In this interview, Angie and I discuss How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, how humor can help a difficult situation, the importance of storytelling, how she decided on the book's unique format, visiting a psychic as part of her research, and much more.
In this interview, Angie and I discuss How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, how humor can help a difficult situation, the importance of storytelling, how she decided on the book's unique format, visiting a psychic as part of her research, and much more.
Angie's recommended reads are:
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[00:12] Cindy: You are listening to the Thoughts From a Page podcast, which is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network. My name is Cindy Burnett and I'd love to talk about books with anyone and everyone. While listening to my podcast, you will hear author interviews, behind the scenes conversations about various aspects of the publishing world, theme discussions with other book lovers and more. For more book recommendations and a complete list of all of my interviews, check out my website, Thoughts from Apage.com and follow me on Facebook and Instagram at Thoughts from a Page in 2022. I would love for you to join my Patreon group. I offer at least two bonus episodes a month and a monthly advanced read and pre-publication author chat. For those on Facebook, I host a special Patreon Facebook group where we all chat books. Thanks so much to those who already participate and I hope you will consider joining us. Today I am chatting with Angie Cruz about How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water. Angie is the author of the novels How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, Soledad, Let It Rain Coffee, and Dominicana, which was shortlisted for the women's prize and a Good Morning America Book Club pick. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. I loved this book and really enjoyed chatting with Angie about it. I hope you enjoy the conversation as well. Welcome, Angie. How are you today?
[01:30] Angie: I'm great. Thank you so much for having me.
[01:33] Cindy: I am so glad you're here because I absolutely loved How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water and I'm so thrilled to pieces that we're going to get to talk about it.
[01:42] Angie: I'm so glad you left it.
[01:44] Cindy: It's really just such an entertaining story with an important message, but there's so much humor, interwoven and to me that makes the best kind of read.
[01:52] Angie: Well, you know, I think that for me, when I'm in a difficult situation, I use humor for levity. And I grew up in a working class neighborhood where a lot of things would go wrong and we would always laugh so we didn't cry. And I think that that spirit of trying to create some levity to survive some of the very difficult situations we were in is something I wanted to bring to Carol Meadow as a character.
[02:20] Cindy: Well, and I think that you do cover a lot of important, sad, heartbreaking topics, but I think adding the humor in is going to bring so many more people to the story as well. And it also just mixes the sad and the happy, which I think, as you're saying, is just sort of a way of life as well.
[02:37] Angie: Yeah, I think that's true. I think I'm pretty funny. I think all my books have used humor in a certain way, but I think this book, a lot of people are saying, I didn't realize how funny you are. I said, maybe it's Cara Romero who's really funny. I do feel like I channeled the character. Of course, I've been writing for a very long time, over 20 years, and in the revision, I made a lot of changes, and I had to scale back some of the tangents that the character wanted to take. But I do think that there's something about Cara Romero’s voice that was so vivid in my mind that I was kind of chasing it, too, like I was trying to keep up with Cara and everything she wanted to tell me about her life. And as the writer, I say this to someone who's not a writer, and they think I might be a little crazy, but I think that writers understand when they find a character that literally keeps them up at night, and she was that kind of character for me.
[03:45] Cindy: Well, I definitely think that translates to the page in terms of her coming to life. But let's back up a little bit, because usually my first question is, just tell me a little bit about the book for those that want to read it yet. But I just had so many things I already wanted to say that we kind of dove in. But let's talk a little bit about the story and just give me a quick summary.
[04:02] Angie: Cara Romero was unemployed during the Great Recession after working in the same factory for 25 years, and she now has to find a job. And she's never gone on a job interview before. So through a special program called the Senior Workforce Program, she meets with the job counselor every week, where she's being asked very typical job interview questions, such as, what are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? And that's how the novel started. I started asking these questions to my character, creating a very specific constraint for myself where I only wrote her answers while I was on a moving train, bus, or plane on my phone. And I did this because I was at a moment in my career where I felt that I wasn't sure if I was going to continue writing because publishing became so hard for me and I was receiving a lot of rejections. And I wanted to figure out if writing I wanted to tap into the writer I was 20 years ago. Which was the writer that was riding on the buses on trains every minute I could get. I was like, jotting down notes and expanding my stories. And that's how I did it. Every day I got on a train or I jumped on a plane. I asked her a question, and I answered in a Google box.
