An Interview with Catherine Hernandez: Room’s 2019 Fiction Contest Judge

Interview by 
Tamara Jong
Catherine Hernandez looking sideways into the camera.

Room’s Annual Fiction Contest is now open until March! First place winner will receive $1,000 and be published in an upcoming issue of Room. This year, short stories will be judged by Catherine Hernandez.

Catherine Hernandez is the artistic director of b current performing arts and the award-winning author of Scarborough (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017). Scarborough won the 2015 Jim Wong-Chu Award, was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award, the Evergreen Forest of Reading Award, Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, and longlisted for Canada Reads 2018. It made the “Best of 2017” list for the Globe and MailNational PostQuill and Quire, and CBC Books. It is now being adapted into a full-length film by Compy Films, Telefilm, and Reel Asian Film Festival.

To learn more about our judge’s multi-faceted creative life, Room editorial board member Tamara Jong chats with the artist and writer about what she looks for in a story, writing her book out loud, and how she got her award-winning, debut novel published while being chronically ill.

ROOM: Congratulations on all the awards and successes for Scarborough. Scarborough is filled with stories told from various adults and children’s point of views and deals with real life issues of poverty, abuse, racism, and survival within this community. In an interview with Queen’s Journal, you said, “I ensured that the characters I portrayed lived and breathed on their own and created their own storyline.” You had done research by interviewing people in the community and using your own lived experiences. Listening to Scarborough on Audible with your narration made the story come completely alive. The voices of the characters and especially the children; Bing, Clara, Laura, and Sylvia felt so authentic. It really had the feel of being with you in a room at a reading. What was it like to be able to tell the story the way you wanted readers to receive it?

CH: It was delightfully selfish. When you’re a playwright you have to be humble enough to listen to actors interpret your plays. When I read my own novel for Audible, all of that humility went out the window. I got to read it the way I wanted it to be read. It felt delicious. Fun fact: The book was written out loud, then committed to paper, partly because I am a theatre practitioner, partly because I wanted the book to sound good when I performed it at readings. Admittedly, it was a much longer process, but it paid off when it made the Top 10 Audible books of 2018.

ROOM: That’s so cool Catherine. In your exclusive interview for FOLD on Audible, you said that Scarborough was written: “while putting children to sleep and wiping dirty bums.” It was the first book you’d ever written, and you wanted feedback, so you sent the manuscript to the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop Emerging Writers Award. You ended up being the co-winner! What were the next steps to getting your novel published with Arsenal Pulp Press?

CH: It’s a kind of a long story so I hope you don’t mind me repeating what I said previously in my essay for CBC, “No artist is an island: One authors love letter to the community that pushed her through adversity.” I was diagnosed with Adrenal Fatigue, and I started to see signs I had to withdraw from topical steroid use. Picture being so itchy and inflamed from head to toe that you want to scratch your skin off. I had small windows of time where I was pain-free and not high on painkillers. There was the entire complication around the fact that I am a home daycare owner and mother to a tween. I asked Governor General Award-nominated playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard to help me edit. My mentor Jim Wong-Chu advised me that before I could show the manuscript to publishers, I had to rework its ending. I thought this was impossible—I could barely speak a complete sentence, let alone consider such drastic changes. But then it happened.

It was nighttime. I was already high on medication, sitting outside of my house in the middle of the winter to cool down my inflammation. I came inside and told my loving partner, Nazbah Tom, the new ending. “I need you to remember what I told you. I can’t remember all of this.” Nazbah did this over and over again, this remembering things for me and telling me when I was sober and pain-free.

Once I completed the second draft, I contacted my Playwrights Canada Press publisher Annie Gibson, my Flamingo Rampant children’s book publisher S. Bear Bergman and my colleague Michael Erickson of Glad Day Bookshop. I told them I was chronically ill and I needed their industry sway to get this book published. Without hesitation, they each offered to contact publishers on my behalf. The final letter, sent from Erickson to Arsenal Pulp Press, gave my book the future it deserves.

ROOM: So, happy news about Scarborough being made into a film. That’s amazing. Can you share with us how that happened?

CH: I was approached by a couple of filmmakers asking about optioning the book. I had this sudden sinking feeling, thinking about large film units taking up space in my beloved hometown, and screenplays that would not respect our community members. I contacted my friends at Compy Films, Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. I knew them well because we had worked together for a Reel Asian Film Festival project. In 2017, their documentary, Frame 394, was shortlisted for the Oscars. I approached them with the idea of shooting the film like a documentary. This would mean a smaller unit setting up shop in various locations around Scarborough and a more honest portrayal of Toronto’s east end. I wrote the screenplay. Thanks to Shasha’s and Rich’s commitment and vision, we received the support of the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival and TeleFilm's Talent to Watch program. We will start filming this summer.

ROOM: What advice would you offer to new writers working on their craft?

CH: 1. Be open to failure. Fail brilliantly. Be as bad as you can be. We make the best discoveries when we flip the bird at perfection. 2. Centre the story. Don’t centre self-image or your career. Everything else will follow. I can't tell you how many times I have met emerging writers who are more interested in becoming a writer than telling a story. Did you want to play dress-up or did you want to tell a story? You make that decision. 3. Eavesdrop on conversations. You can’t make that shit up. Once you can write down word for word how people talk to one another, your ability to write dialogue will strengthen.

ROOM: Pen or computer?

CH: Computer. I have horrible handwriting. I apologize to everyone whose book I have signed with my chicken scratch.

ROOM: What are some of your favorite fiction books? What’s on your “to read” pile?

CH: A few of my favourite fiction books are Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa, Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Vi by Kim Thúy.

On my “to read” pile are The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong and Educated by Tara Westover

ROOM: What are you looking for when judging a story for a contest?

CH: Flow, clarity, brave explorations in the many ways a story can be told, a sense of urgency as to why this story is being told at this moment.

ROOM: You have two new books coming out this year. A children’s book, I Promise (Arsenal Pulp Press 2019) and Crosshairs. Can you tell us a little about them?

CH: I Promise is a children’s picture book with illustrations by activist and scholar Syrus Marcus Ware about how queer families are rooted in the promise to love a child. Crosshairs is a novel about QTBIPOC folks taking arms against fascism in Canada.

ROOM: What is your next project?

CH: After Crosshairs is done, I will begin writing PSW, which is about support workers learning to care for an aging transgender population.

 

Tamara Jong is a Montreal-born mixed-race writer of Chinese and European ancestry. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper, RoomThe New QuarterlyInvisible Publishing#LWE Blog: Life in CanLit and à la carte blog . Her work is forthcoming in Emerge 18 and Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers. She is currently a host of Bookish Radio and is part of the Room collective and recent graduate of The Writer's Studio (Simon Fraser University).

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