An Interview With
Maria Jesu Estrada
MARIA J. ESTRADA is an English college professor of Composition, Literature, and her favorite, Creative Writing. She grew up in the desert outside of Yuma, Arizona, in the real Barrio de Los Locos, a barrio comprised of new Mexican immigrants and first-generation Chicanos. Drawing from this setting and experiences, she writes like a loca every minute she can—all the while magically balancing her work and family obligations. She lives in Chicago’s south side with her wonderfully supportive husband, two remarkable children, and two mischievous cats.
Check out her story before you get to know Maria?
Hi Maria, I’m thrilled that you are here with me and about to share some of your deepest secrets. Thank you so much for being here! I can’t wait to bombard you with questions. Let’s start with the most important one. What inspires you to write?
First of all, thank you for having me. It’s a true honor. What inspires me most are the stories my parents told me as a child. They would tell me magical tales to make me behave. (She laughs.) However, as I grew older, the lives of the people in my barrio had a deep impact on my life, especially when they suffered. In many ways, the people I grew up with are interwoven into my tales and poetry. Still, when I go home, I collect the most amazing stories—life is stranger than fiction–and learn from being in community with them. Of course, I collect as many tales as I can, when they are about magic or magical realism.
Often it is in our childhood days that we realize what we’d like to do when we grow up. Stories are now an essential part of your life. When was the first time you fell in awe with a story, and consequently, the art of storytelling?
Ah, my father is and was, as a child, a fantastic story teller, often making up ballads (to poke fun at us). Every time before I went to bed, he would tell me an untitled story that sounds very much like any hero fairy about a poor young boy who went on a quest. His father had died and being poor himself had to adventure out, so save his mother and siblings from starvation. He encountered a lion, an eagle, and ant fighting over a piece of steak. He divided that steak evenly according to size, and their long battle ended. Being indebted to him, he called on them to defeat a wizard who posed insurmountable obstacles. In the end, due to cooperating, he defeated the wizard and married a princess. That story had a real influence on me, and I loved how helping others helped the boy succeed in his quest. I have no idea what the story is called. I don’t know if my father made it up because he very well could have.
Can you recall your very first story? When was this? What was it about?
The first story I ever wrote was in the seventh grade. My English teacher was amazing and she encouraged my talents. I wrote a story about a mad scientist who created a monster baby. The baby turned on him and killed him. I got an A+.
You’re a creator of many different beautiful stories. For an author, stories are like kids and it’s impossible to pick a favourite. But can you still try? What story did you absolutely love writing?
Oh my, this is incredibly difficult to answer. I love all of my creations. I think, though, most recently, my favorite story has been one titled “Pustules.” That story came out of a desire to write something new about alien invasions, which as I have seen in recent weeks are now popular again. In it, a mother struggles to protect her children, but their worlds are turned upside down by an invading force. I won’t spoil anymore. It hasn’t been published yet, and I entered it into a science fiction contest. Following that, I have really become enamored with Mona’s Return, #3 in La Bruja del Barrio Loco series, and your editing feedback really supported my art and helped me craft my best work, to date. I have read that story after publication at least three times, and I have to say, I loved it more and more each time. Thank you, my friend.
Is your family supportive about your creative endeavours? Who’s your go to buddy when something goes wrong and you need a little emotional support?
My family is amazing, especially my husband Aaron. My children Antonio (9) and Simona (4) understand that they are not to disturb Mommy when I write because I have no office. Each one plays a role when I have events. My husband greets attendees, Antonio helps me with raffle-giveaways of my and other indie writers’ books (it is invaluable that we support one another), and my daughter helps me pass out collateral. However, when I am in trouble, I go to my friends in the Inner Writer Circles’ Group. I often reach out to Steve Carr and Carmen Baca when I am having an existential crisis. P.C. Darkcliff and I often talk through our struggles. There is no one person. I have a vast network of support, and I try to do the same for others. Then, there is my cat, Polly-Gyrrl. When I am having a really hard time, she cuddles up to me, and we comfort each other.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you come up with ideas spontaneously or you lay groundwork before you actually start writing?
