The Proust Questionaire: Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Where or when were you the happiest?
I’m happiest when I’m writing. Or when I’m painting. Though I’m also very happy when I’m sleeping and not having a bad dream. These past few years, I have come to the realization that I am happy at least once a day—if even for a fleeting moment.

What are your pet peeves?
Guys who have to be the smartest person in the room. People with a great sense of entitlement.
Religious people who have no sense of humility. Rude poets.

What is your favorite season?

Autumn. What a lovely way to die.

What living person do you most admire?  |
My mother (my two sisters run a close second)

If you could be a non-human animal for a day, what would you be?
I want to say: “A penguin” but another part of me says, no, no, “a tiger.” Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…  

What is your most marked characteristic?
My sense of humor / my laugh / also though, I cry easily. Am I equivocating?

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I am constantly beating up on myself. If my life was a novel I would be the protagonist and the antagonist.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
I deplore the fact that some people seem to have been born without an empathy gene. I wonder if scientists are working on that kind of gene therapy? I also deplore stinginess in people. Stinginess has nothing do with a lack of resources—it has something to do with a lack of generosity.

Ben_3592(1) What do your friends say about you behind your back?
“God, he still wears red Chuck Taylors.”
“That sonofabitch is publishing another book??!!”
“He doesn’t have a television? Really?”

Who are your favorite heroes or heroines in fiction?
Pip in Great Expectations, Bigger Thomas in Native Son, John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Fermina Daza & Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera.

What fictional characters do you most dislike?
Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises, Daisy and Tom in The Great Gatsby, Marlow in Heart of Darkness.

Who are your favorite musicians?
Kurt Elling, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Pink Martini, Jaunes, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkle, The Beatles, The Doors, Billie Holliday

Who are your heroes in real life?
Ruben García, a man I’ve known all my life and who runs Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, a sanctuary for immigrants and the poor; Dorothy Day who started the Catholic Worker movement; Cesar Chávez whose faith and humility still move me.

What talent do you wish you had?
I wish I could sing, play the piano, dance, do stand up.

What is your present state of mind?
Don’t ask. You might have to buy me several drinks and then I’d have to tell you. And you’d have to listen.

On what occasions do you lie?
Mostly to spare people’s feelings. I hate this about myself.

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Karl Marx. Like him, I am obsessed with analyzing the material world, and like him, nobody will be reading me in twenty years.

What is your favorite journey?
The journey I’ve taken to look directly into the face of the difficult world I live in all of its violence and not avert my eyes. My determination to love this world I live in. This is the only journey that matters.

What living person do you most despise?
Rush Limbaugh. He lacks an empathy gene. I’ll stop there.

What is your greatest fear?
That I am not grateful enough for the life that has been giving me. That I am too hard on other people, not forgiving enough, not generous enough.

What is your greatest extravagance?
I like to treat my friends to expensive dinners. I like to give people I love paintings I’ve worked on for months and months.

What is your greatest hope?
That there will be peace in Juárez and that Mexico will become a great nation.

What do you most value in your friends?
Their kindness, their generosity, their affection, their impossible loyalty.

Who are your favorite writers?
William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Gabriel García Márquez, Denise Levertov, John Donne, e.e. cummings, C.D. Wright, Adrienne Rich, Alberto Ríos, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, David Duncan, Sherman Alexie, Denise Chávez, J.G. Ballard, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers. I better stop, I could go on and on here.

What is your motto?
You don’t get extra credit for doing what you’re supposed to do.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz leads a sold-out workshop as part of the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.

Benjamin was born on August 16, 1954 in his grandmother’s house in Old Picacho, a small farming village on the outskirts of Las Cruces, New Mexico. He was the fourth of seven children and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico.

He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972 though he was not a particularly good student. High school was something he survived–though he was later to use those years as the basis for Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. The culture of the late sixties were very influential in his intellectual and political formation and he numbered among his heroes, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Daniel Barrigan, Dalton Trumbo, Thomas Merton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. The Vietnam war left a permanent mark on him and in 2008, partially out of his outrage for the war in Iraq, he wrote Names on a Map. Using the voices contained in that novel, Saenz explored the way in which a war can destroy a family.

