Francisco Jimenez Interview Transcript
3–5, 6–8, 9–12
How did you get started writing? Was it difficult?
I started writing when I was a sophomore in high school. My English teacher assigned essays that were based on personal experiences. I began to write about the experiences I had as a child growing up in a family of Mexican migrant workers. Mrs. Bell read the essays and felt that I had writing talent, even though I had difficulty with the English language. Her words were very encouraging. She had me read The Grapes of Wrath, and although the novel was difficult to read, I could not put it down because I could relate to what I was reading. For the first time I realized the power of language to move hearts and minds.
Why did Mrs. Bell inspire you?
Mrs. Bell was my English teacher when I was a sophomore in high school. She inspired because she cared about me, told me that my writing showed promise, and told me that if I continued working as hard as I did that I would succeed. In my family, we have a lot of respect for teachers, and so her words meant a lot to me and inspired me.
Was there a particular author who inspired you?
Yes. It was John Steinbeck. He inspired me in his novel The Grapes of Wrath because I could connect to the book. The Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath were migrant workers, just like my family.
After writing books for adults, what made you write for children?
I didn't have any particular audience in mind when I began writing The Circuit. However, from the start I decided to relate stories from the point of view of the child. In writing the stories, I could hear the child's voice; I could see through his eyes and feel through his heart. I hoped it would be of interest to children and adults. I was very surprised and delighted and grateful when it received so much recognition in the field of children's literature.
In writing Breaking Through, the sequel to The Circuit, I relayed the experiences I had when I was in high school from the point of view of the teenager I was then. My hope is that children, as well as young adults, as well as adults, will enjoy reading the book.
In your bio, it says that the first thing you wrote for kids was the short story “The Circuit” and that you based the entire book The Circuit on that story. I know that there's a chapter in the book called “The Circuit.” Is that based on the story? Did you have to change it a lot to make it fit as part of a book instead of just a story?
I originally wrote “The Circuit” in Spanish, and then translated it into English and gave it the title “The Circuit.” It received the first prize for the best short story published in the Arizona Quarterly . The story became fairly well known and reprinted in many textbooks of English literature. Many years later in 1995, when I had time to write again during my sabbatical I decided to write the other 11 stories in the collection following the same format that I followed in writing “The Circuit.” I included “The Circuit” as part of the 12 stories in the collection and gave it the title The Circuit: Stories From the Life of a Migrant Child because it made sense in terms of the themes in the collection, in the stories.
In the first story I describe the experience of crossing the border from Mexico into California, hoping to leave a life of poverty behind, starting a new and better life. We crossed the border without documentation (illegally). We did not have the financial means to obtain the permit or the visa. The last story in the collection, titled “Moving Still,” deals with our experience of being deported back to Mexico. We crossed the border illegally into the United States, and went back to Mexico - so that's the circuit. The title also refers to the circular migrant way of life.
Since your books are autobiographical, that means that all the characters are real people. My question is: have any of those people read your books, and what did they say about the way you portrayed them?
All the characters in The Circuit are members of my family. Most of the characters in Breaking Through are also members of my family. All of them appreciated my writing their story because they felt that their story was the story of many, many families who experienced the migrant way of life and many families who are experiencing that same life today.
When you write, do you ever feel like bending the truth so that you don't have to tell everyone about something really embarrassing or something really painful that happened to you?
Good question. My writing is autobiographical and the experiences that I write about took place many years ago; it's clear that I could not remember all the details that I include in my work - those details I had to invent. Ninety percent is based on reality, and ten percent I had to invent. For example, in cases where I could not remember exact words, I created dialogue and description to capture my impressions and reactions to particular events and experiences.
Besides relying on the power of memory, I used other valuable resources to write my books. I interviewed family members and looked through family photographs and documents, including deportation papers, which I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. I also obtained my junior high and high school records and visited some of the places where we lived in migrant-labor camps. Through the Freedom of Information Act, any American citizen can request information gathered by the United States government that may relate to any citizen. In other words, through the Information Act, I had the right as an American citizen to request all the documentation that the immigration officers who deported us gathered from us at the time we were deported.
Have you written for young adults?
Yes, I believe The Circuit as well as Breaking Through are being read by young adults as well as by children. I suppose that Breaking Through would appeal more to young adults because the narrator (myself) is a young adult experiencing the things that I describe in the book. In Breaking Through , I describe the experiences I had as a teenager, as a young adult. So those experiences might be similar to experiences of other young adults.