I am more of a Pantster. I would say 60/40 ratio. I do have an end in mind and often I loosely plot my conflicts, struggles, and resolutions as the main character aims for a goal. However, the foundation of all stories for me is always a strong character with a clear goal. I give my characters freedom, so the story flows, and this usually works out for me.
What are the steps in your creative process? How many drafts do you go through until you’re satisfied with the end result?
Lord, I begin with a character and a scene. Then I round the character out, and the story begins to play like a movie. I am one of those annoying people that word vomits. I know that is crass, but I can produce a lot of work in a short time. Once I am done, I go over it a few times and revise the piece. Then, I send it out to beta readers, usually two. Finally, I revise it again. Once I am satisfied, I read it out loud or have MS Word read it out loud for me and edit as I go along. Then, I read it backwards, sentence by sentence, because our brains auto-correct errors, and edit. Once it is published, I read the proof forwards and backwards and do the same with the Kindle version.
Which authors do you look up to? Whose works do you enjoy the most? Your favourite quote?
I’m going to sound like a groupie, I love Steve Carr’s work. I haven’t read something I didn’t like by him. Amongst the greats, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Louisa May Alcott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Hitchcock, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Leguin, Junot Díaz, Octavia E. Butler, Frank Herbert, and more recently Lene Kaaberböl. Too many to list. I can’t say I enjoy anyone’s work the most, but lately I have been reading a lot of stories by Steve Carr, The Tales of Talker Knock being my new favorite. My favorite quote is from Dune, and I carry it with me during difficult times: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Did you always want to become a writer? If perhaps things would have gone differently, which profession would you have chosen (other than your current teaching job)?
Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a comic book writer, then a screen play writer, but in the end, I fell in love with teaching. If I weren’t teaching, I would be writing full time and running workshops, maybe even my own bookstore. I love to travel, so I would love to talk about writing (without having to grade papers).
What are your proudest and most embarrassing moments?
My proudest moment was when I mastered the art of publishing the kindle and paperback version of my first book The Long Walk. The most embarrassing moment actually happened to me recently. I have been working on this novel for over twenty years for various reasons (graduate school, wedding planning, marriage, two kids, etc.). I had this whole series planned out with titles. I recently found another writer had the same titles in reverse order, and it is also a dystopian literature series. I was like, “You have got to be kidding me!” I have learned to research titles. The same thing was true of The Long Walk; there are many of them out there.
Is there anything about you—strange likings or personality quirks—that no one knows yet? Would you like to share them?
Hmm, I believe in the infinite goodness of humanity and that a better world is possible. If we cooperate. I see the world as beautiful, and I love all people, even though a bunch of awful things happen on a daily basis.
Besides writing, what are your other hobbies? Do you watch movies and TV Shows? Do you listen to music? Name your favourites.
Cooking, reading (of course), knitting, watching movies, sowing, embroidering, going on walks, traveling, fishing, teaching Sunday school, etc. I listen to a lot of eighties music, The Cure, still being my favorite. Whenever I need inspiration, I listen to Tash Sultana.
Now the most important question: are you a foodie? What sort of food do you love?
I am a foodie. I love sushi, but I will eat almost anything tasty. Does that make me not a foodie? I have had almost every form of fusion sushi from sashimi to sushi burritos. (I am not kidding.)
What are your goals? What do you aspire to achieve?
I want to become the best writer I can and win a major literary award. I’m not picky. Does that sound arrogant? I’m talking Nebula Award, Pulitzer Prize, Newberry Award. I’ll take any of them. (Laughs out loud.)
But, what I aspire to achieve is to bring books into the lives of those who need them. When I was growing up, I was really bored. I grew up in the desert, and we had no cable. I read so, so much, many of them authors I listed above. I believe books made me the person I am today.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I have a number of upcoming projects. My untitled novel is about a dystopian society where woman are in charge, and men are part of an oppressed class. The novel follows Ashley and Alan and their struggles as they fight for gender equality and economic justice, sometimes reluctantly. I am also working on a translation of my most popular novelette, La Bruja in the Orchard, #1 in La Bruja del Barrio Loco series. That is being translated by my friend Hector Cruz who is also an author. I am also working on a novel called The Awakening (yes, I am changing that title), #4 in La Bruja del Barrio Loco series, where a character from #2 is going to connect with Mona from La Bruja del Barrio Loco and Mona’s Return. It will be a love story with magic.
