A native South Texan and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Stephanie Elizondo Griest is an award-winning writer and journalist. She’s reported for the Associated Press and written for The New York Times and The Washington Post. Along with winning the Margolis Award for Social Justice reporting, she has traveled to 46 countries for research for her books. She’s now an Assistant Professor in Creative Nonfiction at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
More information: http://stephanieelizondogriest.com/about/
When did you start writing?
My writing life began almost before I had a living memory. Even before I could physically hold a pencil and actually write words, I was making up stories — telling them to my friends, telling them to my stuffed animals. As soon as I learned how to write, I started a little neighborhood newspaper.
The most formative thing in my writing life, at a very young age, was I had a grandmother who lived in Kansas and I lived in Corpus Christi, Texas. I was very, very close to her, and so I used to write her letters. Literally every exciting thing that happened to me, every thought, every literary image I could conjure, I would write down and put it in an envelope and send to my grandmother. So, that was my earliest writing influence.
I actually never took a creative writing class. I did, however, take a journalism class when I was a sophomore in high school. Then I began to work on the yearbook, because I always had this desire to write books, and so I chose yearbook instead of newspaper. Even though the newspaper was probably cooler and more interesting people were on the staff, I just thought that a yearbook was permanent, a yearbook would be on people’s shelves forever. I wanted to have my fingers on something that had long-staying power. So that’s what I did — I just sort of thought that the options at my high school were the literary magazine and the newspaper and the yearbook, but I thought people will hold onto the yearbook.
So I was a junior editor of my yearbook my junior year, and I became the editor-in-chief my senior year. But I was a terrible yearbook editor — I was a tyrant. I was so mean to my staff that they all resigned! So I learned right away that I’m meant to be a lone wolf in my writing life. I’m not supposed to lead a team because I’m a terrible leader, but we did put out a good yearbook. It came out five months late because I was doing it myself. People didn’t get it until they were off having children, getting married, and way [into] college and having their first jobs... but it was a good yearbook, I can say that.
What kinds of books did you like to read in high school?
I actually did not get exposed to literature until much, much later in life. I did not read anything high-brow at all when I was growing up. I was just reading the very basic — Beverly Cleary, all the Ramona books, all the Judy Blume books. I got a hold of the Sweet Valley High books… books that didn’t teach me anything about literature at all. I didn’t read anything worth reading until much, much later in life, but books were important to me... I really loved them, especially Judy Blume’s books. Those were a very formative part of many young American women when I was growing up. Is that the case for you all? Have you all read the Judy Blume books?
Not really, no. We haven’t read them.
Not really. You all have much more cutting-edge books and literature than I did. In my time, the only author that I knew of when I was in my preteen years that wrote about sex, that wrote about getting your period, that wrote about bras, that wrote about all the kinds of things that you really want to know when you’re that age, was a woman named Judy Blume. For a good thirty, forty years that’s how a lot of young women in this country learned about things like your period, and love, and sex — it was from her books, so they were hugely influential.
The second thing that was very influential in my literary life was a magazine — it may still exist, but nowhere near the form it did back when I was like 14/15. And that was Sassy magazine. Sassy magazine was the first magazine I read that was oriented towards my age group. It was, like its title, very sassy. It was first-person, memoirs, personal essays, about all different aspects of life. They wrote about skinheads, about all-girls schools, about activism — it was really a very important… What was also very interesting was that each of the different writers of the magazine really had their own distinctive voice. Again, this probably doesn’t seem very impressive to you because you grew up in the age of blogs, of Snapchat — it’s all about voice for your generation. But in my generation journalism was very straight laced, very cookie cutter, you had to search far and wide to find something that had any kind of personality to it back then. So Sassy magazine was it. The Sassy magazine was also kind of influential in my age group, growing up in the '80s.
How did you know you wanted to be a journalist/writer?