Your words in La Mariposa seem very poetic. Do you also write poems?
I have written poetry, but I have never published it. I write poetry for personal satisfaction, but I have never published it.
In the book La Mariposa , you mentioned that art was your favorite time at school and you earned a first prize award for your butterfly drawing. How come you didn't illustrate this book yourself? Have you illustrated any of your own books?
No, I have never illustrated any books myself, even though I like art. I did well in art when I was in grammar school. Art is a universal language. The publisher selects the illustrator for the stories [not the author]. I did not meet the illustrator until the book (La Mariposa ) came out.
How long did it take you to “succeed?” Did you have many rejections before finally being published? Who or what encouraged you to keep trying?
The manuscript for The Circuit was turned down by a major publisher. I then sent it to the University of New Mexico Press, and they published it. The success of The Circuit made it easier for me to get a contract from Houghton Mifflin to write the sequel. So I feel blessed that my work has not been rejected too often, except for that one time.
Do you have any favorite books from when you were young?
When I was growing up my favorite books were biographies. I enjoyed reading about the lives of famous people like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
Which do you enjoy more, writing adult or children's books?
When I write, I don't have a particular audience in mind. I simply write from the point of view of the child or the young adult that I once was.
I'm a librarian at a high school where our English teacher submits poetry of her own as well as of her students for publication. Do you have any advice for them?
There are some directories available in the library that give you names of literary agents and also publishers. That would be a place to start. Those directories give information about what type of literature they accept, what length, for what age group. That information can be helpful in making a decision on which publisher would be the best to send the material to.
Don't get discouraged if a publisher turns it down - send it to another publisher. I have had colleagues whose work was turned down many times and finally accepted and published. Some of the publishers who originally turned it down then asked the author for permission to republish it by them!
Do you have any books coming out in the near future?
I have a contract from Houghton Mifflin to write a third book. At this point, I have some ideas what the book will be about, but I have not decided yet. I spent last year translating Breaking Through into Spanish, and it was just published by Houghton Mifflin, with the title Senderos Frontericos .
What advice can you give to a child who can't understand her English-speaking teacher? What kept you from becoming discouraged?
Good question. My advice is that even though English is a difficult language to learn, with hard work and with the help of teachers, they will be able to learn the language. My advice is that as they work hard to learn English, they do not forget their own native language because it's an asset to be bilingual.
Do you have any advice to help us write?
My advice is to read a lot and of course to write a lot because the more you write, your skills in writing improve. And reading does help a lot in writing. Writing is not an easy task, it requires a lot of practice. For example, I usually do nine drafts for every story I write. Don't get discouraged; just keep writing.
If you are interested in writing your own stories, your own experiences, start by doing research by interviewing your parents and other relatives. Look through photographs and family documents. You can also listen to music that was popular when you were growing up. Music will take you back in time to those experiences that you had at the time those songs were popular. The material that you have gathered after your research will help you to recall past experiences.
How much thought do you put into your books when you write them? Do you use intuition at all?
I do put a lot of thought into my writing. After I do the research, I do a lot of reflection. I reflect on those memories and recollections from my childhood, and I look at them from an adult point of view. In the process, I make a series of discoveries - discoveries about myself, my family, and my place in society and my own community, and I gain a deeper sense of purpose in meaning in terms of my role as a teacher and as a servant to my students.
Is any one else in your family a writer?
One of my brothers, Jose, writes poetry and has published some of it. But most of what he writes he does because he enjoys it and not to be published. His intent is not to publish it.
My mother is a gifted poet even though she doesn't know how to read or to write because when she tells stories she creates a beautiful language in Spanish. If one were to write down what she said, I'm sure that people would think she was an accomplished poet or writer. For my third book, I'm thinking about writing her stories.
Mr. Jimenez, is there anything else you would like to share?
I think it's important [to realize] that there are many people that have never had the opportunity to read or write and who are very intelligent. I get the question, “Why do I write these stories?” I wrote The Circuit and Breaking Through to chronicle part of my family's history, but more importantly to voice the experiences of an important sector of our society that has been largely ignored. Through my writing I hope to give readers an insight into the lives of migrant farm worker families and their children, whose back-breaking labor (picking fruit and vegetables) puts food on our tables, their courage, struggles, and hopes and dreams for a better life for their children and their children's' children give meaning to the term “the American Dream.” Their story is the American story.