[05:23] Cindy: Well, how did you come up with the idea? Generally, the idea of her speaking to a job counselor, doing the twelve sessions, and then all the hilarious applications and paperwork and things like that that she's filling out.
[05:35] Angie: I mean, that was a process, right? So initially I started in this way where I downloaded I looked up 40 questions, popular interview questions, and that was when I first dropped where I would write a section of her answering these questions. And I did that for about a year and got to know her. And then after I learned so much about this character, I realized, wait, this is not a novel. This is just someone telling me everything they want me to know about their lives.
[06:06] Cindy: Answering questions.
[06:07] Angie: Yeah. So that's when I went in, and I was like, okay, what's really interesting about Cara Romero? What am I really trying to do here? And I came up with this senior workforce. There were these programs in the Great Recession. The government offered these programs for people who had run out of their weeks from collecting unemployment benefits, where if they went to study or they met with counselors, like, for a certain amount of week job training, they were able to continue getting an employment check. And I thought, okay, what if I have gotten the middle showing up every week to do job training? But more like, what I discovered in that process, as I had I was, like, curating these sessions and revising these sessions was that the story became less about her finding a job, but the importance of her telling her story and how storytelling, even to anyone who's willing to listen, actually allows us to transform. It sort of, like, proved to me in some way why I became a storyteller, why I love stories, and also the power of storytelling.
[07:16] Cindy: Well, it works so well for this story. And she literally is just the most delightful character, and she does just go off on these tangents, and she's telling all this stuff about her life. And over each session, you're learning more and more, and you did a wonderful job of dispensing that information. And not only does she really bring her own life and those around her to life, but she also brings Washington Heights to life. And I know that's an area you're familiar with. And was it just so wonderful to write about a place you love so much?
[07:45] Angie: I love writing about what I don't always understand. And I have to say that as someone who has moved away from Washington Heights and visits and comes back the transformation of the neighborhood due to gentrification and really seeing how unsustainable living the ways that I remember living in Washington Heights with an extended family. Living around us with my grandmother. My mother. My aunts. My cousins. All helping each other out with childcare and elder care has become almost impossible because the rents are totally unaffordable. This conundrum in my head about why this is not possible because policies being done in this way or capitalism works in another way really got me wanting to look at how this plays out. And yeah, so the part that was really fun for me was thinking about how all these documents that rule our lives, basically, right? Like, do you have your name on the lease? Will you succeed that apartment? Could you have your grandmother's apartment? All of these questions that I think a lot of people don't actually know their rights. I lost an apartment because I didn't know my rights. And I thought, what happens when we look at these leases and really study them and think about what we're finding ourselves into? But also, how can we keep these spaces that belong to us? They're all right. I didn't know that I could actually keep my apartment. I didn't know how to fight for it. I just believed everything the landlord told me. So part of the use of the documents had a lot to do with me being really interested in knowing more about how laws work and what our rights are, and especially to use the book as a way to be in conversation with people who might have these questions, too, and not know that as caretakers, they might have a right to inherit an apartment.
[09:48] Cindy: Well, in gentrification is a big subject matter of the book and an important one. And I thought your point is wonderful, but I thought on the flip side of it as well, for people that aren't as familiar with what it is like, for the people that are having to watch their neighborhood be gentrified, what that's like? I just felt like it really put me into Cara's shoes and kind of showed me something different that I hadn't experienced before. But also, it just made me so mad over and over and over again at her landlord and the management because they were doing everything they could to push everybody out. I mean, just right and left, all these silly little things. And I've obviously heard about that happening many times, but when you just see it in fiction with this character that you adore, it just so frustrating.