I was born with a raging case of wanderlust. I inherited that from both sides of my family. My mother’s side of the family migrated up from Mexico to work the King Ranch in South Texas, which is a humongous ranch, the biggest ranch in the world for about 100 years. They had wanderlust — they wanted to set out and have an adventure and experience something differently. And then my father’s side of the family — we actually had a hobo. So my great-great uncle Jake was a hobo. He saw all of America with his legs dangling over the edge of a freight train. He saw all the countryside, and so I think I inherited that wanderlust from both sides of my family.
My whole life I knew I wanted to travel far and wide — I just needed to find out the details. How, where and with whose money. Those are always the key questions when you want to embark upon a big adventure. Journalism just seemed to be the answer for that. Again, from my junior [year in] high school, I started writing for the yearbook. As soon as I got to college, I began writing for the Local Weekly, kind of the equivalent to the Austin Chronicle. I wrote for the Austin Chronicle when I went into college... and things just kind of took off from there.
For me there was never a question of whether or not I wanted to be a writer, it was more just a question of "how am I going to pay the bills if I am a writer?" And so journalism seemed like the most logical way. I just really focused when I was in college. I started working for the Chronicle, I got an internship at Texas Monthly and then during the summers I started getting bigger and more important internships. I was an intern at the Seattle Post Intelligencer, which is a daily newspaper in Seattle. Unfortunately, a lot of newspapers around the country have died or gone under, but back then it was still a morning newspaper. So I worked for them for a summer. Then the following summer, I got an internship at the Washington Post, and that was amazing. I got some pretty big stories out of that. Then my last summer in college I went to the New York Times, and I was an intern there for a summer. I had a pretty successful run with newspaper journalism and then I got one job in newspaper journalism at the Associated Press.
It was during the Associated Press that I had an idea for my first book. I actually quit working at the Associated Press to work on this first book, and [it] took ten years. It was very, very long — books, you know, are nightmare endeavors. They are long and deeply involved projects... I started on it when I was in my freshman year of college and it didn’t come out until I was 30. The first book lead to the second book, lead to the third book. By the time the books were done, I thought, “Ok, I’ll go back to journalism” and then the journalism industry had totally, radically changed. Newspapers all around the country had gone under — they’d gone bankrupt. So there really wasn’t journalism to return to. Then I thought, “That’s awful,” so that was kind of the end of my career in journalism because there just wasn’t really newspapers to go to. So I continued working on books and then I decided to go back and get my degree in creative nonfiction. Is that a term you’re familiar with, “creative nonfiction”?
No, actually, I’m not. We don’t know.
Yeah, I didn’t know what creative nonfiction was. I only recently learned what that is. Creative nonfiction uses all of the conventions of fiction — scene, character and dialogue and all the things you’d think about when you think about a good short story or novel. You use all of that, but you use that craft towards things that actually happen, towards real life. So it’s sort of like literary journalism, but with a bit more personality to it and a bit more time. I went to college and got another degree — my master's in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction, and then I started teaching at universities. That’s sort of how it all went down.
So I’ve had many different jobs as a writer — my journalist years and then I had years where I just lived purely as a book writer, and now I’m teaching creative writing as a professor, and I’m also writing books. Books have always been my life. But it’s almost impossible to live off of books alone. Very, very, very few writers can live off just books. We all have to find some other way of making money and a nice way is to teach.
What are you currently reading?
Unfortunately, I very rarely ever get to read books for pleasure. I almost never do actually. There’s always a reason — which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy what I read, but I don’t just purely pick things because I’m interested in them. I always pick things that are related to something I’m writing. So with that in mind, my next book, the one I’m writing right now is going to be about women artists around the world who give up everything so they can pursue their artistic dream. So women who don’t have families, women who don’t have children, women who really remove themselves from all other preoccupations so they can exclusively focus on their artistry, almost like a priest would. With that book, I am traveling all around the world for it, interviewing women from different countries. The different countries featured include: Peru, India, Rwanda, Qatar, Iceland [and] Romania. So I’ve been traveling all around the world and interviewing amazing women. So the books I’ve been reading are kind of related to that.
