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Q&A with Kathleen Alcala | 1995 Fellowship, Literary

Artist Trust

photo credit: Wayne Roth

Q: What kind of art do you make? What inspires you to make that art?
A: I am a writer. Words were always important to me – that some people understood only English, while we also spoke Spanish; that people would judge me by how I spoke English; and that books full of words offered an escape from my world into many other worlds.
Family history and identity were also preserved in words, often in a fragmented fashion, so I began to write in order to explain the world to myself, and to create whole stories out of the fragments. It did not occur to me that I could write as a profession until much later, because I did not meet any writers until I was in my twenties. I still admire people who declare themselves writers early on and go for it.
Q: What did you use your award for?
A: My first Artist Trust award in 1995 came at a crucial time in my career. I had gone through the (then) MA program in Creative Writing at the University of Washington, the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, and published my first book, “Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist” in 1992. I was working on what would be the first novel in a trilogy, Spirits of the Ordinary, and that first novel looked mighty long and complicated after a set of short stories. I tell people it is like setting out to cross an ocean, hoping there is land on the other side. The award not only legitimized my work as a creative writer, it allowed me to conduct research that carried over to two more novels.

Q:What was the impact of this award/Artist Trust on your art career/life?
A: Not that many awards are available to writers in the Northwest, compared to other parts of the country. Both the recognition and the cash can make all the difference when writers go knocking on the doors of agents and editors. Even when doing research or interviewing people, they ask “Will this be published? Have you published a book?” something visual artists don’t have to prove.
Publishing my previous books with support from Artist Trust (two fellowships and two or three GAPs) gave me the (perhaps foolhardy) confidence to tackle my current subject, our relationship with food on Bainbridge Island, and how it can serve as a microcosm of the issues we face globally. Writing this book required me to generate trust and confidence in the people I interviewed, who shared their farms, homes, lifestyles, and philosophies with me. Without prior publications, this would not have been possible. The Deepest Roots – Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island will be published by the University of Washington Press this coming October. Artist Trust gave me a big boost up the ladder of becoming a professional writer.

Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a short story collection, three novels set in 19th Century Mexico and the Southwest, and a collection of essays based on family history. Her work has received the Western States Book Award, the Governor’s Writers Award, and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award. She received her second Artist Trust Fellowship in 2008, and was honored by the national Latino writers group, Con Tinta, at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in 2014. She has been designated an Island Treasure in the Arts. Kathleen’s next book, The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island will be published by the University of Washington Press the fall of 2016.
Kathleen has a B.A. in Linguistics from Stanford University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Washington, as well as a Master of Fine Arts from the University of New Orleans. Her work is often referred to as magic realism, but Kathleen considers most of it historical fiction. She does, however, have a great affinity for the story-telling techniques of magic realism and science fiction, and has been both a student and instructor in the Clarion West Science Fiction Workshop.
Kathleen was a faculty member at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island until it closed in 2016.
Ursula K. LeGuin said of Kathleen’s first collection, “This is a book of wonders. Each story unfolds with humor and simplicity and perfect naturalness into something original and totally unpredictable. The kingdom of Borges and García Marquez lie just over the horizon, but this landscape of desert towns and dreaming hearts … is Alcalá-land. It lies just across the border between Mexico and California, across the border between the living and the dead, across all the borders – a true new world.”