Thursday, October 26, 2006

under the pynfluence: Nina Marie Martinez

...sez today's San Francisco Comical, in an article about three SF Bay Area novelists who received the Whiting Writer's Award:

Nina Marie Martinez was born in San Jose, the daughter of a first-generation Mexican American prune-picker-turned-building contractor and a German American stay-at-home mother. A high school dropout, she was a single mom at 20, supporting herself and her daughter by reselling flea-market finds. Soon, she was a vintage-clothing maven and decided to go back to school to study business.

"All I knew was that I needed money, and if you needed money, you studied business," she says. But taking general education classes reminded her of one of her first loves, literature. (The other was the Giants.)

So she went to UC Santa Cruz to study literature. That's when she started hearing voices.

"They weren't trying to make me do bad things or anything," she says, laughing. "These women were having a conversation in my head, and I started writing it down." That conversation was the spark for her debut novel, "Caramba!: A Tale Told in Turns of the Cards," published in 2004 by Knopf.

"When I wrote 'Caramba!' I felt like I was writing the great American novel," she says. "Not too long ago, this was Mexico. My ancestors roamed these lands for hundreds of centuries."

The book takes traditional Mexican Loteria cards as pivot points -- and illustrations -- for the assemblage of a high-energy plot. Publishers Weekly described the novel as "an effervescent, luminous debut."

She cites Thomas Pynchon and Vladimir Nabokov as two of her literary influences, particularly while writing "Caramba!" "The funny thing is, my favorite writers are white males and most of them are dead," she says, noting that Latina authors are too often stereotyped. "They think we're all sitting in the corner reading 'One Hundred Years of Solitude.' "

Martinez lives near the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her 16-year-old daughter and two Chihuahuas and says she will never forget the professor who said that the most interesting fiction is written by people who speak more than one language.

"My girlfriends and I have always switched back and forth from Spanish to English," Martinez says. "When these two languages intermingle, they're both changed. Language is pliant. It can move and shift without breaking."

Her next novel, coming out in 2008 from Knopf, is the story of a girl who survives a difficult childhood and becomes the queen of the flea market. "When you write a book, there are books that you hold close to your heart," she says. Just now, she is reading "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller and "Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell.

"What does it mean to be down and out, but living artistically?" she asks. "My new book is dedicated to the discarded, people who've been thrown away. I am drawn to things and people whose peculiarness or beauty goes unappreciated by the vast majority of society."

Caramba!: A Tale Told in Turns of the Cards