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Americano Returns: Author Interview with Dominic Carrillo

Dominic Carrillo has created a new holiday tradition: Fly home to San Diego, spend time with family and friends, host a book signing for a recent publication at a local trendy hot spot, and return to his adventurous life abroad.

Since the debut of his first book last year, To Be Frank Diego, a novel which follows the struggle of a racially mixed main character as he navigates growing up just north of the Mexican border, Dominic has been eager to compile his more autobiographical pieces into a second offering.

This year, Americano Abroad is the result: a compilation of essays lifted from his popular travel blog of the same name. The San Diego book signing will be held at the evening before Dominic returns to teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Deciding what to include in the collection was no easy feat. Publication of some of his pieces in the San Diego Reader helped make the decisions as well as an expat writing group in Sofia. Separated into three sections, the book begins with an exploration of Italy, Dominic’s first experience living abroad, The writing then moves through Nigeria, his first official teaching stint, and into Bulgaria, where he now resides.

Although he describes the book as “memoir,” Dominic is quick to point out that it is no Eat, Pray, Love. In addition to reflections on his local surroundings, the book is also interspersed with homecomings and analysis of American culture. In fact, as much as the essays seem to be an exploration of Dominic’s travels, his writing spends an equal amount of time unpacking what it is to be an “American,” as the title of his book suggests.

“At a certain point in defining what it is to be American, it’s necessary to be outside of America to reflect on that and figure out what that means,” says Dominic, continuing his navigation of themes of identity which began with Frank Diego. “If I think about myself as Mexican-American. But then I’m in Bulgaria, and to locals, I look Turkish or Greek. And then in Nigeria, I might say to others that I’m half Mexican, but to them, I’m white. To be in these three different places and then trying to position my identity in those places, it’s kind of a weird twist.”

In addition to the geographical location, what also shifts in Dominic’s book is the tone.  While Italy is full of humor and expectation, Nigeria’s tales settle into ominous simplification, as he takes in his surroundings moment by moment. The narration shifts from the gentle self-deprecation of first person to the stark immediacy of second:

The loud buzz of the generator engine dies. The lights go out. Now it is only you and the insects— most of which are outside— producing a harmonious chorus of humming and chirping. The live creatures inside your room have already been accepted as a fact of life and simply categorized into “good” or “bad.” The gecko eats other insects, so he’s welcome. The cricket is harmless. But spiders here are large and potentially poisonous, and scorpions are not uncommon, so you kill them if you can, before the lights go out. (“Reading at Night in Nigeria”)

“In Italy, I tried to turn my complaints into humor and joke about it,” Dominic says. “In Nigeria, the switch was that I realized I didn’t have the right to complain about anything. There’s such poverty and every reason for people there to be hopeless and pissed. And people were awesome. They were genuine and happy and welcoming.” The awe in his voice is unmistakable, even though it’s been many months since his stint with the boarding school there.

From there, everything changes. The writing from Bulgaria is infused with appreciation, as if the practice of moment-to-moment living Dominic gleaned in Nigeria has never really left him. Even Dominic has noticed the difference in his own “Americano” analysis of his foreign surroundings.

“It’s a different kind of reality check,” he says, commenting on how his teaching colleagues stationed in other countries would ask about Bulgaria with a smirk, as if this situation was somehow less glamorous. “Everything after [Nigeria]… I just felt thankful and grateful for everything I have.” Dominic has just re-upped for a second year of his English teaching position in Sofia.

Those feelings of gratitude also extend to his local fan base. Sharing his new book with family and friends in San Diego is becoming part of the publication process, and he continually finds the support overwhelming. The reactions of these readers who have followed his blog since its inception have had a huge impact on his voice, Dominic says.

“In the beginning, it was trial and error,” he says, explaining that his first pass at travel blog writing resulted in guided tour analyses, containing very little personal commentary and very little humor. Three blog entries later, with a little exposure to David Sedaris and some positive feedback on the more sarcastic portions of his pieces, Dominic wrote what would become the first chapter of the book – a humorous commentary on teaching English in Italy and feeling like a fraud. This entry caught the attention of his eighth grade English teacher in San Diego.

“I posted that and Jeanine Bennett wrote back to me and said that she woke up at 6 am to go to school and read that and was cracking up. And of course, I almost started crying. In Italy, I was like, ‘Oh my god, are you kidding me?’ I got a few more comments like that from that story and I thought, this is the voice, this is where I should be writing from.”