[10:30] Angie: Well, part of it is I think we could look at it on a monetary level and say, okay, landlords need to make more money. There's more expenses. I mean, I spoke to landlords, too. Sometimes they feel like they can't really afford to keep these buildings going, their old buildings, infrastructure, they need to raise the rent. This I get. But I think about when I was thinking about Cara. The thing that was really fun was writing a character where all her invisible labor to keep this community going and make it a big part of the story. How important that is. Especially post pandemic where we I feel like one of the things many of us learned in post pandemic as we were staying home more. It's just how much work some people do in our communities just to keep it going that went invisible before or we took for granted. And I feel like for me, that was really wonderful to think about all the different like, yes, gentrification is terrible. Because it's pushing people out. But even more terrible is that it's breaking up families and it's also destroying the infrastructure of care that our government is not doing. They're not taking care of our elders and they're not supporting our children. So if we think, oh, if there was free education and there was free day care and there was free elder care, then you could even argue that there's a way that we could sustain the care of our communities. And I mean, everyone's community in all classes, I see us struggling with the same problem. At least before Gentrification, there was a structure that allowed for the care. So I like to say, like, Cara Romero was unemployed, but she was employed by her community. She wasn't getting paid for it.
[12:21] Cindy: And I loved that aspect of the book as well. And I think you really do bring that home as the story progresses without any spoilers. But yes, but what an important pillar she was in the community and how much she was helping people. But the other issue, and she comments on this a lot throughout the story of Gentrification is that it's also switching out a lot of the businesses. So the Bodegas and some of these other businesses where you can go in and get a $2 cup of coffee, suddenly you've got Starbucks or some high end coffee and it's $10. And just some of the different things that happen when a neighborhood is flipping and how all of those issues make it difficult to live there. Not just the rent and the families being broken up, but just the entire infrastructure.
[13:01] Angie: Yeah, I'm glad that you that's part of the work of the book. I think it's just to show how everything's changing the ways that we live with our community. Also the food and a lot of it is positive, too, right? Like, it's not all negative, but I did want to show kind of a holistic transformation in her. Like, she has to change with the times, but also in her community and the people around her. So, yeah, it's funny because it's a slim book. Everyone says, oh, my God, it seems so short, the book. Right. But the reaction is that it's a lot of story. Even if the book is short, there's a lot inside of it. Yeah. And it was a challenge to try to get it all in there and that amount of pages, because I wanted a short book. I aimed for a short book because using the monologue, I felt as like a choice. Felt like I had to restrict to some degree the time frame. So if you read it a certain way, the sessions actually match the amount of time that she was in those sessions.
[14:12] Cindy: Oh, I love that. I just loved the paperwork. I mean, truly, that was so much fun. I spent so much time pouring over it and reading them and rereading them. And her answers are sometimes so darn funny that I just would get such a kick out of it. I'd have to kind of go back from the beginning and read it again. So I think that I don't know if that sounds like that was an ad later on, but I just love it. I think it really does complement the book so well. And it is a short book, but there is a lot packed in there.
[14:39] Angie: No, exactly. I love form. Like, in general, I'm really interested in the hermit crab form and the essay. One thing that comes up a lot when I'm talking to my family members is the papers. The papers? The papers. We're talking about the relationship papers or leases all the papers and where are the papers? We're keeping them safe and lock and key. And myself, as I'm moving through these papers, sometimes I think, well, these questions are impossible. The citizenship test, the driver's test, like, all these things, they feel impossible. And I imagine if you didn't speak the language, how much harder would it be? Right?
[15:21] Cindy: Absolutely.
[15:22] Angie: Or like, if you're not part of a certain culture, how much harder would it be? But what if we could answer candidly? What would that look like? And I just had fun with it. The forms were probably the most joyous part of writing this book.
