Angelo State’s annual Writers Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton took on a cultural flair for its 17th installment in February with Cuban-American author Cristina García as the keynote speaker.
Winner of multiple awards for her writing, including a Whiting Writers’ Award, Guggenheim Fellowship and National Endowment for the Arts grant, García has penned six novels, including Dreaming in Cuban, A Handbook to Luck and The Lady Matador’s Hotel, as well as several young adult novels and a collection of poetry. Previously a journalist for the Knoxville Journal and Time magazine, she did not start her creative writing career until her mid 30s.
“I think what pushed me over the edge to be a voracious reader and, ultimately, to being a writer was when I started reading poetry in my late-20s,” García said. “Poetry was something I never understood and was a little frightened by. It wasn’t until I was more mature and less self-conscious that I let it wash over me. There was something about that intoxication of language that made me finally want to start writing books.”
Cristina García served as keynote speaker at this year’s Writers Conference.
Photo by Danny Meyer
“When you are writing your first book,” she added, “you have no real concept of audience. You have these strange fantasies about what the audience might be. I would also have this fantasy of being excoriated on radio talk shows in Miami, and I would be the black sheep once and for all in the Cuban community.”
But, just the opposite happened, and García’s debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was well received and went on to be a finalist for a National Book Award. In addition to reading from a variety of her works at the ASU conference, Garcia told the audience that the key to success is tapping into what it takes to grab the readers’ attention and infuse excitement into the reading experience.
“Think about everything that is competing for your time in this day and age,” García said, “and what it takes for something to grab your attention so thoroughly that you are willing to let the rest of the world recede.”
Carmen Tafolla during the Writers Conference. Photo by Danny Meyer.
Also speaking at the Writers Conference was Carmen Tafolla, the first poet laureate for San Antonio. Her published works include poetry collections, children’s books, TV screenplays and a collection of short stories, The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans. Also the winner of numerous awards, including an Americas Award, Art for Peace Award and two American Library Association Notable Children’s Book Awards, Tafolla read from several of her works and attempted to give some understanding of her motivations.
“When the writer forgets they are writing, their characters come to life on their own.”
“When we read literature,” she said, “we go looking for a reflection of ourselves…that story of ourselves. A lot of people hate reading until they hit upon one book or story where they say, ‘You mean this happens to somebody other than me?’ All of a sudden, they are hooked on a book that reflects their own experiences. That’s part of what makes literature holy for me.”
She also gave the current and prospective writers in the audience some insight on how to make characters come alive on the printed page.
“When the writer forgets they are writing,” Tafolla said, “their characters come to life on their own. We don’t know what our story conclusion will be because we are living it as we go. That’s what a character on a page has to do to breathe and live. I don’t have plot in mind when I start. They gotta go where they gotta go.”