- An Interview with Nicholasa Mohr*
GD: You began as a graphic artist and then moved into writing. How did that happen?
NM: It's a peculiar story. In fact, I wrote an article about it called, "A Personal Odyssey into Fiction." I've always had a natural facility for writing. After it was suggested to me by a collector that I try writing, I made an attempt and wrote 50 pages. I did not realize it would be so difficult. People in one field generally think that other disciplines are easier, but it's all hard work. Anyway, when I submitted the 50 pages, the agent rejected it. He wanted something more sensational, something with sex and violence, which is ironic because all of that is in my books, but only where it's appropriate. So I just put the pages away, and went back to my visual artwork. Shortly afterwards, I got a call from the editor-in-chief at Harper and Row who wanted me to illustrate a book of poems. When we got together to discuss the project, she decided my work was not appropriate for the book of poems, but she consented to read the 50 pages I had written. Three weeks later she offered me a contract to write a novel. That's how I got started. I was still doing visual art while writing my second book, but by the time I was working on my third book, I was writing almost exclusively.
RN: What was the first book?
NM:Nilda was the first. Then I wrote El Bronx Remembered, In Nueva York, Felita, Rituals of Survival, and my last book Going Home, a sequel to Felita. I have done other writings as well —essays, and scripts for radio and television. I like writing very much. I still do visual art, but not with the same frequency. [End Page 116]
RN: I noticed that Nilda is about a child who likes to draw.
NM: Yes, there is a lot of autobiographical material in that novel. But one of my indignant sisters-in-law told my brother, after she read it, "She wrote nothing but a pack of lies," because the story is actually quite different from my life. There's as much material that's made up as there is autobiographical material in that book.
GD: How close to you is Inez in "The Artist" (Rituals of Survival)?
NM: She is a little like me. The obvious connection is that she's going to art school. But that book is for adults, not children. The only two books that I wrote consciously for children are Felita and Going Home, which is a sequel. I am delighted that Nilda is considered appropriate for the adolescent market, but once adolescents begin to read, they can read anything. I was reading adult literature by age 14.
RN:Felita reminded me of my favorite stories when I was a child. They were about school, friendships, domesticity, and little struggles. But clearly Felita's background is also very important. Everyone's background is important, of course, though when you are a child, you don't usually know you have a background. You assume that the way your family lives is the way life is. Were you conscious of trying to portray for Hispanics and the outside world, "This is who I am?"
NM: No, I'm not conscious of that. I just write about what I know and care very deeply about. I think that the more specific you are in your work, the more universal you become. If I can appreciate a story by Sholem Aleichem about someone in an eastern European village, someone else can certainly appreciate a story about a Puerto Rican child. So I just write about the human drama, the human struggle of an ongoing life to the best of my knowledge. I write about Puerto Ricans because that is what I am.
RN: In the past, though, Hispanic children were left out of children's literature.
NM: Yes, but I, as one person, can't fill a gap that is as vast as the Atlantic Ocean. I...