Alvarado, Beth

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Alvarado, Beth

PERSONAL:

Education: Graduate of Stanford University and University of Arizona.

ADDRESSES:

Office—Department of English, University of Arizona, 1423 E. University Blvd., Rm. 445, Modern Languages Bldg., P.O. Box 210067, Tucson, AZ 85721. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer and educator. University of Arizona, Tucson, lecturer, 1990—.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Many Voices Project (MVP) award, New Rivers Press, 2005, for Not a Matter of Love: Stories.

WRITINGS:

Not a Matter of Love: Stories, New Rivers Press (Moorhead, MN), 2006.

Fiction and nonfiction have appeared in periodicals, including Calyx, Northwest Review, Spork, Ploughshares, and Cue.

SIDELIGHTS:

In her first book of short stories, Not a Matter of Love: Stories, Beth Alvarado writes about families living in the Southwest and dealing with inner turmoil. For example, in the title story, Alvarado focuses on Jackie, a young woman who must deal with a stepfather who cares little for her. At the same time, she grapples with her mother's admonitions to give up a Mexican man named Armando as her lover and to date a golf pro instead. "Limbo" tells the story of a young Mexican man caught up in being macho and facing a world of prejudice, which leads to a deadly shoot-out. Another story, "Just Family," features a family trying their best to help Tony readjust and make something of his life after he is released from prison, despite the fact that the family feels, for the most part, that Tony will never be a part of anything but trouble. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, noted that "in the best pieces, love, jealousy, grief, betrayal, and guilt … reveal universal truths." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that the author's "stories are well-crafted" and that the debut collection includes "a couple of gems." Luke Reynolds, writing in the Tucson Weekly, commented: "In her first collection of short stories, … Alvarado creates a hoard of characters whose suffering and triumph is as real and as tangible as the paper on which the book is printed." Reynolds added: "Alvarado's great strength is exploring the intricate mazes of her characters' hearts."

Alvarado told CA: "When I was a child, I loved to listen to my mother's stories about her childhood, but the older I got, the more I realized that she left out all the secrets. You never got the whole story at once; you had to piece it together from little hints and contradictory details. And there were certain things you were never supposed to tell anyone, so I was fascinated by the gap between what was said and what was not said, by what was underneath the surface, by guessing how people really felt or what they really thought. That love for secrets translated to a love of reading because fiction is all about being granted access to a character's consciousness and feelings, to the story beneath the story.

"I'm looking out the window at a small ground squirrel as he tries to climb up a barrel cactus. The spines on the cactus, which he is climbing over, are long enough to pierce his body. A snake could be waiting in the shadow below; a hawk could pluck him from above. It is a precarious situation. The desert is such a harsh environment, where even the plants have to grow spines to protect themselves, that it seems to me a metaphor for modern life, or perhaps life in any age. The world is fraught with danger, even natural dangers, and we are small soft creatures who have to somehow negotiate that landscape and protect ourselves and those we love. So I would have to say two major influences on my writing have been living in the desert and becoming a mother at a young age—because it was then, when I became a mother, that life first seemed to me precarious and fragile. Before I became a mother, I was oblivious to the dangers in the world. I was invincible, and so I did some very dangerous things.

"As a writer, I am first of all drawn by the language of a piece, and this is true no matter what the genre. If the language isn't vivid or engaging or striking in terms of voice, then chances are, I won't read on. Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Tim O'Brien, J.M. Coetzee, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Baldwin, Carlos Fuentes, and Toni Morrison come to mind as authors whose work has influenced my own writing. In the first place, they all write fiction that is about the moral consequences of living in a harsh world: What do we do to survive? To what extent are we responsible to one another? What is the irrevocable act? How can we, in a secular world, redeem ourselves? To what extent are we complicit in the actions (or sins) of others?

