Please welcome my special guest Silvio Sirias, author of the historical novel set in Panama, The Saint of Santa Fe. He’s currently touring the blogosphere to promote this his latest novel. Enjoy the interview!
Thanks for this interview, Silvio! Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I am the author three novels: Bernardo and the Virgin, Meet Me under the Ceiba, and more recently The Saint of Santa Fe. I was born in Los Angeles, but I spent my adolescence in Nicaragua, the country of my parents’ birth. Currently, I live in Panama. I have a doctorate in Spanish from the University of Arizona. In addition to fiction, I have published academic books on Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, and the poet Salomon de la Selva. I also have a collection of essays titled Love Made Visible: Reflections on Writing, Teaching, and Other Distractions.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
I had been writing and publishing academic books. Then, during one of my research projects, I started to interview U.S. Latino and Latina novelists. In our conversations, I learned that they were having tremendous fun telling stories similar to the ones I wanted to tell. So I also started writing novels and have never looked back.
Do you have another job besides writing?
Yes, I also teach. I have been working for eight years at Balboa Academy—a private school in Panama.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
The Saint of Santa Fe is about Father Hector Gallego, a young priest who disappeared in Panama in 1971. He had run afoul of the landed gentry when he helped empower the disenfranchised peasants in a remote jungle area, and the military eventually kidnapped him. To this day no one knows how he died and where his remains are, but Panamanians have not forgotten him nor his work. When I learned about his story, I felt his sense of duty and sacrifice would appeal to English-language readers.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I always write from an outline. I need to know exactly where I’m headed when I begin a new novel; otherwise, the uncertainty would be too stressful for me. I do, however, allow my imagination to run free when I work on the outline.
Did your book require a lot of research?
It definitely did. All of my novels have required a lot of research, but none more so than The Saint of Santa Fe. In fact, it took me seven years to get the details right. It was worth the effort, however. What’s more, I find the research stage the most magical part in writing a book. It’s when I learn the most.
What was your goal when writing this book?
For American and Panamanian readers to understand the noble sacrifice this young priest made to help Panama become a democracy.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
That in Latin America, religion and politics were a volatile mix beginning in the 1960s and through the 1980s. The novel is also a tribute to the thirty priests who gave their lives in Central America in the hope of bringing social justice to the region.
I need to experience the story before I write it. My research always involves spending a lot of time in the places where the events took place and talking to folks who lived the tale. In that way, I get to live the story as well.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
The Saint of Santa Fe was an eight year journey. Yet each of my novels has had a very different gestation period. On the average I would say a novel takes me about four years.
Describe your working environment.
I like working somewhere free of distractions, but close to a window. Also, I like working on a table as opposed to a desk. In addition, I like to keep my writing area simple and uncluttered. At the end of the writing day I put everything away, as if nothing had taken place there at all.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
I agree that we have fragile egos, but with age I’ve learn to take the criticism for what it’s worth. If the comments teach me about something I’m doing wrong, I pay close attention. If they are negative for the sake of being negative, I ignore them. Fortunately, regarding reviews, my work has been blessed with lovely, generous ones—more than enough to compensate for any that don’t glow.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
Running out of time to write all the ideas I have for new novels.
What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?
I was lucky to be part of an extraordinary critique group when I started writing fiction. In addition to everyone in the group being close friends, we were all writers and expats living in Nicaragua. Later, when we went our separate ways, I tried to replicate the experience in Panama. It was never the same. Fortunately, two members of the group still help me, sharing their thoughts on my most polished draft. After they are done, I incorporate their suggestions and then the manuscript is ready to go in search of a publisher. My advice to a fledgling writer is to keep on experimenting with different people until they find a group that has the right chemistry. Such groups are worth their weight in gold.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
I took a non-traditional route to publishing fiction. My first publications were academic—literary criticism, basically. Through those experiences I learned how to work with publishers. At the same time I established a track record as a published author, albeit scholarly. When I began to send out queries about my fiction, it did raise a few eyebrows. Nevertheless, because I had several books in print it was easier for me to get a publisher’s attention. With that said, my advice to novice authors is to be honest with themselves about the quality of their writing. Writing fiction has a long learning curve. Many are ready to leap into the publishing world with their first attempt. Writers must be prepared to endure a long apprenticeship before their work is saleable. In the end, however, every minute will have been worth the sacrifice.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I received had to do with writing historical fiction, which is sort of the area I’ve tapped into. When I was first considering writing something based on a true incident, a fellow writer said to me, “Tell the truth everyone agrees upon, but once you do this will be enormous gaps in what is not really known. That’s the space of invention; that’s where you can allow your imagination to run wild.”
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
Yes. I am almost finished and I am very excited about this project. It is my first foray into young adult fiction. The title of the novel is The Season of Stories. I hope to have the polished version ready by September and then the manuscript will be off to visit publishers.
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
Meeting or receiving messages from readers who have been touched by my work. Nothing beats the sense of satisfaction that having contact with those who have sacrificed their leisure time to read something I wrote.