Behind the Scenes with Ruth Hernandez, author of Camila and the Freckled Boy

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome, listeners to this week’s behind the scenes episode of Latinx. Lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. And today we’re going to be behind the scenes with Ruth Hernandez who wrote Camilla and the Freckled Boy. Ruth Hernandez is an Emmy winning sound editor for film and television, a screenwriting instructor and an avid soccer fan. She wrote this story after she returned from the World Cup in Brazil. Her parents are Colombian. Welcome, Ruth.

Ruth Hernandez 0:40
Thanks. Thanks for having me. Nice to meet you, Teresa.

Teresa Douglas 0:43
I have a confession. I liked Camila so much in this story, that from the point after I read it, I’ve had to stop myself from calling you Camila. I’ve tried to write emails to Camilla and somehow her name didn’t come up. And I was like, yeah, that’s not the name of the person I’m interviewing. So you wrote a great character. Because I think she’s alive. Though. I should not be writing to almost 11 year old children. That would be a problem. But before before we talk about Camilla, I have to ask you a very, very important question. Because we are metaphorically speaking, sitting at my kitchen table. I’ve invited you in for this chat. Of course, I would serve you some food. And I need to know what is your favorite comfort food.

Ruth Hernandez 1:35
It’s got to be my mom’s arroz con pollo, chicken and rice. And it’s something that I’ve tried to make many times, but it never tastes the same. It’s possible that it’s because she makes it in a pressure cooker. And I am completely petrified of that thing. I always think it’s gonna blow up. But definitely it has to be her arroz con pollo.

Teresa Douglas 1:58
I am glad you’re not the only person who’s been intimidated about setting off pressure cookers, because I was convinced that I would just explode them in my house.

Ruth Hernandez 2:11
Once that whistle starts going, man, it’s dangerous there.

Teresa Douglas 2:15
It’s gonna get real and you’re gonna forget about it and boom.

Ruth Hernandez 2:18
Right, exactly.

Teresa Douglas 2:19
This is why we’re writers because we think of these things. And of course, no food is like what our family makes, because they make it one part real ingredients in one part magic. We would have to then invite your mother over, I see, if we are going to serve that. So that’s good to know. Well, we’ll have her over next time.

Ruth Hernandez 2:42
Oh, can I give a little shout out to her? She turns 90 today. Paulina.

Teresa Douglas 2:46
Yay Paulina!

Ruth Hernandez 2:49
Paulina is 90 today.

Teresa Douglas 2:51
Amazing. Paulina, I hear that I should ask you for food. So make a note for that. Anyway. So now I’ve invited her over and invited her to cook for us. I’m sure that would that goes over well. I get distracted by food. Let’s let’s move away from food. And let’s let’s talk a little bit about Camilla and about you and your process for writing. So let’s let’s just start, actually, from the beginning. How long have you been writing?

Ruth Hernandez 3:23
I’ve been writing since I was little since I learned to write. I liked doing little stories. I’m a screenwriter by training. I went to film school. So that’s really, that was my first outlet. But I started writing prose probably a good 10 years ago. I became very serious about writing prose. I have an anthology of short stories unpublished. And I have a novel in me that is slowly rearing its head. But yeah, fiction is definitely one of my first loves. For sure.

Teresa Douglas 4:02
Well, let me ask you because I took a short film editing course at one point. And it was interesting to see the differences in telling the story because there’s so much of that visual element that’s right there in front of you that you don’t have to describe. Would you say that coming from a screenwriting background change the way or or affect the way you approach writing stories?

Ruth Hernandez 4:40
Absolutely, absolutely. Screenwriting is basically shorthand for prose writing. You don’t have the real estate to dive in, you don’t have the chance to to describe what someone’s thinking. Everything’s visual. You can only really write what you see. So Initially, when I was writing prose, that was one of my problems, everything was just a visual description, but I wouldn’t get into my characters minds. And that’s what I love so much about prose, you can just go in there and tell the reader exactly what a character’s thinking and it’s expected and the possibilities are infinite. And you can really create real characters that way. Versus screenwriting, it’s very difficult to do that in an hour and a half of just visual scenes. When it happens. It’s magic. But it’s difficult, it’s difficult to get the depth that you do in prose.

Teresa Douglas 5:45
I think, though, all of us as writers we have different things that we do well, and other things we have to work on. Because writing is hard. Otherwise, everybody would do it. And there’d be all kinds of things out there. But I feel that with that screenwriting background, and having that firm sort of foundation of what’s going on in the real world, is also a strength because there are some folks who will be so deep in what their character is thinking that the character doesn’t do anything.

