Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The 15th installment profiles Monique Quintana. She is an associate editor at Luna Luna Magazine, fiction editor at Five 2 One Magazine, and a pop culture contributor at Clash Books. She has received fellowships from the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and the Sundress Academy for the Arts, and she has been nominated for Best of the Net.
In an April email interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Monique about getting commissioned to write your first book, finding inspiration in decadence and the theatrical, and finding a balance between building a writing community and taking care of yourself.
When were you in the Fresno State MFA program, and what genre did you study?
I was in the MFA program from 2013-2016 and I studied fiction. It’s funny because on my first night of workshop, I was nervous to go. I sat on a bench at school, and for about five minutes I seriously considered going home. I suppose after years of college, I was scared about starting something new. But I got up and went to class. I was late and I got lost trying to find the room, but I made it there and I’m glad I did.
What were your first thoughts when you learned that your novella, Cenote City, would be published?
I had a very unexpected route to publishing my first book. I met Leza Cantoral, the Editor-in-Chief of Clash Books, through writing for Luna Luna Magazine, where we are both contributors. In the winter of 2016, she solicited me to write a Christmas essay for Clash Media, the online component of the press. It was the funnest I had ever had writing in my adult life, and over the course of the following year, I wrote more pieces for them. Most of my pieces explored the grotesque, camp, horror, and literature through a post-colonial Xicana lens.
After I contributed a short story to Clash’s Tragedy Queens anthology, Leza asked me if I’d be interested in submitting a pitch for a book project. She wanted to continue to examine and complicate the “sad girl” narrative that is pervasive in Xicana culture. We had connected over our Mexican backgrounds and agreed that a new take on the La Llorona narrative would be an interesting move for the press. I spent the next three days writing a narrative arc and list of character sketches for the novella to submit as my pitch. From that point, Leza commissioned me to write the book and I spent a solid year in the drafting phase.
The knowledge that the book would see publication was exciting and most definitely impacted the writing of the book. During that time, I was also submitting my MFA thesis manuscript to literary contests and open reading periods with no success. I had a few close calls that were very disappointing. I was also experiencing the onset of some health issues, so it was helpful to have Cenote City to work on. The writing of it helped me push through a very difficult 2017.
Did parts of your book grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript, A Little Saw/Chola Mona Lisa? If yes, what was the process like, taking what was your thesis and making it into something more?
Cenote City is an entirely different book than my thesis manuscript. There are some commonalities in regards to my aesthetic and my use of form. My thesis was a hybrid collection of micro-fiction, flash fiction, short stories, and a novella. My love of those forms did inform the writing of Cenote City. All the sections are very short and have titles, but ultimately, I call it a novella because all of the sections are contingent on the narrative arc, they are all plugged into the narrator and her family.
There are also connections between my thesis manuscript and Cenote City in regards to themes and imagery. It seems I’ve been very interested in body horror and female bodies as a spectacle. For example, in my thesis, there’s a character whose body experiences an altered state and becomes a model for a large video art installation in a museum. One of the characters in Cenote City is mysteriously inflicted with a crying curse and is turned into a nighttime tourist attraction.
In my thesis, I was also rewriting fairy-tales with a very grounded and realistic approach. Cenote City is inspired by fairy tales and folklore, but the approach is much more outrageous and borrows from decadent and over-the-top narratives like telenovelas and rasquache theater. I’m not sure if I’ll do anything more with my thesis manuscript, but the experience of putting it together did inform what I write and how I write now.
I was also able to publish most of the individual pieces in that manuscript, which was an immense learning experience for me. I was able to learn more about the business side of writing, which I think is important to invest in, especially if you’re a writer of color and coming from an underrepresented community.
How did you land your publishing deal with Clash Books, and what about their work is a good fit for your book?
I signed my contract with Clash Books shortly after I sent my editor, Leza, the first completed draft of Cenote City. The best thing about publishing with Clash was that they gave me a lot of autonomy creatively, while at the same time offering me a solid contract and author rights. They also commissioned Joel Amat Güell, an amazing graphic artist based in Spain, to do the papel picado cover design for my book.
Clash takes a very active role in promoting all of their authors and books on social media and many different kinds of book fairs and conferences, such as the Miami Book Festival, AWP, and StokerCon. They printed advanced review copies of my book, which helped it to circulate months before its official release.
Small presses are making a lot of important changes in the literary community, so I’d say if you can find a press that respects your aesthetic and is professional with your work, then you’re in a good place. I still do want the experience of securing an agent and trying other publication pathways, but I’m not sure I would have been able to put out such an outrageous book with another press. I’m enjoying the outrageousness pretty hard right now.
