It’s my great pleasure to interview Joy Castro for this Spotlight feature. With her permission I’d like to introduce her with her recent (and very attention- getting) Twitter quote: "Wear yourself out physically every day. Meditate every day. Make love every day, even if it's only—‘only’—with yourself. The art you make will be immeasurably better, the work you do in the world will be less anxiety- & ego-driven, & there will be much less bullshit in your life."
Your range is extraordinary. You have written everything from a memoir detailing alarming life experiences to literary thrillers to essays to story collections. Which of your books do you like best and why?
Thank you! It feels very natural to write in many forms—even, most recently, film criticism, which came as a surprise to me but which I really love doing. I think many writers can write in multiple genres—or could, if they hadn’t been inhibited out of doing so.
But the notion of liking one of my books best is a little foreign to me. I tend to like most whichever book I’m working on at the moment, or the one I’m planning to write next. Right now, my favorite book is a future novel I’ve just begun to think about, a historical novel set in Havana, Tampa, and Key West in the late nineteenth century, and I’m excited because it seems very difficult to pull off.
I guess “liking” has to do with a felt sense of excitement and enthusiasm, and all my past books are, for me, essentially over. What they meant to me was the experience and challenge and pleasure of writing them; now they’re just beautiful detritus. I suppose I could apply a kind of scholarly or critical lens and speculate about which one is the most fully itself—which one fulfills its own aims and exploits its formal maneuvers most thoroughly and successfully. But critics can be more objective about that than I can.
You teach literature, creative writing and Latinx studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Do you find that your own creative writing is enhanced by your teaching experience?
No, not really, although people do seem to like to say that’s true for them, so it must be the case for others. Myself, if I could retire today, I would, and while most of the really excellent artist-professors I know deeply appreciate the shelter of the academy, as I do, they’d say the same behind closed doors.
I find that during the semester, my creative juice and intellectual problem-solving energy go into my teaching, and I get relatively little new writing done. Luckily, I care about my students, and I love the material I teach, whether it’s crime fiction by women, or new Chicanx poetry, or writing essays. I feel lucky to have work that I enjoy enough to compel my creative energy, so I don’t mind waiting until summer or holidays to focus completely on writing. For a first-generation college student who came from poverty, my position is extremely fortunate—being able to earn a good living at work I love, and still having time to make art—and it’s a reasonable compromise with reality. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get here, and I’m enjoying every minute.
How do you manage your time when you are writing?
I usually have a lot of plates spinning at once, and that keeps me happy. That way, if I get temporarily blocked on one project, I can turn to another, and focusing elsewhere usually breaks up any mental logjams, so I don’t obsess or get demoralized. I’m a fast and enthusiastic worker, and I get bored easily if I’m not learning something new. Joy. Fluidity. Adventure. Surprise. I don’t have much patience when things become too routine. Variety engages me. Life’s short; I feel voracious. I don’t think about time.
What are you working on now?
I’d like to finish my current novel by December. It features a Latinx sculptor from Appalachia who’s got to reckon with her violent past before she can decide whether to have a child, and I love it.
Born in Miami, raised in England and West Virginia, and educated in Texas, Joy Castro is the award-winning author of the memoir The Truth Book, two literary thrillers set in post-Katrina New Orleans: Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, the essay collection Island of Bones, and the short fiction collection How Winter Began. Her work has appeared in venues including Ploughshares, Senses of Cinema, Brevity, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Salon, Afro-Hispanic Review, Gulf Coast, and the New York Times Magazine. Winner of the Nebraska Book Award and an International Latino Book Award, Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, an alternate for the Berlin Prize, editor of the anthology Family Trouble, and a former Writer in Residence at Vanderbilt University, she’s the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches creative writing, literature, and Latinx studies.