Sandra Cisneros, the keynote speaker at the Great Salt Lake Book Festival, which begins Thursday, is a multi-talented writer who burst on the literary scene 20 years ago with her first novel, "The House on Mango Street," a multimillion-copy best seller about a young Mexican girl who came of age in Chicago. That book has become a staple at libraries, high schools and universities. Her second novel, published in 2002, is "Caramelo," a three-generation portrait of Mexican immigrant life based on her own family.
She has also written numerous short stories and poetry collections. In fact, she considers herself primarily a poet. "Being a poet makes you pay attention to details," Cisneros said during a phone interview from her home in San Antonio. "I'm so in touch with the senses and perceptions that it's hard for me to concentrate on plot. There are so many things we notice about people. I pay attention to those little details."
Cisneros, who teaches a free writer's workshop in San Antonio every August, tells fiction writers to write poetry, too. "If writing is blocked into a small amount of space, you have to think about every syllable you use. You become more creative. Once you learn it, it's like being accomplished in ballet and being asked to do jazz. Writers can benefit by reading poetry and memorizing some of the poems, paying attention to the exquisite arrangement of words."
Cisneros was born in Chicago 49 years ago, the daughter of a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother. She was educated in the Midwest before settling in the Southwest. She first thought about being a writer as a child in the library. "I thought it would be interesting to see my name in the card catalog."
The reason she writes in so many forms is her need to capture the correct language for each story, poem or novel. "When you think about your family, you have to invent. They don't tell you very much. So you exaggerate. I'm not a natural storyteller — that's why 'Caramelo' took nine years to write. I cried on every page. There were some cathartic moments, but writing it was very difficult.
"The novel started as a 12-page short story, then it kind of mushroomed into a novel. I tried to write about people I loved. I didn't love 'the awful grandmother' at first, but by the end of the book she had taken over the story! I try to be generous with the characters at least on the page — even if I didn't feel that way in real life. The grandmother wasn't that awful. It's fun to have the characters say terrible things. I was presenting the point of view of my mother."
Her favorite characters are the mother and the grandmother, but the book is also about her father. "My father died while I was writing the book, so I could look at him in different ways after he died. I can't do that with my mother yet. I deal differently with men now that I've dealt with my father. There has to be reconciliation and forgiveness."
Besides using her own family as inspiration, Cisneros interviewed a lot of Mexicans in their later years. When she transcribed the tapes, she picked up the nuances of how people speak. She listened to speech patterns and rhythms, a process that helped her dialogue be realistic.
"There were so many characters, I didn't know sometimes what I was writing. I was just trying to write a simple story, and it got out of hand. The original short story helped me put the pieces together. I was writing it with blind faith. Sometimes, I thought I was going to have to throw it away. Even if you have written a book, that doesn't mean you can write the next one. There were years when I was really bummed out. I got depressed."
Part of her problem was seeing her story from the viewpoint of a young girl. "They don't tell you many truths when you're a daughter. You have to put things together. Yet, if you're a girl, they forget you're in the room. You don't count. If I had a book and was scribbling in it, people thought I was not paying attention. When you write, you become invisible — that's when people say the most outrageous things."
Cisneros uses the unorthodox habit of placing content footnotes at the end of every chapter. "I had to do it. I had no book in my mind to help me write this book. The footnotes were part of the invention. For instance, I refer to the Empress Carlotta, and my editor says, 'Who is she?' So if she doesn't know, neither will my readers. So I used footnotes. They gave me courage. I started very timidly with one — but the more I wrote, the more I wanted to do it. I wanted the story to be anchored with historical events. Once you start doing footnotes, you can't stop."
Even though the book is in English, Cisneros tried to tell the story in Spanish syntax. "Some sentences are literal translations with Spanish rhythms."
All her works are "emotional," said Cisneros. "I used another person with a shawl to create the grandmother. People help me exaggerate. A real person makes it harder to imagine or exaggerate. Pictures help me get away from the real — you trick yourself. My father's voice is his voice, but the elements of his life come from many different cupboards — my own crushes, my own disastrous relationships. The adults only told me about their past in very sketchy terms, but the emotions all happened to me."
During the book festival, Cisneros will read from "Caramelo" Sunday, 4 p.m., Main Auditorium, Salt Lake Public Library. Come early — the auditorium seats only 350. Cisneros will also read Monday, 9:45-10:45 a.m., Salt Air Room, U. Student Union.
If you go …
What: The Great Salt Lake Book Festival
Where: The Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 South
How much: Free