beyond the comfort zone
AN INTERVIEW WITH CYN VARGAS
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
A native Chicagoan, Cyn Vargas holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and is the recipient of a Ragdale Fellowship and the 2013 Guild Literary Complex Prose Award in Fiction. In 2015, Curbside Splendor published Cyn's debut short story collection On the Way, which was given an Honorable Mention for the Chicago Writers Association's Book of the Year award. Cyn teaches creative writing workshops around Chicago and online, and can be found on Twitter at @Cyn_Vargas and at her website, cynvargas.com.
TMR: On your website, you talk about the first story you wrote. You say that even when you were younger, you didn't write happy endings. Why did you think that you were, and are, drawn to writing that sort of content?
CV: I think it's less that I like writing it, and more that I have experienced not-happy endings very early on. My father left our family when I was six years old, to go with a pregnant babysitter who was not pregnant by him. At six years old, you sort of know what's going on, but you sort of don't. And I think that I started using writing as a way of being able -- of course I didn't know this at six -- but being able to put realistic experiences on the page.
I like Disney, but it doesn't always have to end up Disney. And in my way, I always wanted the person to save themselves and not be saved by a man or a prince. I hope that my work at least comes off that it's realistic but that there's some hope in it. I think everyone goes through shit, and it's the hope that makes us keep going.
TMR: Have you written the cliche happy ending?
CV: I never know what my endings are, so I never plan anything out, especially doing the short story form. What I tend to do is start in the middle, where something has changed. When I teach, I teach about model tellings and the story comes in when you break it. So that's where I start my stories. And then I write the ending, the middle, and the beginning, in that order. I don't try to go for endings that are not happy, but I find myself not being drawn to writing endings that close that part of the narrator's life, so the narrator's able to transform into something else.
I feel like happy endings end the story -- really end it. You don't care what happens to that narrator. They live happily ever after. But I think if you see a story that shows you this narrator having gone through this challenge, and they overcame it, or they're still overcoming it, there's more to tell. And I think that those endings, for me, are much more interesting than happy ones.
TMR: Last year, your debut story collection was published by Curbside Splendor. How did you get to know the crew at Curbside Splendor, and how did that help you get your book published?
CV: I'm going to start backwards. Definitely, writers need to get out there and talk to people, and not just other writers, because you never know who knows someone. And not that you're using people, but you should expand your knowledge anyway to begin with. Books really are sold because of the author, or at least, get contracted because of the author. Especially debut authors. Nobody really knows me, but if I do a lot of readings around town and I get some stuff published, then I can at least have a resume or put something on my website.
So Victor David Giron, who's the head of Curbside, found me on Facebook because he had seen my name on a lot of bills around Chicago. I was starting out -- and I still feel like I'm starting out -- and I said yes to everything. I said yes to this reading, that reading, all these different readings, because I needed to get out there. I also needed the practice of reading; you have to have some presence to you.
He Facebooked me and said, "Hey, I've seen you on a lot of bills, and also are you Guatemalan? Because you have the same mouth I do." He's Guatemalan, too. So I was excited that someone knew I was Guatemalan. We became Facebook friends that way, and shortly after that I had to do a report in my publishing class on an independent publisher. And I wanted to interview Curbside. I met Victor at a bar and got him dinner, and we just talked for two hours. I had my questions, like: "Give me the process, how do you get authors," and at the same time of course I'm thinking for myself, because I was working on my thesis. At the end of everything, he told me, "When you finish your thesis, send it to me." I was really cool in front of him, but when I went home I freaked out.
It took another year and a half, until I graduated and I worked on it more. The important thing to think, especially for grad students, is if you write your thesis, you only have to have it good enough to graduate. But that does not mean it's done. So mine was complete, but I still knew I wanted to work on it a bit more. And then six months after I had graduated, I sent him the book. He sent me the contract, and I had a lot of questions. I asked someone that I knew in the film industry if they could look it over for me. You want to say yes, but a mistake that a lot of creatives do is that we forget that it's also a business. On Valentine's day I got the contract, I signed it, and that was done, on that part. Then it becomes a whole other process: to print.
TMR: You've had your work published in Split Lip and some Chicago magazines. Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to submit to small presses and venues, who may face rejection?