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First Friday Five – Dominic Carrillo

On this Friday, an addendum to the First Friday interview from last week.  Enjoy…

Gentle Reader – I have always been fascinated by the specifics of a creative’s life.  As one who seems to handle no less than four or five employment or volunteer opportunities simultaneously, I have found that the nuts and bolts of accomplishing my personal creative work sometimes seem elusive.  In short, I dread making routine out of what I feel should be reserved for the realms of inspiration.  Cut to my unfinished novel.  It is therefore my intention to grill First Friday writers mercilessly on their particular writing habits in hopes that, one day, my muses and I may agree on a somewhat habitual appointment schedule for our meetings.  – TT

Five Questions for Dominic Carrillo

1.  Novel writing takes tenacity.  What keeps you/kept you coming back to the page?

What helped at first was the illusion that it wouldn’t take very long to finish a novel.  I imagined a few weeks of getting it all on the page, and then maybe a few months of revising.  I was also forming To Be Frank Diego by piecing together some stuff I had already written, so I thought I had done maybe half the work and the rest would be easy.  So, I was delusional, really.  I naively believed it would be a much easier and shorter process.  Once reality kicked in though, I still believed I could and would finish the novel—and thought I had finished it on at least three different occasions.

Once I started really “seeing” the story, it did become easier to write and want to finish it.  What I mean by “seeing” is that as I kept writing and revising, visual images of the scenes in each chapter became more and more vivid, which made the writing more enjoyable too.  I saw the story unfold in a certain way—kind of like a movie–to the point where it felt as if I were simply retelling a story that actually happened.  Towards the end, about a year and a half into it, my motivation was mainly in finishing it and making it better. The homestretch wasn’t fun and it wasn’t pretty, so I had to set deadlines for myself and seek professional editing help.  I’m by no means dependent on the encouragement of others, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t help too.

2.  Is your writing style different now from when you began writing the novel?

My writing style is different now than it was two years ago, yes. I find myself self-editing more as I write because I know my tendencies and bad habits a little bit better.  For example, I know I can be redundant.  I’m also more aware that I sometimes overwrite, or make sentences more complicated than they need to be.   And the list goes on.  But the point is that now I edit as I go in an effort to make my voice clear, simple, and occasionally funny.  I think when I wrote my first draft, I used a lot more grad school type words (ubiquitous and repudiate and such) in an effort to prove my literary chops, or intellect, or whatever you want to call it.  After re-reading it I thought, “Not only do I not talk that way, but I don’t really like it when people talk to me that way either.”  So the tone of my writing has come down to earth a bit more. It’s less academic.  I’m no longer trying to impress anyone with my word choices.  Now I’m simply trying to tell a story that flows, feels authentic, connects to people, and has some sense of humor.

3.  What is your typical writing schedule?  (time of day/duration/location/music?)

 I don’t know if I have a writing schedule.  When I begin a big writing project—and this is a grand total of three times in my life so far—I isolate myself for at least a week.  I get obsessed with an idea that’s been marinating in my head, and dive into writing about it with little regard to the time of day, my food intake, other humans, etc.  Once I emerge from my cave, I let the story sit for a week or so, and then return to it for a few hours each day.  I’m not a morning person, so I like writing in the afternoon or at night, either in silence or with instrumental music on in the background.  And I need to be alone at the beginning of the process.  For re-writing or revision, I like to go to a coffee shop like the one I’m sitting at right now.

4.  Did you have a vision of what this project would be before you started?  Did the book fulfill that vision or depart from it? 

I wanted to write a novel for maybe seven years, but I had no strong vision of what it would be.  About four years ago, the idea of Frank Diego’s story began to develop.  At first I visualized only a few scenes, then (about two years ago) the story concept came together and I wrote 80 pages in two weeks.  Since then the story and its characters have evolved quite a bit.  Many chapters have been added and cut.  But I knew from the time I wrote those first 80 pages that it would become a novel– mostly because I knew of the online self-publishing industry, and I knew anyone could “publish” a novel these days.  Now that it’s in printed book form, it’s just a question of: Is it decent and interesting enough to be purchased and read by a large audience?  That still remains to be seen.  So, the initial vision of To Be Frank Diego has been fulfilled and has evolved far beyond my first concept of the story.  But the project itself will not be finished—or fulfilled– until I’ve promoted it far beyond my friends and Facebook contacts and had some anonymous critical feedback.

