Bakersfield-based author, journalist and illustrator Nick Belardes first came to our attention when he wrote a series of articles about the in-custody death of David Sal Silva. Born in San Jose, California, in 1968, Belardes moved to Bakersfield in 1976. He studied history at CSU Bakersfield and began publishing professionally in the mid-1990s. Some of Belardes’ books include, Lords: Part One, Songs of the Glue Machines, and A People’s History of the Peculiar. He is also the author of Small Places, a Twitter novel. He recently discussed his writing, his changing relationship with his Latino heritage, and his views on social justice with Rebelde Luis Marentes.
LM: What can you tell us about yourself? What led you to writing?
NB: There was a creative urge in me since my youth. I craved novels at seven or eight years of age. I longed for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure stories like John Carter of Mars or his Pellucidar series, and novels about nature. One nature novel in particular about bears comes to mind. Can’t recall the title. There was a battle between grizzlies at the end of the story. One of the grizzlies was like some kind of ruthless barbarian warrior. I was very young and impressionable by science fiction as well, especially stories where common people like John Carter could do uncommon things, like jump a hundred feet because of the lighter gravity on Mars. I think I still believe in the power of the individual, that one person can impact a society. I believe in not just the power of story, but social activism and social justice. At a young age I was yearning to identify myself. Who was I? Am I part of a group of people? I yearned for fairness for myself, for others. It comes across in my development as an individual at a young age, and impacts the core of my writing today.
LM: On the subject of belonging, you have a dual heritage. How has that duality manifested itself in your life? How has your relationship to this heritage changed with time?
NB: I am dual ethnic. Half Latino. Two parts German and Swedish. I suspect there’s more in the Euro mix, not to mention, as you know there’s a Euro mix in my Latino heritage as well. I can see the European likeness in the recent discovery of a photo of my ancestor, Atanacio Cisneroz, a high-ranking soldier, possibly a general in Pancho Villa’s army. He is strikingly light skinned. Appears more a Spaniard than anything.
My Latino father didn’t believe in the Chicano movement. He was trying to be an officer on a mostly-white police force in San Jose, California in the 1960s. I suppose he chose his side, the side of assimilation (there’s an entire discussion here regarding what assimilation even means). He raised me to think I was white. He refused to speak Spanish in the home, and didn’t teach me about Latino culture. I thought it was normal having a dark-skinned father and a pasty-white mother. I thought it was normal to be called a white boy by blacks, Asians and Latinos. It wasn’t until college that I started to realize I wasn’t a white boy. I was something more complicated. Over time I discovered that some of the people in my family were Mexican warriors like Atanacio, and had immigrated in the darkest of life-threatening circumstances. Some had become farm workers in the U.S. even prior to the time Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were organizing labor unions. I grew to accept my Latino heritage. While I know very little about it myself, I identify with the challenges of greater, more complex groups of Latino writers and activists. People who are sometimes a voice for others who don’t have the gift of writing.
Now I see myself as a believer in social justice. Recently I was asked whether or not there were still witch hunts in America (I talk about the Salem Witch Trials in A People’s History of the Peculiar). Of course there are witch hunts. Today, the American witch hunt is for immigrants. All have been branded. All are put before the gallows of politics and hate-mongering. There’s a hysteria among people, who are paranoid, who feel threatened, who would rather say all immigrants are murderers and thieves, as if to say, all immigrants are evil. They would rather hunt them all down, not even realizing their own ancestors might have been considered undocumented by today’s standards, when really it is just as brave to cross the Atlantic on a ship as it is to ride the top of a train through a jungle or a desert for a better way of life.
LM: When did you begin seriously writing?
NB: The day I started to read. I believe development as a writer begins with development of the imagination. That starts young. I’ve measured accomplishment in many different ways over the years. One of my next big hurdles is being published by one of the major houses. Some people will only consider me a serious writer at that point. Others who have read my novel about the Lords of Bakersfield have considered me a serious writer for ten years. I wrote my first article in the 1990s. Maybe it was then that I took myself more serious? I used to write short stories in college. I would talk professors into letting me write short stories instead of academic papers. I think I surprised a lot of professors. Most said yes. That was the late 1980s. I recall writing a story about fuzzy bipedal alien monsters in the early 1970s. I was pretty serious about that too.
LM: I understand you have explored different kinds of writing – journalism, fiction, memoir, even a Twitter novel – how do these different kinds of writing relate to each other? How do they differ?
NB: That’s a very complex question. Journalism teaches one how to ask questions. Fiction allows the opportunity to create original characters in believable worlds. Memoir is a gesture of remembrance. A Twitter novel is experimentation in form. All are prose and can overlap at least in scene structure. I think good journalism sometimes has bits of scenes.
LM: Could you tell us something about your Twitter novel? What inspired you? How did you go about composing it?
NB: I was one of the early journalists using Twitter in 2007. So I was utilizing the social media tool. But I was also a novelist. I thought Twitter would make a great literary experiment. I started researching and not many people had even tried short-form prose to tell a long-form story. All had failed except for a sci-fi adaptation. Jay Bushman wrote the first Twitter sci-fi adaptation. Small Places, a story about a disgruntled corporate employee, was the first original literary Twitter novel. I took a story I had written about a third of and re-tooled it for Twitter, experimenting with bunches of tweets to tell small stories within the overall story arc. I also wrote a lot of original tweets on the fly. It was all very organic and was created and tweeted between 2008-2010. Nothing else I’ve written has gone so viral, though I was on the very creepy and cool Coast to Coast AM with George Noory recently. That was fun, and I believe my Twitter novel got mentioned on the show! It’s also made Folha, Brazil’s leading newspaper and the cover of The Bohemian, and was written about in the UK Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor and more.
