On Wednesday Feb. 28th, Senior Lanett Bagley and Junior Bailey Rafter interviewed visiting author Carlos Hernandez. Carlos Hernandez is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York on the main campus, Borough of Manhattan Community College. Along with teaching English he also teaches courses on technology and pedagogy at The Graduate Center at CUNY. He is the author of The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. His newest book is Sal and Gabi Break the Universe.
Bailey Rafter: You have your fingers in a lot of pies when it comes to writing genres, writing everything from YA fiction to video-games. Why do you write so broadly and how do you know what story line will work best in what genre as to best execute your vision?
Carlos Hernandez: The difference I would say is that working with a video game or a screen play versus a book is the amount of people who are going to be involved with the storytelling process. I like writing by myself and I like writing with other people. They are both super rewarding in their own ways. When I worked on the video project game Meriweather I was mixed in with all these other people so I had to be thinking about design concerns and historical concerns and representation concerns but I had my specialization as well and other people had their specializations and we came together and that mix is extremely interesting and exciting. Writing in a group is also limiting because you’re constrained in ways that maybe don’t let you tell the story the way that you would want to so you do that for a while and then you switch over and write a book then it’s more of yourself and even then it is a collaborative effort. Every book, I think, is collaborative. Anything of length pretty much is going to be collaborative. So, working with video games helped me be a better collaborator with editors even when this book only has my name on the front cover.
Lanett Bagley: How and when would you say you really began to develop the distinct writing style you use across all of your work? Particularly the mixing of languages we see across much of your work. Is any of this inspired from personal experience or your family?
CH: It’s definitely inspired by personal experience. I speak Spanglish, I have a lot of Spanglish sensibilities and once you have a really good word for something it’s hard to let go of it because once you can say things in a way, once you find the right word, nothing else will do This is a time when Spanglish exists and it’s awesome and one of the things I’m trying to do is capture that integration and use the language to show how a mind can be situated between those two languages. I started to develop it fairly early on and by early on I mean post graduate school. It was mostly through short stories and deciding that we don’t have enough Latinx characters being represented. When we look at Quantum Santeria, basically all the protagonists are Latinx and most of them are Cuban, there is also Puerto Rican and other influences in there as well. That became sort of a choice that I made. In America, right now, we don’t have enough Latinx characters so I’m going to include them and include the language that many Latinx people would recognize as Spanglish or as something they can recognize.
BR: Who or what do you feel most influences your writing? Are you inspired by other authors? (Did Junot Diaz’s work influence you at all?)
CH: I think Junot Diaz is a super important writer who may have influenced me more early on especially when I was writing the Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. One of the stories that I wrote, Macrobe Conservation Project, was nothing like Diaz’s work yet was directly influenced by my reading of Drown. Often times what I will do is start reading another author and I will get excited about writing in general that I’ll just put the book down and go right to writing my own stuff. I would say fiction does it all the time for me, non-fiction does too. Non-fiction has historically been super important to my fiction writing process. The reason I’m writing about multiverses is because I just love to read Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and reading about where science is right now. There are a lot of scientists writing for a wide audience, which makes all of this amazing work much more accessible to people like me who are English Majors. In physics, right now string theory can’t be proven or disproven. There is no experimental basis on which we can conduct experiments to know whether string theory is right or wrong. So, it is very much a thought experiment. So in fiction, it’s a great melding where science and fiction converge because they are both engaged in the “what if”, the thought experiment. They use different methodologies to conduct their experiments but it is a great time to be inspired by physics because I just think the realm of “what if” and experimentation is at the forefront of the most exciting physics in my opinion.
LB: How long have you been working with the characters Sal and Gabi?
CH: Both of them appear as adults on the Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. The way that I pitched it to Disney was to say “What if Sal and Gabi were kids in the same school?” and then I said, “What if they were in an art school?” Like, Sal, the adult version is a physicist and he deals with entanglement theory. So, in that universe he sort of moves away from what he does in this book, which is studying to be a magician, to be a performer. But later he ends up being a physicist. That might be a different universe though. The nice thing about writing multiverses is that you don’t have to worry about consistency in the same way. It’s just a great relief. And that could just be a different Sal in a different universe. So, Gabi Royal appears in many different stories of mine and she’s a journalist for The Uncanny. Basically, in one story she is investigating this report that unicorns have started to appear in our universe. In another one she basically goes to interview a sentient piano who is actually a dead pianist that has uploaded his conscious mind into a computer that has been hooked up to a piano which it then plays. I would say Sal was semi-autobiographical in terms of the Latino experience and the way that I portrayed him in that story. Gabi is more aspirational, sort of like if I can make myself into the person I would love to be it would kind of be like Gabi Royal. And so, between the two, they are the two most important characters to my writing that I have written so I just stole from myself, like, let’s make them kids.
BR: When writing Sal and Gabi was it difficult writing for a younger audience for the first time? If so what were some of those struggles and how did you tackle them?
CH: This is specifically middle grade and it’s meant to be for middle school age students, fifth through eighth grade is the realm that they say. The hardest thing about writing for middle school students is that you have to make sure you respect the intelligence of the middle school reader, because middle schoolers are smart and if you start talking down to them you’re done before you start. You have to also consider including real life situations, like grief, suffering, and struggles, even if you’re writing something funny because nobody’s life is a big bowl of candy. To then also create a story that will be written at a pace and at an excitement level that will keep people reading. That triangulation of being real, speaking to the intelligence of kids today, and still being entertaining is the magic difficult formula that I have no idea if I succeeded at or not. But some people seem to like it so far so I hope it worked out.
