Last week Benjamin Alire Saenz made literary history and became one of El Paso’s most famous citizens.
He won the prestigious 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his book, “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club.” In each of its seven short stories, various characters find themselves at the famous Juarez bar at some point. Add to that award his critically acclaimed new young adult novel, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” and you have an author at a career peak.
Born in Old Picacho, N.M., in 1954 and raised on a farm outside Mesilla, Saenz was the fourth of seven children. After graduating from St. Thomas Seminary in Denver in 1977, he studied theology in Belgium and served as a priest in El Paso. Returning to school in 1985, he studied creative writing at UTEP, the University of Iowa and Stanford University and published his first volume of poetry, “Calendar of Dust,” in 1991, his first short story collection, “Flowers for the Broken,” in 1992, and his first novel, “Carry Me Like Water,” in 1995.
Q. Some people outside our area may think you are a new name, but you’ve been steadily publishing for some 20 years. What’s different about these two books that they’re receiving so much attention?
It’s very gratifying. I do think my work has gotten better over the years. You get better at what you do. I think if you stick with it and you keep writing good books and keep publishing, I think you do get recognition. I’ve always had recognition of some sorts. I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and I won a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. It didn’t make me famous or anything. I’ve won a lot of awards. I don’t feel like I’ve been ignored. On the other hand, there’s a lot of people who haven’t heard of me.
I think that groups like the PEN/Faulkner Foundation– that’s what they want to do. They want to bring recognition to writers who they feel deserve it, and that’s why their foundation exists. A lot of times those awards do go to famous writers, but a lot of times they don’t. That’s not the point. The judges feel these books are written by writers who deserve some recognition – but also to give recognition to the art of fiction writing. They only give one award, and that’s the fiction award, and they are very committed to that art in this country.
Q. All of your books take place in El Paso and Juarez, in familiar neighborhoods, parks and even restaurants. What do you hear from readers about the cities’ importance in your fiction?
My readers generally feel like they’ve been here, that they know the area. And people who know the area are always very happy to see the area represented. I have a great sense of space, of place. I know El Paso. I don’t just live here. A lot of people who live here don’t really know this place. Sometimes I just go driving around, all over the city, because the city changes. I know the East Side, the Northeast, the Lower Valley, the West Side – I know it intimately, I go in search of it to know it. Because I know it so intimately, it’s just a part of me. And the desert, too. It’s a part of me. So of course, it is going to be in my work.
I tell people I love this town. Sometimes people badmouth El Paso and I have to stop them. I tell them “El Paso is a very good friend of mine and I don’t let people talk sh*t about my friends, not in front of me.” I don’t want to convince anybody of anything. You have to respect my love for this place. I don’t even ask you to understand it. It’s not even about understanding it; it’s about letting yourself experience it. I let myself experience this city and because I’ve experienced it, I can write about it. I pair El Paso with Juarez because what is El Paso without Juarez and what is Juarez without El Paso?
Q. Aristotle, the narrator in your young adult book, struggles with so much: a brother in prison, depression, anger, and confusion about his feelings for his best friend Dante, who is gay. Narrators in the story collection encounter cruelty, suicide, drug addiction, violence, loneliness and tragedy. Sometimes these books were difficult to read. Were they difficult to write?
I take my own advice: If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t matter. I take that to heart. Writing is painful for me. I don’t know if it’s true for other writers, but it’s true for me. I think stories need to be well told, they need to be intelligent, but you can’t edit the emotion out of it. I have had a difficult life in many ways. I’ve learned to be emotionally vulnerable on the page, and I’m not afraid of doing that.
Q. When a story is painful, how did you keep writing? What keeps you going?
It’s what I do. I write because writing saved my life; writing is like the air. For me, not to write is to die. I suspect that is true for other writers, but I can’t speak for them. We have a radio show, my co-host Daniel Chacon and I, called “Words on a Wire.” It’s a book show, and we always end with our motto: “And remember, the next book you read may save your life.” And then I always say to myself, “The next book I write is saving my life.”
Q. Inevitably, readers wonder about writers’ autobiographical inspirations. To what extent do you look to your life or the lives of friends and family as you write?
I look to all of those things. Unlike a reporter, I don’t have to stick to the facts. It’s the joy of being a writer. The things that happen in novels and fiction aren’t true, but you have to make them feel like they are true, that they did happen or they could happen.
If readers don’t feel that your characters are real, they’re not even going to finish the book.
I know that my stories can be very dark and difficult, but they are not without hope. There’s no despair in my work; there’s just looking at hard things. A lot of times we don’t want to look about hard things. “We don’t have to talk about that.” Families do that. They dance around things. I don’t dance around things. You can’t be a writer and dance around things. If you’re going to write about something, write about it and go there. And I do. I’m not afraid.
I’m not even afraid of people thinking like, man, this guy must be messed up. I sometimes go do a reading and people have read my books and they go like, “You’re kind of a happy, outgoing guy – how can you write this stuff?” I’m like everyone else; there are a lot of sides to me. I’m not the only person in the world that’s a little complicated. My complications are all over the page.
Q. Do you identify with any of your characters?
All of them – they are all inside of me.
Q. Have these two books been waiting inside you for a long time until you were ready to put them on paper?
A long time. I believe I have not yet written the novel I was meant to write. And I will know it when I write it.
Q. El Paso has an active fiction and poetry writing culture, both within the academic environment and in the community. What advice would you give to aspiring young writers?
Drop your sense of entitlement. Read other people. If you’re not interested in reading other people but you want people to be interested in reading you, how egotistical is that? Be generous. Learn from writers. There’s great writing out there. Read. Read. Learn your craft. Don’t be in a hurry. Things take time. You have to be patient, be disciplined. You have to desire it. You have to want it. We live in a world of computers and instant gratification, and that’s not how it works in the writing world. For a lot of people, my last two books are the first time they heard of me, so it’s taken me 20 years. But that’s OK. That’s the way it works. Your first book makes you famous? That’s very rare. Very often that’s the only book and after that, it’s downhill for them. Are you prepared to be in it for the long haul? And if you are, then just write and make your writing good and get better. Be hard on yourself. If you’re writing because you need to be loved, or you need to be famous, or you need to have money, then go do something else.
Benjamin Alire Saenz’s recent work
“Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club”
short story collection, 180 pages
Cinco Puntos Press
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”
young adult novel, 368 pages
Simon & Schuster
“Words on a Wire”
A weekly radio show
about fiction, poetry, the writing community,
the publishing world and other literary topics
hosted by Saenz and fellow author Daniel Chacón
Sundays at 11:30 a.m. on 88.5-FM KTEP