Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < About C.M. Mayo < Interviews <

SEPTEMBER 21, 2007

DCist Interview: C.M. Mayo
By DCist contributor Shawn Westfall

Originally at http://dcist.com/2007/09/21/dcist_interivew.php#more
Recaptured via archive.org's Way Back Machine

Of the numerous romantic notions surrounding the writing life, perhaps none dies harder than that of the solitary, ink-stained wretch plugging away at his or her latest work in some dilapidated garret, alone and unnoticed and oblivious to what's going on around him or her. Writing may be a solitary act, but as any intellectually honest writer can tell you, writers need communities: first, because the realities of today's writing life necessitate that one be ready to advertise your latest wares publicly (by going on book tours, giving readings, participating in conferences, etc.). And second, because writers need a literary "scene" in the same way that musicians and artists need a scene: for support and assurance, to cheer each other on (as well as gossip about), and finally to lean on when the words won't come, or when the critics are busy carpet-bombing your latest effort.

Were you to decide to become part of DC's literary community, it would only be a short while before you encountered C.M. Mayo. One of the mainstays on the local literary scene, the ubiquitous Mayo seems to have her hand everywhere as she helps forge the burgeoning local literary community. Of course, forging communities, bringing people together, seems to come naturally to Mayo: stressing the bilingual aspect of her own work, she's the founding editor of Tameme, the bilingual Spanish/English chapbook press, and she's also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006.

But she's more than a translator and cheerleader. She's won numerous national literary awards and has an international profile. Her stories, essays and poems have appeared in numerous U.S. literary magazines including Chelsea, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Kenyon Review, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Southwest Review, Tin House and Witness, as well as in the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. She's also won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, has been a resident at Yaddo and MacDowell writing colonies and won fellowships at numerous writing conferences, including Sewanee and Breadloaf. That she's able to do this while splitting her time between Washington, D.C. and Mexico City only hammers home the point.

C.M. Mayo is like both the cities she calls home: hard-working and international in outlook. DCist caught up with her and asked her about the local literary scene and how it informs her own work.

Writing is a solitary act, as we know, but writers do need communities. Tell me about the local writing community.

Well, it's less like a community, and more like a big, gnarly menuendless, strange, ever-morphing. Select to your taste. My local writing community revolves around The Writers Center, as well as writers and poets I've run across at the Washington Independent Writers Association, the The Women's National Book Association, and at various reading series, including readings at Candida's World of Books among others.

Of course, each writer will have a unique take on the so-called community. Within the D.C. area, there are plenty of children's book writers, copyeditors, biographers, scriptwriters, mystery writers, poets galore-o-rama. However, Richard Peabodypoet, writer, teacher, editor of Gargoyle is the patron saint of us all, say I.

What is probably the greatest misperception about the local literary scene?

Well, again, that it's small (on the contrary: it's ginormous) and that it's all in English. Qué tal la vida literaria.

We all know that political writers of all stripes, historians, and mystery writers are popular here in the D.C. area. What genres are as equally represented here in D.C. but don't get enough attention, in your opinion?

Poetry, literary fiction and creative nonfiction. To get a sense of the size of the former, just check out Beltway. As for literary fiction and creative nonfiction writers, these tend to come out of the many MFA programs in the area. To give you an idea of the size of that, check out The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Almost every university in the region, it seems, is a member.

What are some resources for local writers or people who want to get involved in the local community? Blogs, journals (both online and not). Classes? Writing groups?

Well, again, The Writers Center has such a wide range of offerings, from poetry to travel writing to comedy writing to screenplay writing8 weeks, one weekend, one dayyou name it. The Washington Independent Writers Association runs a superb series of conferences and "PubSpeaks." There's the F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference in Rockville, MD and the Pure Sea Glass Writers At the Beach out in Delaware, among others. A great resource for local literary happenings is Beltway's Resource Bank of Regional Reading Series.

As for the on-line community, I check in regularly with lit-bloggers The Happy Booker, 32 Poems, Work-in-Progress, and local poet E. Ethelbert Miller's E-Notes. And you could spend all night surfing on Beltway's lit-blog list.

Who are some of the writers who have influenced you? Who are some of your favorite writers in general? What about local writers?

Of course, this list could change tomorrow, but right now my top three favorite writers are V.S. Naipaul, Edith Wharton, and Patricia Klindienst.

As for local writers, for a while I was in a writers group here in D.C. with some wonderful writers, among them Mary Kay Zuravleff, Leslie Pietrzyk, and Kate Blackwell. I'm also a huge fan of the nonfiction of Sara Mansfield Taber and Lisa Couturier, both of whom teach at the Writer's Center.

You're also a travel writer, and you teach travel writing at the Writer's Center. Why does this genre interest you? How did you get started?

I got started when I was living in Mexico City (where I still live part time). I wanted to write about it, and, at the same time, escape it, so I cooked up the idea of traveling through Mexico's nearly 1,000-mile long Baja California peninsula, which turns out, no surprise, to have an intricate, if oftentimes remote, relationship with the city. The result was my memoir, Miraculous Air.

I've continued in this genre with long, novela-like travel essays (translation: you'd call them "creative nonfiction" and their only homes, for now, are literary journals.) The latest to be published is a lengthy essay in The Massachusetts Review about a journey to the Emperor of Mexico's castle in Italy.

Finally, what advice would you give someone just starting out as a writer, particularly here in the D.C. area?

Don't be shy! Sign up for a workshop, attend readings and conferences, join some groups. Learn your craft (it's a never-ending journey of learning). Get to know who's who, what intrigues you and charms you, what bores you, what repels you. Shape your community to your own taste. Here in D.C., you can do that.