you would have asked me what I wanted to be, the answer would be anything but a writer. I studied business in college and to this day, that degree feeds me. But the writing is a calling.
And so I’ve been doing this writing thing since 2004 or so. The journey so far has been incredible. I mean, I’ve yet to publish a book, but I’ve traveled all over this country and have met gracious and talented writers and artists along the way.
Tell me about Digging Through the Fat.
Digging Through The Fat is a website I started a couple of years ago. We publish fiction and poetry year round. We hold two reading periods: poetry in the Spring/Summer and fiction in the Fall/Winter. This year we had a table at the AWP Conference in Los Angeles and that was a fascinating experience. I can’t imagine we are going to do that again anytime soon because the expense was too great, but I was encouraged by the folks who stopped by to let us know they liked what we did. Also this year, we’ve expanded our website to include visual artists. We are holding our first art and poetry event in Bushwick, Brooklyn at the Living Gallery this October. If all goes well, we plan to have another event in the spring.
So Digging is now my lifestyle as well as the website I founded. I’m doing work for it all day and night. It’s not an easy gig, but it’s my gig and I can’t even tell you how incredibly gratifying it is to work hard on something you love. I’ve let Digging grow organically, meaning I’ve never had a set vision for it. It’s an experimental place where writers and poets are offered a chance to feature their works. We publish one piece a week because that’s about how long it takes for a published poem or story to garner an audience. But, of course, giving that one-week space to a writer and poet limits the amount of works we can feature. We receive close to 100 or so submissions per reading period and roughly about 10 percent of those submissions end up on our website.
I didn’t intend for Digging to become a competitive literary market, but the forces demand it. Although the website keeps going, what keeps me on my toes is the integrity behind what we are trying to do. We want to offer a fair shot for all, but we also want to feature the best works we can. There’s so much that I hope Digging will do, but I also know that you have to let your babies grow and make mistakes. We’ve been lucky so far, but we also have so much to still learn.
Have you hit any bumps along the writing road?
I’ve had emotional and physical issues to overcome during these past writing years. I’ve survived Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and have fought off more than a few breakdowns with the help of therapy and medication. But even with these obstacles, I never stopped writing. Writing keeps me grounded. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve stopped writing for a few weeks or even a couple of months, but even when I’ve taken those breaks, I never stopped being a writer. Because the act of writing isn’t what makes you a writer, it’s the patience with life that makes you a writer. When I feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed, because either state of being can paralyze me, I embrace the quiet, the solitude. I stop and let my brain freefall. I don’t force it, but instead find focus in something else like a good painting or photograph. Maybe I read a forgotten book or listen to music. And films, those are so good at saving me.
What books have you read lately and loved?
I’m taking the subway to work these days, so I have more time to read. This is fantastic, because without those forty minutes a day, I don’t think I would sit and enjoy a book. I read all the time, but I can’t say I find pleasure in what I’m reading because it’s usually books I need to read rather than books I want to relish.
I recently finished Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth. It’s a short, but richly told story of a man and his teeth. I know, weird. What I loved about it is that we are with this guy throughout the novel, experiencing his world, listening to him as he works as an auctioneer, and the language that is propelling the story keeps changing and meandering so that you are left unsure yet completely riveted to who this guy may be. Its compactness allows for you to relish in the intricacies of character and history. So far, it’s my number one book this year.
On the nonfiction front, I just finished reading Michelle Cruz Gonzales’ memoir, The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band. This memoir juxtaposes the experiences of the female punk rocker who infamously spit out, “We’re not a riot grrl band,” into a crowd of surly concert-goers, with this same woman’s inner conflict of being a person of color living in a colorblind and liberal punk world. It’s a fantastic read.
What’s next for you as a writer?
Of course, I want to finish this novel and get it published. I also want to keep working on a group of essays that I began last year. They are all personal and difficult to write, but I find that so far people want to read them. To be frank, this writing thing is lifelong, so what’s next is more writing.
What’s next for you as a human being?
The clock is ticking and that’s fucking brilliant. I’m still here and I’m gonna live it up.
Ahhhhhh, a good mantra for all of us, Gessy! Thanks for sharing your work with Connotation Press!
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.