An Interview with Achy Obejas

Achy Obejas is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Ruins (Akashic Books, 2009), Days of Awe (Random House, 2001) and two other books of fiction. Her poetry chapbook, This Is What Happened in Our Other Life (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2007), was both a critical favorite and a best-seller. She edited, and translated into English, Havana Noir (Akashic Books, 2007), a collection of crime stories by Cuban writers on and off the island. Her translation into Spanish of Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead, 2009)/La Breve y Maravillos Vida de Oscar Wao (Vintage/Mondadori) was a finalist for Spain’s Esther Benitez Translation Prize from the national translator’s association. A former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, she is a member of the Editorial Board of In These Times, the editorial advisory board of the Great Books Foundation, and a blogger for WBEZ.org. She and her wife, Megan, became first-time parents in November.

Q. I heard you speak once about how you never intended to work for a newspaper, that that was sort of an accident. And you ended up working for the Tribune for years. How did that happen?

A. Well, I was a journalism student at Indiana University. A lot of my connections to journalism still come from that period. I very much enjoyed my time at the Indiana Daily Student. I was the arts editor. But I never intended to be at a conservative newspaper; that was never my plan. I was going to do something groovy.

When I got to Chicago, I initially worked for the Sun-Times. Politically, the Sun-Times was much more in line with my thinking, at the time. This was when it was a Field newspaper. I left way before Murdoch. I bummed around and  did a lot of freelancing for the Reader, which I loved, and at Windy City Times, which I loved. At Chicago magazine, I had some very good editors: Pat Clinton and Richard Babcock. I was happily freelancing for all the alternative newspapers; it was a great surprise to me that the Tribune had any interest in me whatsoever.

Q. So they sought you out?

A. I kept winding up on public affairs programming at 3 o’clock in the morning with Tribune reporters. One of them was Manny Galvin, and at one point he said to me, “Why don’t you freelance for us?” and I said, “What are you, out of your mind?” But Gary Dretzka, whom I adored, hired me to freelance, and eventually he made the case for me as a full-time person. I actually ended up being very grateful to the Tribune. When they hired me, they had a very clear idea that I had no intention of making a career at the Tribune. I never fooled anybody about that. There was never any pretense. And they were immensely supportive. When I said, “I need a six-month leave to work on a novel,” nobody blinked. I got it. And when I came back a little later and said, “I need a three-month leave to go on a tour,” I got super-great support. It really felt like they not only were supportive of my career, but invested in my career.

I know that’s not the story anybody wants to hear about the Tribune, but everybody — I shouldn’t say everybody; there were a couple of dicks there — there were just some really good people there. I recently was honored as a Chicago Original at AWP, and I ended up talking a lot about the Tribune. One of the crazy things is that I don’t know that I could have actually written my novels, at least when I wrote them, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the Tribune gave me that kind of space.

Q. Speaking of space and time, how has parenthood affected your writing?

A. Right now it’s a gigantic struggle to write.

Q. I don’t know how much of a routine person you are …

A. I am very much a routine person.

(At this point, the interview is interrupted by Megan and Ilan, who have returned from a car ride — an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get him to nap. Megan takes him to try to nap in his room.)

Buddy, please, for the love of all that is good in the world …

Right now, we’re just struggling with trying to figure it out. We’re terribly happy with him. He’s a delightful, wonderful, and greatly well-behaved baby. He’s come to my readings and he very rarely makes a fuss. In San Francisco, he squawked once. He’s been on seven planes in four months. But his needs have been so urgent that we have not quite figured things out. Right now, I’m barely keeping up with my commitments to prior projects, never mind actually trying to delve into the novel that I’m working on. It’s just very, very difficult.

Q. This novel that you’re working on, that you’re maybe not working on so much now …

A. Not so much.

Q. Tell us a little bit about it.

A. I’ve been thinking a lot about point of view. It’s a novel that plays with point of view. I’m hesitant to talk about it too much, because the influences are very disparate. I read from it on a mini-tour of the Bay Area, and got some very good responses to it. It’s very encouraging. My publishers, I’m sure, would like me to get it over and done with ASAP. It’s going to take a little longer than I thought it would.

Q. What are you reading these days? Besides kids’ books?

A. I’m always reading. I’m reading Dagoberto Gilb’s book of stories, Before the End, After the Beginning. The Curfew by Jesse Ball, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute. And I’m rereading Handwriting, a book of poems by Michael Ondaatje. I always come back to Ondaatje.

Achy Obejas reads at Sunday Salon Chicago on March 25 at 8 p.m. at Black Rock, 3614 N. Damen Ave.

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