Bonnie Cisneros Interviews Tim Z. Hernandez
You evoke Studs Terkel in the epigraph, “–in their rememberings are their truths.” What did a book like Hard Times teach you about the craft of gathering stories, listening, and asking people questions?
Studs is one of the modern originals in the field of Oral History, and he’s been an influence for many years. I first heard of him during my work with the Humanities Councils in both California and Colorado—beginning back in 2001. I’m a fan of how Studs doesn’t necessarily look to “well-known figures” but rather, every day people, and by giving them a platform to tell their own stories they are lifted to the realm of historical, literary, vital, etc. I wanted to use this approach in my book, except with one main difference. Whereas Studs books are usually a kind of thematic anthology of various people, I wanted to see how I can use testimony in a way that would still create for a compelling, page-turning read, under the umbrella of a single theme/ incident.
You first learned of the plane wreck when you heard the song “Deportee,” which you call a “beacon” that led to All They Will Call You. How do you see the music of Woody Guthrie or protest singers like Bob Dylan, Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy influencing your writing and the genre of creative nonfiction in general?
The approach to this book wasn’t influenced in any way by those specific musicians you mentioned, except for Woody. Perhaps the essence is similar, but if any musician was influential in the actual writing of this book, it was definitely Woody Guthrie. The way his lyrics read are poetry at its purest. He uses simple language, the common person’s speak, and he employs repetition often. I mimicked some of these techniques in the writing of this book. I took one line, for instance, “…the worst plane crash in California’s history…” and had it reappear throughout the book. Each time it comes up it adds to the tension building toward the crash. Or at least, that was the goal.
How does the story of a tragedy in 1948 serve as a form of resistance in 2017?
The tragedy was exactly that, a tragedy. People will bring to it, like any given situation, their own set of ideals. And these ideals are based on their own experiences, lives, and belief systems. When I wrote the book, I was aware that this story contained this kind of gravity, and my job as the writer, was simply to polish the mirror as best as possible. Some people have referred to this work as a “book about Braceros,” and other have referred to it as “musicology,” and still some have come up with other ideas of what it is and isn’t, including words like “resistance.” None of these would be wrong assessments. I think that’s one of the most basic and powerful functions of good art, it invites people to make their own meaning.
I can only imagine how much information (in the form of recordings, research materials, notebooks, Word docs, photographs, playlists) you must have gathered as you wrote this book. Can you give fellow writers of nonfiction any logistical advice and handy tips? How do you stay organized while remaining fluid enough to let the project come together organically?
Write everything. Cultivate as broadened a sense of awareness as possible, stay wide wide open, and write everything, every step of the way. From the first second your “project” begins until the final page, write everything. And avoid being wrangled into ideas of “form,” they only serve as borders—be borderless in your approach. Stay wide open. And then write until the form and story reveals itself. Trust that it will.
You dedicate the book “to the missing everywhere,” and by the end of it, the reader is fully immersed in “tellings”. In my mind, I was also thinking of them as “imaginings” and “visions” of Luis, Guadalupe, Ramón, José, Frank, and Bobbie. Do you think that writing can be an act of prayer or can somehow attempt to heal the past?
Writing as an act of prayer? I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this. I guess the act of writing could very well be considered a kind of prayer if one chooses to see it that way.
For me, at least in this book, it wasn’t so much a prayer, but more of an act of excavation. A physical undertaking, perhaps before anything else. I was digging. Each time I worked on it, it involved movement, and when I sat down to write, I knew I was digging with the intention of discovering: names, stories, details about the people and the incident…. and also digging to find out my own purpose, my own investment. I think if I thought of this as a prayer from the beginning, I may have made the mistake of contenting myself with words alone. I might’ve never left my cozy desk.
I had to see it as physical work, or praxis, it had to be laborious, requiring me to walk and move. And yes, I think writing can be healing for the writer, and perhaps in this case, for the interviewees, aka the subjects of this book. For some, to see their stories in print represented a kind of redemption, and that can be healing.
You write us a note at the start of the book that is a disclaimer of sorts, about the idea that your “loyalty is not to the people of fact but rather to people of memory.” In this age of alternative facts, how do you see memory altering what we believe to be true?
