Darlene Campos was born in Texas and graduated from the University of Houston with a BA in English and Creative Writing. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas. Her debut novel, Behind Mount Rushmore, was published in the wake of many successful short stories such as “The Fork” and “Wild Horses.” Her short stories have won multiple contests and prizes such as the Sylvan N. Karchmer Fiction Prize. One of her short stories, “Bat Springs Fever,” was published in the first edition of Tucson Tales.Find Darlene online on her website and @DarleneCampos91 on Twitter.
Kayla Wactor: I’d like to start by asking you how your first novel, Behind Mount Rushmore, was born. You’ve written a lot of short stories, including “Bat Springs Fever,” which was published through Tucson Tales. What inspired you to make the jump between being an award winning short story writer to becoming a novel writer? Would you mind telling me a little about what that process was like for you? Did you get published through a literary agent after multiple editions of your manuscript?
Darlene Campos: I knew I wanted to be a novelist since I was ten years old. The biggest issue was I had no idea how to become a novelist until I went to college. After doing some research, I found out it was a good idea to have publishing credits under my belt before trying to publish a novel. So, I actually wrote each chapter from Behind Mount Rushmore as standalone short stories and then I put them together for the book manuscript. Over half of the stories were published in literary journals and two of them won significant awards. By the time I started querying agents and publishers, I had more than 40 published credits to my name and I would say this helped a lot— it showed I was serious about writing! I do not have an agent because I signed a contract directly with a small publishing house called Vital Narrative Press. They are such awesome people to work with and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
KW: Is there any particular reason you decided to publish children’s fiction rather than adult fiction?
DC: Yes! The simple reason is that it is much easier to move the heart of a child/young adult than an older individual. Adults are usually pretty set in their ways and habits and it can be difficult to convince them of new ideas. Children and young adults are still learning about the world and still molding their beliefs, so they tend to be much more open minded to new concepts. I believe they are the best audience to write for because there is a bigger, stronger chance to reach them. Children are the future indeed.
KW: Your focus for your novel is on the people living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. What kind of research did you do for your novel? Is this a group you’re familiar with?
DC: When I first started writing Behind Mount Rushmore, my knowledge of the Native American community was minimal. I was eighteen at the time and basically all I knew was the skewed story of Pocahontas thanks to Disney, that Squanto spoke English and helped the pilgrims, and that Native Americans lived on reservations. However, my history professor at the University of Houston made a class presentation about Pine Ridge. He talked about the poverty, the alcoholism, the teacher turnover rate, etc. Until that day, I had never heard of Pine Ridge and I was stunned. In my professor’s words, Pine Ridge is “just behind Mount Rushmore” and it was surprising to me that I had studied Mount Rushmore extensively in school, yet I knew nothing about the Lakota community of South Dakota. After seeing this presentation, my interest sparked so I began studying Native American culture and customs, the Lakota community, and Pine Ridge. I read tons of books, visited the nearest reservation to me and talked to the people there, and watched thousands of hours of documentaries. In total, Behind Mount Rushmore took six years of research. I researched so much because I wanted to be sure I did not stereotype or misrepresent Pine Ridge and the Lakota people. As a minority, I know how much it hurts to be stereotyped and misrepresented in literature and other media, so I really did not want to do the same. Ten percent of Behind Mount Rushmore sales go straight to Pine Ridge since the funds are set aside for Thunder Valley CDC, an awesome organization run for and by Pine Ridge that builds affordable housing, provides employment opportunities, and educates children about their Lakota culture.
KW: There’s been a strong push for more racially diverse books for younger audiences. Even with public awareness campaigns for diverse books, only a small fraction of children’s books are by or about marginalized communities. Did you have difficulty writing your novel or finding someone to publish you?
DC: I wouldn’t say writing Behind Mount Rushmore was difficult. It was a lot of hard work, but it wasn’t the toughest task of the project. Trying to get it published was much more difficult than the writing process. When you set out to publish a book, especially when you’re a first time novelist, it’s hard to bring attention to your work because you’re unknown. You have to have a query letter that grips the agent/publisher and you have to research agents and publishing houses to see if they accept your genre and then you have to send out tons of emails and wait several weeks for a response. Sometimes I was up until 2 or 3 a.m. just sending out queries. Fortunately, I had publishing credits to show off in my query letter, but I still received 122 rejections for Behind Mount Rushmore. Overall, the rejection letters were short and some were actually encouraging. I only had one letter that was a bit on the rude side, but in writing you have to have thick skin and not take rejection personally. The press I’m with focuses on diverse books by diverse writers which was definitely a big help because we turned out to have the same goals: more diverse books for readers.
KW: Your characters all have really natural sounding and funny dialogue in your novel. I’m thinking of a lot of instances, but the part about the Buttman symbol really made me laugh. It sounds just like something an elementary student would say! Where do you get the inspiration for the conversations and antics of your characters?
