Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Conversation with S.J. Rivera

      I had a chance to sit down with Xicano writer, author of the books, Demon In The Mirror and Amerikkkan Stories, and owner of indie publishing company, Broken Sword Publications, S.J. Rivera and ask him some questions about his writing influences, children's books and his plans to take over 2012. Okay, well, I wasn't technically sitting WITH him but I was sitting down when I wrote the questions and I assume he was sitting down when he answered them. If you're a fan like I am you're going to want to read his answers. 

At what age did you begin seriously writing and when did you begin to consider yourself a "writer"?

Does anyone ever really consider themselves a writer? I’d be curious to hear the different responses to that question. Believe it or not, I didn’t really get into writing until I was in college and started getting positive feedback from peers and professors over mundane assignments. I never had the opportunity to really “write” in high school so it was a new experience. Taking a run of the mill writing course in college really turned on a few lights in my head, so to speak…I also started reading a lot of different authors that inspired me.

I didn’t begin seriously writing until midway through college though when I began to write for a Chicano newspaper (that I helped found) and befriended some Chicano poets and writers at school. I also started doing poetry readings in and around town. We started a poetry group and would frequent the coffee shops and bars and do readings for anyone willing to listen. It was fun and there was an energy at readings that was electrifying. You’d read a piece about the hood or about the cops and people would shout out and yell. It felt good. One of the guys in the group had a portable PA and speakers and we’d post up on street corners in downtown Denver or on campus. We’d just go off in the middle of the day and spit Chicano poetry and people walking by. Sometimes we’d crash karaoke bars and perform spoken word over songs that were playing, like “Lowrider” by WAR.

I began to see that there was more to this writing thing than just dusty old books written by dead White guys. It became addictive. I also wanted my voice to be heard and I wanted to reach more people so my interest in journalism grew. At one time I wanted to be the Chicano Hunter Thompson.

Have there been times where you wanted to give up? How did you get past that? 

Yeah, a few actually - life’s funny with the lessons it teaches you. Like many from the “Fight Club” generation I figured I’d struggle for a while but eventually make it as a hotshot journalist and then be “discovered” as this unsigned talent. But real life isn’t like that.

I did indeed struggle and found out what it’s like to amass a pile of rejection letters from traditional publishers and agents. I became a bonafide journalist and discovered that it’s nothing like you think it is – where I envisioned covering “hard news”, I found myself covering 8th-grade renditions of “Bye Bye Birdie” and little league ball games. Talk about disappointment - I went from the fire of street poetry to the mendacity of covering small-town politics. It felt sterile and dead.

No matter how hard I dug for gritty, “real” news I was always tossed back into the reality of journalism – at the beck and call of advertisers…that left a bad taste in my mouth. I was hiding who I was and trying to fit into a mold that wasn’t right. I was, of course, writing all the time after work as an outlet for my corporate frustration but I had nowhere to share it. I missed the freedom of publishing a newspaper where I could say what I wanted, when I wanted, unedited and uncensored. I was at a crossroads.

After 9/11, I switched gears and became an EMT. Again, Hunter Thompson had an influence on me. He rode with the Hell’s Angels for a year and wrote a book about his experiences. I wanted to do something like that. I wanted to throw myself into something completely different and get up close and personal with death and destruction…and then write about it. I got my wish.

I ended up being certified as a firefighter/EMT and even made it half-way through paramedic school. I was hired by two top fire departments in Florida. Here I was in the middle of rookie school as a professional firefighter, signing documents on how I’d want my funeral to go (picking pallbearers etc.) when I had to throw the brakes on and really take a look at what I was doing. It was almost like an out of body experience. I knew that if I stayed as a firefighter I would dedicate the rest of my life to it – I was good at it! But my heart was never really in it and it was time to take off the mask.
I walked away from that career and turned my experiences into a book (Demon in the Mirror). I decided to once again listen to my heart and started my own publishing company and I haven’t looked back since. It was funny because when I was in rookie school; all the guys would ask me what I did before the FD and I would tell them: I was a writer. I would get lots of funny looks. I like to tell people that I was no more a firefighter than Hunter Thompson was an outlaw biker.   

Who is it (outside of family) that you would say has helped you the most? 

