Silvio Sirias is the author of Bernardo and the Virgin (2005) and Meet Me under the Ceiba (2009), winner of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize for Best Novel, and most recently The Saint of Santa Fe. A native of Los Angeles, he spent his adolescence in Nicaragua and currently lives in Panama. In 2010, Silvio was named one of the “Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch (and Read).” He has a doctorate in Spanish from the University of Arizona. He has also published academic books on Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, and the poet Salomon de la Selva. In addition, he has a collection of essays titled Love Made Visible: Reflections on Writing, Teaching, and Other Distractions. The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature lists him among the handful of authors who are introducing Central American themes into the U.S. literary landscape. For more information, visit his website at www.silviosirias.com.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Saint of Santa Fe. When did you start writing and what got you into literary fiction?
Thank you for the congratulations! It seems that I’ve been writing all of my life. I’ve always enjoyed putting my thoughts on paper, but I never dared to dream of becoming a novelist. Instead, I took the academic route, obtaining a doctorate in Spanish and writing academic books and articles. But, then, I started interviewing U.S. Latino writers such as Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia, and others. I learned that they were having tremendous fun telling tales inspired by their familial homelands — the Dominican Republic and Cuba, respectively. At the same time, I was teaching courses on U.S. Latino literature at the college level. I was becoming frustrated because of the absence of novels that spoke to someone of my own background — that is, Nicaraguan-American. So I decided to abandon academia and become a novelist to fill that void. It was a wild move, but I’ve not regretted it once.
What was your inspiration for The Saint of Santa Fe?
Every novel I’ve published so far has been inspired by historical events, which I’ve taken the liberty to fictionalize. The Saint of Santa Fe is based on the life and death of Father Hector Gallego, a young Colombian priest who in the late 1960s came to work in Panama — where I currently live. He ministered to impoverished campesinos who lived in a remote mountain area, freeing them after generations of living as indentured servants. Although his success cost Father Gallego his life, his legacy lives on to this day. I wanted to honor his memory as well as those of thirty priests who were murdered in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s, when the region was rife with turmoil and revolution.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Quite a bit, actually. I had recently moved to Panama, so first I had a lot to learn about the culture and history. Then I read everything I could get my hands on about Father Gallego, as well as the times he lived in. I also had to learn the story of General Omar Torrijos, the benevolent Panamanian dictator who many folks still idolize. In addition, I had to spend time in two separate towns that meant much to each of these men. It was the only way to bring them to life. I also had to conduct dozens of interviews. As much work as that entails, I love the research stage because that’s when I get to live the story, so to speak. This phase, in my experience, is the most exciting in the creation of a novel.
What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate?
Sometimes I get a little stuck, particularly in passages that contain geographical descriptions. When this happens, I take a short walk, even if it’s only to serve myself a glass of iced tea. Just creating a bit of distance is enough to do the trick for me. My muse is usually at my side in the form of an outline. I need a detailed roadmap before I start to write, otherwise anxiety would consume me. I always need to know where the narrative is going before I sit down to start typing.
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
Although I have a detailed outline to guide me, I also believe what Robert Frost says: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” So I stay alert for any unexpected twists that emerged as I write the first draft and as I revise. These are golden moments. Also, it’s vital to keep one’s prose crisp and clean.
Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?
I have a simple schedule that I follow. I rise early — around 4 a.m. and I exercise. In addition to being good for my health, it fully wakes me up. After breakfast I catch up on the news that interests me. Then I set up my work area, which is an important part of my writing ritual. When I’m done procrastinating, I either outline the chapter I’m working on, or revise what I wrote the day before. These activities get me back into the story. From there I plough forward until about 3 p.m. when the batteries start to run out.
How do you define success?
Success is performing well in something you love doing. I love writing novels. I live a simple life, relatively debt-free, and I have a wife who doesn’t mind that I occasionally take time off from my teaching job to stay home to work on a novel. Although a little fame and fortune would be nice, just knowing that I’m leaving behind a small trace of myself makes me feel successful.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
When readers tell me that something I created touched them. That’s the payoff. Then I fee; that I’ve accomplished something worthwhile. To be a published writer is one the greatest blessings I have had in my life.