This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.
Roel Garcia is a transplanted Texan, now living in Holland, Michigan with his wife and children. Formerly a journalist for the Holland Sentinel, he now teaches composition at Grand Rapids Community College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Some of his work can be read online at roelsramblings.blogspot.com. His personal essay “My Father, the Stranger in the Room” appeared in our inaugural issue.
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3288 Review: How and when did you first start writing fiction? Was there a Eureka! moment, or was it more of a gradual process?
Roel Garcia: My affection for writing fiction began at an early in life, probably by age thirteen. When. I discovered Stephen King’s novels while in junior high and my imagination took off. Since I was interested in horror movies, horror novels complemented that love for being creeped out.
What discovering King did, though, was open a door to writing. Yes, I imaged horror sequences from his novels, but I also started creating some in my head. My own little horror stories started being played out.
It took about a year or so before I actually started to write down some of these tales on paper. These early stories were hand-written either in pencil or pen, usually one a few pages in length. These early stories came out more like a scene rather than an actual complete short stories. It was more exploration than anything on my part.
These early tales lacked character and plot but I kept at it. In the meantime, I kept reading King’s work over the following few years. It is no coincidence that many of these early tales resemble King’s writing. I had not yet developed my own style and imitated what I read. I was getting a grip on writing when at age fifteen something happened that altered my life—due to a virus, I lost a majority of my eye sight.
3288 Review: What technologies do you use for writing now? Do you use, for instance, dictation software? And how do you feel this has shaped the content of your writing?
Roel Garcia: I use a screen reader to help me when I write. I don’t always use it, though, and sometimes I turn it off when I type stories or poems. But when the screen reader is on, It reads aloud what I type. The voice is somewhat mechanical. So does it affect the way characters sound? Yes. It tends to get in my head as I write. So I have to try to push out the electronic voice and maintain a voice of how the character sounds. It is frustrating at times.
When I get extremely frustrated or want to get the true voice of a character, I turn off the screen reader and just type. My vision loss is significant but I still have sufficient vision, enough to allow me to see the screen. I will say that the best part of a having a screen reader is that it can read back to me my entire story when I’m done, something that would take me much longer to do on my own. Or, when I’m editing a story, I can use the screen reader to read line by line, which makes it easier to edit.
3288 Review: In your piece “My Father, the Stranger in the Room” much of the dialog is in Spanish. How fluent are you in Spanish? And how much of an impact do you feel this has had on your writing, either in style or substance?
Roel Garcia: I am fluent in Spanish. I grew up in a bi-lingual home in South Texas. My Dad spoke mostly Spanish to us growing up, though he was bi-lingual. My Mom spoke to us in English and Spanish. But I grew up speaking something called Tex-Mex. Many words are improper Spanish words. Yet, everyone in the area where I grew up knew what we were saying.
Another interesting trait of Tex-Mex is forming using English and Spanish mixed in conversation. I might start a sentence in English and finish it in Spanish. For example: “It’s cold en la casa.” We just become accustomed to listening and hearing this way of speaking. Speaking Spanish and growing up with the Spanish language has influenced me and my writing. When I write short stories and poetry that pertain to South Texas, I get into a certain writing mode. It’s like I return to South Texas and the dialogue and characters fall into place. It’s part of the writer I’ve become and have grown into over the years, especially over the past ten years.
3288 Review: You have quite an extensive online journal—both of Facebook and on your website—going back over a decade. In tone and subject it feels much more intimate than what we usually consider to be “blogging”. How did you decide to open up such a personal form of writing to the public?
Roel Garcia: I have my own writer page on Facebook where I post poems and pieces of stories that I’ve written over the past few years. Most of the writing on this page is unedited and in draft form but it gives people a chance to see what I’ve written. I also have a blog on blogspot called roelsramblings that goes back to 2005. I started it shortly after finding out my dad had cancer. I used it as a means of recording my dad’s life with cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer in May 2005. I wanted to document his journey or the family’s journey during this time.
Often times events are forgotten and I wanted a written record. Every time something happened, such as procedure or doctor’s visit, I documented it. But with this information I also included feelings about what was happening. I started using using the blog as a means of expressing myself and letting out my feeling. Along the way I started including other items in this blog. But I stuck to writing about my dad’s cancer. My dad died on Nov. 7, 2007. Most everything concerning what the family went through is in this blog. The blog helped me deal with my dad’s cancer and then his death. The blog was like therapy for me. But even after my dad’s death, I still continued to write for the blog. I began writing about the adoption of my three kids.
In many ways I consider my life an open book that I express through my writing. When I write about personal events in my life, whether it’s a non-fiction piece or something fictionalized, it’s like peeling back the layers of my heart to let people into my life through words. I feel I can express myself better and more emotionally through words. Most things in life are free game. If it happened, I’ll write about it, either now or years from now. Almost everything I write has a tinge of truth to it or includes something from an experience in my life.
3288 Review: In your classes at Grand Rapids Community College, how do you teach your students to open up and write from the heart? Do you feel it is something that can be taught? And how do your students respond to being asked to open up emotionally?
Roel Garcia: I am pretty open about myself in my classes. I start off on the first day discussing my eyesight issue and how it happened. I do this to make students feel at ease and right off the bat I’m sharing something very personal with them. It breaks the ice. I try to make students feel comfortable in my classroom. I never adopt a me vs. them attitude and I treat my students with respect as as people not just students. I build rapport with students. I try to do this with each one, learning anything I can about each one through their writings. I ask questions afterward to let them know I read their journal. I make them feel like they matter because they do. I encourage students to write from the heart. I adopt some of Ernest Hemingway’s words about writing in a true and honest fashion. I find that students grow over the course of a semester. At first some students are hesitant to explore deep subjects, but as the semester goes on, they let go. I, then, receive some very deep, and personal writings. A student recently said to me that I am like a therapist, having to read what students write. The way I look at it, I feel honored that students trust me with their emotions, experiences and their heart. I believe that writing from the heart can be taught but the teacher or instructor must be open and accepting, engaging and build trust and rapport with students. Trust and rapport are important. If they are non-existent, most students will not open up.
3288 Review: When you started to lose your eyesight, were there any authors or written works you turned to for inspiration or emotional support? And at the other end of that, are there any you would recommend to people going through a similar experience?
Roel Garcia: Growing up in a rural Texas, I was not exposed to many writers at the time I started experiences my vision loss. I loved writing and it was a great avenue for me; I was experimenting. But I went through that time alone. I did not turn to any authors with disabilities. I felt very much alone back then. My vision loss was something that struck out of nowhere, unexpected, and it was a rough period while growing up. as I’ve written before, I continued to write during that time period, but when it came to writers, I pretty much stuck to Stephen King. He was what I knew. He was familiar. And in many ways, it was as if I were in denial of my newly acquired disability. I tried to ignore it, even though I could not see well at all. As for recommending authors for people going through a hard time, I suggest delving into any novel, any author. Lose yourself in the author’s made-up world, in the language and in the story.
3288 Review: What are you working on right now? Do you have anything planned for release to the world in 2016?
Roel Garcia: I am at a crossroads. I have much material. I a rough draft memoir in three long pieces concerning my vision loss and how it affected me in high school and college. I was working on part one and wanted to post it on Amazon singles. Part one deals with the summer of 1986 when I lost my eyesight. I also have a collection of stories that deal with life in South Texas, specifically Duval County. They also are a memoir of my family, mostly my father. I draw my inspiration from my dad. And I would like to publish more with Caffeinated Press too. So I have much to ponder as I end this year and start the next. All I know is that I want to write and express myself.