20 Questions: An Interview with Margarita Engle

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet, award-winning novelist and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. As a reader and a writer I am doubly excited to have had such a wonderful conversation with Margarita who writes children’s stories and young adult novels, many of which echo her own family history and love of nature.

20 Questions: An Interview with Margarita Engle

Background Image: margaritaengle.com

Toasted Cheese: Margarita, what were you like as a kid?

Margarita Engle: I was a shy bookworm with glasses, a long braid, a broken tooth, and homemade mother-daughter clothes. I loved plants and animals, especially horses. I wrote poetry.

TC: From your self-description, you could be a young character in a book, yourself. Tell us what inspired you to write your first book?

ME: After a long separation from Cuba, I finally obtained permission to go back in 1991. My grown-up prose novels were inspired by family history, but after the turn of this new century, I switched to children’s and young adult verse novels. The Poet Slave of Cuba was my first verse novel, and it changed my life forever.

TC: Many of your stories such as The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Drum Dream Girl are historically set in Cuba and have characters that struggle for their freedom and independence. Are any of the characters’ experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

ME: The Wild Book is based on stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. Mountain Dog is inspired by real people and real wilderness search and rescue dogs. Enchanted Air is a memoir.

TC: Skywriting has a young character that escaped from Cuba on a raft made from inner tubes that parallels the modern world. In the last 50 years, hundreds of refugees made similar epic and perilous journeys across the dangerous 90 miles of ocean to the Florida coast. With US economic sanctions lifting, how will this new political atmosphere affect your writing?

ME: I just returned to Cuba a couple of weeks ago, and not much has changed yet, but there is hope, and that is huge. I always write about hope, but now I’ll do it with the extra excitement of knowing that more than a half of a century of mutual hostilities between my two beloved countries will finally begin to fade.

TC: Another aspect of your stories relates to gender equality. Your female characters are often main characters and are wonderfully fierce and determined to stay true to their beliefs and purpose. They have a strong sense of themselves, of who they are. They persevere and affect positive and political change for themselves and others. Is there a message for girls today in your stories?

ME: Perseverance and a belief in equality certainly are recurring themes, but I don’t invent that aspect. It already exists in the lives of real people I admire, such as Rosa la Bayamesa in The Surrender Tree, Fredrika Bremer in The Firefly Letters, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda in The Lightning Dreamer, Maria Merian in Summer Birds, and Millo Castro Zaldarriaga in Drum Dream Girl.

TC: Family is also a prevalent theme in your stories. There is separation and loss in many of them, yet love and friendship are present even when the characters disagree or are antagonists. Can you speak to that?

ME: I don’t do this consciously. It just emerges from the need for mutual understanding and forgiveness.

TC: From your writing I also detect a love of nature based on your lovely descriptive environmental prose. Setting is as prominent as the characters in many of your stories.

ME: Before I turned to full time creative writing, I studied agriculture and botany, and worked as an agronomy professor, an irrigation water conservation specialist, and a scientific writer. I have always loved nature, even though I grew up in the big city of Los Angeles.

TC: Tell us why you love dogs.

ME: When I married my husband, he had a dog that went to all his college classes with him. Now, 37 years later, he has a wilderness search-and-rescue dog trained to help find lost hikers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My role is hiding in the forest, so that various K-9 SAR teams can practice. Dogs are just part of my daily life.

TC: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

ME: I love to travel, and I especially love returning to Cuba, but I also went to Panama to research Silver People, and Borneo for Orangutanka.

TC: Why are so many of your novels are written in verse?

ME: I fell in love with the form, and especially with its suitability for historical fiction. I love the way free verse gives me room for a character’s thoughts and feelings, without requiring the clutter of every fact and figure known about a subject. Occasionally I’ll add a bit of rhyme, especially in a picture book for very young children.

TC: Your picture books also convey similar themes on a smaller scale.

ME: Drum Dream Girl and Summer Birds are about women who accomplished things only men were supposed to attempt. The Sky Painter is about Louis Fuertes, the bird artist who stopped the tradition of killing and posing birds. When You Wander is about search and rescue dogs, and how to avoid getting lost in the wilderness. Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish is a Cuban folktale about being satisfied with what we have. Orangutanka is an introduction to a beautiful, intelligent, critically endangered species. In general, my picture books are either about people who dared to try something original, or about animals, and the things we can learn from them.

TC: When you were researching, did you discover anything interesting or cool that didn’t make it into any of your stories? Perhaps seeds for future stories?

ME: That’s an interesting question, because it really is easy to get sidetracked, and become fascinated with stories related to the one I’m researching. The Firefly Letters grew from research for The Poet Slave of Cuba, and The Sky Painter was an offshoot of research for Silver People. Many of the things that haven’t made it into a book yet really do survive as tiny seeds in the back of my mind.

TC: Here’s my burning question: You are the recipient of many prestigious awards for your stories and poetry—Is there a cost to literary fame? More responsibility? Or is it all good?

ME: It’s all good! Awards help me continue to get published.

TC: What books have most influenced your life most?

ME: Poetry from Cuba and Spain is the most influential, especially José Martí, Dulce María Loynaz, and Antonio Machado.

TC: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

ME: Tomás Rivera was my creative writing professor. He really was a mentor, simply by teaching me to write from the heart, without worrying about getting published. That comes later.

TC: Do you have a specific writing style and process?

ME: I’m a morning person. I write first drafts with a pen on paper, because I love the flow of ink. I try not to worry about corrections until a much later draft.

TC: What was the hardest part of writing your books?

ME: The hardest part is fear. Each time I start a manuscript, I have to find the courage to say what I want to say, without worrying about the approval of strangers.

TC: Do you have a favorite character from your books?

ME: My grandmother in The Wild Book.

TC: How long does it take to write a historical verse novel? How long does it take to write a picture book?

ME: A historical verse novel usually takes me around one year of research, and one year of scribbling, but The Poet Slave of Cuba took ten years of false starts in prose. A picture book can be written quickly, but then I have to wait for the editor to choose an illustrator, which can take months. Once the illustrator agrees to work on the book, it can take several years before the artwork is complete. Writers need patience. There are no shortcuts.

TC: Thank you, Margarita. And one final question: do you have any advice for Toasted Cheese writers?

ME: Listen to Tomás Rivera: Write from the heart. Don’t worry about getting published. That comes later.