I'm a poet and I've written a dozen or so poetry books, a collection of essays, short stories and a memoir, but never a novel until now.
For years I'd stored stories in my head with the intention of someday spinning them into a novel. I'd share them with friends over dinner, and as I told and retold them, they'd mature and ripen. With each telling, I'd become more intimate with the characters, where they lived, how they arrived, what their backstory was. But when I finally sat down to write it all down, I was completely thrown off course. The main character I had had in mind all that time took a backseat, and another character stood front and center. It was a woman instead of a man. She simply came forth and made it known that the story would be told through her eyes and experience.
Once she—Nopal—took control of the story, I had to find her voice and that wasn't easy. I rewrote the opening scene dozens of times until she came alive; eventually, I discovered that she was distinct, vigorously present, a person outside of myself who broke away from my imagination's umbilical cord and became a real person. Naturally, this changed the entire plot I had been working through in my mind all those years—she drove the story on and I followed.
When writing poetry, I express myself through metaphor and images. I play with the words, and hold each one up and marvel at its unending references and connotations. I explore alternate arrangements, bringing an end word to the front of the verse line, plucking three words from the center of the line and dropping them alone off to the side of the page. It's a freeing process. The novel was very different—I wrote the whole thing to its end and then started at the beginning again. I had to do research, develop, organize and revise.
There were many times when I thought I would never finish it, and I asked myself why I was writing the novel, and the conclusive answer was because it was a journey I had never taken and I was learning so much about the life outside of my life. I now feel like I have three more novels in me that need to be shared with the world. And I am expecting an exciting journey, filled with many long, excruciating hours and also some amazing surprises.
|Jimmy Santiago Baca is the award-winning author of the memoir A Place to Stand, as well as a short story collection and several collections of poetry. A Glass of Water, which will be published by Grove Press, is his first novel. He lives in Albuquerque with his family.|