Ruth Hernandez 6:18
Yeah. It’s action versus interior conflict. Absolutely. Yeah. So if you can find the balance between the two, I think you’re you’re doing really well.

Teresa Douglas 6:32
Yeah, that’s the secret sauce. And I have to say, just with that information, it’s amazing to me how well you nailed Camila’s voice. Because I have a son that just turned 11 and a daughter that’s halfway to 13. And I heard this kid’s voice. I’m like, yep. Yep. That’s, that’s the age right there. I can tell it’s something you’ve worked on. I feel like you really nailed that voice. And sometimes, I shouldn’t say sometimes, often, if we had to work on something, and we focus on it, that becomes a strength because it isn’t just something you’re doing, unintentionally. You put that effort, that energy to learn it and then you shine. So I loved that about this piece. Let’s talk about this too, because you say that you started this piece after attending the World Cup. Can you just walk us through your process? Like how did you come up with the idea and how did you go about writing it?

Ruth Hernandez 7:49
Well, basically, luckily I did get to go in 2014 with my cousin, Catalina. Both avid avid fans. And our games all took place in Rififi in the town where the story takes place. And it’s in the northeast of Brazil. It’s a small town with a lot of history, but very small compared to the huge cities that we know in Brazil, Rio and Sao Paulo. And the government had built this beautiful stadium specifically for the World Cup. But you had to take a train from Rififi to the middle of nowhere to Pernambuco. And these trains went through several towns. And in one of our games that previous night they had torrential rains, and these little towns were flooded. And I remember seeing a little boy walking while treading through the street completely flooded. The water came up to his chest. He was clutching a paper box above his head. And he was just walking. I don’t know where he was walking to, just trying to save the contents of the box. And of course, the train zoomed by. But that image stayed with me. To this day, it’s such a powerful image. So we get to the game. Everyone in the train is just joyous. Everybody’s wearing their national colours, everybody’s singing, taking photos. And we get to the train station and we see these kids and there are gates separating kids from the people that are coming in and out of the train station. And these kids were just reaching through the gates for anything we were willing to give them for flags or bandanas or shirts or anything and it was all in fun. They were all yelling and laughing. And I would look at these kids and wonder my God what is their life like? Are they gonna go back to the flooded town? Is that what lay for them after, you know, leaving this train station, and something, something hit me. I came back and I wanted to write a travel essay, I thought this is such a serious subject. People should know what’s going on over there. Here’s this, beautiful festival of color, sports and money. And we have these people really struggling in the middle of all this. So I really thought I could do a travel essay. But then, you know, I thought what the hell do I know about Brazil and its people and its history and the struggles they’re going through. So I thought, you know, coming up with Camilla, with a child who’s going through this would be a good compromise. And I could sort of impose what I would think her life was like, in her character. And her thoughts and her dreams.

Teresa Douglas 11:00
Yeah, and I feel like you did that really well. I have the piece open on my computer here. Camila has a boyfriend who is a secret boyfriend, it isn’t until she turns 11 that she gets to say, and then it’s just that kid voice. They’re gonna get married, they’re gonna move to the city. They’re gonna have one kid, of course, because kids are hard. And she just has this unrolling idea of what her life is going to be like, which is very fantastical. And also, she has that deeper understanding of the difference between her and Mattheus, who has a better life. And that, to me, was was a poignant moment without really wallowing in it. Because we’ve all gone through experiences, however small, that really mattered to us and were very serious. But you don’t generally think that your whole life is terrible. This person is just thinking about her worries. And the things that she has to think about which are different from a child from a more affluent place or affluent neighborhood. And she’s wrestling with that idea of class consciousness and her pride, in who she is and what she’s willing to accept. And that was the thing that really caught my eye on this piece.

Ruth Hernandez 12:36
Yeah, I think you nailed the heart of Camilla, I think her pride is really what sets her apart and gives her her point of view. She’s willing to go along with this game with, you know, the fun, but she’s hurting. And she knows that there are those who have in the form of the tourists or even her boyfriend and the have nots. And she considers herself a have not, and yet she wishes she weren’t. She knows maybe out there, there’s something better for her. And she’s just, she’s so young. She just doesn’t know yet. How to get past that point.

Teresa Douglas 13:21
But she knows she doesn’t want a handout.

Ruth Hernandez 13:24
Exactly. Yeah.

Teresa Douglas 13:26
It’s interesting to me, I like that she can’t articulate what the problem is here. Because I don’t feel like all 11-year-olds are going to be able to give you a nice rounded discussion about capitalism.

Ruth Hernandez 13:48
Right. Exactly. Yeah.

