How do you kill an Argentine? Make him stand on his ego and jump. So goes the old Colombian joke as told by Sabina, a Colombian-American girl from New Jersey, the daughter of immigrants, and the protagonist of Patricia Engel's Vida. In one of Vida's nine stories, Sabina spends time in Miami, falling for an Argentine and hitting up local hot spots such as Opium and Churchill's.
Like her protagonist, Engel is a Colombian-American from New Jersey, but she says the resemblance stops there. She moved to Miami in 2004, earned her MFA from Florida International University, and first fell in love with prose via Martin Gore's songwriting for Depeche Mode. Tomorrow night, she celebrates her debut book -- and getting reviewed in this weekend's New York Times -- at a Vida launch and author-signing party at the Webster Hotel. She spoke to us about what it takes to become a writer and why she's inspired by rock stars.
New Times: You recently got your MFA from Florida International
University. Do you think the degree is a necessary step towards success as a
Patricia Engel: At the bare minimum, it gives you the
freedom of time. In the case of my MFA program, it was three years,
where I was permitted to put writing as my top priority. The workshops
are great but also having those blocks to read and receive feedback with
a high level of integrity, with purpose. That's a rare gift.
Any other advice for aspiring writers?
First, if you don't actually
write, the writing doesn't get done. And don't be sentimental about your
pages. Don't be afraid to burn through hundreds of pages if you have to
in order to get to a few good ones. Don't depend on your education for
your education. You need to recognize gaps in your education and
continue to educate yourself.
Your academic background is in French and Art History. Why the switch to creative writing?
was always writing on my own, my entire life, but I had no sense of
how to go about making it your profession. I didn't know you could major
in creative writing. No one told me - no adviser. So I majored in
French and Art History. It gave me a different niche and then when I
was writing, and researching the whole process. I read about MFA
programs and went five years after college.
We've read that your writing is inspired by Freddie Mercury and Martin Gore.
come from a very artistic family, a house full of music. I didn't know
any writers. I very exposed to music, art, and painting. I did find
heroes in odd places. Freddie was a tremendous influence - a certain
fearlessness, a boldness to generate new genres, a sincerity, a
vulnerability. He was so practiced and made it look effortless.
a humongous Depeche Mode fan - anybody who knows me will tell you.
It's a serious issue. I consider him one of the greatest living
songwriters. His were the first prose I fell in love with. I really felt
a deep connection to the language. I use to study the lyrics. I have
all the songs memorized, I really looked into them and into the images
and structures, arcs, stories, and literary references.
The star of your debut book of stories Vida is Sabina. What's her story?
a Colombian-American girl from New Jersey, the daughter of immigrants.
The book follows her from about the age of 14 to about 30 as she tries
to reconcile her cultural identity and her relationships with her family
and friends. [She has to] decide what she's going to accept and reject
from her cultural inheritance and decide what kind of woman she wants to
be in this world in motion that children of exiles exist in.
What do you think of Miami's literary community?
easy to make value judgments and say that one city is better than other
in terms of the literary scene. But I know a lot of committed,
passionate, dedicated writers here who very kind people and who really
believe in the city and that city can contribute to the large cultural
landscape. And they're here to stay, which is really wonderful cause you
often hear about the talent leaving Miami. I've stayed here because I love
it and I feel like my art is fed here and nourished.
Any other local writers you admire?
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a lot. Jennine Capó Crucet who wrote How to Leave Hialeah and continues
to write stories. And Cristina Garcia's who The Lady Matador's Hotel
comes out next week.
This Thursday at 7 p.m., celebrate Engel's debut book at the Vida launch and author signing party at the Webster Hotel (1220 Collins Ave., Miami Beach). It's free, but you need to RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit patriciaengel.com.