How did you decide on your book’s title?
As I mentioned, the novella is inspired a lot by theatrics and decadent storytelling. There’s a lot going on in the backdrop of the narrative. The novella takes place in a city where the hospitals have become corrupt and have been shut down by the government. A former hospital nurse begins to deliver dead babies for women that can’t afford to travel to hospitals outside of the city. She eventually becomes inflicted with a crying curse and the government turns her into a tourist attraction at the cenote on the periphery of the city.
The characters move around a lot in time and space, so that the book almost reads like a map. The cenote would be the pulse of the map. Also there is so much action at the site of cenote that it becomes like a city in itself. I had come up with a couple of other titles, but my editor and I always liked Cenote City the best. I believe I was also playing with the idea that the book sometimes falls into the dystopian literary genre as well. Cenotes all over the Americas are becoming gentrified, which I find to be quite grotesque and nightmarish, considering their once sacred purpose.
I’m inspired by your hustle and networking in the literary world, with various websites and presses. Tell me a little about what work you do there and how you got connected with these respective projects.
In addition to writing pop culture pieces for Clash Books, I am a contributing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. The latter is an arts, culture, and literary magazine that celebrates both the light and dark sides of the self. In the fall of 2016, the Editor-in-Chief, Lisa Marie Basile, put out a call for a beauty and fashion contributor and I responded. After having correspondence with her, I knew I liked the magazine’s vision and purpose in terms of content. It was an opportunity for me to write about beauty and fashion in a way that celebrates individuality, rather than pressuring folks to look one particular way, which unfortunately, a lot of beauty and fashion magazine clips do.
From the start point, the magazine gave me a lot of autonomy for what I could write about, and this has allowed me to do some interesting things I’m proud of. I believe one of my most widely read posts was a beauty/fashion interview I did with Nelida Lopez, who played Whisper in the gangster film Mi Vida Loca. I realized that I love to write about glamour and all the ways it gives an individual prowess and confidence.
Since I’ve been writing for Luna Luna, the topics I write about have expanded. That happened very organically. I’ve been writing about personal growth, community wellness through art, and this past year or so, I’ve been writing book reviews. I’ve met some amazing artists and activists because of this and they have emboldened me in many ways. I’d say that writing for Luna Luna was a game changer for me and I’ll always be grateful for all the hardworking editors that put it together.
Since writing for Luna Luna, I’ve been asked by editors to contribute my work to their magazines. I believe creating digital matter is important for writers now. It can be so easily shared and it gives writers a presence that we never had before. Of course there is a lot of toxicity on the Internet, but there are many ways to create digital communities with individuals that will respect you and encourage you. I’m so encouraged by my digital communities. They’ve been fiercely supportive of my work.
What about your MFA experience at Fresno State were positive and have stuck with you, and what do you wish you might have done differently?
I’ll always value the experience because it helped me to build a community of writers of my own. I have met some of my dearest friends in the program and together we created rituals for writing, so that it would always be an integral part of our lives. No matter what my schedule is like, they kept me accountable. I’m fortunate that I have friends that I can turn to when I have questions about writing, books, and teaching. Whenever something good happens to me, I’m always excited to tell my friends about it. I hope I never take them for granted.
If I were to do anything differently, I’d try to keep my schedule in balance and do a better job of taking care of my health. I’d encourage all creative writing students to participate and be active on campus, but in hindsight, I believe I over-extended myself at times. There were times I went to events when I was ill or exhausted because I was worried that people would think I was a flake, that I didn’t care, if I didn’t go. I wasn’t always mindful of what I was eating or generally how well I was taking care of myself.
I remember once, when it was nearing the end of the semester, I was sitting with my Chicanx Writers and Artists Association friends and we all looked at each other and said, “We don’t have time for CWAA right now.” I believe that was a powerful thing for us to articulate out loud. It’s important to take care of yourself, your mind and your body, before anything. When you take a respite when you really need it, your engagement and your work will be more impactful when you return to your community.
What’s your next writing project?
I’m working on a hybrid fiction collection, tentatively titled Moctezuma. The title may change, but it’s been inspiring me in a lot of ways. All the pieces are interconnected and center a family circle of women that is mentioned very briefly in Cenote City. For the past year, I’ve been interested in writing about the way brown people are expected to perform and what happens when we fail, especially in regards to work and to art and to our relationships, the way that failure can get a little grotesque for us. Writing these pieces has helped me to start making peace with my own failures and to start learning from them.