Catherine Hernandez's writing is both unforgettable and unmistakable. The strength of her voice, her candid and raw vulnerability, and her empathetic storytelling show up in whatever format she is writing, be it fiction (as in her award-nominated novel Scarborough) or in her many beloved plays.
We're speaking with Catherine today to celebrate the tandem publication of two of her most recent plays, The Femme Playlist/I Cannot Lie to the Stars That Made Me (Playwrights Canada Press). Vivid, powerful, and timely, both plays explore what it means to be a queer, brown mother today and how identity impacts everything from body image to parenthood.
The Femme Playlist is set to influential music from Catherine's life, and captures her vibrant, proud, celebratory voice, while I Cannot Lie to the Stars That Made Me acts as a guide for personal healing and coming together for women of colour as a group of women exchange stories around a campfire, acknowledging their collective strength as their tales intertwine.
Given Catherine's experience in many aspects of the artistic process, we're thrilled she's sharing her wisdom through our Going Pros and Cons series, which asks writers how they navigate the professional side of the authorial life.
Catherine brings truck loads of invaluable advice to Open Book for emerging and established writers alike, from advice for first timers setting out to publish to how to get the most out of a writing residency, and much more.
The thing that surprised me most about the publishing process:
I was a playwright for many years and in theatre you’re banking on preview press to ensure the first week of your production is well-populated. The weeks before Scarborough was published, there was virtually no press coverage. I was bawling my eyes out, trying to think positively. “It’s okay. I wrote a book. No one’s going to read it, but I wrote it. That’s an accomplishment.” Then the reviews began pouring in two weeks later. I realized the fiction publishing industry is vastly different when it comes to its pace than theatre media. I was relieved. Only a year of it being published, we are going into our fourth printing soon. I had nothing to worry about.
The advice I would give someone trying to get a book published for the first time:
For theatre, the process is pretty simple. It’s the process before submission to a publishing house that is difficult. First, you have to get your play produced professionally (which we all know is ridiculously complicated), then you can submit it to a publisher. The publisher then assesses the work to see if there is potential for it to be of interest nationally and internationally, if the script can be produced by other companies or if it was very specific to your production. The more flexible a play is to be picked up elsewhere, the more interest a publisher will have in your work.
For fiction, my advice I will give you is the same advice I got from my colleague Farzana Doctor: Don’t submit anything unless it’s ready to be seen. Earlier in my career, I probably wasted some publishing intern’s hours reading my work only to have it sent to the slush pile. Only when I gave myself the time to learn my craft, to seek mentorships, to build my voice, did my work flourish. My first novel, Scarborough, won the Jim Wong-Chu Award for the unpublished manuscript. I actually didn’t submit it to win the award. I submitted it because it meant I would be mentored by the late Jim Wong-Chu. That’s how much I wanted to be a better writer. Thanks to his mentorship and the guidance of Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, the first manuscript was accepted by Arsenal Pulp Press.
What I think about literary awards:
If you have been listed, you’ve already won. Being listed already helps your career. Might as well celebrate with buying a new dress and shoes. I am very thankful to have won the Jim Wong-Chu Award, to be shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award, the Evergreen Forest of Reading Award, and Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction; and longlisted for Canada Reads 2018. But I can’t get caught up in winning. When I find myself getting caught up in “winning” I focus my attention on writing new work.
What I think about writer-in-residence programs:
They are a gift. I use residencies like I would use a designer dress given to me for free: I’d wear the damn thing everywhere, to the grocery store, to clean the house and straight to bed. I don’t waste time while in residence. I give myself ample writing time, experimentation time, research time and play time. I give myself over to the process. That’s what residencies are there for. For theatre, I truly appreciate dramaturges and actors who are willing to give me dramaturgical feedback to improve my material. For fiction, I am actually observing my first residence this autumn. It’s going to be very strange doing a residency without actors or a dramaturg. Fiction can be so lonely sometimes.
The thing(s) I need at/during/before an event or reading:
I assess the space, the crowd, the energy etc. and plan which piece I will be reading. A general rule for myself is, since I am a queer woman of colour and am so accustomed to being ignored or silenced, I have to fricken kill it at the reading. Like, I really have to bring my A game on. There are no half-assed readings in my world. I can’t afford to be marginal. My readings have to be excellent or I won’t sell books. So I choose an appropriate reading that I know will wake everyone up and force them to remember my name and I kill it. I warm up my mouth, I breathe deeply, I give all my energy on that stage and I give a memorable performance.
The thing(s) I need at/in my writing space:
I do not write at a desk. Desks are self-torture devices. So are office chairs. I write on a couch or my bed with cushions around me. I need a window to look out at something beautiful. I can see Lake Ontario from my home office window and that helps. But I seriously cannot write in a space that doesn’t feel good. I can’t write creatively in an airport, or a doctor’s office or anywhere confined, where there are stressed out people. Right now, I am writing these answers in what is possibly the ugliest, most uncomfortable hotel room in Manhattan. The bed is uneven and creaky. The window looks out onto an air conditioning unit. The washroom is covered in mildew. Staff are lovely. The hotel is awful. No one’s fault. It’s just the truth. So I can write this answer, which isn’t terribly poetic, but I will have to leave here for another space like the library or something in order to continue writing my new novel. It’s like the wading pool. I would never put my baby girl into a wading pool where people might be peeing or tossing cigarettes into the water. I don’t like exposing my works of art to spaces that are hideous. I need space in which I can talk to myself, read my text out loud and pace about trying to solve plot issues. When I am happily struggling through an idea, I roll out my yoga mat and do a few poses to get my creative juices flowing.
Catherine Hernandez is the playwright of Singkil, Kilt Pins, The Femme Playlist, Eating with Lola and I Cannot Lie to the Stars that Made Me. She is the award-winning author of Scarborough (Arsenal Pulp Press). Scarborough won the 2015 Jim Wong-Chu Award, was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award, the Evergreen Forest of Reading Award and Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction; and longlisted for Canada Reads 2018. It made the "Best of 2017" list for The Globe and Mail, National Post, Quill and Quire, and CBC Books. She is currently the Artistic Director of b current performing arts.