Do you have any dreams that go beyond the field of writing and publishing?
I want there to be free higher education in the United States and all over the world. I want economic justice for all. I want the abundance that technology offers to be shared with everyone so that poverty is no more. That is a large dream, but I work towards it everywhere I can from my essay writing to political work. It’s not science fiction. It’s possible.
You’re a terrific writer. What writing tips would you like to give to upcoming writers? What is the most important rule of fiction according to you?
Stop thinking about writing, and do it every day. I tell my students to get on a regular schedule at the same place and write every day. Your brain will be trained to get to work. Also, once you start writing, don’t stop writing. Find a real reason to write. Don’t make it publishing or making money. Find the reason you write every day. For me, it is producing the best work I can and writing today better than I did yesterday. I love telling stories. If I never sold another book, I would still keep writing.
Any self-publishing and marketing tips.
Do your research, I read a lot about software and how to format books. I also asked for help, shamelessly. Find a network of support. Find others to help you with formatting issues. I also have two friends help me with covers. Finally, pay a good editor and make sure you get a contract and see how they edit before you hire someone. If that person doesn’t copy edit, hire someone who does. Again, sample their work and make sure you have a contract. Your friends and you won’t find all the errors in your manuscript. And if you do find errors, don’t beat yourself up.
In terms of marketing, grow your base before you publish. I had an author site and a blog for two years before I put out my first book. Then, I moved on to an Facebook author page. I have Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. I focus on my author site, FB page, and Twitter the most, but each get attention every day.
Be creative and think outside the box. Different authors swear by different techniques. I do some of my best work talking to people face to face, so I always carry hard copies of my book. I love selling books at venues. But I do my fair share of promoting my work online. Recently, I started running a giveaway on Amazon and an AMS ad, and it’s working in exposure and sales. Join writing communities on Facebook and Twitter. My best writer-friends are in these communities. Check out my facebook group. New writers are especially welcome.
Some of your works feature witches and demons. Did you have any otherworldy experiences that intensified your belief in the supernatural?
Ah, yes. When I was growing up, I would go to a curandera, a healer, to help cure me of the Evil Eye. I always got better from whatever ailed me. When I was young, I also am 99% sure I saw a ghost at the foot of my bed. He was watching over me. It didn’t frighten me because my grandmother taught me that you should be afraid of the living, not the dead. However, many of my friends and family swear they have had supernatural experiences, which of course, inspire me.
If you could, would you like to walk beyond this veil that separates these two worlds? Or you’re happy just being an observer from a safe distance away?
Do you mean into the supernatural? I try not to give negative energy power or credence. I know that sounds contradictory, but would you really want to tangle with a demon or witch? Hell no. I am happy writing about these creatures and don’t want to meet one on the road.
Every writer is a thinker. Would you like to comment on the future of mankind? Is it a happy or a dark, bleak picture?
That is a brilliant question, and I think about this all the time. To quote Nelson Peery, “The future is up to us.” We determine what that future will be and should not let the power that shapes our future be given to a few who don’t have our interests at heart. But, we have to be united in this struggle, or we will fail.
Thank you so much, Maria, for patiently answering every question. With so much going on, I know your schedule must be crazy, and I’m very grateful for your time. I wish you all the best for your upcoming endeavours.
Thank you, my friend. It has been a real pleasure, and I am deeply honored to know you.
Maria’s new book Mona’s Return hit the shelves on 1st August. It is a beautiful magical story about a witch apprentice returning to our world from her master’s abode, and saving her people from a demon she accidentally unlocked. Maria is currently doing a giveaway of Mona’s Return! Please click this button to participate! You’ll find the Giveaway link on Maria’s page.
My Poetry collection Opium Hearts released on August 1st. In just ten days we got 8 five-star reviews! Please check it out if you enjoy poetry.
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