Q. Where were you in your life when you wrote The House on Mango Street?
A. A graduate student, high school teacher, counselor, and a person who wanted an NEA fellowship, in that order. I started it while studying poetry in the Iowa MFA program and trying to write about something only I knew about that my classmates could not be an authority on. It developed over the years as a piece of fiction when I started adding and manipulating the stories and incorporating characters based on my students. It was no longer a memoir and became a novel. I worked on it from the ages of 22 to 28.
Q. Some might look at your popularity now and think that The House on Mango Street was an overnight success, but…
A. Yes, that’s what the press says, but I tell people that was a long night.
Q. A six-year-long night?
A. It was more than that because I finished it when I was 28 and it really didn’t start earning money for me until the end of my thirties, like when I was 40. So, in fact, [it was] a good long decade for me.
Q. Did you view the writing as being successful?
A. Au contraire. I felt a failure because I couldn’t sustain myself from what I earned from my writing. My day jobs were what mattered, and it was hard to even get those because universities wouldn’t hire me as a real writer. I had to take jobs when someone would open a door for me—another friend or colleague or woman—and then I could take a part-time job maybe for a semester.
Q. Did House’s publication in 1984 give you a sense of validation as a writer?
A. No, because I was here, in my first year in Texas, getting verbally beat up. I had a difficult job and I wasn’t celebrated as a writer. I was working in the community and having a difficult time in my position at a very patriarchal center and having a hard time starting a literature program. So I didn’t really think of myself as an author. I was a community activist, I guess. I was a cultural worker and [House’s] publication didn’t change my life that first year. It really didn’t change my life until about ten years later. I was just having a hard time at work every day and finding another job after I quit that job. I spent my thirties living out of boxes and moving every six months to a year. It was my cloud period: I just wandered like a cloud for ten years, following the food supply. I was a hunter, gatherer, an academic migrant.
Q. In what way?
A. I was migrating because I wasn’t looked at as a legitimate writer. I don’t mean any disrespect in comparing my life to the people who really do the migrant work, but I had to live, pretty much, by moving every year. Even though I had this book, it wasn’t affecting my life. Maybe it was even making my life more difficult because if I wasn’t that writer, I could invest in some job and stay put. But I was trying to live like a writer, which meant I had two jobs and couldn’t get married and have children.
Q. Were these personal sacrifices necessary to create a writer’s life?
A. I needed to make the sacrifices one often makes for a loved one, a partner, or children. I made those sacrifices from my heart and it meant my thirties led to a very unusual life. I didn’t have dogs or houseplants, and I didn’t have partners for very long, the most important thing. A lot of my relationships floundered because of the writing. I always ask women now if they are willing to give up everything for the writing, because they might have to. I warn them that they might not get fame or fortune; I never expected to. The fact that it came means that there’s more work for me to do that takes me away from my desk.