The other difficult part is not swearing. You absolutely have to invent your own words, but the thing is, if you look at the history of cuss words any cuss word that isn’t current right now always sounds like “Wait. Why is that a cuss word?” They are always richly involved with the way people react to them. Cuss words are only cuss words because we decide they are. So that is what was challenging. If you don’t want to create a sort of bowdlerized representation, you’ve got to find ways around that. So I invented “sandwich” in the beginning chapter. One kid calls another kid a sandwich and that is like a line that shall not be crossed in this world.
LB: You seem to have a rather rosy outlook on middle school and how middle schoolers behave. Why is that, considering most people don’t look back on middle school so fondly?
CH: The rosiness has to do with the larger political things. The idea is that here’s a place where you can go and get your energy and here are successful Cubans and Cuban Americans and here’s a place where we are doing better than the rest of the world. It’s a place that’s meant to be somewhere you can visit and recharge. If you remove the racism, look what can happen. So, it’s not exactly rosy I would say. I believe it’s one of the jobs of fiction to be able to imagine a better world. This is my attempt to imagine a better world.
BR: You describe Sal and Gabi’s world as being low on sexism and racism. Usually sci-fi works take a very dystopian perspective on life and when they don’t the characters fall flat. Was that challenging for you to write the “utopian” middle school in a sci-fi setting while maintaining character dimension?
CH: This is exactly it, I don’t write dystopia. I think dystopias are doing plenty of that work and we have enough of it already. I just heard a term called GrimDark. It’s a genre and it kind of explains itself, it’s grim and it’s dark. The opposite side of the coin of that is HopeBright. Somebody recently described my book as HopeBright and I love it because I want hope and I want brightness. The world is already hard enough and one of the things I would say is unique about my book is that it is a villain free world. It’s not a person versus person conflict structure, it’s a person versus universe conflict structure. Even when you have everybody rooting for you and you have this great school and this great support system you still have all of the horribleness of the universe to contend with and that’s plenty. So what if, to set against that difficulty of a universe with death and a universe with all of these sorrows built in you at least have this structure beneath you that can at least help you rest. That’s what I would say, I think I’m writing HopeBright and I’m all for it.
LB: Was there a purpose to this work beyond a creative piece? Do you see this book having a positive effect of children currently surrounded by dystopian literature and pessimistic world views?
CH: We’ve had our generation of Hunger Games and our generation of all of these really great dystopias. They are really good important books that we can now add to our canon of reading, but at the same time if you only look at dystopias you only have a limited sense of what is possible and that is just as silly as having fluffy My Little Pony portrayals that you can imagine too. So there’s the overly twee and then there’s the overly grim and they oversimplify our views. That’s one of the reason I didn’t want a villain, they oversimplify. Having all the evil concentrated in one voice, I didn’t need it, there’s other things to talk about.
BR: Kirkus quoted you saying “Later generations are going to look at the science fiction and fantasy that’s being written right now as the high literature.” Can you explain why?
CH: Right now, we are in a genre and fiction renaissance. It is a place where the most aggressive kinds of writing for people of color are happening, and by aggressive I mean aggressively published and getting voices out there, and being unapologetic about their own voices. Women are also coming into the scene, which we’ve seen in the Hugo Awards. In the last two years women have outnumbered men by 80% and two years ago it was only women nominated. So it’s this beautiful moment where science fiction/fantasy (SFF) has met our culture where it is and tried to elevate where it’s going. We have this beautiful time where not only in novels but also TV and film where we are seeing these changes. We’re seeing all of these science fiction ideas being fed throughout all genres. What’s happening in the SFF mindset is that it is ready to posit ‘what if’, to use allegory as a way to describe what is happening in our society. It is maybe the best way we have right now about talking through who we are and who we are meant to be.
Also the writing is just outstanding. I encounter, time and again these books that are just exciting and relevant and speaking to an audience. I think one of the problems of literary fiction is that it is still suffering under the weight of this idea of high literature. It’s an elite literature that only a chosen few can read and that is an antithetical idea to literature. That’s not what Cervantes was doing, that’s not what Shakespeare was doing, it’s not what these people that we now read and hold in esteem were doing. They were writing for their audiences and they weren’t trying to be obscure or overly fancy or anything like that, they were just trying to have a good time with their audiences. I think what’s happened in science fiction and fantasy is that we’re getting ebullient, popularization of fictional stories and all these different media that make it just an exciting time to be that writer.
LB: What is next? The book set to follow Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe to be released in 2020. Will that be the last in this series? Or is that still up in the air?
CH: So there’s lots of different ideas. There might be a third book, there might not be but I’m writing this as a duology so I’m definitely writing this as a two-book series and if there’s a third book, I’m imagining I might have to switch to a different character perspective or something like that and that happens sometimes, but I have lots of different characters to draw from. I feel like I have a very specific plan for this book even though I am a pantser, I have a specific plan. The first book is very much like, we live in a world of ambiguity but there’s still love and joy to be discovered, the second book is, now that you know the world is full of ambiguity how do you act, how do you make decision, how do you act as a moral person, how can you come to those decisions? I feel like the second book is going to complete that idea and if I do a third book, it will have to be a new idea, a new exploration so it will have to take a new vantage point. I’m going on sabbatical next summer, hopefully, and my sabbatical project will be this: taking a look at different board and role-playing games and the way that they build worlds. What I’m going to do is play a lot of games and I’m going to try to build a new world for myself. Basically, use inspiration from board and card games and their methods for world building to see if I can come up with an all new intellectual property if you will, a new world for me to play in.
Follow him on Twitter at @WriteTeachPlay