Interview with Wendy Call

The loveliest aspect of living in Iowa City is that practically every writer waltzes through at some point. This Tuesday (10/18) at 7 p.m., Prairie Lights will be hosting Wendy Call, author of myriad stories and essays as well as the just-released No Word For Welcome, a book of narrative nonfiction exploring how economic globalization intersects with village life in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. We shared an epic meal a few nights ago, trading anecdotes about the writing biz:

Tell us about your journey toward becoming a writer.

I grew up wanting to be both a scientist and a writer. When I was seventeen, the latter seemed like a pipe dream, and the former, a rational career choice. I wrote “biology” on the “intended major” line of my college application and never reconsidered that choice. I probably should have. At the end of every semester of my college career, I received a strong urging to reconsider – in the form of a grade report that highlighted my facility in the humanities and mediocrity in the sciences. After college, I worked for three months as a marine biology field assistant. I loved the work, but realized I had no talent as a scientist. I took a job as a grassroots organizer and followed that career path for a decade. Slowly, my interest in social change organizing led me back to my childhood desire to be a writer.

Yes, you have quite a history of working with social justice organizations. Tell us about that, as well as how it impacted your writing.

I was a staff organizer for the GE Boycott in the early 1990s. Then I worked for a Central America solidarity organization that campaigned against NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. After that, I was Communications Coordinator at Grassroots International for four years. My (very generous) boss at Grassroots International encouraged me to take workshops in creative writing and graphic design. My first writing workshop was led by Louise Dunlap, author of the excellent book Undoing the Silence: Tools for Social Change Writing. Louise introduced me to the practice of freewriting – if it weren’t for that practice, I never would have begun writing creatively.

My writing grew from my curiosity about the mechanisms of social change. I was trying to answer the question: What makes people set aside short-term, personal interests and work together for long-term, collective benefit? (I’m still trying to answer that question.) My first published pieces were about community organizing initiatives in Southern Mexico. I ended up writing a book on this subject: No Word For Welcome.


Which is the book you’re promoting now. Sounds like you have organized quite a tour for it: 40 events in all, and not just at traditional bookstores.

Yes. My event venues include a Oaxacan restaurant, a labor union building where I organized meetings fifteen years ago, the main library of the college I attended more than twenty years ago, the visitor center of the national park where I’m currently working as writer in residence, two universities that use my first book (Telling True Stories) as a course text, and my favorite bar in Seattle.

And then it’s back to the writing table, no? Tell us about your daily practice.

I write in the mornings. When I’m teaching, I try to schedule my classes in the afternoons and evenings so I can keep to that schedule. When I’m not teaching, I devote my afternoons to editing projects, administration, marketing, and research. I create a fairly elaborate work plan each month to keep track of all my deadlines and works-in-progress. I tend to work fifty to sixty hours per week, though I don’t have a particularly regular schedule. Because I’m a freelancer, at least one-fifth of my work hours are devoted to keeping myself employed and my writing projects funded. My daily writing time might be as little as 20 minutes or as much as four hours. I only write (and that includes revision) for eight hours in a day when I’m under extreme deadline pressure or at an extremely ideal writer’s colony.

At what point did Latin America become a muse?

I began learning Spanish while working as a grassroots organizer in Boston. I collaborated with local Spanish-speaking groups and with organizations in Mexico and Central America. Basic Spanish was an essential job skill, so I enrolled in evening classes. Starting in 1995, I devoted my annual vacation time to a two- or three-week visit to Latin America. In late 1999 I applied for and received a two-year grant from the Institute of Current World Affairs to live, work and write in Mexico. By the time I returned to the U.S. in 2002, I was able to work as an (unofficial) interpreter and translator and (thanks to editing help from Mexican friends) had published articles in Spanish.

Tell us about your work as a translator.

I am not a certified translator and my sole training was a fabulous two-week summer workshop that I took in 2005. Mundo a Mundo is offered by the Universities of Oregon and Querétaro every other summer – I highly recommend it! The  American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) is also an excellent resource. I am rarely paid to translate; it’s more of an avocation for me. I practiced literary translation in collaboration with a friend of mine, Maria Victoria, who is perfectly bilingual (which I most certainly am not) and writes her fiction in Spanish. I translate her work into English and she translates mine into Spanish. We read one another’s translations and suggest improvements; it’s an ideal learning experience.

You’ve been published in scores of literary magazines. How did you break into that tough market?

I sent my first submissions to literary magazines while I was living and working in Mexico, more than a decade ago. Most lit mags didn’t have websites then, and I didn’t have any way to buy copies, so it was definitely not a well-researched plan. I didn’t land any publications from that first round of submissions (unsurprisingly), but I received some useful feedback. I’ve had the most success submitting to magazines where I have some sort of connection – no matter how tenuous. That said, the most important thing is to make peace with rejection.

Lately, you have also been working as a teacher. How did that come about, and how do you balance the demands of the classroom with your own work?

Though both of my parents were teachers, I never imagined that I would become one. I led several training programs in my years as a grassroots organizer, but I never thought of that as “teaching.” I was simply helping people discover what they already knew. I finally came to understand that’s what teaching is. I “taught” my first creative writing class in 2006; I’m surprised by how quickly it became my primary profession. I greatly enjoy teaching – so much so that I consciously limit how much I do it. When I teach fulltime, I become so absorbed in the work and experiences of my students that I tend to push my own writing projects to the side. But if I’m not writing, what business do I have teaching it?