Hmmm…that’s an interesting question. My family has helped the most. I would say that the support and feedback that I get from people who read my work has helped quite a bit. There was a couple of counselors here and there but really, family has been the strongest supporter. This thing I do – it requires that you push yourself because there are not going to be a lot of people there to help you. You have to know what you want and be willing to go after it. Some might say it’s a pipedream to become a “writer”…but like they say, the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the pro never gave up. I’ve always pushed myself the most but friends and family have helped tremendously.

Who are some of your favorite authors and what is it that you like about their work?

Whew! There’s a bunch. Hunter S. Thompson is one of my all-time favorite writers. He was amazing. He made me want to be a journalist and a “gonzo” writer. I wanted to be the Chicano Hunter Thompson! He was unafraid to be himself on the page. A lot of people hold back and edit themselves before they ever commit a word but Thompson always wrote whatever he thought and I really respected that. He had a knack with words that made political stories come off like poetry. He was an amazing journalist and a very talented writer. He investigated the Ruben Salazar story long before the mainstream knew what a ‘Chicano’ was. He wrote about politics drugs, booze, and the perils of the American dream. He made being a writer exciting.

Other favorites include Henry Rollins, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Stephen King, William S. Burroughs, Rodolfo Acuna, Rodolfo Gonzales, Subcomandante Marcos, Che Guevarra…and a ton of others. Rollins really had a huge impact on my writing because he was another writer who was not afraid to speak his mind. His writing really appealed to me at a time when I was bored with the “classic” poets and writers. Reading his work was like getting hit with a sledgehammer and I dug that. He also created his own publishing company and carved his own path into the literary world all by himself and I really respected that and wanted to do something similar. Oddly enough, I have a rejection letter from him as well. It says, “Good Luck, Mr. R”. All of the rejection letters and the naysayers motivated me.  

I've read DITM & AS. The poetry and short stories are definitely "Hardcore". How many real life experiences have you shared w/ your readers in those two books?

I like putting a lot of honesty into my work. It’s raw, unrefined and like broken glass. You don’t read a whole lotta stuff like anymore that because people are afraid to be honest about themselves in their art. There’s actually quite a few real-life influences in both works. I’d never admit to all of them and there’s legal disclaimers at the beginning of both books [laughs]. But there’s a lot of truth in both books.

Everyone gets their ideas from somewhere and I’ve always contended that Stephen King must have had the shit beat out of him by some nasty bullies when he was growing up because he writes about it so convincingly. I had a newspaper ask me once if I had ever killed anyone (regarding DITM) and while the question was offensive I took it as a compliment – if my work is making you think twice the I am doing something right.

A lot of things that I write I will lend my imagination to – I enjoy letting the theater of the mind take over and watching what happens. A lot of times I’m speaking to something that happened in the past and embellishing it a little. Other times it’s exactly how it went down. Other times still, complete fiction. I like leaving the reader guessing. I think that’s part of the fun in my work – you’re never really quite sure if I’m pulling the wool over your eyes or not. That said, I think the seriousness of certain pieces speak for themselves. 

Do you have any advice for other writers? (Particularly young writers)

Read. Read whatever you can get your hands on. Read until your blue in the face. If you don’t have time to read you don’t have time to write. Then…write!! Write until your hands hurt. Copy writers you like. Try and get their voice down. But write…you have to get all of those bad stories out of you before you can start writing the good ones and sometimes that takes a while, trust me.

Don’t give up and don’t let people tell you ‘you can’t’ do something. I hated a lot the early stuff that I wrote – to this day, much of it is unreadable to me but it was necessary to “get it out” so that I could learn from my mistakes.

So I would tell young people to not give up, despite negative criticism etc. The world will always need good storytellers, despite advances in technology. Also, write what you want to read! It doesn’t make sense to write something you wouldn’t like to read yourself. I know a lot of people say to write what you know but I think it’s more important to write what you love.  

Your books are self-published. Tell people what that process is like and what the pros/cons might be when going that route. 

