Interview with Brando Skyhorse, 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner

Q:  When did you realize you would become a writer?

A:  I am really not sure when I knew. I did know, from a young age, that I liked to write and that writing always gave me pleasure.  I guess I knew that I liked to write when I got to high school, and that’s when I learned I could put words together that are pleasing to my teachers’ and my ears.

 

Q:  How did you matriculate to Stanford?  

A:  I grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood of Los Angeles called Echo Park, which is perceived as undesirable by some people. However, I don’t consider it undesirable. I learned at a young age that if I went to school, did my homework, and listened to my mother that I would be okay. I grew up on welfare, so yes going to Stanford was a leap, but I didn’t know any better. My grandmother instilled the love of books in me at a young age. I believed that as long as I read, went to libraries, and did well in school that success would follow.  College was my way out.   

 

Q:  What was your vocation prior to becoming a full-time writer?

A:  I worked in the publishing industry. I was assistant to the publisher of hunting and activity books—things that I didn’t do.  Then I became the nonfiction editor at Grove Atlantic, a preeminent independent house. I spent 10 years working on other writers’ manuscripts, and helping writers fix things helped my writing.

 

Q:  How long did it take you to write The Madonnas of Echo Park?   What was the creative process like?

A:  It took me eight months to write The Madonnas of Echo Park, and it took me two and one-half years to revise it.  I wrote it quickly and revised it slowly. This, to me, is a good ratio (i.e., write fast, revise slowly). The inspiration for the book came from a snapshot image of a lost dog in Echo Park.  I wrote a three-sentence summary, which turned into a one-page outline. It took me three years to fill out that one-page outline, working on character and plot development.  The book came out well, though. 

 

Q:  How did you feel when your book won the PEN/Hemingway award?  What impact did you feel it had on the perception of the book and/or your career?

A:  Madonnas had a decent hardcover release and it received several positive reviews at first.  I heard about the PEN/Hemingway honor as I was changing editors at Simon & Schuster; I believe my new editor was on the job for three days when she received the news.  Once the new editor informed me that I won the PEN/Hemingway Award the trajectory of the book changed. In fact, my book is in its seventh or eighth printing, and that is all because of the PEN/Hemingway Award. In addition, my novel is assigned to students at colleges across the country. I know that Vanderbilt University and Illinois Wesleyan University assign it. The PEN/Hemingway gold seal states that my book is worthy.  I am very fortunate to have won the award, and I am in the position today because of the PEN/Hemingway Award. It has changed my writing life. It is the pinnacle of my career.

 

Q:  Jeannette Walls described your follow-up, Take This Man, as a beautiful, compassionate, but also hilarious and hair-raising tale of one boy’s life.  Tell us your motivation for writing Take this Man

A:  Remember, I thought I was Native American and when I was 12 or 13 my mother told me I was Mexican-American. I worked on Take This Man for 18 years. I grew up in a complicated household with a mother, grandmother, and five stepfathers. I tried to find a book that I could relate to. I read other memoirs and I couldn’t relate to them.  The ones that I read featured black and white scenarios. All the characters in my life were compassionate but also flawed. They are not all bad or all good.  The people in my life are both good and bad. My book can humanize deeply bad things.  My first 16 years were tough, so I wanted a record of a dysfunctional household for myself so I can identify what works and what doesn’t work.

 

Q:  How do you feel about Hemingway?  Do you have a favorite book or story? Do you remember when you read it?

A:  I came to Hemingway later in my life. Hemingway was a challenge for me at first, but when I worked on the Hemingway anthology on fishing— Hemingway on Fishing— in 2000 I realized I liked him.  I traveled to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston to conduct research for the book (that is also where I accepted the PEN/Hemingway Award) and I was extremely impressed.  I worked with the editor, Nick Lyons, who wrote a magnificent introduction. It was a pleasure working with Nick.

Through the process, I gained a much deeper appreciation for Hemingway’s simplicity.  He has a crispness that all authors want to emulate.  You have to go through Hemingway or around him to become a great writer.  

 

Q:  Which Hemingway scene has stayed with you throughout writing life?

A:  I really love “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I” and “Big Two-Hearted River: Part II” because the way he describes the outdoors and the way he gets inside of Nick’s head. I go back to it again and again to discover technical things and for pleasure.

 

Q:  What can we expect from Brando Skyhorse in the future regarding next project?

A:  First, I have an anthology that I am co-editing with Lisa Page, Director of Creative Writing at George Washington University, on ethnic and racial passing stories—akin to Nella Larsen’s Passing. Beacon Press will publish the book. All pieces are original and nothing has ever been published.

Secondly, I am starting a new novel in a fresh, new voice. The voice is still developing, but I am honing in on it. And, I recently moved to Vermont where I am a professor of literature at Bennington College teaching creative writing (nonfiction and fiction) plus a course on ethnic and racial passing. This position gives me the latitude to be free to teach whatever I want.  I can trace a direct line from the PEN/Hemingway Award to my position here.  I’ll always be Brando Skyhorse, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award.

 

Q:  What is the best website for people to learn more about you?

A:  You can log onto www.brandoskyhorse.com to see what I am up to and I am also on Facebook and Twitter. More on Facebook though.

Wayne Catan, October 16, 2016