Today’s Feature – August 5-6: Geronimo Madrid

August 6, 2008 at 8:34 pm (Today's Feature)

I love writing. I don’t do it enough though; not nearly enough. I mean, sure, I write all of the time for PensEyeView, but there’s a lot more I WANT to write. But writing is hard. Really hard. So when I came across today’s feature, a writer named Geronimo Madrid, I was more than interested to hear his thoughts on his craft. And he didn’t disappoint.

His answers are re-assuring to any writer, established or aspiring. The most helpful answer for me has to do with the dreaded “writer’s block.” His response is fantastic – he claims he doesn’t get writer’s block. Instead, he mentions a more devastating writing road block: “You start to doubt the importance and validity of what you’re writing. ‘Who’s gonna want to read this shit!?’ you might think to yourself. These aren’t the same as a mental block, but they are still obstacles to getting writing done.” If you know how to write, then you realize this is significant motivation to put the pen to paper.

Madrid has more than good advice when it comes to writing. His background provides quite the take on our current situation, from experiences in places like the Philippines and Brooklyn, growing up as a “mutt” both culturally and socio-economically. It lends to his style; a tempered mix of humor and heart for this realist who writes “from the gut.” I’ve always felt that this is the only way to write, therefore when I say to keep Madrid’s name on the tip of your mind, I mean it. This published author has just taken six months off of the job in name of writing, so prepare your reading glasses accordingly. Dive into the XXQ’s to learn a whole lot more.

XXQs: Geronimo Madrid (PEV): Tell us the “how and why” you first got involved with writing. What pointed you in this career path?

Geronimo Madrid (GM): Hemingway and Salinger. Those two are probably the how and why. I read their prose in high school, of course, and while I always enjoyed writing-as I kid I had this preternatural ability to shut myself in and read reams and reams-Hemingway and Salinger showed me a beauty that was possible in writing that I began to want to attain.

I went to high school in Jersey City, NJ, by the way, at a pretty famous all-boys Jesuit school, St. Peter’s Prep. And the Jesuits there were real thinking men, real philosophers, and they had a passion for writing and thinking. And so, I would say, that environment and having teachers and mentors who pushed us to love books and who themselves approached writing and reading with passion egged me on. Writing was taken seriously and given respect in that environment. So in a way, those Jesuits were really old school when you consider our culture today. Just look around–we’ve gone so heavily towards photography and film and websites and video games-the visual mediums. It’s all about eye candy these days. I like to say we live in the age of instant stupefaction.

But even before high school, my mother was influential as well. She was always a big reader. She and I lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in Arlington, Virginia when I was between the ages of six and thirteen. But in this small apartment, she had a big library. So I was exposed to John Fowles and Bertrand Russell and other writers at a very early age. I didn’t always understand what I was reading, but I read it anyway.

PEV: Born in the Philippines, coming to America at seven and growing up in Arlington, Virginia, and Jersey City, New Jersey, what kind of literature were you attracted to in your earlier years?

GM: As I said, in high school, I was exposed to books that were probably regarded then as part of the high school canon: Vonnegut, Hemingway, Salinger, Harper Lee. There may have been books by non-white writers being read at other schools then, but I wouldn’t have known it because the Jesuits stuck to this canon. In college, up in McGill in Montreal, I read John Barthes and Erica Jong. I also read some Canadians who still influence me to this day: Guy Vanderhaeghe, Alice Munro, and more.

PEV: Being born in another country but raised in the US, do you find your heritage and knowledge of another culture to play a large part in your literary styling and influence?

GM: Yes, definitely! I come from the Philippines originally, and though I’ve been here since I was six or so, Filipino culture and the experience of being Filipino-American has definitely influenced my worldview and hence my literary style and viewpoint. I write from a place that is outside of the mainstream. And I write from a place that is somewhere outside of the black and white polarity that so defines American culture. Today, of course, that polarity is turning into a kind of triumvirate: black, white and Latino culture being the corners of the triangle. Somewhere outside this trinity, though, is Asian-American culture and Filipino culture. And I think being outside of what’s normally seen and portrayed (in TV and in film) as “American” culture allows me to notice hypocrisies and blind spots held by the culture at large.

And so, I think this feeling of being on the margins naturally feeds into my writing. Being on the margins can be disheartening in one way-I think people don’t realize how edifying it is for people to see themselves reflected everywhere (in movies, on TV, even if it’s in bad movies and bad TV). But at the same time, being on the margins gives me a unique point of view I would never give up.

At the same time I’m kind of wary of making too much of “ethnicity” and viewpoint. Because there is that temptation by the mainstream culture to pigeonhole you. When in truth, I’m an individual shaped by many many many factors. I mean, my god, just look at the geography of my upbringing. Culturally and even socio-economically, I’m such a mutt. So I guess I’m saying I want and am going to have it both ways. I am what I am. PEV: Over time, has your taste in books changed or expanded?

