Interview with Diane Gonzales Bertrand

Growing up in Houston, my summers were split between the cool quiet of the library and the crazy heat of the neighborhood pool. Now I’m a parent and following the same schedule, this time with my children in tow. Recently I caught up with Diane Gonzales Bertrand an author whose books populate both the children and adult section of our public library. A native of San Antonio, Diane is the Writer-in-Residence for St. Mary’s University in addition to her successful publishing career.

Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?

Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, I grew up in the Woodlawn Lake neighborhood where my parents still live. St. Mary’s University, where I teach, is just up the road from the lake, and my house is about ten minutes away. One of my favorite pastimes is to walk the path around the lake for both exercise and inspiration. We Gonzales children spent many summer days there feeding the ducks, trying to build rafts to successfully sail the shallow lake, playing softball in the grass, and swimming in the public pool nearby. Characters in my imagination, especially characters who are children, often talk louder in my head when I am walking the lake. I know the inspiration comes from my own memories there.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

Since 1988 when I actively started to work toward getting published, I learned to “steal” time to write. While my children napped, or if I sat in a car waiting for their activity to be done, or if the children went to the zoo with their grandparents, I took advantage to write at the computer or with my notebook. When my children left for college, I wrote in longer stretches at the computer. However, I write long hand in my notebooks on a daily basis because I write with my college students, drawing inspiration from the writing prompts I give them. Many of my stories, poems, and novels develop first in a notebook.  hen I take the mornings of days I don’t teach and skim the notebooks for projects I want to expand with a concrete group of readers in mind.  Because I also help my elderly parents as a driver for their errands, I find myself lately “stealing” time in doctors’ waiting rooms, but also get inspired when they tell me about their childhoods during the drive.

You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?

I am grateful to be a poet as well as a writer for children. The precision of choosing language, creating imagery, and determining line breaks in writing poetry helps me rethink word choices, sentence structure, punctuation, and ways my words can inspire illustrations by the artist in a picture book manuscript.  When I write for older children and teens, I have to been keenly aware of authentic dialogue, gender differences, and cultural attitudes that motivate my characters to make decisions, get active or stay passive, and learn from their peers or their own mistakes instead of relying on an adult to “fix” a problem. Preaching is never an option in writing for children and teens, so I am grateful I have a group of writer friends who read my manuscripts-in-progress and give me critical feedback so that “Diane the Mom” doesn’t interfere with plot and characterization.

In addition to being a successful author, you are also an award-winning writing teacher and writer-in –residence at St. Mary’s University. How do you balance all of your different roles?

I balance roles by having an incredible support system. From my great husband Nick, who makes sure my computer works well or drives me to author’s appearances so I don’t feel so lonely in hotel rooms when I travel, to my parents who helped with the children, or to my friends, siblings, and relatives who tell others about my books.   deeply appreciate my two children, Nick G. and Suzanne, who were intuitive editors and critics when I first started writing for children, and even now at 23 and 25 still discuss plot and characterization with me and help me find a realistic and authentic way to tell a story I struggle to express.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

My favorite writer is the author whose book I am currently reading!

I am a fan of William Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, and Poet Shel Silverstein. I was inspired to begin writing seriously about my own cultural influences after I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and Carmen Tafolla in graduate school. Because of speaking at library conferences, I have had a chance to meet many children’s authors who work hard, inspire others, and always had a friendly word to share with less experienced authors or writers new to the business. I have never forgotten the kindness of writers like Pat Mora and Naomi Shihab Nye in advising me when I first published my books. They taught me to always keep my own artistic needs in mind no matter how busy I am, to be willing to negotiate for a fee a school or library can afford, and to never compromise my values in order to get published.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Writing is a solitary venture, but writing with plans to publish needs a network to support you both professionally and personally. Join a local writer’s group where you can meet other writers to give you critical feedback on your manuscripts, and where you can learn to offer kind, diplomatic feedback on their work too. Join a national group like SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) to learn about the business of becoming an author and go to conferences where you can meet editors and agents and network with other writers too. Try to squelch the jealousy monster when another writer gets published and you don’t.  Bitter feelings stifle creativity. Take a long walk to grumble alone and then “let it go.” Once a manuscript is in the mail, start a new project to take the sting out of rejection and to keep your skills and artistry at their best.

What are you working on now?

I am currently compiling my poetry for a small book to be published by Pecan Grove Press, a small poetry press at St. Mary’s University where I work.  I am working on a short story collection for teens, and hope to have enough stories written to submit the book in 2013.

And I’ve written several picture book manuscripts that are currently circulating among book companies looking for a “home.”

Do you have any upcoming appearances or events?

In July I am presenting a novel writing workshop for the southwest chapter of SCBWI. In the fall I will be promoting my new book Sofia and the Purple Dress in bookstores in San Antonio and Laredo. I am also one of the speakers for the Texas Association of Bilingual Educators Conference October 24-26 2012 here in San Antonio.

You can Diane Gonzales Bertrand’s books at your favorite local bookstore or online.
This interview was also printed in the August 2012 Houston Banner newspaper.