Morris Award Finalist Interview: Isabel Quintero, author of GABI, A GIRL IN PIECES
Today is the first day of the Morris Award Finalist interview series, and I am so excited to be able to share my interview with Isabel Quintero, author of the brilliant debut novel, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. Gabi had already been on my radar, even before the Morris nomination, and I have to say that this book lived up to all my high expectations and more. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces chronicles the senior year of Gabi Hernandez, a seventeen-year-old Latina living in Southern California with her strict mother, drug-addicted father, and moody younger brother. Her best friend Cindy is pregnant, her other best friend, Sebastian, has been kicked out of his house for coming out, and Gabi is trying to navigate her first relationship while her family is in crisis. Feminist, funny, awkward, poignant, and just so real, Gabi has to be one of the most authentic and memorable voices I’ve read in a long time. It’s an absolute must-read.
1. When did you start working on Gabi? How has the book evolved from your initial vision?
I began working on Gabi in 2007 after going through a career crisis. Plan A had been high school English teacher and there hadn’t been a Plan B, so when that failed I wasn’t sure what would come next. While I had always been writing poetry, I’d never taken it seriously because being a writer seemed like to lofty a dream for someone like me. But I knew that education was somewhere I wanted to be and while I was deciding I took my first creative writing class at Cal State San Bernardino, with poet Julie Paegle. Julie was such an amazing teacher and so encouraging. She told me I needed to be published, and I believed her. I started thinking that maybe writing was for me and started writing more and more.
Let me go on a brief tangent because I like to ramble; I promise it’s pertinent.
In my undergrad I had taken a young adult lit class and had read Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going and crashboomlove by Juan Felipe Herrera and really fell in love with the YA. crashboomlove is a novel in verse and I was intrigued-I had never read a novel in verse. Then I read Crank and thought, “It can be this long?” And it could.
So then, when I was at a loss and I began taking my writing seriously, I began writing a novel in verse based on my experiences as a teen. Initially, that’s what Gabi, A Girl in Pieces was, a novel in verse. And it was told in photographs; each chapter/section began with a description of a photograph marking a specific moment in time that defined Gabi. And it was actually all four years of high school, not just her senior year. But that soon became too overwhelming because four years is a long time and it felt too forced, not as natural. Eventually I finished it. I went through several edits, on my own and with help from compassionate comrades in writing. It felt good and finished (ha!) and so I sent it out. It was rejected all over the place. I was querying agents and amidst all of the rejection one told me, “I think it’s interesting. If you switch it from verse to prose, I’d like exclusive opportunity to consider it.” And my heart sank a little because I really wanted it to be in verse. But then I thought about how Julie talked about radical revisions, and how sometimes they were the best thing for a poem. And it’s true, they do often help us see our words in a different way; radical revisions give us another way of bringing our words into existence. So I did it. I converted 127 pages of poetry to 130 pages of prose.
At first I wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach it. I had been reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid and liked the diary format and considered it but wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted to do. So, I just started writing a first person narrative but that still didn’t feel natural. I talked to my friend who said just try the diary format and I did and that was what worked. I sent the finish product to the agent, hoping to hear back. Excited that she’d liked the story in the first place. She never returned any of my emails. But I kept sending and eventually Cinco Puntos Press took a chance on it. Even then, I ended up revising the last 40 or so pages, which was, I assure you, for the best.
2. One thing I really loved about Gabi was how verbally expressive she is, in so many different ways. Because her story is being told in a diary format, we know right away that expressing herself through writing is important to her. I wonder if you could talk about the significance that writing and language have in Gabi’s life.
How long do we have? Okay, well let me begin by saying that that part of Gabi is one of the autobiographical parts of myself that I imposed on her. To me writing is a political act; it’s a way of creating your own space and establishing existence. This year there has been as surge of folks calling for “diversity” in literature, which is important. And I think a movement like that is born not from the idea that we, people of color or those who have been othered (LGBTQ/disabled/women) have not been writing, but because big publishers, publishers who have millions and millions of dollars, have not been publishing as many as they can. Small presses, yes, I mean Cinco Puntos, Lee and Low, Arte Publico, all are dedicated to showing an American experience which is often overlooked. Let me stop my rant here, because that was not really an answer to your question. The thing I was trying to get at was that because writing is such a powerful instrument of change and giving ourselves voice, it was only fitting that Gabi, who is always questioning and trying to change perceptions of what it means to be Latina/Mexican/female/sexual/young and trying to create a space for herself (I won’t say finding herself because the self is always changing and therefore can never be found really) would be a writer.
Another thing you ask is about language. Language, too, is political. Especially, speaking Spanish. The movement, which is sometimes louder than other times, for English only is one near and dear to my heart. I am bilingual, Gabi is bilingual, and therefore the book is bilingual. There is Spanish because to not have Spanish in the book would be dishonest to the character. I think when we create characters we want them to be as authentic as possible, as real as possible, and if Gabi only spoke English then she would be a fraud, and therefore I would be a fraud. Sometimes people get offended or are bothered because they can’t understand the language, and to that I say get a dictionary or look it up. I am not being dismissive, but the teacher in me takes over; what would you do if you didn’t know what a word, an English word, meant? If, the context clues were not sufficient? (Hopefully they were.) You’d look it up in a dictionary or online. Also, this is Gabi’s diary, the one place where she can say whatever she wants without there being real life consequences and so there must also exist freedom in language.