It’s a steep learning curve and it can seem overwhelming sometimes. I struggled for a long time to find a traditional publisher and wasn’t getting anywhere. If you read my stuff you’ll see that the kind of stuff I write is not going to end up in the Penguin Anthology of Poetry. I decided to take matters into my own hands much like Henry Rollins did. I was determined to do it myself…whatever that meant. So I read, researched, dotted my I’s and crossed my t’s and here I am. I am the owner of a bonafide independent publishing company. Small but all mine. I’m the boss.

I’ll start with the cons first. You’re on your own. Any and all money required is going to come solely from you. It’s an uphill battle trying to compete with traditional publishers who can afford marketing and promotion, book tours and press. It’s a constant struggle to keep your name out there and to compete with the big name authors who have a corporation backing them. So, it kind of sucks to see celebs hawking their books (they didn’t write) on these lavish book tours but it’s more rewarding to have people actually read and enjoy your book without having to goad them into it with status or big name pubs.

The pros are that I have total control over what I write and how I market myself. No one can tell me anything. I choose the title of my books, the layout, I edit the writing, I choose the artwork – I have total freedom to say whatever I want. I can pursue and publish whomever I want. I love that freedom!

A lot of writers can’t say that because they are restricted by their contracts with their publishers or agents. They have to maintain an image and they have to meet their obligations. I enjoy the freedom to be myself and I think my work reflects that.

I started my business with the intent of seeking out the kind of work that traditional publishers would not spit at. It’s a tremendous effort to put together a book and get it on the market so there’s a sense of self-accomplishment. It’s indeed easier for anyone to self-publish these days because of technology but it’s hard to publish something that people actually want to read. I have a great sense of pride when people tell me they enjoy my books and the work that went into them.

There’s this negative stigma against self-published authors that stems from the traditional publishers wanting to corner the market. The truth of the matter is that there is more freedom in self-publishing now than ever before. There might not be as much money in it but not everyone does it with the illusions of getting rich. I started off doing this just wanting to get my work out there and that still holds true today. It’s nice to make money doing it but that was never the sole intent. As an independent publisher and a Xicano one at that, I feel that I am carving out my own niche and having a blast doing it.  

Are you working on anything right now? 

There are a few things in the works…some secret some not [laughs]. I am always writing so you never know what will come together. For starters, I want to publish an anthology of Latino lit in 2012. I’m looking for raw, hard-hitting talent and I want to showcase that in a book.

Books like that are few are far between so I want to help change that if I can. Again, I want to publish books that I would want to read. I’m hoping to get a couple of heavy hitters on board for that book but we’ll see how things work out.

I’m always writing new material. I may re-release the out of print “Alcohol Soaked and Nicotine Stained” and I’m also working on a short story collection.

What can your readers expect in 2012? (Any children’s books? LOL)

It’s funny that you say that because I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book! I still might someday, it depends. They can expect more of the same from BSP. I’m excited about the future of this endeavor. 2011 was a great year for BSP. I strive to fill a void with my books and hopefully I am doing that and want to continue.

I am hoping to make more public appearances if I can and also to reach out to young people and show them that they have a voice. I think people can expect BSP to come out strong in 2012. This is gonna be a crazy year and I want to be a part of that.

Is there anything you write just for yourself? How much of your writing will never see the light of day? 

Oh yeah - all kinds of stuff. There’s a ton of material that I wrote before my first two books were published (I’m talking volumes) and there’s stuff that was edited out of both of them as well. I write all the time. Some of it will never be shared with people because not everything is for public consumption. A lot of it is too personal. I think Luis Urrea said in an interview once that when you are writing you want to avoid revealing too much because it comes off like a sledgehammer – instead, he said, you want to reveal just enough so as to cut like a scalpel. That resonated with me quite a bit because a lot of my material is very personal. I like to do both…but yeah, a lot of is just for me.

If anybody would like to get info on how they can submit their writing for your anthology or get in touch with you how can they do that? 

