Go Out and Taste the Dirt: A Normal Interview with Tim Z. Hernandez by Paul Sanchez

“The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,

A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,

Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?

The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’ ”

— Woody Guthrie, 1948


From author Tim Z. Hernandez’s first book in 2004, the poetry collection “Skin Tax,” the speakers in his works have been coming to terms with what it means to be “un hombre,” a man, within a culture that expects machismo to encapsulate what masculinity is and can be.

Fast forward to 2013 and Hernandez’s first documentary novel, “Mañana Means Heaven.” The book took a cherished moment from one of the greatest books of the 20th Century, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and through documentary methods and research, he fictionalized the untold story of a female character, Bea Franco, the “Mexican girl” from Kerouac’s famed story.

Now, after years of research, Hernandez has written his second documentary novel, “All They Will Call You,” about a plane crash that occurred in remote western Fresno County almost seventy years ago. The circumstances and attitudes about this latest book’s main event connects the methods and themes of Hernandez’s previous works.

Hernandez will visit the Normal School staff with a book launch event in Fresno on Jan. 27 and a reading and craft talk at WordFest 2017 on Jan. 28. Prior to his visit, he talked with us about documentary novels, reading Kerouac as a teenager, and the important lesson that sometimes being a writer is more than sitting down and writing; being a writer is about living and those who are living, as well as those that have lived.


Paul Sanchez: Please share your definition of a “documentary novel.”

Tim Z. Hernandez: “All They Will Call You” is a “documentary novel” because it draws its subject material from real-life incidents, the same way a documentary film does. In order to construct the narrative it utilizes documentation, photographs, audio and video transcriptions, interviews, testimony, etc. And just as in film, the book also includes “re-enactments,” or “re-imaginings,” to bring a character or scenario to life. 


PS: What are some important steps you take in the process of writing a documentary novel?

TZH: Perhaps the most important step is applied research. Get out from behind your desk and physically engage with the world of your book, with your subject. As Matsuo Bashō wrote: “If you wish to learn of the bamboo you must go to the bamboo.” Go out and taste the dirt you are writing about, laugh with the people you are writing about, eat the food and drink the drinks that you tell about in your stories.


PS: When was the first time you heard of the plane crash that became the subject of your latest book, “All They Will Call You”?

TZH: I found an article in an old 1948 newspaper back in December of 2010. This is when it all began for me. I was gripped by the mystery of who these people were. It was enough to pull me in.  


PS: What were some important moments as “All They Will Call You” became a reality, from conceptual planning to research and finally publication? 

TZH: The most critical moments were when I would finally find a family related to the passengers. Sitting down to ask them the first questions would become the most vital moment to the entire project. I had to be a great listener. I had to be sensitive yet tactful, gentle but fearless in what I asked and how. It was an enormous learning curve for me, but I was a willing student. 


PS: As a big fan of “Manana Means Heaven,” I want to ask what started your interest in Jack Kerouac and other Beat Writers?‬

TZH: I was a fan of Kerouac since the age of 18. A friend who lived in Sweden turned me onto Kerouac’s book, “On the Road.” For an 18-year-old boy, coming of age, that book really is a kind of motivation to get out and seek the world, and perhaps, find your place in it. Back then I wasn’t interested in “The Beats” so much as just Kerouac’s books. And then right after I read “On the Road,” I picked up “Dharma Bums,” and that book too held a whole other approach to life, something a bit more spiritual maybe. And then after that was “Mexico City Blues,” and that’s when I knew I’d be a lifelong fan of Kerouac’s writing. He is boundary-less. His writing and thinking crosses all sorts of lines. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I began to discover that his work was part of this bigger school known as “The Beats.”   


PS: What are some personally significant lessons you learned, not just about writing but about living, when you studied at the Naropa Institute?

TZH: I was attracted to Naropa for two reasons: First, it housed the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, aka the Naropa Writing Program. It was founded by Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and other rebel writers whose work and spirit I had admired. Second, it was the first accredited Buddhist university in the United States. Its approach to education was contemplative, rooted in Eastern practices and traditions.

I knew that I wanted and needed an education that was not the norm. I wanted something holistic, an approach that required an engagement of the whole body, mind, and spiritual aspect. Not merely an intellectual pursuit. And this really is one of the strongest things I’ve learned and continue to carry with me in all things I do. Be physically engaged with the world. Work from the inside out. At least it’s how I approach writing and creating art.


PS: What do you suggest to writers who want to write a documentary novel?

TZH: The process should feel organic. In other words, the subject should choose you, not the other way around. It’s really less about “looking for a subject to write about,” and more about “am I aware enough, attuned to the universe enough to see what comes across my radar?” As writers, too often we are trained to write, write, write … every single day, show up to the desk and just write. But just as vital, if not more so, is the need to just be. Walk the world with a heightened sense of awareness. Be curious. Explore with the intention of exploring. Spend an hour with a tree. Take time to be fully present and nowhere else. It’s this sense of seeing that will bring us that great idea or subject. And then every step of the way, remain this present for as much as possible.

When interviewing people, listen not just to their words but to their silences. Listen to the sounds of their atmosphere, their breath, the voices that make up their day. The smells and sights, too. All of it. And then, when you do go to write about it, write every aspect of it. Not just the story itself, but the meta aspect as well. Write about your search, your obstacles, your challenges. Transcribe the interviews. Write again the documents you’ve discovered, leave out the fat and keep the meat. And should a vision come to you during the process, write that down too. In this phase your pen should be borderless and fearless.

Your job is only to catch everything. To do this you have to suspend judgment of what is “good material,” and what is “bad material.” Those decisions will come later, in the editing.


PS: What writers and books are you currently reading?

TZH: Because the school semester is back in session, I’m doing less reading right now. But one book that has impressed me recently is “The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far” by Quintan Ana Wikswo. It’s a multimedia body of work that includes stories, texts, and photographs from her work as a “collector of spaces that contain grief.” She is something of an anthropologist and performance artist who literally goes around the world taking up residence in spaces that once held grief or pain, and she records the space as it is now with writing, audio, video, and photographs. This book is aligned with that work.      


PS: What can readers look forward to reading next from Tim Z Hernandez?

TZH: I really can’t answer that right now. “All They Will Call You” is a project I’ve been working very hard at since late 2010. It has consumed every part of my life for the past seven years, and that it’s just now about to be released into the world … all I want to do at this point is focus on giving this book and story its due. Right now I am nowhere else except with this book. There is also a documentary film that I am still working on around this subject, and that is still in the editing phase. We hope to release it by fall of 2017.

Tim Z. Hernandez is a writer, research scholar, and performance artist. He is the recipient of an American Book Award for poetry, the Colorado Book Award for poetry, and the International Latino Book Award for historical fiction. His books and research have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Public Radio International, and NPR’s All Things Considered. Named one of sixteen New American Poets by the Poetry Society of America, he was a finalist for the inaugural Split This Rock Freedom Plow Award for his work on locating the victims of the 1948 plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, the incident made famous by Woody Guthrie’s song of the same name. The result of this work is the basis for his highly anticipated forthcoming book, All They Will Call You. Hernandez holds a BA degree from Naropa University and an M.F.A. from Bennington College, and he is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas El Paso’s Bilingual MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Paul Sanchez is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in poetry at California State University, Fresno. He serves as an assistant editor for The Normal School literary magazine.