In relation to this specific book, memory is where the humanity is at. In that thin margin of error, in the imperfections, the flaws, in our own perceptions, this is where we find our humanity. My loyalty was to the human element here, not to the “facts” of what occurred, or to rhetorical narratives that exist, but to testimony. I asked honest questions to honest people who gave me honest rememberings. And the word “true,” especially as you use it here can be heavily debated. As I point out in that same Author’s Note, in the case of this plane crash, what does “true” even mean? The “official records” have many errors, and no matter how thorough the investigation, in the end, no one really knows what caused that airplane to catch fire. In tragedy especially, regardless of how much our technology has evolved, that which is “true” can, and should, always be contested.
Including the “Field Notes” at the end of the book, All They Will Call You is divided into five sections. After five years of research, how did you come to carve out this structure? And how does this form affect your mission for this project?
The structure of the book is what took the most time. It wasn’t predetermined, mostly because I don’t write that way. I try to avoid forcing any kind of form in my writing process, allowing instead for the form to be revealed in the act of writing. And then after that it’s about revising, trying different combinations until it clicks. In all I wrote about 15 drafts of the book before it felt right.
I was struck by the idea of “perhaps” in your work and in other creative nonfiction. This gives a reader both the feeling of “knowing” the informative facts of the story, but also “feeling” something for these lives that really seem to live again through words on a page. Quizas, quizas, quizas, as the song goes. Can you tell us about writing through the lens of “perhaps” and how it differs from when you write fiction or poetry?
I use “perhaps” as a nod to Thornton Wilder. He uses this word as a device in his book, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” which is also very much about the fate of a group of people, in which he paints portraits of their individual lives. As you suggest, “perhaps,” is a word that exists in that in-between realm of “possibility,” a word that acts as a kind of liminal springboard. I found it useful for bridging the gaps between the actual and the probable.
José’s brother teases him that his California dreams are “puros ilusiones” and twenty chapters, a lifetime de veras later, he is reminded of illusions on the plane. How do you handle the emotional toll of so much re-imagining, re-envisioning, re-writing, re-vising a real-life, long-past human tragedy? Have you been able to shake the sadness of all these particular lives lost in the on-going Great Mexican-American tragedy?
For me, the writing of it was much easier to handle than the actual research. When I would first come upon the information, it was jarring, and very emotional for me. I often found myself weeping, not merely over the text or images, but mostly at what my mind was concocting. Often times it truly felt like I was remembering flashes of how it all unfolded before my eyes. My finger would twitch, or my leg would jerk, or my palms would sweat.
Whenever I rode on airplanes, especially during the years of this research, I couldn’t help but imagine how it all happened, what it must’ve felt like, especially since I know knew the technical language of airplanes on fire. I’d stare out my small window, and recall the language of what happens to bodies when they fall out of the sky. I would look at people seated around me and I could almost hear how they’d scream if they caught fire. This was the emotional part. By the time I sat down to write it, I was removed, just enough, to write about it. It was still emotional at times, but the work helped me focus.
What did you learn from the Mañana Means Heaven experience that either directly or indirectly affected All They Will Call You?
Even though MMH is drawn from real life, testimony and documents, it is really a different kind of book, requiring a different set of tools. With MMH, Bea Franco was still alive and could relay her story to me directly. Hers was a first hand account. The passengers of ATWCY are all dead, and I only had second hand stories to go from. This is why documents became more vital here. With Bea, she was the primary source, so her account was instantly believable. With ATWCY, I had to use evidence to substantiate, or at the very least, to validate some of the testimony and “re-enactments.”
There are times this book feels handmade – from the xeroxed Woody Guthrie poem in the endpapers, to a plane diagram, excavated family fotos, newspaper clippings, and chunks of relatives’ testimony. Can you tell us about your process of arrangement and how it affects form?
That’s because the book was handmade. It was a story that arrived on my lap as a true multi-media narrative— music, photos, documents, testimony—and each of these required physically touching the materials. I wanted this to come through in the book, this tactile, an even auditory experience. How to do this using only text and images? This was the main thing I grappled with while writing.
To do this I turned to my first love—poetry. Using white space to convey silences, breaking up lines and even words to convey rhythm, using ekphrasis to bring images to life, and then using textured images that entice the reader to want to touch the page – I mean these are just some of the ways I went about it, because for me the whole thing had to mimic what it felt like gathering the materials for this story.
I wanted the reader to never lose sight that this was a search, a digging into the past, and if I could make the reader feel like they had physically been engaged in some way, then maybe the story would in some way feel like it belonged to them too – because it does. It is everyone’s story.