3. Focusing in on Gabi’s poetry, she seems to be able to access different emotions in her poems than she does in the rest of her writing. What is it about the format of poetry that allows for this, and what’s your experience with poetry?
Poetry lets us view the world with different lenses than prose does. Emily Dickinson writes, “I dwell in Possibility–/A fairer House than Prose–/More numerous of Windows–/Superior –for Doors–” and I tend to agree, right? Poetry allows for such varied approaches to writing—white space, line breaks, form, figurative language, word choice, punctuation—that is sometimes limited in traditional forms. Though, I recently read, Out of Their Minds! by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite (translated by Cinco Puntos) and it was pretty damn amazing in its use of space and mixed genre. As for Gabi, since it was first a novel in verse, some of those sections are still present. The poem she writes about being afraid that her dad will die from an overdose is part of the original manuscript. As for my experience with poetry, I’ve been writing poetry since I was in tenth grade and Ms. Agard made us memorize “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by e.e. cummings. Like I said before, I started taking my writing seriously in 2007 and it was all poetry at first. In 2012 I joined a creative writing group, PoetrIE, and that really pushed me and got me into doing readings and into writing more regularly. Recently we became a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the literary arts in the Inland Empire of Southern California.
4. The relationship that really fascinated me was the one between Gabi and tía Bertha. It’s both antagonistic and empathetic. Was that a dynamic inspired by relationships in your own life?
Yes and no. Recently, a good friend asked me how much of the book was real, my answer was, “It is 100% non-fiction and 100% fiction,” which is as best an answer as I can give. I’ve met my share of religious extremists in my life, some were family and some were not. Tia Bertha is an amalgamation of all of those, just like the other characters in the book. Have I had a relationship with someone in my family who constantly criticized the Catholic faith? Yes, but haven’t we all had someone in our family who always has something to say about our faith or lack of faith? I think we’ve all had tia Berthas.
5. This is a more personal question, I suppose. I’m adopted and my birth mom was a 15-year-old Mexican American girl from a Catholic family. When she became pregnant, she didn’t have any option other than giving her child up for adoption, which is sad. Three women in Gabi’s life become pregnant during the course of the book, two of them teens, and I wonder what you think has changed culturally over the past forty years with regards to the choices pregnant women are able to make (or not) for themselves.
Yeah, three women do get pregnant and they are three very different situations. To be honest, I am not sure what has changed. I think as Latinas, at least in my Mexican/American experience, sex is still taboo to talk about—unless you are married. Being married is the key to freedom to talk about sex and enjoying it and joking about it. God save the poor girl who is single and sits down with her tias and mother to talk about how great sex is. Because sex is taboo, so are the choices one has if one becomes pregnant, especially if she is not married. If you are married, you are expected to have (want) a child and if you don’t there is something wrong with you; so in all cases, someone else wants to have a say in our reproductive rights because apparently we don’t know, and our ovaries are too much to handle. And that’s regardless of culture and religion. There are many girls in your birth mom’s situation, who don’t get a choice, really, and they have to give their child away or are forced to have an abortion. But adult women aren’t safe either. I remember being a teen and hearing my mom talking about some woman who “aborto” (miscarriage and abortion in Spanish is the same word—something to think about) and it was like she had leprosy. The women wouldn’t really talk to her and avoided her for a bit. To this day I don’t know if the woman had a miscarriage or had an abortion. I think in many people’s minds there is no “choice.” How could there be? You had a choice when you went and spread your legs! That’s what a lot of people say. Certainly that is not always the truth, as you know and as one of the girls who ends up pregnant in the book knows. Choice, like writing, is a powerful thing, especially choosing what is best for your/our own bodies. It’s like people don’t trust that women know what they are doing. So, maybe there have been advances, yes. In the younger generation, my generation of Latinas, I hear more talk of choice and more ownership of our bodies, which is a great thing. But there are, and will be, those who don’t agree with that.
6. I know that you work in a library, which is very cool. Do you work with teens? What has it been like to make the transition into becoming an author?
I don’t work in a library anymore. I worked as an elementary library technician for about six years, and there are days when I miss it so much I break down in tears. Currently, I teach English composition at two community colleges, which I also enjoy, but I do miss the kids and the books. The transition has been a little hectic to be honest. Good hectic, but hectic nonetheless. When I left, the kids, parents, and staff were very excited for me, which I appreciate. The staff is still supportive and has come to my readings, actually. Trying to balance being an author with teaching and grading is a lot of work and requires discipline and organizational skills with which I am not currently fully equipped. I’m getting there though.
7. What books were most influential for you when you were Gabi’s age?
The first book that came to mind is East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. I love John Steinbeck. And that book, goddamn, that book. I used to read it every year but have neglected my duties for the last few years. Also, the story of Genesis from the Old Testament, is one of my favorites and at that time I started reading the Bible and just became enraptured by all the literary beauty that it holds. I also read a lot of Pablo Neruda and e.e. cummings, and of course Stephen King.
8. Are you working on any new writing projects?
I am working on a few projects. I have a few children’s books that I am working on, a series for young readers about a cat and rat that are friends, and the big thing I am working on is a fantasy novel (I think) about a young woman who is on a quest to save her family and must confront different myths and legends along the way. Oh, and poetry, always poetry.
Many thanks to Isabel for answering my questions so thoughtfully!