From a Newtown Literary contributor: Camila Santos
Writer Camila Santos's work was featured in issue #18 of Newtown Literary. Originally from Brazil, she has lived in Long Island City since 2004. Her work can be found in The New York Times, Columbia Journal, Words Without Borders, and Minola Review. She received an MFA in fiction from Queens College, and in 2020 she was named a Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellow. We interviewed her about her writing and her answers are below.
When you think about Queens, what first comes to mind?
I think of Astoria in the early 2000’s and my first years in New York City. I lived in an apartment in a three-family home. From my bedroom, I could hear the N train pulling into the station and it soon became white noise. All my neighbors spoke Portuguese, including the landlords, who also lived there.
I bought milk and bread at a deli across the street that was called Salami’s, the signage a loud green, white and red. The owners were Korean and I always wondered why they kept the original name. There was a Croatian social club down my block and on weekends, they played live music. I’d hear accordion and sometimes catch glimpses of a singer through the curtained windows. On Sundays, I’d have lunch at a Brazilian spot called Vila Brazil. It’s still there and it’s still my favorite place to go when I’m feeling homesick. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had moved to one of the liveliest and most diverse places in the country and after almost eighteen years, I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the United States.
How does Queens influence your writing?
Most of my writing revolves around Brazil and to be living in one of the largest Brazilian communities outside of my home country certainly helps me feel more connected to my roots. To chat with a shopkeeper in Portuguese, to hear live Brazilian music on weekends, to eat the foods that I crave when I’m homesick—I feel that it’s very easy to do all these things in Queens. But other than this connection to Brazil, I also love to take walks in Gantry State Park and sit under the weeping willows that face the East River. I think about characters and plot lines, read a good book, or simply people watch.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
A short story called “High Rise” by Frances de Pontes Peebles. It was published in Guernica last summer and is based on a real-life case that happened in Brazil during the first months of the pandemic. A five-year-old boy dies after falling nine stories from a luxury high-rise while in the care of his mother’s boss. The boss is a rich society lady, and the mother works for her as a maid. Not only is the piece extremely well-researched, but it employs six different points of view. It is through this mosaic of voices that the reader pieces together what happened the day the boy died and even though I was very familiar with the case, Peebles still managed to surprise and move me.
What inspires you? Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the story featured in the journal?
It’s hard to answer that question, because I draw inspiration from so many sources: conversations with my friends and with family, especially my mother. But also my own experiences. I’m constantly asking the question “what if?” about various events in my life or the lives of others. I'm writing to answer that question. I love first-person novels and short stories with a strong voice. I try to pay attention to the world around me—the gestures strangers make while riding the subway, how light changes throughout the day, the smells and sounds around me. Music is also a big source, especially songs in Portuguese. I love the older work of Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque, the exuberance, playfulness, and possibilities in language by artists like Tom Zé. I’m a huge fan of Ada Limón and Mary Oliver—the images of nature in Oliver’s work, the simplicity in language and narrative force of Limón’s.
I wrote the first draft of "The Cadence of Silvery Waves" a long time ago, so I don’t quite remember its earliest source of inspiration. The protagonist, Marisa, is a young woman without many professional choices, living in a space within her own country that is not hers, but that allows her a certain degree of freedom. In subsequent revisions, it became clear to me that I wanted to write about a woman caught between motherhood and her personal and professional fulfillment.
What does your writing process/routine look like?
I don’t really have a writing routine, but I do have very concentrated bursts of productivity. When I’m working on new material, I write all the time—early in the morning before work, during lunch breaks, on the subway. I’ll pull all-nighters. When the material excites me, I just seem to find the time. Once I finish a first draft, I give myself a break, and won’t write anything structured for a couple of weeks.
I’m a bit more structured with revisions. I usually give myself a certain number of pages that I need to revise within a specific time frame. Weekends usually work best for me because I can work during longer periods without being interrupted.
Another routine that anchors me in my writing life is reading first thing in the morning. I wake up before my husband, the house is very quiet, and I have the kitchen to myself. After I brew a cup of coffee, I’ll read for at least half an hour before starting my day. If there is time, I’ll also squeeze in some writing.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Because I’m in my head so much (what writer isn’t!), I crave movement to feel present in my body. I love to run and was training for a half-marathon but am currently injured, so now I’m taking yoga classes and walking around the neighborhood. In the summer, I swim at the Y because being in water has a very soothing effect on me. I also love to cook and am always trying out new recipes.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
I’m finishing a short story collection, writing some poems in Portuguese, and drafting a personal essay about my relationship with my father and his family.