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Hector Tobar, Pulitzer Prize Winner and New York Times Best Seller, Discusses Creative Inspiration and the Success of Failure

First Posted: Jan 01, 2015 10:16 AM EST
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Hector Tobar, Best-Selling Author & Pulitzer Prize Winner, Discusses Creative Inspiration and the Success of Failure

Photo : Patrice Normand, Opale Agency

This article is part of Palabras, the Latin Post Latino Author Series. 

Illustrious author Hector Tobar, the son of Guatemalteco immigrants and the byproduct of a bilingual L.A. household, knows that Latino readers are hungry for edgy, bold works that take the craft to a higher level... and he's more than a happy to oblige.

Tobar is the author of four stunning books, including "The Barbarian Nurseries," "The Tattooed Soldier," "Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States" and his latest work, "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine," a graphic recount of the experiences felt by victims of Chile's 2010 mine disaster; which was recognized by the New York Times as one the best selling books of 2014.

Educated through the writings of Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Miguel Angel Asturias, the University of California and the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine, equipping him with the necessary tools to draft non-fiction and fiction stories.

The author first became gainfully employed as a writer 25 years ago, hired on by El Tecolote, a San Francisco publication that grew from a project in a La Raza Studies course at San Francisco State University. Three decades later, the Pulitzer Prize winner has made a name for himself thanks to his books and his work with the Los Angeles Times. He used his writing as an instrument to embolden the Latino community, as well as an apparatus for self-exploration and freewheeling creativity that beckons audiences to stay tuned to what he writes.

"I really thought of myself as a voice of my community, as an agent of change, and I was concerned with themes of imperialism and injustice. Then I began to think of myself as an artist, and embrace the idea of beauty in language, and the ability to capture ideas and human emotions in language," Tobar said to Latin Post. "Above all, I made it my mission to write about working people, people like my mother and father, in a dignified and honest and complex way."

"The Tattooed Soldier" began as his MFA thesis at UC Irvine, and it was inspired by a story told to him when he was a Los Angeles Times reporter; it's the tale of a Salvadoran immigrant who plotted revenge against another immigrant. "Translation Nation" was inspired by his travels across the U.S. as a reporter covering Latino communities all over the U.S., from Idaho to Miami, and from L.A. to Kansas and Georgia and Tennessee. "The Barbarian Nurseries" is a novel about class and inequality in Southern California, and it was started prior to its publication in response to the anti-immigrant movement. And "Deep Down Dark" was presented to him, and it granted him the incredible opportunity to write about the Chilean miners.

Being published has helped to show Tobar the power of writing, as well as define what it means to be a witness. He gets to be a spectator and an architect, designing his work paragraph-by-paragraph and chapter-by-chapter, while experimenting with words. Through his pen, he's able to share the central truths that he's discovered about family, love, weakness and humanity, like his idols before him.

"My early heroes were writers like Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Sandra Cisneros. My later heroes are writers who take on big human themes, who are stylistic wizards, and who aren't afraid to talk about politics and power and history and loss: Gunther Grass, Don DeLillo, Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño, W.G. Sebald, José Saramago, among many others," said Tobar.

When discussing powerful erudite voices in Latino literature, Tobar mentioned Junot Diaz, stating, "above all for his language play, and for his voice that manages to be intellectual, sensual and insane all at the same time. His last story collection was brilliant; he is our Nabokov." He also mentioned Daniel Alarcon, and unheralded voices like Valeria Luiselli, who writes in Spanish but dwells in New York, and delves into wonderful explorations of Latino intellectual life in New York and Mexico City. He stated those three authors, in particular, embrace themes that freely cross boundaries, from north to south.

"I really believe we are living through the beginning of a Latino Renaissance that will one day be compared to the Harlem Renaissance. Having said that, every literary culture produces mediocrity. Our mediocrity is populated by Isabel Allende imitators and lots of magical realism rehash written by authors who sell a vision of Latinos as colorful people of simple (and predictable) pleasures, a kind of shallow exoticism," said Tobar. "I think our readers are way ahead of the game in their tastes, which explains the popularity of novelists like Roberto Bolaño, who a decade ago would have been seen as a fringe writer."

Throughout Tobar's career, he's been reminded of advice that was given to him by a writing professor, helping to guide him, which is "You have to play, enjoy yourself, and be willing to experiment. You have to allow yourself to fail. Every draft has a little bit of failure in it. Once you embrace the fact that you can fail, you free yourself creatively, and you begin to truly enjoy yourself while writing. Your readers will pick up on that, and they will stay with you."

Learn more about Tobar's work and life by visiting his webpage. Also note that he's visiting Brussels and Paris while promoting the French publication of "Deep Down Dark," titled "Les 33." He'll also later appear at the Los Angeles Times' Festival of Books. And he is working on a fifth book.

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