[15:34] Cindy: So I was looking back, as I mentioned this morning, and the citizenship form, and so the first question, have you ever been involved in any way with torture? And Cara says, I mean, if you ask my son, he would say that I tortured him. He didn't like when I looked through his hair and dab lotion on his cheeks, but they were so dry, his skin. So she keeps going, and I just love all those different answers. And at one point she says, what do all these questions say about me when they're asking whether she'd been arrested? And things like that. So it is very entertaining, and I think Kara is delightful, and it did make me think a lot.
[16:05] Angie: Well, I'm glad. That's a great response. When you write a novel, you don't know what's going to happen on the other side of it.
[16:14] Cindy: You really don't know.
[16:15] Angie: I'm always surprised by the reader. In a good way, I've been surprised.
[16:20] Cindy: Oh, that is good. And I loved Alicia the psychic. So tell me how Alicia the Psychic entered the story.
[16:26] Angie: You know, I was thinking about I always look at my horoscope, like, for fun. I don't as much anymore, but when I was younger, I used to look at it and I would think, when you want to believe the horoscope, how true it seems. But when it doesn't sound like you, you're like, this is all bullshit. And then I thought, okay, what if this character really, really believes in these things? You know, what would that look like? And what if you're so desperate, this is one of the ways that you lean into understanding your life and to do the research. I ended up going to numerous psychics and looking at per scopes, and I saw one day, as I was looking up three psychic readings, I said, okay, let me click on that button. And it wasn't Alisa, it was another psychic. But this psychic would write to me every day, tell me today is your day. I know you're going through a hard day. Things are going to get better if you just call me. What would it look like if Cara had a relationship with psychic? I mean, what would she do with it? Right? And suddenly that became part of the book.
[17:41] Cindy: I thought it was a great ad.
[17:43] Angie: Yeah, that was really fun. That was really fun for me because she's in such a terrible situation. I mean, she's a stranger from her son, right, for ten years. It's so painful. She doesn't have the money to pay her bills. She's lost her security from her job that she's had for almost half her life. I was like, okay, her life cannot be all struggle. There has to be something to pull her out of that.
[18:10] Cindy: Let's talk a little bit, too about the estrangement with the sun. So they're estranged. They've had a falling out. How did all of that come about? Where was the origin for that story?
[18:22] Angie: I know of numerous people that I love that have been estranged for their parents, and often they don't even understand how it happened. They can't remember how it happened or why that estrangement has took so long. Like, years will pass. It's filed. But I haven't talked to my mother in five years. And what's interesting is when I wrote Dominicana actually, you're making me think about this. When I wrote Dominicana my last novel, for some reason, that novel compelled a number of my readers to call their parents that they haven't talked to in many years.
[19:01] Cindy: Oh, really?
[19:02] Angie: How delightful. And ask them questions. Yeah. And I would receive these letters from men and women who would say, I read your book, and it made me think about my mother. And I called my mother. I hadn't spoken to her for four years. We had a fighting. I was so angry. And your book made me want to talk to your mother again and to ask questions. Right. Like they understood something about their parents that they may have not before the book. And I was thinking about that because I'm so close to my family that what would it look like? What could my mother possibly do? And also, I think a lot about I have a big community. I'm very invested in queer community. And thinking about, like, I have a son. I'm a mother of a 14 year old, and thinking about why would I ever get in the way of him being in any love relationship? It's so hard to find love I would be so happy for him. And thinking about that also made me think and thinking also about all these laws. I have to say I was very influenced by the Trump presidency and the conservatism of this country. In fact, the novel started in 2017. That's when I started writing it. And I was feeling a lot of despair and thinking about all the violence on queer community all over the country and how difficult it was for people in the south, especially to I mean, the rhetoric that was coming out in the south and continues to come out now, it's in policy, which is even more disturbing. But one thing it's worth the end of the book. When I had to submit the book, I was like, oh my God. God can't say gay either. They're talking about all these don't say gay laws. And here she is also struggling with saying gay. And I thought, oh my God, I didn't even realize that. I did realize that she was struggling, but I was thinking about these people that I was so angry at. I taught in Texas in a very conservative school and I would become very frustrated because I'm like, you seem like such a kind, good person. How could you support such violent policies? It just didn't make sense to me. It really was difficult for me to understand. And I think with Cara, I wrote this character thinking about how can I sustain a conversation with someone I fundamentally don't agree with? And I listened and listened because even though she's lovable, she's also infuriating.