"To some extent, these writers also write about characters who are ‘between worlds’ or who inhabit liminal spaces. Since I married into a large Mexican-American family when I was quite young, I've always been interested in what happens to people who ‘cross over’ into another culture or in people who inhabit more than one reality. For instance, for O'Brien's characters, the war is not ‘in the world’; in many of Silko's stories, her characters move through a mythic space where a man may be a man or he may be a spirit or somehow both. I'm interested in this idea of what happens to characters when they are ‘between worlds’—whatever that means: in terms of literal landscapes, like the borderlands, where cultures come together, often in conflict; or in psychological realities, like the interface between sanity and insanity; or in the moments where the spiritual may reveal itself in physical terms. I am interested in liminal spaces because they give rise to possible transformation. For instance, when we are in the midst of grieving or in the middle of any extreme experience, we are between worlds, our sense of reality has been changed or heightened. Or, another example, one of my characters, Van, hears voices. I'm not sure he's crazy. What does that mean, to hear voices? Don't we all hear voices? And what kinds of voices do we hear? Those were the questions that gave rise to the story "Can You Hear Me?"

"In writing fiction, I almost always begin with a character and question about that character. The characters have their beginnings in life, maybe with a line of dialog I've overheard or with a gesture. Maybe someone I know well—or someone I thought I knew well—has done something completely out of character. That may spark a story for me. Whatever it is, I begin with not-understanding or with a mystery. As I muse on the characters and begin to ask myself questions about them—what does her house look like? what would her conflict be in this situation? what is he afraid of? what does he eat for breakfast?—the character begins to lose its connection to the real person and becomes its own individual. Dialogue, or the way a character speaks, is sometimes the first thing that comes to me. Basically, once I have access to the character's voice or consciousness, I follow the language, and the story unfolds.

"I try not to censor myself during the early drafting stages. For instance, I do make conscious decisions about things, like ‘what needs to happen next,’ but once I sit down, that might go out the window. The character's voice might take me someplace else, so most of those conscious decisions happen during later drafting and revision stages when I've become more aware of my own intentions and of the shape of the story. In the early stages, I might be able to get five pages drafted in a day but in the later revision stages, I can spend hours on one paragraph or one sentence. I revise constantly. I read the story aloud. The sound of the language is the final arbiter of what stays and what goes.

"To be a writer, or perhaps any kind of artist, you need to be a careful observer of the world. I've always been a visual person, and I've always been able to describe things, but when I first started writing dialogue, I could never ‘hear’ anything. It was like watching a movie with the sound turned off. I realized that, even in memories, I could hear only the sound of my own voice and not what the other person said. I learned that I wasn't a good listener. Obviously, I was very self-centered, and if I wanted to be a better writer, I'd have to learn to listen as well observe.

"I've also learned, recently, to work on more than one piece at a time. I used to try to force myself to work through or write through a place when I got stuck—I thought it was a matter of discipline—but I now realize that going back and forth frees up my subconscious. The problem will often work itself out if I'm not obsessing about it, but since I sometimes need to set things aside for months, it really helps me to have more than one project going. When I go back, I can see the piece clearly; anything that was superficial or a kind of static falls away; I know whether or not to take other people's advice. For me, there is a kind of clarity that comes with time.

"My favorite book is always the one I'm working on—or, if I'm stuck, the one I will work on next.

"I am always touched and surprised when someone tells me that they loved one of my characters or that a story moved them, so I hope my work engages readers on an emotional level, that it gives them insights into the secrets we all hide, into the story beneath the story. Since I write about other characters so I can know how it feels to be them, to see through their eyes, I hope my stories give my readers that same kind of access to another person's reality or worldview. I also hope my work, like that of the writers I've listed above, has social relevance, that it inspires my readers to think about our personal lives as part of a larger social fabric. I want them to wonder, like I do, to what extent are we responsible to one another?"

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 2006, Hazel Rochman, review of Not a Matter of Love: Stories, p. 51.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2006, review of Not a Matter of Love, p. 735.

Tucson Weekly, December 14, 2006, Luke Reynolds, review of Not a Matter of Love.

ONLINE

Ploughshares,http://www.pshares.org/ (February 14, 2007), brief profile of author.

UANews,http://uanews.org/ (September 18, 2006), "UA Poetry Center Debuts New Faculty Work."

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Alvarado, Beth

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