CV: I think we're all going to face it. If not, you own the magazine and you're printing yourself. I like to sort of just deal with emotions head-on, so for me to get ready for my rejection phase, I submitted to The New Yorker. And this is when they were still giving out rejection letters -- they don't do that anymore. I got it back, I knew I was going to get it back, I already knew, and I cried anyway. It's like you're ice skating and you know you're going to fall, but it's still going to hurt. I did that on purpose because I wanted to feel it, because I think that writers, when we get rejected with our writing, it's also triggering other rejections in life, which is what makes us writers to begin with. So it's almost having to heal and deal with all of that. After that, I didn't cry. There were times I got really pissed off, and not because I thought I was the best, but because I really wanted it. I've been wanting to get into PANK forever. And I've been rejected by them multiple times. But the silver lining in that is that I have submitted multiple times.
Joe Meno was my thesis advisor at Columbia. Some of the best advice he gave was to, when you get rejected, go submit somewhere else. Because then it's like, "Fuck you, I can do this."
I've been rejected way more than I've been published, and that's okay, that’s part of it.
I have a huge spreadsheet with a ton and ton of rejections. I've been rejected way more than I've been published, and that's okay, that’s part of it. Either you're going to agree with them or you’re not, or it's the wrong fit. A lot of the time the problem is that we're submitting to magazines where something doesn't fit. So it's not that it isn't good, it just doesn't fit. You have to know what you're submitting to at the same time.
TMR: On the Way is listed on Amazon, and as people know, the internet can be a vulnerable place for artists, particularly when it comes to reviews. How do you handle negative feedback?
CV: I mean, anyone can go on Amazon. With reviews, you shouldn't let them affect you whether they're good or bad anyways. Someone wrote that I "write for the white man and my white publisher"… who is Victor… with the Guatemalan mouth. So I don't know what that means. That person -- from San Francisco, I looked -- has no name and no picture. It's very easy to sit behind your computer as an anonymous person and criticize somebody else. I could tell that person was from AWP. It was a writer criticizing another writer on the internet anonymously. So I say this in the nicest way possible: If it's so important to you that I'm writing for the "white man," then tell me. If you're really concerned that that's how I'm coming off, then tell me. If you're taking the time to sit there and write, then email me. I have a website. I'm totally open to that stuff. But that one actually did make me laugh.
I got another review, from a magazine, and the first part I read was good. Then the second part I initially read as bad, and I cried in my car. And then I told my close friends and they took care of me, and then I went back and I had realized that it's okay for the magazine to point out what they like and what it is that they don't necessarily like. And it's a short story collection. Not everyone is going to like all short stories in the book. That was a big learning experience for me. So from that point on, I only read reviews from magazines and whatnot -- not that I've gotten any -- and I try to see the good in them. Most of them are pretty good.
I stopped reading the Goodreads reviews and the Amazon reviews, because, you know, I'm not going to always like everything people write, and I shouldn't anyway. I really appreciate the people that do like my book and put it out there, because that’s how a couple of book clubs have found me. But I also don't want to get comfortable. I think if you start reading a lot of good reviews, you get comfortable, you sort of slack off. "I'm liked, I don't have to work so hard." When I go to Goodreads for myself, it's nice to see the 4.1 stars -- I used to be 4.6, but that's okay! But I’m not going to go through and read them.
It can be hurtful, I don't want it to sound like I don't get hurt. When I read that review that made me cry, it was also 7 a.m. and I was half asleep and didn't want to go to work. So you also have to consider where you are in your life.
TMR: Your website states that you're "currently working on [your] first novel whose narrator is a 14-year old Mayan girl living in 1984 Chicago." Why that time period, why that place, why that race?
CV: The novel is about Itzel, which is a Mayan name, and she's fourteen. She's Mayan-Guatemalan, first generation. And her parents are married, they're blue-collar workers. She loves her parents. She finds out her father has had an affair and she doesn't know what to about it. And, really, I don't have a plan for my novel. I'm just writing what's taking my attention right now, so a lot of different scenes.
I chose 1984 because I was born in '78. So really I grew up in the 90's, but my brother is 7 years older than me and he grew up in the 80's, so that means I grew up in the 80's, and I loved the time period where we didn't have everything at our fingertips, we had to wait for the phone to ring, and there wasn't call waiting, and the landline was busy, and you couldn't just text somebody and go on the internet and do all this stuff. So I'm bringing a lot of those references into the novel.
I think that I chose Chicago because I was born and raised here, so I'm very comfortable with it. I like the idea of telling the time that every adult has gone through, where you're not a kid anymore, regardless of your age. You think your dad is perfect, and he's not. You think Mom is going to be there, and she's not. I think we all go through it: the honeymoon of being a kid is over, and now you have to grow up. I want this to be Itzel's time, where we see her have to deal with all this heavy stuff a 14 year-old shouldn't but has to. I think if there's any message right now, that's what it is.
TMR: Why should readers choose you versus anybody else?
