Interview: Author Rosa Martha Villareal

Wiglaf cover

 Hi Rosa,

I’m so glad you were available for this interview, especially in light of your new children’s book. What’s the title of the book and what’s it about?

The title of the book is The Adventures of Wiglaf the Wyrm.

The book is about a baby dragon or wyrm that gets swept off the island of Wrymland, where the dragons have remained hidden since the times of Beowulf the Great.  He ends up in California where he is discovered by a boy named Vincent, and his two dogs Yorrick and Cachi. The wyrm must get home before he grows and spews fire.  With the help of Vincent and the dogs, Wiglaf makes it back home, but not before confronting the evil Rat Sorcerer King and his minions.

What a wonderful idea. Why a children’s book now?

The genesis of this story took place some 25 years ago.  Wiglaf the wyrm was an imaginary character I made up for my son Vincent when he was a toddler.  I never got around to writing it down until now.

How was writing this book different from writing your novel, The Stillness of Love and Exile? Tell us about how the process of writing your novel was different from writing for children?

Actually, it is the same process.  Writing is like cooking: part inspiration, part craftsmanship, and part alchemy (or in the case of cooking, chemistry).  Everything I’ve written has been a conversation with another book. Wiglaf was a conversation with Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his depiction of the dragon. The Stillness of Love and Exile was a response to Carlos Fuentes’s mysterious and erotic love story Aura.

Fuentes’s Aura and Stillness are about identity and desire, and the nature of erotic love and its spiritualizing power.  Fuentes’s vehicle for transcending time-space was magic, thus, magical realism.  Instead of magic, I used quantum mechanics and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, though not overtly. In the end, there are two realities that the reader discovers.  The quantum mechanics reveal, however, that we don’t exist in a universe but a multiverse. Lilia’s erotic fulfillment opens the doorway to an alternate reality, one in which it was always Miguel whom she loved rather than both Javier and Miguel.  Her dream trances inform her of this possibility all along.  So which of the two scenarios happened?  Both, I like to call my work ‘quantum fiction.’

Will you continue writing in both genres? Does it feel right for you?

I am writing another book on Wyrmland with the alchemist, the Vikings, and the alchemist’s dragon friend.  I am also working on four (possibly) five short quantum fiction novellas .

Of course it ‘feels right.’  I never force stories.  If they don’t originate naturally, I won’t write them.  I never have a writing regiment or such.  I don’t plan.  It is purely a natural phenomenon.

To move the topic in another direction; I’d like you to talk a little about your thinking about where the traditional publishing industry is now in light of the rapidly changing self-publishing world, publishing alternatives for writers and the e-book.

Traditional publishing will continue for the time being because of the size and power of the industry.  But e-publishing is already eroding that power.  The consumer has more selection. There is a hunger for stories and storytelling that does not fit the New York editors’ taste.  They, the traditional publishers, are still guarding the gates, and they will continue to sell the public the same product and justify their product through awards that are tailor made for them.  Small publishing was always that avant-guard as were the smaller but meritorious-based awards, but they were no match for the big boys.

The small publisher could never compete because of the oppressive cost of distribution.  Getting the product to the audience was a difficult task that rendered the author in the role of guerilla warrior, going from place to place for a reading and for space for his/her books on the shelves.

Electronic publishing radically changed that, and Amazon.com not only poses the biggest threat to traditional publishing but stand to be the next standard paradigm with its Kindle Platform Publisher and its ability to distribute books worldwide—every book.  Neither writers nor readers need to go to the traditional houses or even small publishers any more. Every smart phone in use is also a ‘book.’  What Amazon.com did—and this essentially crushed Barnes and Noble’s foray in the e-publishing business—was create the Kindle App and make it free.  Thus, every person who has a smart phone of any brand can buy any book from the Kindle store.

For the writer, this means freedom to write one’s own vision without having to be a cookie-cutter writer.  I wonder sometimes, could someone like William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, or Knut Hamson even publish with today’s traditional publishers who are no longer arbiters of serious literature? Somewhere along the line, the traditional publishing industry became like the Detroit automakers of the 1970s and 80s. They were successful, spoiled dinosaurs. Then the Japanese automaker came out with their economy models.  That didn’t mean that overnight the traditional automakers were overtaken, but it was the beginning. They have been playing catch-up ever since.  Even in the hallowed light truck market, the Japanese automakers have a significant market share. The natural trends of economics and changing tastes and technological innovations are likewise affecting the publishing industry.

