Monday, June 9, 2014

Publishing as Community Building: an interview with Louis Villalba

Louis Villalba is the hardest working writer I know. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Chicago back around 2006. He learned of PALABRA PURA, the poetry series I used to curate, and would often show up to the readings. In the course of our conversations, and subsequent shared meals over the years, I learned that he wrote. In short, we became friends. When I first met him, he’d been trying his hand at writing for around six or so years. He showed me a sample of his work, and I asked if ever thought about joining a writing group or take a writing workshop. I soon learned that he’d enrolled in a creative writing course at Northwestern. Months later, he showed me another sampling of his prose. I was astounded. The improvements had come by leaps and bounds. Eventually, in 2012, Villalba, who was not particularly concerned with the “expected” modes of getting into print, published The Silver Teacup: Tales of Cádiz, a collection of stories and pieces about his native city—a city I know and love from my years-long residence in Spain.  He also translated the original English-language manuscript into his native Spanish and simultaneously published La Tacita de Plata. His collection was warmly received in Cádiz, where he made appearances on local radio and television, and he had string of events in the Chicago area, as well. In short, his book was a model for what I like to call an ethos of “publishing-as-community-building.” I was so taken by the manuscript that I happily wrote a preface. Letras Latinas Blog has long had in mind publishing an interview with him based on The Silver Teacup. Letras Latinas Associate Roberto Cruz (’17) conducted the following interview.


RC: Roberto Cruz
LV: Louis Villalba

RC: Some of the time periods in these short stories go back hundreds of years. I realize that the city itself has a lot of history, but how do you as the author manage to go back in time yourself and write about these places and experiences as if you had been truly present during some of the time periods you describe?

LV: You need to live there as a child, perceive the love of the natives for their land, breathe the history of the town, and feel that you belong to the same ancestral past. Extensive reading can give some clue about what hides under the surface of an ancient city—obviously you need to do so to write historical fiction—but you need much more than that. You must listen to your elders, catch their expressions, and sense their feelings.

RC: The first story, “The man in the Blue Tunic,” gives an interesting start to the presentation of the book as a whole, including descriptions that take us back in ancient Rome. Was there any particular reason why you started Silver Teacup with that story?

LV: I wanted to highlight the glorious beginnings of Cádiz. Although the city was founded a thousand years earlier, it reached its maximum splendor during the Roman Empire. Cádiz was an example of how Romans integrated their conquered territories into their system of government. Four Roman Emperors were born in Spain: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius.
The tale brings out the history and myth of this enchanting town, where anywhere you dig a hole, you find artifacts or human remains going back thousands of years. As a five-year-old child, I used to go to an old theater called “El Comico” every week. My cousin and I sat in the highest and cheapest area in the auditorium, which we called “El gallinero,”—the coop—because it was full of rowdy children. We used to watch Lone Ranger movies and cheered at the top our lungs when our hero pursued the outlaws on his horse at full gallop. With the passage of time, the building was demolished. Several feet underground lay the remains of a Phoenician man who had died jumping a fence—he rested on his side with one of his arms elevated—seven hundred years before Christ was born. Little did we children know that we were disturbing the sleep of one of our ancestors with our vociferous behavior.

RC: I find it really interesting how you can navigate through these different time periods in Cádiz’s history. How is it, though, that you decide to pick the specific perspectives from which you write? Are any of these perspectives relevant to some type of experience in your own life?

LV: Most of the tales are based on stories that I heard as a child, so most of the accounts go back to that period of my life. Some tales like the “The Old Man and the Dog” derive from true events that recently occurred. But I moved the plot to my childhood, and let it unfold right in my neighborhood where my memory could go back and pick someone who had made an impact on me and transformed this person into the main character. Some are based on events in my life. For example, “the Ruby Ring,” was based on a ring that I lost swimming on one of the beaches in my hometown.  When I came back to the US, I mentioned the unfortunate loss to one of my patients. The following month, she came back for an office visit and told me that during a dream she had seen my ring in the bottom of the ocean.

RC: Looking back on all these different stories, is there anything about Cádiz that has remained unchanged? What are some of the changes that you find most compelling?

LV: There have been drastic changes in the geography of Cádiz since the time of the Roman Empire. There are only a few things that have not changed: the blue color of its water, the azure of its sky, and the bright sunlight that bathes its cityscape almost every day. Antonio Machado wrote that Cádiz was made up of “salty luminosity.”
The most compelling change lies in its people’s philosophy of life. It seems as if Gaditanos —as the people from Cádiz are called—look at any event that affects the world through the prism of three thousand years of experience. Nothing from outside their hometown rocks their lives. They have a pragmatic view of what is important and what is not. An anecdote illustrates this philosophy. When the Gulf War was going on, scores of bombers took off from the US air base in Rota, Cádiz. The planes roared over the sky of Cádiz on their way to Iraq as the people in my hometown were enjoying Mardi Grass. A chirigota group composed a song with the following refrain:
“Ay que casualidad! ahora una guerra gente no respeta ni que estamos en carnaval”
“Ugh! What a coincidence! Now, a world war … people don’t even respect that we are celebrating our Mardi Grass.”

RC: There are specific stories, like “The man in the Blue Tunic,” and “Carnaval,” that distort the sense of time, that is, that the past and present are meeting at one single moment. How do you feel this component functions in the book?

LV: It brings the past to life and establishes its continuity with the present, conveying that things are not only the way they are, but also the way they were. The writer can describe two contrasting yet connected views. It also improves the readers’ relationship to the story because they can pick up the thread of the plot in the present and trace it back to the past. This makes the tale enjoyable and engaging. At least, that is my hope.

RC: How has this city and its history influenced your writing? There is an obvious integration of its history in the book, but what is it about this history that compelled you to write these short stories?

LV: I wanted to remind the world, particularly the Anglo-Saxon world, of the great contributions that Cádiz has made to the history of humankind. It was the far west frontier of the ancient civilizations, a major outpost in the discovery of America, and the most important center of commerce between Europe and the American continent. I selected March 2012 for the publication of the book to honor the two-hundred-year anniversary of the first Hispanic Constitution that was held in Cádiz on March 19, 1812 and has served as a template for the fundamental laws of all Spanish-speaking democracies.

RC: All of these stories have their own perspective. There are some, however, that do not necessarily appeal to the history of this city, but rather specific experiences like in “The Accordion Man.” Is this another way of presenting the city, not through its large buildings and amazing history, but rather through the perspective of a specific man?

LV: I was inspired to write this story after I had seen a Romany man play the accordion on a street corner in Madrid. His expression was one of restrained sadness and fear of people’s rejection. I transplanted him to Cádiz because I wanted to describe my hometown through the eyes of a migrant troubadour who tries to survive amidst the beauty of its cityscape, his life’s harsh reality, and people’s indifference to his contribution to their happiness—through his music.

Louis Villalba was born in Cádiz, Spain. He graduated with a degree in medicine and surgery at the University of Seville. He completed his training in neurology at Chicago Medical School, where he taught for over thirty years. Board certified in neurology and clinical neurophysiology, he has published seventy-three scientific papers and book chapters over the course of his career. The Silver Teacup is his first creative work, published in 2012. More recently, he has published, The Stranger’s Enigma, his second book of fiction. Visit his website at:

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