[21:43] Cindy: Absolutely. I do agree with that. I really liked her, but there were times when I was like, oh my gosh. But you also understand time and place as well. Think about generations and where people grew up. And I just think sometimes you don't agree with them by any stretch, but you maybe understand a little bit where the kernels come from.
[22:04] Angie: Yes, but this is why it's so important. I think literature is so important because I think that we're living in a moment where there's not a lot of space and time. It feels like to allow a person to speak their mind in a way where you actually get to see the nuance of what they're saying and also help contextualize why they're saying the thing they're saying. Right? So in some ways, listening to Kada for this amount of time and really getting to know her in the end, like, I was rooting for her. I was like, I want her to win.
[22:42] Cindy: I did too.
[22:44] Angie: And even if I started thinking, like, why would she do some of these things with her son or her sister, in the end I was like, this is an important conversation for me because I really do think that the world has to change. And I do think that listening and having conversations that are really uncomfortable and believing in transformation of the heart, like is essential for something to happen. And if we're not listening to each other and we're not willing to be open to change, we're going to get nowhere. And I feel like literature allows for that. So I don't know. It's only twelve sessions. Got to only speak to she only has twelve weeks. It's not a lot of time. But in that short amount of time, even in my writing her story, I just felt a lot more compassion towards someone like her who has estranged her son. When I believe that when I first started reading her, I was a bit judgmental too.
[23:43] Cindy: I guess I did not like certain things about her to start with, for sure, but I also understood her, I guess, sometimes, and understood that she was trying in some ways and doing the best that she could. But I not saying that was correct, it was just kind of how she viewed it. And then once she understood that she'd really gotten herself into a mess with a variety of people, then she realized she had to change. But I guess you can't start with a character that's perfect or there's nowhere for them to go.
[24:11] Angie: Totally. And you know, the thing is, I love this thing that George Saunders says. He says revision is love and progress. And what I'm saying is that I find her she was like a difficult character initially and a lot less unlikable. When I first started writing her through revision, I found a way to write her with a lot more love and generosity.
[24:31] Cindy: No, that makes perfect sense.
[24:33] Angie: And I think this is the practice, right? Like this is the practice that we should have with each other even in everyday conversation. So a lot of times we'll listen and get on the defense, right? But in reality, if we just take a minute, take a breath and listen again without being defensive, without us projecting what we want from that person and really just listen to what they're saying, then maybe we can see something else there. So yeah, he said something like the initial thing that you would write about a character might be really negative, but then you look at that sentence and you'll say, how can I love you more? And I think about that a lot when I'm talking to someone and I angry at them, I think, how can I love you more? How can I understand you more? I reminded myself to be curious and that's how I got out to this place. It wasn't there in the beginning. I mean, it took me five years to write the book.
[25:34] Cindy: Did you write Dominicana before this one or after this one?
[25:38] Angie: It overlapped a little bit. I started Dominicana back in 2005 and then I struggled trying to sell it and then I came back to it. And in that moment of struggling, that year, 2017, I just worked on this book and then I returned to Domincana.
[25:54] Cindy: So kind of both?
[25:56] Angie: Yes.
[25:57] Cindy: Well, let's talk about the title. It took me a while to get it where I could get it rolling off my tongue. So it's a little bit of a longer title. I understand it from reading the book, but can you talk a little bit about how not to drown on a glass of water and how that became the title?
