J.C Salazar, the author of Of Dreams and Thorns, grew up as the child of immigrant parents in Houston, Texas. With a B.A. in English, a MS in Linguistics and another MA in Literature, plus some doctoral courses in English, Salazar values language and writing. Of Dreams and Thorns is his first novel. He is also the author a book of poetry, states of unitedness.
I spoke to Salazar recently about what inspired Of Dreams and Thorns, and the process of writing the book. Following the interview is my review of his novel.
The book reads very much like memoir. How much of it is based on your own experience?
I wanted to write a novel that would capture the essence of my ancestors and their immigrant experience. I decided to center the story in a biography of my father and the things and folks that most influenced his life. I purposely avoided trying to recapture events or scenes exactly, so much of the biography is fictionalized. I considered writing a straight biography of my family, but there was too much opposition because they are quite private and far from understanding literary stuff.
Is there one character that is basically you?
The narrator is some version of me, and my doppelgänger is the boy Carlos.
How much of the settings and events are thing you actually remember, and how much comes from stories your family told you?
My rough estimate about settings and events is that about 35% I experienced or witnessed, about 40% was told me by some elder in the family or a sibling. The remainder are made up by my imagination.
Did you look for a traditional publisher and/or agent, or was indie your first choice?
When I began to write for publication in earnest, I was spending half a day writing and half a day learning all about agents, publishers, self-publishing options, etc.. I began sending out agent queries when I finished my first draft. I sent out about thirty queries to agents and a few publishers. My queries went out in batches of 7-10, and I waited six to ten weeks to hear back. Some rejections were quick, some took six weeks to much longer. Among them, I received a couple with much encouragement, but maybe they were just polite. I soon realized that the time involved to secure an agent and then get a publisher would average three years or longer. That’s when I shifted to self publishing. Just as I was about to begin that process, an editor asked for my full MS. I waited six months and never heard back. I wrote them that I was withdrawing my MS and I then went full steam ahead with independent publishing.
How long did the novel take, and how many iterations of it were there before you finalized it?
It took me six months to write the complete first draft and another year to get through all the editing. I had been doing editing all the while as per beta reader feedback. On my own, I had edited each chapter some four times also. Then I hired a professional editor for structure and another editor for proofreading. Of course, I hired a cover designer, and fell in love with designing covers. I would say that my novel never lost its initial essence, but the final version is easily a fourth iteration.
Anything else you’d like to tell readers?
I published the novel on February 2018. In April, I had an extremely successful book signing at Houston’s River Oaks Bookstore. That was just about as close to the version of a dream come true. Writing this book has become the single most rewarding experience of my life. I do not regret for one minute having published it on my own. My writing skills, not to mention my publishing knowledge, have grown considerably since the publication of Of Dreams & Thorns. I now have no qualms about or hesitancy calling myself a writer/author/novelist.
Those of us born to parents who grew to adulthood in another country, but gave birth to us or brought us as babies to North America share some experiences, regardless of our parents’ native languages, religion, or the shade of our skin. Among our common experiences is the clash between the adults’ wish to maintain traditions, and the children’s wish to assimilate.
Of Dreams and Thorns, J.C. Salazar’s fictionalized memoir of his family’s migration to the United States from Mexico in the late 50’s and early 60’s, is an account of the life of a young husband and father who chooses separation from his family in order to earn money to fund his dream: a small farm in his home village. The story of the brief fulfilment of that dream, the factors that lead him to abandon it, and to move his family to Houston – with the inevitable collision of cultural expectations – is told in immersive detail.
The story is told in third person omniscient, so while we know the intentions and motivations and emotions of Ramiro, the central character of the book, we also know what other characters are thinking and feeling. But the omniscience is sometimes tentative, as if the narrator is deducing what these emotions are, increasing the strong sense I had that the narrator is one of Ramiro’s children looking back on his family’s life.
As a memoir, even a fictionalized one, Of Dreams and Thorns is a comprehensive look at a hard-working, ambitious, flawed man building a life for his family, and doing his best to maintain the traditions of his home culture and country in a new and confusing land. Within the small farming community I grew up in, many of the schoolmates of myself and my siblings were first-generation children, their parents searching for a better life than what Hungary and Germany, Italy and Portugal, Yugoslavia and Poland could offer. I saw the dichotomies and conflicts played out in my friends’ houses; I knew a few myself, because even England and Canada were not the same in all values and expected behaviour. Salazar’s book resonated with my experiences, one or two lived, many observed.
For anyone looking to understand the economic and social forces of that era that made people reach for a perceived better life in a new country, or to glimpse the price that was paid by adults uprooted from their communities and cultures, Of Dreams and Thorns serves well. It is a story told with deep love and respect, and, I believe, with clarity. As a novel, though, narrative choices undermine its effectiveness.
The immersive detail that is a strength if this book is considered as a fictionalized memoir overwhelms the plot in parts of the book. While the purpose of most scenes in either building character or motivation can be deduced, the degree of detail detracts from the building tension. As well, because of the scope of the story, taking place over more than 40 years, much is told to the reader. While this can be, and is, necessary, Salazar tends to warn when a significant occurrence is about to happen, e.g., “What happened next was the unthinkable for Eliza and a doom for Ramiro.” For me, this device reduces the rising tension, instead of increasing it. Action and reaction would be enough to show the significance of the event. In a similar way, unneeded explanations are added to actions: “But (the children) did not rush to their father as might be expected.”
In his best passages, Salazar lets his characters show us their thoughts, and conveys their emotions through their actions. There is strong dialogue in parts, and effective description. But Of Dreams and Thorns will remain with me as memoir, not as a novel; its characters and setting never quite became real to me as a novel’s should, but were perceived as the author’s memories of people and places dear to him.
Of Dreams and Thorns and states of unitedness are available from Amazon.
J.C. Salazar’s website: https://www.jcsalazarwriter.com/