The 2011 Mark Program, our rigorous manuscript finishing school for Emerging Voices alumni, is well underway and we are pleased to share this interview with Eduardo Santiago, a participant in the program.
The Mark: Give us a small synopsis of your current project.
Eduardo Santiago: I'm working on a novel called Midnight Rumba. It's an ambitious project, more than 600 pages at the moment. It takes place in Cuba before the revolution and it spans the years 1940 to 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power. The novel features six main characters with a special focus on Estelita De La Cruz who was born in 1940. We follow her early life in the more rural, eastern part of Cuba and her transition to early 1950s Havana where most of the story takes place. My purpose for writing this novel was to explore the psychology of the people of Cuba—most of the world already knows that a revolution took place and that a lot of people subsequently left the island, but I'm more interested in what was going on in the years previous to 1959 that led to Castro's triumph but not from a historical or statistical point of view. I wanted to tell this story from a deeply personal perspective and although the outcome was not a happy one for a large part of the Cuban population, I did not want to write a downer. So the book is as colorful, musical, and quirky as the island that I remember from my childhood. I have high hopes for it, both the island and the book.
M: What attracted you to apply to the Mark Program?
ES: In 2004, when I was awarded my first PEN fellowship, the rewards to me as a writer were unimaginable, in every possible way. I knew that The Mark was being presented to me as another fantastic opportunity to learn more about craft and to get the support that PEN Center USA is famous for.
M: You are in your second month of the Mark, what changes have you seen in your work so far?
ES: I've been working very closely with my Mark instructor, Diana Wagman, whose dedication to us is priceless. We meet once every two weeks to workshop pages and stay in contact via emails and the telephone; she is available to us daily. And her nurturing, intelligence and experience are bringing out missing details in my novel and the work of the other two fellows, Avi Lall and Marytza Rubio, that none of us could have spotted otherwise. This is a manuscript polishing fellowship and that is exactly what is happening—our manuscripts are getting better and better, more professional, in essence, polished.
M: Explain what the process was like for you to defend your manuscript.
ES: At first I was nervous because the word defend, to me, concocted shouting and throwing things across the room, but it was nothing like that. By the time I went in for my defense, all those present had already read my manuscript and seemed to be looking for my opinion of it—did I strongly believe that it had room for improvement? Was I willing to do the work to improve it? Did I have the time to submerge myself in the process. I answered a resounding yes to all the questions and the rest of it was so much fun I did not want it to end because they were talking about my book with so much enthusiasm. The book business, I have discovered, is a business of uncertainty and rejection with scattered moments of success, so to find a group of people who were willing to step in and support me felt like a warm bath.
M: How is the Mark different from EV?
ES: Emerging Voices was exactly what I needed in 2004, which was a wide-range exposure to the writing world, from learning (through our Master Classes) to teaching (through PEN In The Classroom). It also connected me to the rest of the literary community in Los Angeles, agents, publicists, booksellers, and so on. The Mark is much more focused on the work itself. I have a very specific book that I'm working on, it's an already completed draft and now we're going to make it better, which is something every book needs no matter how experienced the writer might be. In the previous question I told you what the book was about—in the workshops, one of the aspects we focus on is making sure that what I think the book is about is actually on the page.
Eduardo Santiago was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow. His first novel Tomorrow They Will Kiss (Little, Brown & Co.) was an Edmund White Debut Fiction Award nominee; a Latino Book Award finalist; and a 2006 Book Sense pick. Mr. Santiago’s fiction has been published in zyzzyva, Slow Trains, The Caribbean Writer, Blithe House Quarterly and Strange Cargo. His non-fiction work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate and Out Traveler Magazine. Mr. Santiago earned a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts. He is a creative writing instructor at UCLA Extension and currently working on his next novel, The Weight Of My Shadow.
For more information on The Mark, please visit the Program page at http://penusa.org/programs/themark.