Interviewing Jose Iriarte, former “homework babysitter,” current short story professional

Today, I’m posting an interview that I was supposed to post a month ago, with Jose Iriarte. (I didn’t save the post correctly, apparently, and it didn’t go into the queue. Oops.)

Jose is a new writer–he’s been publishing short stories since 2013, netting sales to markets like Strange Horizons. He has a section on his website titled More about me than any reasonable person would want to know which includes that “he spends way too much time online.” Don’t we all. Don’t we all.

1. You got your first paying magazine rejection at 13 — me, too! Which magazine and how did that experience go?

My first rejection was from Dragon, which I’m sure you remember was an RPG-focused magazine from TSR. It was actually a revise-and-resubmit from its then-editor, Roger Moore, which I was ridiculously excited about. I did revise and resub, and got back a personal rejection saying it just didn’t work. I think I recall reading that Moore made a point of being encouraging to young writers. I can’t recall if I mentioned my age in my submission, but I’m guessing it had to be obvious! In hindsight, it’s probably a good thing this piece didn’t sell, because I cribbed heavily from stuff I’d read in comic books, not being really well-versed at the time in what was homage, what was paraphrasing, and what was outright plagiarism!

I had no idea, at the time, how magazines worked and how long turnarounds were. I didn’t know if they’d tell me they were buying the piece, send me money, or if it would just show up in the magazine, followed by a check at some later point. (Did I even know they paid? I assume so.) So as the months dragged on with no reply, I’d race to the Waldenbooks in the mall at the beginning of every month to grab the latest issue, and flip through it desperately searching for my name.

2. If I’m reading your website correctly, Spanish is your first language. Do you feel like that influences the way you assemble your prose? Are there cadences, grammatical structures, ways of describing things, that you borrow?

Spanish is my first language, but I learned English at a very young age, shortly after I started kindergarten. The vast majority of my reading and other media consumption is in English. So I generally think in English, unless I am specifically speaking or writing in Spanish. I have occasionally deliberately borrowed from Spanish sentence structure as a way to make alien characters speak English and yet sound slightly off. Beyond that, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an influence, but if so it’s subtle enough that I can’t really point to it myself.

On a non-language level, I do make a point of writing Latino characters into a lot of my fiction, usually as protagonists, and of peppering in Spanish. (I could go on and on about that, but that’s really a discussion in and of itself.)

3. Sooooo, tutor to the rich and/or famous? Can you dish?
It probably wouldn’t be cool to name names on the web, but catch me offline some time and I could tell some stories! Basically, I used to work for a private school in Miami where a lot of Miami’s rich and famous send their kids. (Current tuition rates in the $30k range.) Of course I wouldn’t tutor kids I taught, but it wasn’t uncommon for parents to seek out a teacher who didn’t teach their son or daughter and hire them for tutoring. To tell you the truth, it was frustrating work compared to the tutoring I did in college and graduate school. What I found was that very wealthy parents weren’t so much looking for a tutor, as in somebody to supplement their kids’ instruction–they were looking for a “homework babysitter.” My job consisted of sitting next to the kids and basically leading them through their homework and maybe making flashcards or whatever. On the other hand, the sixty bucks I was making per hour was nice!
4. You mention your parents always made sure you had plenty to read, and never censored you. It was that way in my household, too. What attracted you early? Do you find that you still like those books, or that you outgrew them? Did you ever come upon something in your uncensored reading that was a shock to the system?

My first love after picture books was Hardy Boys books. I owned all the original blue hardcover books and also the Detective Handbook. (Can you tell I have completionist tendencies?) Maybe fifteen years or so ago I saw that somebody was publishing new books in the series, so I bought the first, and Iola was killed in the very first book! I was like, What the hell?! One of my daughters brought home a Hardy Boys graphic novel from the library once, and I flipped through it, but again it seemed way edgier than I remembered.

The worst shock to my system I ever encountered was in a novel about people fighting against the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, where one of the protagonists was raped and killed by a Ton-Ton Macoute operative. (To provide extra motivation for the male hero, natch.) The scene was graphic and lovingly detailed, nothing left to implication, no ominous scene-break. I’ve never run into anything quite like it again. It did kind of traumatize me, because I was an extremely sensitive kid and also reasons. Unfortunately, my parents and I didn’t really have the kind of relationship where I could come to them to talk about what I’d read or what had disturbed me. I was of an age where I was quick to see flaws in myself (I’m not sure that’s over, to be honest) and I figured if anything it reflected poorly on me for having chosen to read this book. And boy this got dark fast.

5. On your bibliography, our first publication was listed in 2013 so you haven’t been out there as an author for too long. How has the experience been so far?
Selling that first story was wonderful after 28 years or so of (admittedly intermittent) trying. I’m still all kinds of neurotic–why did nobody read that first story? Why does nobody read any of the other stories? Everybody’s too nice to tell me how much I suck, right? I know that’s it. But even so, I’m a published author and nobody can take that away. That feels huge.
6. Any projects you have coming up, or anything else you’d like folks to know about?
have a short story coming out in Daily Science Fiction called “The Curse of Giants” that is dear to my heart. I think it might be a bit polarizing (assuming anybody reads it of course!) because it’s a very intense story. I don’t yet know when it will run. When I’m not writing short fiction, I write young adult magic realism. I have a manuscript being shopped around right now and I plan to begin drafting a new one in February–hopefully one of them will sell!
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