National Book Foundation's BookUpTexas

BookUp Students Interview Author Helena María Viramontes

Helena Maria Viramontes Helena María Viramontes recently visited our BookUp Texas site through Texas A&M University’s Brazos Valley Reads program. After a wonderful class visit with instructor Angie Cruz and her students, Viramontes was kind enough to answer a few of the kids’ follow-up questions via email.

BookUp: Did you fight with your sisters?

Helena María Viramontes: Of course. We were six sisters and were of limited resources, and so things like Deb gel and Aquanet hairspray were sacred. When we used each other's stuff, we had to make sure we replaced it or else. Also, a rule to remember: Always ask before you use. There was one time when I called my sister a whore, and my mother hit me. It was only the second and last time she ever did. Later, in trying to cover up my blunder, I said to my mother that I had called my sister a "horror" not "whore." My mother forgave me, but my sister pulled my hair again in secret.

BU: What inspired you to write books? What influenced you?

HMV: Love of stories and love of my family. I loved reading but I hardly read stories that had to do with my family, and so I never saw the family I loved in the stories and novels that I read. So it wasn't until I was in college and reading writers like Gabriel García Márquez and John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison and Juan Rulfo that I began to have a desire to write out my familiar experiences as they did. Mind you, when I read these writers, I would be physically and emotionally moved. I would cry, laugh out loud, or raise my eyes from the printed page and stare out in wonder as to what their words did to me, the power they had.

BU: How long did it take you to write a book?

HMV: Every book has its own measurement of time. The story collection, I think, took me about five years. Under the Feet of Jesus took me two and a half, and Their Dogs Came with Them took me, off and on, seventeen years. Dogs was such a labor of love and difficult.

Helena María Viramontes is the author of Their Dogs Came with Them, a novel, and two previous works of fiction, The Moths and Other Stories and Under the Feet of Jesus, a novel. Named a USA Ford Fellow in 2007 by United States Artists, she is also the recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Sundance Institute Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Luis Leal Award. Viramontes is currently Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she is at work on a new novel.