GM: Definitely. My taste has expanded immensely. It was after my studies that I discovered this rich world of non-white writers: Sherman Alexie, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie. Sherman Alexie in particular, I feel, is strumming my life with his fingers, to borrow from an old song. I just love that guy’s writing. He is so fiercely brave and so committed to writing about the marginalization of Native Americans in the US and what it does to the human soul. He doesn’t mince words, and for some, that is off-putting, upsetting. They think his art, his writing, is just “political.” Maybe if I were a white guy, I’d think differently, I’d say, hey this guy just has an axe to grind. But for me, as a Filipino-American guy, Alexie’s writing isn’t political so much as it is crass, fun, perverse, insane, and refreshing. It just strikes me as true.

I also love Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing. It’s so economical and sincere, and she speaks, I feel, the truth about human experience-all that heartache and disappointment and angst and real genuine pain-that is so ignored or glossed over by our culture today. We make fun of pain; we want to see pain and have it make us laugh. But at least in literature, some literature, there is still a place where experience is genuinely respected and rendered truthfully for what it is. Love, death, addiction, the fading of love-Lahiri really speaks truth to power about these things at a time when we as a culture want not truth, but only entertainment and stimulation.

I’m also a big, big fan of Jonathan Franzen and what he did with The Corrections. I feel that, in so much writing these days, there is this writerly temptation to render your characters as victims. For example, a lot of writers create these simple working class Joe’s who don’t have a mean bone in their body, say-if only circumstances were better for them. Or someone will write a sensationalist book about sex addiction or drug addiction. And the main character or characters is this kind of stitched together Frankenstein; he isn’t quite human but merely a doughy and not-so-convincing golem.

But Franzen really created detailed and honest studies of some wonderfully flawed characters in that book. Warts and all and then some. The characters achieve a level of three-dimensionality that is rare to find, I feel, in writing today or perhaps ever. And I think Franzen achieves this because he worked so hard at getting into his characters’ heads. And what he found there-inside his characters’ heads and hearts-he took back into the light with him, and he let all this human stuff, this viscera, just hang out.

PEV: When you sit down to write, what kind of atmosphere do you surround yourself in? Any certain “zone” you have to be in?

GM: I like quiet. A quiet, cool room. It allows my mind to go quiet and into that space where I’m not so much thinking as just writing. Of course, when I do get in a groove, someone could be jackhammering outside and I wouldn’t know it. Writing can be like that, all-consuming.

I try to find the “zone” where I’m not editing or analyzing as I write. Because writing is like that-you have to allow yourself to make mistakes, to go down dead ends, to discover where the story should go and where it can’t really go. So to follow all these paths can take a long time and requires a lot of backtracking. Those moments of discovery that happen in the flow of writing are also some of the most enjoyable moments you’ll ever have as a writer. But if you’re thinking, man, I wanna hurry up and finish this story or this book, then you’re not in the right zone, you’re not really committed to this time-consuming but beautiful act of discovery that is writing. You need to give yourself time to make mistakes. And only if you’re in a quiet place mentally can you forget about all the external pressures that might make you rush-i.e., groceries to do, or a loving wife who wants you to sell a book and make some money already!

Now, that quiet place inside can be tricky to reach. But the trick is, as my writing teacher at Hunter College, the great Aussie novelist Peter Carey always said, the trick is writing everyday. So that whether you achieve that zone or not, you’ve put in your time in the chair. You’ve done your day’s work. And with practice, you’ll be able to write no matter what mental “zone” you find yourself in.

PEV: What’s the first thing that goes through your mind when you sit down to write and see that blank screen or blank piece of paper staring back at you?

GM: I feel possibility and dread. I think all writers feel this to an extent, some more possibility, others more dread. As I’ve gotten older, I see more possibility.

PEV: Every artist hits the mental block sometime or another. What do you do when that happens?

GM: I’ve never had a mental block. I can always churn stuff out. It may not always be good stuff, or stuff anyone would want to read. But I can always put words to paper, I can always write a story.

I have, however, had long periods when life has made it difficult for me to write, either because of my day job or because I can be easily distracted. Or because I sometimes want to give up because writing is so difficult to make a living at. I have a kid now, and I sometimes feel guilty for following this passion that has rewarded me with some good things-fellowships; scholarship money (thank you, Hunter College!); short story publications; readings at some pretty nice places; respect from my peers-but no real money as of yet.

Another thing that can happen is, you start to doubt the importance and validity of what you’re writing. “Who’s gonna want to read this shit!?” you might think to yourself. These aren’t the same as a mental block, but they are still obstacles to getting writing done.

PEV: What kind of music are you currently listening to?

GM: On my i-Tunes today, you’ll find Jeff Buckley, Bruce Springsteen, Arcade Fire, Belle and Sebastian, Buckwheat Zydeco, Alicia Keys, Yo La Tengo, Christina Aguilera, Jimmy Cliff. So it’s pretty much all over the place. I also turn on Internet radio and find a station playing the kind of music I’m in the mood for: classical, hip hop. Whatever gets me going that day.

