Friday, November 19, 2021

Joy Castro

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water, which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home, and the story collection How Winter Began, as well as the memoir The Truth Book and the essay collection Island of Bones, which received the International Latino Book Award. She is also editor of the anthology Family Trouble and served as the guest judge of CRAFT‘s first Creative Nonfiction Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Salon, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and elsewhere. A former Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, she is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Castro's new novel is Flight Risk.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

A good deal, I think. Flight Risk implies someone on the verge of leaving, someone a bit unstable, someone unsatisfied with current conditions, someone who cannot be predicted, who cannot be controlled by the promise of what's on offer--and Isabel Morales, my heroine, is all these things. Flight Risk also connotes someone valuable--someone that a company, for example, wishes to retain, but may not be able to. (Will their counteroffer be sufficient?) In Isabel's case, this has everything to do with the life she's currently living and the wealthy husband who doesn't want to lose her--but who knows very little about her past.

What's in a name?

Isabel's surname, Morales, suggests not only her Latinx heritage but also the idea of morals, ethics, choices between good and evil, and these choices have plagued her whole life. She questions her own morals and those of others.

The name of her old-money Chicago husband, Jon Turner, suggests a certain WASPish American solidity--but a "turner" he indeed is. He's willing to change--and the stability he exudes might not tell his whole story.

Nic Folio, a dashing character Isabel re-meets in the latter half of the book (after not having seen him for decades), is also meaningfully named. His name pegs him as Italian American, like many of the mining families in West Virginia are, but Folio, as any scholar of Shakespeare can attest, is also an important term in book history and print culture, and Nic Folio certainly poses a reading challenge to Isabel. Is he who he seems to be? Like a Jane Austen heroine faced with a suitor who seems too good to be true, Isabel needs to read him accurately to control her own fate.

Even the name of the little diner Isabel repeatedly visits, The Cracked Egg, in the rural West Virginia town to which she returns, is meaningfully named, given the book's exploration of fertility choices in an era of climate crisis.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings! Much harder. Unless they come to me as a gift--which happens occasionally but was most definitely not the case with Flight Risk--then I draft and redraft them a dozen times at least. I want to bring all the threads in the novel to satisfying closure without its feeling too tidy. I like it when endings snap into place, but not too neatly. Believably, but not predictably. I love a good happy ending, too, but it has to be a happy ending that's really been earned, and sometimes happy endings don't work at all for the material. They ring false. So you really have to honor all the arcs the story has set up.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Yes, a bit. What I do is select particular strains of my own character and then amplify them. For example, Isabel has had some of my experiences but has made different choices, and she's very creative, but she's a visual artist--a sculptor--rather than a writer. She feels lonely and lost and fragile, as I sometimes do.

Her husband Jon has my earnest do-gooder qualities along with my easily hurt pride and aloofness--my tendency to withdraw when I am hurt and go off to lick my wounds alone--while her sister-in-law Sophia embodies all my playful flightiness and whatever elegance I might possess. I poured my self-pitying bitterness and resentment into Aunt Della--thank goodness readers don't have to spend much time with her--and Isabel's mother-in-law Helene is a status-conscious elitist with a suspicion of the poor, an attitude of which I've sometimes been on the receiving end, so I know its sting.

I think we all contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman famously wrote, so I just draw on the various qualities I observe in myself and others, whittle them down to their essence, and then push them to extremes, so the characters become sharply defined and thus memorable and vivid without feeling like caricatures.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I watch a lot of film and actually write a little film criticism on the side, so I think my writing might be influenced by various cinematic styles, like film noir, for example, of which I'm a great fan. I often see and hear the scenes of my books in my mind very vividly and then write them down, as if I were simply transcribing what I'm watching. Pop music has influenced me over the years, especially that of singer-songwriters who use a lot of storytelling in their work, like Natalie Merchant, Dar Williams, Billy Bragg, and Peter Mulvey. I love the way they can cover so much ground very intensely within just a few minutes.
Visit Joy Castro’s website and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Hell or High Water.

The Page 69 Test: Nearer Home.

--Marshal Zeringue