So we’ve got this one right here: "Double Bind: Women on Ambition". This is an anthology of essays edited by Robin Romm. And then I’m reading "All The Single Ladies" by Rebecca Traister. This is the history of women who don’t get married and don’t have kids but go off and do something different with their life.
And then the last book I’m reading is really trippy. I just got back from Peru where I was interviewing a really amazing musician who has spent a lot of time working with shaman, and she does sound healing. Which is where you try to fix someone’s sickness or ailment by reinterpreting the sound frequencies around them and then changing it with your instrument. It’s really an incredible thing. She also had a lot of influence from different rituals and ceremonies that shaman do in Peru. It’s very mind expansive kind of stuff. So that got me reading this book, "The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge."
There’s a particular type of concoction that shaman make from the jungle out of two different plants, it’s called iowaska. And you take it, it’s this hardcore hallucinogen, and the first vision people have when they take it is two serpents. This author is trying to argue that those two snakes are actually DNA. That the hallucinogenic is taking you internally so that you see your own cellular makeup. I told you, way trippy.
So I’m reading that book in an effort to understand this one particular person I’m writing about in the context of Peru.
Yeah, so you read very strange things when you do creative nonfiction. Because you’re trying to understand the mindset of the people you write about.
What would you say your favorite book ever is?
It is called "Tracks" by Robyn Davidson.
The genre that I kind of established myself in is travel writing. And this is, without question, the greatest travel log that has been written, in my opinion. It’s a woman, who, when she was in her mid 20s, sent herself to the outback in Australia. And she had this idea, this dream, this vision that she wanted to cross the outback with camels. So she spent two years gathering camels, training the camels, trying to learn how to work with camels. And then she set off on this epic adventure. I think she walked about 1,700 miles over the course of many, many, many months. And she did it all by herself with four camels and a little dog named Diggety. And it is the funniest, heartbreaking and most triumphant book I’ve ever read. It’s just amazing. I mean really amazing. When you read that book you feel you can do anything, you feel really invincible. I highly recommend it.
Who is your favorite author?
My all time favorite author is Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca Solnit is just badass, there’s no one equivalent to Rebecca Solnit. She’s really truly extraordinary. She’s probably written 30 books at this point, and she has several different ways in which she writes. She has some pretty hardcore activist writing, she has writing that she does as an art critic and then she has a whole feminist line of books (one that came out that’s quite popular now is called "Men Explain Things To Me"). But the books that I really love by her are her lyric essay books. One of them is called "The Faraway Nearby." I would say that "Tracks" and "The Faraway Nearby"" are my favorite books. Both really amazing, really beautiful, really poetic. Also very energizing, very fueled, get you ready to roam.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Read widely and live boldly.
Read as much as you can and then live the most exciting life that you can. In my life, my priority has always been “What is the most interesting possibility?” It’s never been “What is the safest?” It’s never been “What would give me the most money?” It’s never been “What do my parents want me to do?” It’s always been “What is the most interesting decision I can make?”
That’s put me in all kinds of crazy situations — picking most interesting in terms of your love life often leads to disaster. But I think that is what has lead me to be the writer that I am... living boldly. And just making decisions based on what I feel will lead to most interesting situations, which will lead to the most interesting people, which will lead to the most interesting material which I can then reflect on and write about.
What advice do you have for young latinas?
Latinas right now, I feel like it’s really a crisis period for us. I mean even today — today something could happen that could send 800,000 DACA students underground. People that thought that they had the license to stay here and had registered with the government thinking that was the right thing to do because they were promised protection, and now that could all go away. It’s a very scary time to be a person of color in this nation so I would say solidarity is really, really key. Reaching out and forming a community and really being there fighting for your community.