5.  Who was your most influential teacher? Author?

I have flashes of many good teachers who’ve influenced me.  First, there was Dr. Bennett, who somehow made me feel like I was smart back in the eighth grade when I felt pretty dumb.  He was encouraging and inspirational.  I also remember my first writing teacher my freshman year in college.  When we met and discussed my creative writing assignment, he sounded very sympathetic and told me he was sorry about my traumatic childhood experience I’d written about.  He explained that he could tell it really happened to me.  When I told him it was pure fiction, he was a bit embarrassed, but it gave me an indication that I might be a decent writer.

Jervey Tervalon was my creative writing teacher at UCLA.  He was the first published author I’d met, so when he encouraged me to write more, it meant a lot.  He also advised me to write what I know about most, based on personal experience, and that’s stuck with me.  But the most influential teachers over the last ten years have been, hands down, my own students.

Dominic Carrillo will be signing books at the Art Bar in New York City on Thursday, July 19th, 6-8 pm.  You can read more about him and To Be Frank Diego here.

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The First “First Friday” – Dominic Carrillo

Exploring the life of a new novelist one Friday at a time.

So, in an effort to inspire and encourage awesomeness, I have been keen to interview other writers, specifically first-time novelists, in order to probe their process from page to publication.  For me, the sticking-with-it-ness is always a challenge, so I’m amazed when one of my peers has the tenacity to sit down and write a few hundred pages.  I, for one, can’t get through composing a mere blog post without checking Facebook 28 times.  How in the world will I ever finish a novel?  But that’s the struggle up for dissection within these pages, hence, I bring you a glance into the life of someone who has actually done said deed. – TT

***

La Jolla, CA.  Dominic Carrillo saunters into the brew house, fresh from a seminar on publishing which he was hoping would give him some new marketing tricks.  You see, he has a dilemma:  He is trying to figure out how to promote his self-published bow into the world of fiction successfully in the few weeks he has left stateside before taking up a year-long teaching position in Bulgaria.  I mean, doesn’t everyone have these issues?  Ahem.

He orders something dark and smiles easily, his neatly trimmed beard announcing his Jack Kerouac tendencies, his polite eyes signaling that he finds the stories of others much more interesting than his own.  No wonder his blog gets so much action.  And now with his first book, To Be Frank Diego, hitting the virtual shelves via Amazon, the fact that he can write just as adeptly about his hometown of San Diego as he can about sitting at the head table in a Nigerian village almost doesn’t seem fair.

Carrillo began his blog, Americano Abroad,  about ten months ago, during a teaching assignment in Italia after receiving encouragement from a blogger friend who thrived on writing about travel.  Also encouraging: an incident involving some travel buddies and a sudden lack of reading material.  When Carrillo’s journal, freely shared, became an intriguing enough substitute for a “real book,” he began to see his writing as perhaps not only interesting for others to read, but also full of stories that were actually meant to be shared.

Thus began his foray into the blogosphere, where he has cast himself as a newbie explorer immersed in foreign culture, astutely chronicling his experiences with a wry sense of self-deprecation that quickly endears a reader to his words.

But soon, the seed of another story began to emerge, one that had been marinating for a while in the back of his mind.  Finally, during a long bout of illness in Guatemala that left him pretty much house-bound, he began to write it down – mostly to distract himself from all he was missing outdoors.  80 pages later, he thought that maybe he was onto something.  To Be Frank Diego emerged.

A bit about the book:  Frank Diego is a San Diego native who is forced to navigate the city’s public transportation system – a rare feat for most locals.  On his day-long journey, he meets a variety of characters, faces challenging issues about his own ethnic identity, contemplates a recent relationship, and pulls no punches when offering his opinions about “America’s Finest City.”

Publishing the novel, once completed, was a daunting task.  After tapping as many connections as he could, Carrillo soon discovered that the traditional publishing route would require time and patience.  With his next itinerary looming, he decided to take matters into his own hands.  Createspace was happy to provide the means.  Fast forward six months and a few hundred people are gathered at the Starlite Lounge in Little Italy for his first book signing.

He admits he has received enormous support from friends and family.  The challenge, he says, universal among self-published novelists, is to reach a larger audience.  He is exploring social media, bumping up the Frank Diego website, and looking for reviews and exposure on local San Diego media.  The fact that the novel explores a particular city is a definite plus, even if the impressions offered by the main character can be slightly scathing at times.  He has just a few weeks to make it all work before the next adventure sets in.

Will the continual online promotion of Frank Diego be on his mind as he settles into life in Bulgaria later this month?  Perhaps.  But Americano Abroad will be up and running again as well, and therefore his attention will be more focused where he prefers it – on the stories of others and, like Frank Diego, what new ruminations on this crazy world lie around the next corner.


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