You can email me or send submissions for consideration to mail@brokenswordpublications

You can find me on Twitter @sjrivera and @brokenswordpub
You can find me at my website: or on my facebook page:

I host a monthly podcast show which is archived on my site or you can look me up on Sound Cloud at

There you have it. A closer look into the mind of the man behind Broken Sword Publications. Great stuff coming from S.J. Rivera in 2012. I'd stay tuned if I were you. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Life's a Trip. Bring a Map

     I think back on all the trips my dad took me and my sisters on when we were kids. I can shake my head and laugh about them now but back then I was closing my eyes, shaking my head and wishing I'd be home when I opened them. There was that trip to Lake Isabella that didn't quite go according to plan, well,at least I'd like to think he had something better planned. My dad liked to go camping. he took us to places like Yosemite and Sequoia but the trip to Lake Isabella and nearby Kern River was memorable to say the least. 
     My dad bought an inflatable raft. You know, the yellow 4 person NOT heavy duty kind you can buy at Big 5. He parked his orange '73 VW Micro Bus right off the highway, inflated the raft and the four of us piled in. His idea was to ride the Kern River way down to Lake Isabella and then I guess make our way back 10 miles to the van? That ride would have been nice if it had gone according to plan but "According to plan" wouldn't have involved the Coast Guard and made local TV news in Bakersfield. What actually happened did. 
     The water was too high and the current was way too strong  but if it wasn't and we didn't take (and survive) that ride I'd be missing half a story to tell you. I've found as a parent there are times when you find super human reaction speed you didn't know you had. My dad found his when a tree branch hanging over the river and our raft was coming at us FAST. He reached up, grabbed the branch and held on. He was able to stop us there and we climbed out what was left of the torn up (shredded) raft. We were back on dry land. On the opposite side of the highway yes but safe for the moment. He instructed us to climb up the mountain and as far away from the water as we could. I fainted. I'm glad he was climbing up behind me because if he didn't catch me, well again, no blog post.
     Which leads me to the story I'm going to tell you about my trip with my kids up to Sequoia National Park yesterday. We left the house at 11am and headed past Mojave on the 14 freeway. We made our way to the 395 filled up the gas tank at a Pearsonville Shell station and turned around and headed to Hwy 178 but made a pit stop at Indian Wells Brewery before we got there. :)

      We finally made it to Sequoia National Forest but we didn't stop there.
      We kept driving looking for a place to park and check out the trees. We passed the  little towns of Kernville and Fairview where they had lodges and motels. We should have stopped there. We took Kern River Hwy which became Kern River Upper which became numbered Highways. I tried hard to stick to the route my phone's GPS app had laid out for me but that didn't always work because it kept saying I was off the route. My phone's loss of signal didn't help either. We were doing about 25mph when a deer jumped out onto the highway. Slammed on the brakes. That was scary. We kept driving. By this time the sun is going down and the temperature is dropping. We come up to a section of road covered in patches of ice. We drove slow and crossed it. A larger patch came next and about a mile after that the road was completely covered in snow for about 1/4 mile. 3 of us got out of the car to keep the mufflers from scraping on the ground as we passed. Both lanes of the two lane numbered hwy were completely covered in snow about a mile ahead and this time it was at a curve. Brianna was scared. Tony not so much. ( At least they didn't faint like I did) There was no way to tell how far the snow went and what would be coming next. The only option was to turn back.
      Anna put the car in reverse and went as carefully as she could. She did a great job drving She made a 3 point turn and the kids and I got into the car. We drove 30 miles back at about 20 mph with the high beams on expecting at any minute a the same deer family to jump out. Wouldn't you know it, HWY 190, our chance to get back to civilization( Well Porterville which is near Corcoran which might be the next best thing) was closed. Instead we took the 178 which ran along the west side of the river and over to Bakersfield. We weren't out of the woods yet. Aw, come on, you knew that was coming. I know I speak for all of us when I say we have never been so happy to see Bakersfield.
   From Bakersfield south east to Tehachapi and east to Mojave. We were on freeways now and even though by now it was passed 9pm I promised the kids a nice sit down dinner. I apologized to the kids and told them that that was not the kind of trip I had in mind.  You can see in the pic below the trip actually made them appreciate each other (for the 10 seconds it took to take the picture) . At least we made it back in the same car we went with. My dad had to trade his VW that broke down on that Kern River trip  to a family in Bakersfield for a ride back to Los Angeles.

It's funny how this trip came full circle. My dad and I had different ideas but we both brought our kids to the same place. This time God kept me and my kids safe. I told them he would.