A Chat with Silvio Sirias, author of ‘The Saint of Santa Fe’


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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.

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Saint of Santa Fe.What was your inspiration for it? 

A: Thank you for the congratulations! I read about the tragic, yet heroic, story of Father Hector Gallego’s in a local newspaper shortly after my wife and I moved to Panama. Something about his sacrifice, as well as the photograph they published, started to haunt me. Even though his disappearance and death occur nearly forty-three years ago, Panamanians still remember him and the work he did. In fact, they continue to clamor for justice in his case.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist. 

A: The story is about a young, Colombian priest who left his homeland to start a parish in a remote area of Panama. He soon discovered that his parishioners had been living as indentured servants for generations. He helped to free them. In the process, however, he offended a wealthy landowner and he was kidnapped by military operatives never to be heard from again. Also, in researching the novel I met his sister, Edilma, who moved here from Colombia fifteen years ago to discover the truth about her brother’s death. The novel tells her story as well.

Q: How was your creative process during the writing of this book and how long did it take you to complete it? Did you face any bumps along the way? 

A: This has been the most difficult of the three novels I’ve published. At first it was because I knew little about Panama’s culture and history, so I had a lot to learn. It took me about three years to become comfortable enough to write about my new, adoptive homeland with confidence. Then, because of this insecurity I included too many historical details in the narrative, weighing the pace down. It took me quite a while to decide what to jettison, but once I did the pace improved significantly.  Finally, General Omar Torrijos, a figure many revere in Panama, is the villain in this tale. It was a tremendous challenge to flesh him out. He became clear after I took a trip to Coclesito—a town he adored and used as an experimental Sirias - Cover - 9781937536565.inddstation to improve rural conditions in the country. In fact, he died in a plane crash while flying there. During my visit I felt his spirit and I came to understand his legacy with absolute clarity. But it all took quite a while, nearly ten years from the moment I decided this would be my next novel. Of course, I took long hiatuses, but getting this story right required of all my faith and patience. In the end, though, I am thrilled with the results.

Q: Do you experience anxiety before sitting down to write? If yes, how do you handle it? 

A: I am also a teacher, and even though I have been teaching for many, many years, I still get a bit nervous before starting every class. I take it as a sign that I care about what I’m doing. It’s the same with writing. But as with teaching, after a few minutes into it the anxiety disappears.

Q: What is your writing schedule like and how do you balance it with your other work and family time?

A: When I write full-time, I work from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. five days a week.  My wife and I have chosen to lead a simple life. We own little and are almost debt-free. Because of this, I can take long stretches off from my teaching job, usually two years at a time.  It is then that I can devote myself entirely to my next novel. I am hopeless at multitasking.  When I write, that is all I do. I just can’t balance it all, I’m afraid. But because of this, I am much more of a homebody when I am a writer than when I’m a teacher.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author? 

A: Such an honest question deserves an honest answer. And although my answer may seem brutal, any writer facing such a situation has a difficult choice to make. I couldn’t be an author if my wife wasn’t 100% supportive. Every writer needs a spouse who helps to nurture the muse, otherwise it would be akin to sabotaging one’s work. As heartless as this may sound, I’d say either give up on writing or get out of what appears to be a bad relationship. To become a writer one has to make countless sacrifices, and a spouse needs to be on board for all of them.

Q: George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Do you agree? 

A: I wrote an essay titled “The Kindly Demon that Fuels Me.” I wrote it precisely in response to Orwell’s essay “On Why I Write,” where the quote you mention can be found. I agree that most writers have demons. Mario Vargas Llosa added to this thought by saying that novelists write to exorcise demons. Yet the one that drives me is a benevolent one, taking the form of my desire to be remembered after I’m gone. When I look at it this way, I am don’t find my demon terrifying in the least.

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