But I’ve never been a big music head or a big concert- and show-goer. I have friends who are nearly forty and still seeing bands, but I don’t have that kind of passion for music, or at least for the scene. I’m too much of a misanthrope in one sense. I can’t stand scenes.

PEV: Being surrounded by so many students, and young artists, has there ever been an instance where one student’s work has completely “blown your mind”?

GM: Yes. I have a classmate who’s super talented and a hard worker as well. And he turned something in once in a writing workshop at Hunter College, where I did my MFA, and he blew my petty, little mind away. I hated him that day, and I still hate him today, though he’s a very good friend.

It’s a good thing when one of your peers blows your mind. Because it inspires you, makes you want to get it up and write something even better. It’s like anything really, even sports-if you hang with people who are really good, you’ll end up raising your level as well.

PEV: What was the last book you read?

GM: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. That guy is funny. Seriously seriously funny. It’s like the beach read for our times. The book is quick and fast and perverse and it skewers Halliburton. What more can you ask for?

PEV: Describe to us you kind of writing style. What will people expect from a Geronimo Madrid piece?

GM: Well, I look back at the stories I’ve gotten published, and even the ones that are still languishing in my computer, and well, I think people can always expect humor and also, hopefully, a lot of heart. And I think they will meet complicated characters who are beautiful yet also very flawed.

I’m a realist, so people will for the most part see the real world and real emotions in my fiction. I’ve tried writing science fiction. I’ve tried writing very heady intellectual things in the vein of Murakami and DeLillo. But I don’t operate from the same part of the body or soul as them. I’m more of a from-the-gut writer. That’s not to say, however, that as I’ve matured as a writer I haven’t been able to add layers of intellectual complexity and verve and daring to my writing.

But I think fundamentally, I am a writer of real lives and I write from and about the heart.

PEV: How has your family reacted to your literary career?

GM: They’re all terrified I might write about them naturally. And of course, I can’t help but use elements of them, of their lives, in my writing. Even if a story is, say, set on Mars, I find you still draw characteristics of people you know. You’ll inevitably borrow pieces of folks you know intimately, or even people you just see on the street: how they look, their mannerisms, those wild unexpected flights of doomed fancy folks embark on (you know, that uncle of yours who fell in love with the transvestite and keeps talking about having children with her).

My family has also been very supportive, even as they kind of sneer that it’s not a real job. I come from an immigrant family, and on one level, immigrants are all about holding down “real jobs.”

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Geronimo Madrid?

GM: Well, I love nature. I love camping. I love all that LL Bean stuff. I’ve grown up in cities all my life-I mean, I was born in Manila, the uber city. But I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors. I used to fish in very urban parts of the Potomac, like around Chain Bridge and stuff. And I do love the country, country roads. Farm country. I love the woods. My wife and I traveled for a year way back, and my favorite part of the trip was 18 days walking in the Himalayas. I love the great outdoors.

PEV: Currently living in Brooklyn, NY with your wife, Jessica, and son, Nate, what is your favorite part about New York?

GM: I love that we don’t have to drive so much. I love Prospect Park, this gigantic Olmstead-designed park that in many ways makes Brooklyn bearable. Now that my son is two-plus-years old, I love the museums and the zoos (both the Brooklyn and Bronx zoos) even more, because my son really appreciates them. He adores them.

I love the intellectual life in the city; for the most part, people are educated and smart. I mean, they may be using all their education and smarts just to make more money, and they may be rude and cutthroat in that NYC corporate way. But at least they know what’s going on in the world. At least they can see through the thick flak thrown up by all the politicians and by what passes for journalism in this country.

PEV: When you are not writing, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

GM: Probably playing with my son, who’s developing this very pleasant, very goofy personality.

Or riding my bike round and round Prospect Park. I find bike riding meditative and restorative. I find my mind going quiet when I ride.

PEV: Okay, give us your favorite quote from one of your favorite reads.

GM: “Regarding love, marriage and sex, both Shakespeare and Sitting Bull knew the only truth: treaties get broken.”

That’s from Sherman Alexie’s short story, “Assimilation.” It’s a brilliant beginning to a brilliant story.

PEV: Where do you see the work of Geronimo Madrid ten years from now?

GM: I see it in print. I see it hopefully selling well. I hope it entertains and edifies.

PEV: So, what’s next for you?

GM: I’m embarking on a huge adventure-I am taking six months off from work just to write. I’ve never not worked. I mean, I’ve worked freelance a lot, and it’s been my poor lovely wife shouldering the full-time job for the insurance and stability. But I’ve never ever not had a job or projects. So I’m looking forward to the time to dedicate just to writing. I’m excited. Truly, truly excited.


1 Comment

  1. Phil Thorne said,

    Interesting interview from a self-proclaimed “mutt”.

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