In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Juan Morales
Tell us about your fiction piece “The Saddest Song” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
The piece is based on a real grad school experience when I taught one of my first classes in a theater blackbox. I wanted to take a fictionalized version of this memory and connect it to the powerful relationships we have with music. Songs can capture specific times in our lives, and hearing those songs again can work just like a time machine. If it’s heartache, we can lose thousands of songs or specific ones we thought we would always love. They make us change the station or skip to the next track when it’s too much. I wanted the piece to take it a step further and ask, ‘Can we return to the music we’ve lost?’
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
First lines and titles always feel like an important priority. They set the tone, the expectations, open up possibilities, and entice us to return to what we just read. I also like those endings where I feel haunted and out of breath. There are a lot of common mistakes that I see as a teacher, while fully acknowledging I have committed those same errors before. This includes the twist everyone saw coming, confusing readers by using multiple points-of-view in a short amount of time, and the flashback within the flashback is really hard to pull off. Another one is using too many section breaks or chapter breaks. It can hurt the momentum and give the reader too many opportunities to put the book down.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
I didn’t start taking writing seriously until my second year in college, but looking back, I realize that I have always been journaling and collecting scraps of writing in my notebooks since I was a pre-teen. Most of the time when I traveled, whether it be English, Ecuador, Scotland, Puerto Rico, or all over the US, I would always end my day by writing in my notebook, trying to reflect on everything I experienced. I also remember feeling good when the notebooks got beat up. The wear and tear mattered too. I wanted to preserve these places as best as I could. Even though I don’t feel brave enough to read most of them now, I still have all those notebooks.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
As a kid, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, The Westing Game, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH are examples of some of the books that were my sparks. I also regularly plundered the paranormal section of our library. When I started studying writing seriously, I then discovered a lot of writers that opened up the writing world more and made me want to write: Martín Espada, Flannery O’Connor, Kim Addonizio, Eavan Boland, Margaret Atwoodand Pablo Neruda. With mentors, I can cite my teachers, David Keplinger, Lisa D. Chavéz, and many others that still help me to this day. I also think back to my first AWP in Atlanta, when I was a young, scared writer, carrying copies of my first book in my backpack. It was writers like Richard Yañez, Francisco Aragón, and Rigoberto González that welcomed me to my community and also continued to help me find more opportunities. From there, I was able to find more support from all the writers I worked with at CantoMundo and Macondo too. All of this support and inspiration definitely helped me learn that we as writers are not alone, even when it feels like a solitary act.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
In a previous life, I was in a band, regularly did theater, and I also used to paint. All three gave me a lot of foundational knowledge about performance, process, and persistence. I learned quickly that all of our mediums require practice and mistakes in order to capture our creative intentions. Some of these I would love to reintegrate into my life eventually and to see how they can intersect with my writing. I am currently working with my great musician friend, named Andrew Jones. He wrote 80s synth-based horror music to accompany poems from my third collection, The Handyman’s Guide to End Times. We did one performance and people loved it. We plan on recording them in the near future and doing more performances soon.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I’ve been told that I have strong titles and endings, and some of my other quirks include gravitating toward creepy themes and imagery (maybe not so much in “The Saddest Song”). I tend to lean into my narrative and storytelling, so I continue to feel challenged to make my writing more lyrical and concise. Some questions that help me: How can I accomplish this story or poem with few sentences or lines? Can the piece end two sentences sooner? Are there repeated words or phrases that can be plucked out? Did I cut too much context? The last question helps me with balancing the work.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
Some days I feel paralyzed by my anger and outrage, and I feel overwhelmed. I can’t keep up with the scandals, the injustices, and complete lack of respect for our environment, people, and communities. On the more productive days, I look to my fellow writers that are often responding in real time to the Administration’s actions, the racism, the bigotry, and the hatred. They inspire me so much. They give me the energy to write and the realization that I have something to say. They also remind me that we can’t be silent and wait for things to change on their own. Our writing has the potential to create change and preserve what’s happening now. I think about social media fights going back and forth and never accomplishing anything. Then I think about how a story, poem, essay, or memoir can more effectively inspire change and action that can help us get through these ugly times.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
Social justice issues, my culture, my Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican heritage, and preserving places are important to my writing. So far, these themes have helped me build connections with other writers and readers. I continue to prioritize them, and I am also working to nurture humor and horror. Both are obsessions for me and new challenges I can’t wait to continue exploring.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
Even now, I like to start all of my writing in notebooks whenever I can find time: morning dream transcriptions, travel logs, in-class writing with my students, and 30/30 challenges I try to do once a year. During a slower month (like May, July, or January), I will write one short piece a day in order to generate new work and to dig into the rougher drafts I keep in my notebooks. Once it’s typed, things really start to pick up even though time is still the enemy. I like to reassure my students that it’s okay if you can’t write daily, and I try to tell myself that too. I like to think the fight for writing time can actually become another way to raise the stakes.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I have two projects underway. The first is a new collection of poems about my father who passed away in February 2019. The poems also explore my city of Pueblo, animals, Puerto Rico, ghosts, a few cryptids, and lucid dreaming. I am also working on a collection of flash fiction horror pieces, with each one titled after a pop song.
Juan J. Morales is the son of an Ecuadorian mother and Puerto Rican father. He is the author of three poetry collections: Friday and the Year That Followed, The Siren World, and The Handyman’s Guide to End Times, winner of the 2019 International Latino Book Award for Poetry, One Author, in English. His poetry has appeared on/in CSPAN2, Colorado Public Radio, Copper nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and others. He is a CantoMundo fellow, a Macondista, the editor/publisher of Pilgrimage Press, and department chair of English & World Languages at Colorado State University-Pueblo. You can follow Juan on Twitter: @moralesjuanj.