Humans went from writing on clay tablets, to scrolls, to hand-made bound books, to printed press, and now electronic medium.  The whole idea is to possess and/or access as much contents with the least of amount of physical space.  Even in schools, traditional books are becoming obsolete.  Students are issued smart pads instead of physical books. It is cost-efficient, and easy for the student to carry around.  Students will always have the most recent editions, not just those in affluent districts but everywhere.

I do want to address the caveat on most writers’ minds.  Namely, if everyone can publish, how can the distinction be made between those who are true writers—people devoted to the craft and artistry—versus a deluded imbecile?  Let me say first of all, that traditional publisher have made millions from publishing delusional imbeciles like Glenn Beck, so it is not as though they were an adequate filter in the first place.  There will always be a market for nonsense. Call it a condition of Original Sin, namely the human race’s inability to sublimate its animal weakness.

Ultimately, the audience and the true arbiters of literature—academia—will determine one’s worth.  It’s a competition, and the fittest will survive the test of time.  Serious writers will always be readers and students of philosophy not just craft.  I still recommend to young people to first publish in college journals to understand the significance of writing standards.  I myself still use an editor to read my work and guide me in the revision process.

One last thing that I love about e-publishing:  the writing is not at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to money.  The middleman—the distributor—does not take the lion’s share of one’s sales since the transaction is electronic.

What does best-selling status mean on Amazon.com?

Here is where we enter the caveat emptor territory. Bestselling status on Amazon.com is radically different from say, regional best-selling status in conventional terms. Best-selling status especially in electronic publishing means sales relative to books of one’s particular genre. It could be 10 books or it could mean 800. The author is given the tools to check hard numbers, and that should be the measurement one must rely on.

How do you think story remains important now? Why do we need it— perhaps more than ever?

Narrative is and always has been an essential element for the human race.  We have archeological data of story-telling since the birth of our species in cave painting and depiction of stories on pottery and such.  Oral story-telling transcends cultures and time.  There is a need for stories.  We see this in interactive gaming media.  These games are not just about shooting at things.  They have characters and a story-line.  What story-telling does is takes us out of ourselves.  We are re-imaged as others, and by that process confront the inner self, the secret other within, and hopefully develop our ability to empathize.

What are you reading lately and what kind of writing do you most appreciate right now?

A little of everything that I love:  archeology, quantum physics, evolution, classics literature that I missed out on.  I want to emphasis that ‘reading’ is not the sole source of excellent literature.  Besides film literature—The Seventh Seal  and Macario, being two of my favorites—the mini-series Breaking Bad is the post-modern version of Shakespeare.  I don’t want to be lightly entertained by narrative.  I want it to shake me up, heighten my consciousness, regardless of the medium.

Finally, could you talk about the characters in your novels and what you believe they offer the reader?  I’m fascinated by your central characters and how they view the world.

The main characters are all confronted with an existential question.  For Doctor Magdalena Ibarra (Doctor Magdalena: novella), it is memory and identity; for Maria Elena Vazquez (in Chronicles of Air and Dream), it is betrayal and identity; for Lilia in The Stillness of Love and Exile, it is erotic love and identity.  As women in the modern world, they have the freedom to create the self, to break away or perhaps reshape traditional constructs.  The most radical of my characters is Maria Elena, whose passionate quest for knowledge—the secrets of erased history—is only matched by her defiance of anyone who wants to control her, be her family, traditions, or her fiancé.

Thank you Rosa. It’s been wonderful to talk with you.

Yon Walls, 2013

 BIO:

Rosa Martha Villarreal is a life-time resident of California and a graduate of San Jose State University where she earned BAs in Botany and English, and a MA in English.  A Texas native whose family roots go back to the 16th century Spanish colonial Nuevo Leon (in today’s Mexico), she combines her historical roots along with her interest in archaelology, physics,  and existentialism in writing about identity, passion and imagination.

Her novel The Stillness of Love and Exile received both  2008 PEN Oakland / Josephine Mile Literary Award and a Silver Medal for Best Regional Fiction for the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards.  While in graduate school, she received the Phelan Literary Award for the  short story, “The Mendel of Hidalgo,” which is featured in her forthcoming Kindle Edition ebook, Cuentos: Two Mexican Tales.

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