LM: Who have been some of the most influential writers in your life? Why?
NB: Poet-novelists T.Z. Hernandez, Bryan Medina, Michael Medrano, and Jane Hawley—all from Central California. These are only a few. There are so many more. It’s not just their poetry and prose, but their positive attitude toward life and inherent nature to build community and support greater causes in the literary scene. I could talk all day about famous novelists and historians influencing me. But for a change, let readers consider the writers who I sometimes feel are closest to me, who I can laugh and break bread with, though some of us are scattered around the U.S.
LM: What has been your relationship with [email protected] literature? Latin American literature?
NB: I sometimes feel like an outsider with so much more to learn, though really I’m part of the Latin-American writing community. I think the most important aspect I’ve learned in the past ten years is I’m not alone. The world, not just America, or California, is filled with many Latino and Latina writers who are all making an impact. I’ve met some. Nelly Rosario, Christina Garcia, Reyna Grande, Tony R. Rodriguez, and so many others coming up on the scene who are too numerous to mention. Even the people associated with Latino Rebels may start impacting the world of prose. I can see it beginning to happen. I should also add, there is a culture of Latin-American writing, though vastly different among its parts, that makes up what the world thinks is a tangential culture to the literary mainstream. Latinos are the mainstream too. More and more writers will prove this in the next few years. We see this in music. What was underground becomes mainstream. It will happen for Latinos in American literature too.
LM: You are also an illustrator. Tell us something about that
NB: I illustrated Jonathan Evison’s New York Times best-selling novel West of Here with some fun pen and inks. Jonathan is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. I was blessed to be published in his novel and Algonquin is a great company. Caroline Leavitt, who wrote the awesome foreword to my latest book, has written two novels for Algonquin: Pictures of You and This is Tomorrow. They also took on Gina Frangello recently. Check her out too. Her novel, A Life in Men is spectacular.
LM: You are also a historian by training. How has your formation as a historian informed your writing?
NB: Worldview. History has given me the ability to paint a variety of broad strokes with my prose as well as the power to data mine and research topics for a stronger sense of believability in my work.
LM: Writing is considered by many to be a lonely task, I know that you often run and participate in writers’ workshops. What is the relationship between individual work and collective discussion in the writing process?
NB: I don’t think most fiction writers can be successful without workshopping their material. This has made all the difference in me getting where I am as a novelist. I workshopped my novel Lords with several people but wish more experienced writers had been part of that critique group. But that was ten years ago. More experienced writers, including myself, handled Big Spoon, Little Spoon, which is my novel making rounds with major presses right now. There are a lot of people who think their writing is perfect. It’s not. Especially mine. I need the help. I need people to locate in my work those opportunities for development I might be blind to.
LM: What led you to write A People’s History of the Peculiar?
NB: I was asked by Viva Editions publisher Brenda Knight to create a similar book to one she had written titled Book of the Bizarre. She wrote it under a pen name when she worked for another press. I was a hired hand for the project and now they’re releasing it for the second time as a new book. Writing nonfiction commercial pseudo-history was fun and cool, but I have to admit, it wasn’t even my idea!
LM: After reading it is clear that you have been accumulating these anecdotes and tidbits for years – when did you realize you had enough for a book?
NB: Actually, I wrote the book in two months. The original edition came out in 2009. The new edition has a foreword from Caroline Leavitt, a new title, new ISBN, new everything except the meat of the book. It’s cool to have a second go-round and for the book to be considered new.
LM: Could you tell us a bit about the criteria you used for its organization?
NB: My publisher and I chose several categories. The publisher also had something in mind for how they wanted it organized.
LM: I notice that you often talk about tourist sites in this book, and you also often gather much information from the Internet – do you sense a relationship between tourism and net surfing?
NB: This is sounding like you’re on to something. Well, I know I’m always net surfing for cool places to see! I think all of us are constantly experiencing life through the Web. We go places and don’t even leave our homes. It’s kind of what books do, though books are much better at it, especially fiction.
LM: You begin your books talking about maps – and one in particular, by Sergio Aragones for Mad. Could you tell us more about the importance of maps in general for you, and of this Aragones map in particular?
NB: I think maps guide us everywhere and offer clues to who we are, where we’re going and where we can go. We’re all led by maps on our smart phones—it’s so hard to get lost these days. I met Sergio Aragones when the book first came out. He signed a copy on the page where I mentioned his name. We traded books. It was one of those happy moments in life where youth-to-adulthood comes full circle and has meaning. His map was on my wall for years. I dreamed and imagined every time I stared at it.
LM: Could you tell us something about your current projects?
NB: I have a Latino-themed book gathering all of my immigration reform poetry that I performed at marches and protests, and a lot more. Gotta finish that. My agent, Cicily Janus, is representing two novels, Anhinga and Big Spoon, Little Spoon. I think she’s close to making some real progress for those works. In the meantime I’m hard at work writing a literary fantasy and revising a screenplay for Hectic Films.