Author Q&A: Christina Quintana

Christina Quintana is a New York-based writer with Cuban and Louisiana roots. Her work has appeared in Front Porch Journal, Glass Poetry Press, Saw Palm, Nimrod International Journal, and Foglifter, among others, and her chapbook of poetry, The Heart Wants, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2016. She is the recipient of fellowships from Van Lier New Voices at the Lark and Queer/Art/Mentorship.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Christina Quintana

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

To be honest, I’ve always been writing. As a first grader, I started a novel based on my neighbor. As of yet undiscovered, but undoubtedly on the road to publication soon! Despite the fact that I fiddled with words in all forms as far back as I can remember, I didn’t truly acknowledge how much I wanted to be a writer until college.

There’s this great James Baldwin quote: “If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.” I truly believe this. I can name very clearly the mentors who have told me, you have a gift, keep going. This has made all the difference in the world.

In the last year, we lost a brilliant and dear writer, Mark Behr. He was South African and a powerful presence at the College of Santa Fe, where I attended college. When I first moved to New York, I received a message from him. It said (in part): “Are you writing? I hope you will: you have a real talent; so, if you keep working (hard) you can be a brilliant writer. I still remember your play as it was read that day in O’Shaugnessy.” I cannot tell you what this meant and how it helped me forge onward.

It was a very specific moment when I realized I wanted to write plays: In the audience at my beloved hometown theatre, Southern Rep in New Orleans, for John Biguenet’s Rising Water. There, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I saw a beautifully varied community come together around a story—its own story. Seeing the power of this storytelling deeply influenced my own journey as an artist and person.

Despite the yet-to-be-discovered first-grade novel, you’ve published a chapbook and many pieces in different print and online venues. What can you tell us about the publication process? How has your own experience with getting your work printed shifted over time?

I really appreciate a hands on process—which I completely recognize is not always feasible depending on size of the press and staff, but it’s nice to connect with an editor and discuss points of revision prior to publication. And maybe it’s my ego or my theatrical side (or both), but I really love connecting with people who have been moved by the work. That’s kind of why we do it, right?

Beyond the specifics, I love seeing the way poetry has experienced a renaissance in the digital age. It’s so easy to find and read great poetry in a variety of quality online publications. The immediacy of the Internet is truly a gift to poetry and vice versa. In the arts, access can be seen as a dirty word—for reasons that I have never understood. Personally, I want quality art and literature for all.

Your plays have been produced all over the country. In what ways is finding a group to produce your play similar to finding an organization to publish your writing? Have you published any of your plays as books?

What a great question! Finding the right fit is equally important. Believing in the work is equally important. I’m sort of astonished—in both realms—how much of a difference community makes. Being a writer can seem so solitary, but putting yourself out there for reading series, getting involved in a writers group, or attending a workshop are all ways that have expanded my writerly universe and put me in a better position for various opportunities. As of yet, my plays are unpublished, but I certainly hope this changes in the near future.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

I’m always interested in the story that isn’t being told. Who are we not talking about? I want to talk about that person or group of people. I believe that all individuals should have the opportunity to see themselves at the center of the narrative.

I’m literally and figuratively obsessed with the idea of home. Intense works that center on loss in some shape or form inspire me. In terms of form, I get so jazzed about pieces that don’t neatly fit within genre. You’ll notice this from my list of recommendations below. If it’s a play, I hunger for the bold and theatrical, and I love poetic prose. Oh, and give me an epistolary novel and I will eat it up.

As for how I’ve evolved as a writer, my vision has certainly sharpened, and with age comes understanding and wisdom that only time can provide. I am a stronger writer than I was five years ago thanks to life experience, surrounding myself with smart writers, and a fierce work ethic.

Speaking of inspiration, who or what are some of your greatest literary influences?

Whittling “greatest literary influences” down to a manageable list is always so difficult, so I’m going to go ahead and make a list of 5 books (across genre) that have changed my life.

Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin

The Buddha in the Attic by Julia Otsuka

Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

Artful by Ali Smith

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a piece of writing, or for discovering a new mode of creativity? How does the writing process differ between poetry, prose, and plays?

It’s all about openness and instinct for me. My poems tend to arise from striking emotional responses to direct interaction or experience. My plays tend to surface from obsessions over some kind of injustice or concept that I keep circling and must investigate. I’ve also had scenes arise from dreams. Working with Chuck Mee in grad school really taught me the power of mining my dream life in my writing. Often the launch point for both prose and plays is a very simple structure that comes into my mind (honestly, almost like a log line) and then I expand from there.

I think the process for all forms of writing is actually quite similar. They all take hard work and the willingness to sit with the words for as long as it takes—including revising and revising again. Working on a musical for the past five years has taught me that you truly cannot be precious. Kill those darlings or they’ll kill you.

What can you tell us about your unique theater organization, “The Live Lunch Series”?

I founded the Live Lunch Series, unique individual performances to workplaces, in an effort to activate working communities and expose people to the possibilities of live theatre. We devised two entirely original works, one for the staff of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and another for the staff and residents of Fortune Society’s Castle Gardens. What I’ve come to realize is that Live Lunch served as an opportunity to emphasize my own process and center as a writer. As of this past month, we are officially on hiatus. This being said, it is very possible that we may have a comeback down the road. The work has certainly been some of the most rewarding of my life and a firm reminder of why I make theatre.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

I know I have said the word “community” about a thousand times in this interview, but I’ll say it again (and get ready ‘cause I say it again below)! Each time I have found a community, I’ve found opportunity—both creative and publication/production-wise. The Movement Theatre Company, Lambda Literary Retreat, Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Youngblood, Emotive Fruition, The Lark, etc. etc. have opened me up in huge ways!

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers or artists?

Remind yourself why you love to write and keep this close because honestly, if the work doesn’t bring you joy, then why? Life is too short.

Find your people. Being around smart writers has been the greatest reminder that good writing and good people are everywhere. Community has bolstered my own vision and clarified my voice more than I ever could have imagined.

Don’t feel like you have to be one thing. Just because you have an MFA in X, or have defined yourself as one type of writer or artist, doesn’t mean a thing. Pushing the boundaries of what you imagine yourself to be can be incredibly rewarding.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

You are very kind. I should probably keep these words in my pocket. In my mind, I am utterly emerging and there is always work to be done.

I’m trying to take advantage of every possible minute—really trying to write my damn heart out and create the best version of every piece of work I can. I want to be fearless. I’m currently tinkering with Tobias: a novel in performance, a collection of poems called Jesus Colored Skin, and, of course, an assortment of other projects.

On a practical level, my biggest goals are to publish my novel/la (A Slip of Moon), land a production for my musical, GUMBO (music by Brett Macias), work on productions of other plays currently in the universe, and hopefully begin to dip my toe in the TV writing realm. And the most practical, just keep swimming.

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