From Border Life to PEN/Faulkner
Cinco Puntos Press
On May 4, 2013, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso, became the first Latino writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The book, Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club, is a series of character-centered tales that all touch upon, in some way, a bar called the Kentucky Club in El Paso, near the border with Mexico. The book’s publisher, Cinco Puntos Press, can also be found in that same border town. It’s a small, independent publisher founded by husband and wife Bobby and Lee Byrd, whose focus is to discover great writers and produce quality books. With the PEN/Faulkner award, they appear to have been successful. ForeWord Reviews recently interviewed the publisher and author.
Tell us about the history of Cinco Puntos Press. When, how, and why was it founded?
Lee Byrd: We (Bobby and Lee Byrd) started Cinco Puntos Press in 1985 out of our house. We were two writers with three kids, and we were sick and tired of working as technical writers. We had been visiting with Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough of North Atlantic Books (they published a poetry book of Bobby’s called Get Some Fuses For The House); they told us they were making $25,000 a year as publishers (it was 1984), and we thought that sounded great. So we decided to start. We didn’t know anything about publishing, but we did know about great writing, and we did have lots of friends. We had a friend named Dagoberto Gilb, who had just won a big prize for his collection of short stories. We told him that if no big publisher came looking for it, we’d like to publish it. And we did. We started out not knowing anything at all, really, and have learned from each new book and from other publishers as we went along. In the meantime, our son John Byrd, has joined us in our work, a very important asset.
As a small, independent publisher, what are the challenges in book promotion and distribution that you’re finding? Is it less challenging now in the age of digital information?
Byrd: The big challenge is always cash flow. We are nationally distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, so we have great distribution, but we don’t have the kind of money that allows us to advertise or promote the way the bigger publishers do. Nonetheless, we work hard at promoting the books we publish.
Do awards like the PEN/Faulkner turn into increased sales? How do you measure the impact of an award like this?
Byrd: Awards are wonderful. Our books have really gotten many important awards. We do measure the impact of an award through book sales and through attention. An award like the PEN/Faulkner brings wonderful attention to Ben, to Cinco Puntos, to El Paso, and to the border. Ben is the first Mexican-American to win that award, and this is the first time in fifteen years a small press has won the award.
Mr. Sáenz , tell us about the Kentucky Club and why you were able to gather such rich material around that one place.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz: The Kentucky Club, a bar on Avendida Juarez, just a few blocks away from the Santa Fe Bridge, became a hangout for Americans during the prohibition era. Over the years it became something of an institution. It was one of those bars where people from both sides of the border gathered, a watering hole that came to stand for something much greater than itself. Over the years, almost everyone had an experience of the Kentucky Club, a personal story. In a way, it came to be a kind of home. It was easy to gather material around that one place because so much has happened there. It is a place that has brought together the denizens of the border, and, in a way, it’s a kind of glue. And, of course, it is a bar. And there are plenty of stories that are told and created in a bar, in any bar. In a word, it was rather easy to gather rich material around that one place.
You are the first Hispanic author to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award. It’s fitting, since Hispanic culture is becoming more ingrained into US culture. Do you consider yourself as representative of any larger movement or style of Hispanic literature?
Sáenz: No, I guess I don’t consider myself a representative of any larger movement. I don’t know that in this moment in time there is a movement in Hispanic Literature, just as there is no movement in American Literature, in general. I think what’s happening is what should be happening. Latinos are writing what they need to write. We have many, many voices writing today, and those voices are expressing the fact that we, Latinos, are very, very diverse, and that our experiences cannot be captured by any one voice because Latinos as a whole are as diverse as Americans as a whole. I don’t think we need a literary movement. What we need is a readership by non-Latinos.
Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club takes place around a physical border, but the stories are also about people and lives surrounding that border, and characters considered to be on the borders of mainstream society. What can this book add to the national political discussion about US–Mexico borders?
Sáen: Everything written about the border generally tends to be written in newspapers. The border is about violence and drug wars and decapitations, and our sense of the border comes from the news and from headlines. But I wanted to write about the border and create characters that are just people. People live here, and we’re like everybody else. We suffer and have dreams, and we’re poor and we’re rich, and we struggle towards some kind of salvation. Some of my stories deal with drugs from the inside. Small time drug dealers and addicts—well, they’re just people. And they’re victims of their own shortcomings. But they are also victims of the entire drug world that is about making money. Drugs are a very successful business, and there are people in the world who are part of that entire enterprise that are not evil, nor are they violent, nor are they less human than the rest of us. I think we need to look at the whole border situation from a different perspective. Drugs cross borders every day. Borders mean nothing for products. But they mean everything for the people who create those products. Borders are complicated. They are not nearly as simple as we make them out to be. And, at least, those of us who live on the border understand that. America, as a whole, doesn’t have a clue. So I just wrote about characters who are just like anybody else. Maybe that helps the conversation. Maybe it doesn’t.
How do you balance teaching and writing? Do they work hand in hand, or is it often a choice every day as to which you should focus on?
Sáenz: I don’t know how to answer that question except to say that life itself is a balance. I have always had to balance all the things I do in my life, and I think that just makes me like everybody else. I don’t worry about it. I just do it. Nothing can keep me from writing. I write because I need to write. And I will continue to write. And I teach because I love to teach. We all find time to do the things we need to do and love to do. And it doesn’t seem like much of a chore. Life is complicated and it will be so. I just jump in and do the things I need to do. Writing and teaching are two different arts—but they are not mutually exclusive either.
Lee Byrd and Benjamin Alire Sáenz