[26:11] Angie: It wasn't the initial title, and I have to thank the poets. I love the poets, I love poetry, and it really influences me. But I have two colleagues. Diana Coy Win and Yona Harvey. And after we were teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, I said I was struggling with a title and I needed it by the next day. And they just started asking me questions about the book. And I must have said the expression in Spanish. I feel like I'm drowning in a glass of water in Spanish Island. And they were like, how not to drown. It like you mean not to drown in a glass of water. How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water. And we just kept playing with that sentence and we came up with How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water. And it just works. It's a big sentence, but I realized that because so many people use that expression in different languages, it actually is an invitation to the story as well.
[27:16] Cindy: Makes people eager to see exactly what's happening.
[27:19] Angie: And it's kind of self-explanatory like, yes, you can't drown in a glass of water. But some people do look like they're drowning in a glass of water.
[27:28] Cindy: I like it. Like I said, it took me a little bit to get it rolling off my tongue. And it's so funny because Dominicana is one word and then you've got this big old sentence. But it is perfect for the story.
[27:39] Angie: For me, too. But I now love it because I say constantly, but I love people's reactions because I think that I don't know. I always say the story about my kid. Like I raised my son, Trilingual. And I remember one time he's watching a movie and it was the first time he heard Spanish in a movie, and he was like seven years old and it was an American movie. It was like a Disney movie or something, and he had heard Spanish. Like, this character speaks Spanish and he yells and goes, mom, they said something in Spanish. And I was so surprised how happy it be him, and I didn't realize that he was missing the language. And I think that anytime we see something that's familiar, like some people will get excited because the book is set in New York City or they know the street or they know the language. And I feel like that expression has that familiarity that it feels good when you see something that feels like yours inside of a book.
[28:36] Cindy: Well, you mentioned that familiarity and. Before we started recording you and I were talking about Washington Heights and Lin Manuel-Miranda. And that I said every time I heard Washington Heights Then I started singing his song from in the Heights. And so I was laughing because that was one of the things that drew me to the story. I love that area and I love learning about it and I love In the Heights, so it's just kind of fun to then read about that neighborhood as well. And now I just keep singing those songs on repeat in my head.
[29:01] Angie: Oh, it's awful. It's awful. They are so catchy.
[29:05] Cindy: They are.
[29:06] Angie: It's awful. I'm like, oh, I don't want to think about that long anymore.
[29:12] Cindy: Well, before we wrap up, will you tell me what you've read recently that you really liked?
[29:16] Angie: I really loved the book the Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. But I'm also reading a book that I really love right now, Roses, in the Mouth of the Lion by Bushra Rehman. It's coming out in December.
[29:31] Cindy: Another cool title. I like that title.
[29:35] Angie: She's really great. She had a short story collection I read set in Corona, Queens that I taught ten years ago, and I was so excited to hear she has a novel and it's like family stuff from Corona, Queens. I feel like it's a sister book in some ways. She's writing about Queens and I'm writing about the Heights and it's just I love it. I love it.
[29:58] Cindy: Well, Angie, thank you so much for joining me today and the Thoughts From a Page podcast. It was just delightful to chat with you and learn more about Cara.
[30:05] Angie: Oh, thank you so much for the invitation.
[30:09] Cindy: Thank you so much for tuning in today. I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to my podcast. I want to quickly share about this wonderful company I am now partnering with. I am always looking for entities that promote and highlight books and recently came across Bookclubs, a company who provides all sorts of resources for established and new book clubs as well as individual readers. My own personal book club recently signed up on Bookclubs, and the group has been impressed with all of the great tools the site and app provide. The Bookclub's website is linked in my show notes and I hope you will check them out soon. Also, if you like my show, I would be so grateful if you would tell everyone you know about it and rate it on whichever platform you listen on. It truly makes a huge difference and really helps the show grow. The book discussed in this episode can be purchased at my bookshop storefront, and that link is also in the show notes. You will check out some other Thoughts From a Page episodes and have a great day.
Angie Cruz is the author of the novels How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, Soledad, Let It Rain Coffee, and Dominicana, which was shortlisted for the Women's Prize and a Good Morning America Book Club pick. She is founder and editor in chief of Aster(ix), a literary and arts journal, and is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.