As a writer, as a young man, and as a thinker, he was greatly influenced by Chicano movement and his own people’s struggle for civil rights. He had learned first hand–but especially from his father–how racism could damage a man and stifle the dreams of an entire population.


In the fall of 1972, a few weeks after turning eighteen, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado where he received a B.A. degree in Humanities and Philosophy in 1977. He studied theology at the University of Louvain in Louvain, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. Living in the sunless days of the Belgium sky rain made him desperate to return to the desert—but he also fell in love with running in the rain. He also fell in love with Paris and Spain and Italy. During those years, he spent a summer working in a home for the homeless in Kilburn (in what was, at that time, the Irish slums of North London). The home was operated by the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Theresa. He also spent another summer living in Tanzania. It was during that summer that he discovered the real meaning of the word, “colonialism.” His years in Europe solidified his love of art, and it was there that he began to draw and paint. And though he admired the European masters, his passion remained with the Mexican muralists and contemporary American artists.

In 1981, he was ordained a Catholic priest for the Diocese of El Paso, Texas. After three years, he left the priesthood and wondered around for a year, waiting tables and living in Lafayette, Louisiana and Houston Texas. During his years as a priest, he had begun writing a novel which he eventually abandoned. But he did not abandon his desire to become a writer and he decided to earnestly pursue a career as a writer. In 1985, he returned to El Paso and enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. He then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student in American Literature. The University town environment of Iowa City did not suit his sensibility–though the cold days kept him indoors and he was able to discipline himself to write. At the end of his first year at Iowa, he was was awarded a Wallace E. Stegner fellowship in poetry from Stanford University. He had intended to return to his Ph.D. studies at Iowa after his year as a Stegner Fellow, but that year, the Stegner Fellowships were extended to two years–and he never returned to Iowa City.

While at Stanford, and under the guidance of Denise Levertov, he completed his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award in 1992. In fact, it was due to Levertov’s influence that his first book came to the attention of his publisher’s at Broken Moon Press. After two years as a Stegner Fellow, he entered the Ph.D. program at Stanford and continued his studies for two more years. Before completing his Ph.D., he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program. That same year, Broken Moon Press published his first collection of short stories, Flowers for the Broken.

His first novel, Carry Me Like Water, was published by Hyperion in 1995. The novel was a saga that brought together the Victorian novel and the Latin American tradition of magic realism and received much critical attention. That same year, he published his second book of poems, Dark and Perfect Angels. Both Carry Me Like Water and Dark and Perfect Angels were awarded a Southwest Book Award by the Border Area Librarians Association. Carry Me Like Water appeared in both a hardback and paperback edition in Great Britain and was also published in Holland and Germany in translation. In 1997, HarperCollins published his second novel, The House of Forgetting, which was also translated into French and Germany. His other two novels include, In Perfect Light (Rayo HaperCollins, 2005),and Names on a Map (Harper Perennial, 2008).

But even as he remained committed to the art of writing novels, he continued developing his first love: poetry. His third book of poems, Elegies in Blue, was published by Cinco Puntos Press in 2002. He followed up his first three books of poems, with Dreaming the End of War (Copper Canyon Press), a suite of poems which explore the themes of male identity, American nationalism, violence and war. His next book of poems, The Book of What Remains (also from Copper Canyon) will be published in March of 2010. He is currently working on a new book of poems, Night Disappearing Into a Patient Sky, inspired by a series of mixed media paintings he is working on. 

Following in the tradition of his two highly praised young adult novels, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood and He Forgot to Say Goodbye, Saenz’ latest young adult novel, Last Night I Sang to the Monster continues  exploring the lives of young men in the most difficult of circumstances. He has taught at the University of Texas at El Paso for the past twenty years. He lives, writes, loves, hates and breathes on the U.S. / Mexico border.