DC: My inspiration is all around me. My family members and friends have strongly influenced my writing. In my family, humor is a big part of us, so this is why I drop some humor in even my most serious pieces. The television shows All in the Family and Roseanne were also major influences for the characters. Ate’s character, on the other hand, was totally different. He was really serious and didn’t do much except ramble about life to his neighbors. Then I changed him into the funny person he is now, but I killed him off in an early, early version of the chapter “The Operation.” I turned in this chapter as a writing assignment for a creative writing class. My classmates were so upset that he died and they convinced me to revive him, so I did. Ate continues to be a favorite character for most people who have read Behind Mount Rushmore. I consider him to be the best character I’ve created and I will always have a special place in my heart for him.
KW: The Pine Ridge community has a sort of small-town feel to it in how everyone is interconnected. You can’t do anything without becoming the talk of the town before sundown. What was it like creating a tightly-knit community like that? Did you draw on personal experience?
DC: I’ve lived in Houston my entire life with 6.5 million people stuffed around me, so I don’t know how it feels to live in a small town— hah! However, my family lives very close to me and has for several years, making us a close-knit community within a big city. I grew up with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living less than ten minutes away from me and this made my life feel like a small town where everyone knew everything about me. I feel Nimo’s pain of being the center of attention!
KW: For most American audiences the struggles that Nimo and others have with poverty are not struggles that they have personally experienced. Does your novel convey a message to those people? Do you relate to the people you write about?
DC: Poverty is something I drew from personal experiences. My parents divorced when I was fourteen years old. Overnight, I was in a single-parent household. My father is a physician, so when I was a younger kid, I had everything I needed and more. When he moved out, my mother took a job that paid close to nothing. As a result, life became harder pretty quick. It was tough to get materials I needed for school, tough to get new glasses, tough to get new shoes and clothes, and especially tough to get food. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all the time because they were cheap to make. I love peanut butter, but I could not stand peanut butter during those years. But, my mother and I survived with humor. Those years were extremely difficult, yet full of laughs. You don’t need to have a lot of possessions to keep your sense of humor— that’s the message I want to send.
KW: Was there any particular scene that you struggled to write in your novel? If so, how did you tackle it?
DC: Without giving away spoilers, that would have to be the chapter “The Bullet.” This chapter was originally meant to be the final chapter of the novel, but my thesis director (Behind Mount Rushmore was my thesis project for my MFA in Creative Writing) asked me to change a significant part of it and then add one more chapter right after it. I was resistant at first because I felt “The Bullet” was the true ending, but I’m glad I listened to the advice. Now, I feel the ending of Behind Mount Rushmore is the ending Nimo deserves.
KW: I’ve heard that you’re working on a second novel. Would you mind telling me a little bit about it? Can we expect to see some more from the characters in your novel or short stories?
DC: Yes! A second and third, actually. My second novel is titled Summer Camp is Cancelled and it stars the characters from “Bat Springs Fever.” Lyndon Baines Juan Perez lives in Bat Springs, Texas. He has two best friends, Javier Melendez and Teodoro AKA “Ted” Esquivel. His parents own El Paso Paradise, the biggest and best Mexican restaurant in town. He also lives in the third largest house in Bat Springs and his sweet but sassy Grandma Raquel lives next door. Life seems perfect for Lyndon until he starts sixth grade. He has a big crush on Melody Martinez, his closest female friend since pre-K. Melody, however, has her eyes on Fernando Quintero, the star basketball player of the Huerta Hawks and a SEVENTH GRADER! What Melody doesn’t know is that Fernando constantly ridicules her behind her back. She doesn’t know this because she is deaf. Lyndon is torn between introducing Fernando to Melody to make her happy or telling her about the real Fernando. Thanks to Lyndon, Fernando and Melody start dating! But he still has the chance to tell Melody the truth…or does he?
P.S. The novel contains a short crossover with the Thunderclaps from Behind Mount Rushmore.
KW: Last but not least, you’re a great success story, particularly to people who feel intimidated by the prospect of moving from short stories to full novels. What advice would you give someone who is looking to publish their very first novel?
DC: The best advice I can give is simple: don’t ever give up. Writing is not easy and publishing a novel is definitely not any easier. There will be times when you feel like you’re not a good writer and you shouldn’t even try anymore, but this is not true! Rejection letters show you’re trying. Wear them like a badge of honor. Keep on writing and keep on querying even when you don’t feel the drive to keep on. Even when everyone you know tells you that you can’t, show them you can. As long as you don’t give up, your book will be born, I promise. As Winston Churchill said, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never.”
To view Darlene’s video for aspiring authors on YouTube, click here.
Don’t miss our review of Behind Mount Rushmore,
Campos’ short story Bat Springs Fever, and
an excerpt to Campos’ Summer Camp is Cancelled.