CV: This is going to sound corny, but I think they just need to choose a writer. It doesn't have to be me; they just need to read.
Just read. Read and share and keep the book, or pass the book on to someone else.
I put a lot of myself into my work and I have a "regular life," a full-time job, and my daughter. I'm doing this because I have a need to put it on the page, not because I expect to make a whole bunch of money. And I think you can tell the difference. I think people just need to find those writers, whether they're from small, independent presses or big names but you really enjoy their work and you know that they've been working hard. Just read. Read and share and keep the book, or pass the book on to someone else. Not everyone's going to like my writing, and I'm not trying to sell myself to have people read me. You're either going to like me and read my work because you like me, or you're just going to like my work.
Or you can go read the white man's book -- there's plenty. I think that people just need to read.
TMR: There's a Sandra Cisneros quote from a New York Times article that says, "I am a woman, and I am a Latina, and those are the things that make my writing distinctive, those are the things that give my writing power." Your heritage obviously means a lot to you, and that shows within your writing. Why do you feel it's important for culture to be presented and preserved within literature?
CV: Let's pretend there's a story about someone and you don't know their race or gender. People, I think, will assume they're white. They will assume it's a man. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. But I don't think a story needs to tell the reader about a character's race, gender, sexual orientation, or their religion, because not all wonderful stories have all of that.
What is presented in the story makes the story great; it's all intertwined. And we all come as packages. What you see and how we grew up and who our best friends are and what we do when we're alone, that's why we're all different. Sandra Cisneros is also Latina, but she’s also had different experiences than I have. An African-American woman is going to have different experiences that I have. And that's all intertwined. That's why I think when really good stories happen, if the culture is important, it will come through. If it is not, then it won't. That means it's not necessary.
But you should know everything you need to know about your narrator. Because even if you don't put it on the page, if you don't know something about them, you really don't know them.
I really hope that we don't start seeing writers publish shit that has nothing to do with cultures they don't know about, because they think that it's going to sell.
I think right now, diversity is a really, really hot topic. I hope that we don't start seeing writers publish shit that has nothing to do with cultures they don't know about, because they think that it's going to sell.
TMR: The Huffington Post stated in a 2015 article that the VIDA count -- a count that monitors the underrepresentation of women in influential literary journals -- suggests "women of color [are] still denied the love they deserve from literary journals." You've been in several literary magazines, so what's your opinion on this? Have you felt discriminated against as a writer because of your race?
CV: I was Curbside's first Latina-Hispanic writer. And I know that was close to Victor's heart because of who he is, and I'm very proud of that.
I think women of color are jipped in every aspect. I just pulled a whole bunch of research for the job that I'm in, and women of color make less wealth than any group. So it's women of color, then women, then men of color, then men. We’re at the bottom. Women of color have it even worse than regular women.
I don't know, in the literary sense anyhow, if I've been discriminated against. In my book I have stories where I don't talk about culture at all. I bet everyone still thinks it's a Latina talking in there because of the Latina last name on the book.
I think "fighting" is probably the wrong word, because we're going to fight an uphill battle. Fight, to me, indicates that you see my point of view, when really we need to be educating. Women of color, and people of color, and women, all need to educate the ones that they can help. So they either need to go out and do it themselves, or educate a person in power. The more we educate each other and ourselves, I think the more improvement we'll be able to see.
I wish my book had sold thousands and thousands of copies; it didn't. I could wonder for days why. Maybe people don't like short story collections, or they don't like Latinas. Yet I'm not in the regular section of the bookstore, I have to be in the Hispanic section. But I can't worry about that because then I'm not focusing on my work. My work is the only way that I'm going to be able to combat that.
I think a lot of people stop at, "Well, we have the book. Go look in the Hispanic section." That's not enough.
I think a lot of people stop at, "Well, we have the book. Go look in the Hispanic section." That's not enough. We're still being pegged into one. I think there are people who think, "If I try ten percent, then I don't need to do anything else." A lot of people don't think beyond that, because this is the way it's always been. That doesn't mean that they're bad people. I think the route that's always bad is when people are angry. No one will listen to your message when you're angry. They just hear anger, and you could be making sense. Maybe go to a bookstore and ask, "Can you tell me why this section's not with the rest of the fiction?" Maybe they just never thought about it. Or have authors request to get their book in both.
I think that what we need to do for each other is that when we read work by people that aren't like us, we need to share it. "You need to read this book." "This book was great." "You need to come in and meet my author friend." "Let's go to this reading about X, Y, and Z that's way different from us." We need to get out of our comfort zones instead of trying to get people into a more comfortable zone.