photo of Norman Zelaya

Norman Zelaya on Picking Up the String

An interview with Norman Zelaya, from The Write Stuff series:

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I tell them I teach Special Education in San Francisco public schools, but what I really want to do with my life is write. And now that I have published my first book, Orlando & Other Stories, I find myself saying more and more that I am a writer. My job as a teacher has changed, too, (I am now coaching teachers) and it has allowed me more time to invest in writing, to do writerly things like submit, attend conferences and workshops, readings and other literary events. Everything I imagined I’d be doing when I started out.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

My biggest struggle has been finding the time to write. When I was in graduate school, my whole schedule was centered around writing. I wrote and then I did everything else. I wrote when I wanted for as long as I wanted. When I was done, I rested or ate or hung out or worked until it was time to write again. But once I got the full-time job and then a family life, it was finding the time to write. There were years when I barely wrote a few new pages. It got desperate and I found myself getting upset and giving the world the finger, so I got a new laptop and rededicated myself to write.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Read and read a lot. Then write a lot. Then go out and hang out with other writers.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I do. In the classroom, I know I make a difference in people’s lives because I get immediate feedback. Parents tell me about the changes in their children and how happy they are. As a teacher, I am trained to look for those positive changes. As a writer, I know I am successful because of the response I get from my audience. Up to now, most of my audience has been a live audience from years and years of performing and reading in public. I felt a little bit under the radar because I hadn’t published as much as I expected of myself. But I imagine this book has changed a lot of that. A high school student asked me after a reading what is success. I said it is relative. The fact I hadn’t published a book didn’t mean I was not successful. I wrote and published stories. I performed around the state. I have been invited to lecture. I made small audiences in cafes cheer. I said all those were successes.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

None. No YouTube.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her/their story?

My grandmother was very dear to me. I believe my love and fervor for storytelling began with my grandmother. I spent my nights falling asleep listening to her talk, her wandering narrative about Nicaragua and all our family members she left behind. It was a string that she picked up each night and also during the day when we had quiet times together in the kitchen and during parties when she told jokes, and Nicoya jokes are narratives with multiple punch lines before you get to the end.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

When I was ten, it was baseball. It was always baseball. I believe Daryl Evans was my favorite player. Or Chili Davis. I wanted to be like either of them.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Would I ever?!

Too late, bro, I already have many times on stage as a part of our play, Guayaberas by the Pound, by Los Delicados, a latino poetry performance ensemble I founded with my friends Darren De Leon and Paul S. Flores. I also took my shirt off in the production of Fed up: A Cannibal’s Story, a play by Ricardo Bracho. I am an artist. I have opened myself to many possibilities of who I can be.

What’s wrong with society today?

We do not engage each other in direct, authentic conversation enough. I mean just a social conversation, chit chat. We listen to each other even less.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

I try to fall in love with my wife all over again every day.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Publish many more books and lecture/perform. I want to write to sustain myself. I want it to be all I do in life professionally.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I am revising a manuscript for my debut novel. I have a literary agent now and I am preparing the manuscript to submit to publishers. I still work on other pieces on the side. I am working on a new story featuring my characters, Tonio and Melly, which are featured in my collection, Orlando & Other Stories. It will eventually be another novel. I am also writing new prose poems.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Less selfish, less expensive.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

My wife and I go to a nice dinner and then go out dancing or for drinks or a drive or do whatever pleases us.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

Go back and spend a year in Paris. Walking along the Seine, visiting the museums and gardens, writing notes daily in a small notebook. Share all this with my partner.

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