Teresa Douglas 13:50
And that’s just the way it is. And it’s nice to see, to catch her in this moment of time. She’s almost there. She knows that some adults mind where she’s from.

Ruth Hernandez 14:03
Yeah, yeah. And that’s a really hard realization to learn. When you’re a child, you don’t you feel like those prejudices exist, or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough not to feel them. But there comes a time when you’re a teenager. I think that’s when you start to realize what your place is, and what the rules are. And I think that’s where she finds herself at this point. She’s learning what the world is really like.

Teresa Douglas 14:37
Yeah. And she’s she’s trying to figure it out. Like she hasn’t given up. There are some issues like her dad and her mom don’t really get on. They’re not the world’s best couple. And it doesn’t seem like she’s trying to have a perfect life or anything. She just wants something better.

Ruth Hernandez 15:02
Yes, she has dreams. And she’s holding on to them. Whatever it takes she’s holding on to them. Yeah.

Teresa Douglas 15:11
So I think I think we’ve covered this. But I need to ask this question because maybe there’s more. Is there a specific impression then that you want a reader to come away with after reading this piece?

Ruth Hernandez 15:27
Well, I know the impression that I got after my trip was I really didn’t know how much poverty there was in surrounding areas of Pernambuco. I mean, this is dire, dire poverty. These are little towns made of shacks. I know they’re in this country, too, in the US. And somehow we become isolated from that, especially, you know, I live in New York, where I don’t see that. I am fortunate enough that I live in a town where we do see homelessness, but not in that magnitude. And a piece like this perhaps can remind some of us that, yeah, this is out there. And we need to have compassion and be generous to those who have less.

Teresa Douglas 16:24
Yeah. And I feel like you hit on that because it’s not every day that we have our places flooded, and we have to relocate. And there are dead bloated dogs hanging out. It helps your sense of proportion to know there are those issues happening. And if we’re having a bad day, because our latte wasn’t warm enough?

Ruth Hernandez 16:45
Yeah, you’re right. It’s all relative. It’s all relative. Can I share an anecdote with you, it just happened recently. To me. I was in the hospital three weeks ago with a kidney stone. And yeah, that is a silly little thing, but painful. But I was in the emergency room waiting for hours and hours on end, because of COVID. I went to a very large hospital. They’re understaffed. I mean, it was a disaster. So I waited nine hours for a CAT scan. So of course, I’m feeling sorry for myself. And I’m walking around trying to stretch my legs. And I walked by, and this is the emergency room where they had these little cubby holes. They’re not rooms, they’re just, they’re separated by curtains. And here I am feeling sorry for myself. And I walked by, and this little boy is on a bed, he’s propped up. 1000 cables are coming out of him like these chains. And his family’s by him, of course, in tears, very quiet. And I realized, Oh, my goodness, what in the world am I complaining about you know, here’s this kid. He’s fighting for his life. His family is in terrible pain watching him. And so, you know, it’s all relative if we just keep our eyes open. That’s really what I try to do with my stories, just show what’s out there and perhaps open somebody’s eyes and say, Hey, things can be bad. I have had a pretty good run. Maybe I can do something about someone.

Teresa Douglas 18:24
Yeah, you’re not living in a slum. You’re not dying.

Ruth Hernandez 18:27
Exactly. Exactly.

Teresa Douglas 18:29
And we all need those reminders here and there. I thought this was a great way to bring that out. And I do love this voice. I love that slice of life. Because I have never been to a World Cup. I didn’t even–I’m going to go ahead and admit that I didn’t even pay attention to soccer until I moved out of the US and into Canada. It’s a little more on the news. It’s a lovely, lovely sport to watch. I get tired just watching people run across the field. But it was nice to get to delve more deeply into this.

Ruth Hernandez 19:17
Yeah, the games definitely are gorgeous. I mean, you see people from all over the world and their country colors and they’re just all having a grand old time. The sad part is, that some people have sold their houses. But when you don’t think about that, everything’s good.

Teresa Douglas 19:38
Nobody, nobody put a gun to their head and said sell your house.

Ruth Hernandez 19:42
Exactly. Exactly. It was all volunteer. Yeah.

Teresa Douglas 19:46
Maybe they’re gonna simplify their life and live somewhere they want.

Ruth Hernandez 19:50
On the beach.

Teresa Douglas 19:51
Exactly. Now I want to go to the beach. This has been lovely. Thank you so much for coming on the show and for sharing Camila with us and I promise if I email you I will definitely not call you by her name.

Ruth Hernandez 20:08
Well, thank you so much for your interest in this story I hope it reaches people and they like it.

Teresa Douglas 20:15
Absolutely. Listeners, if you haven’t read the piece yet I don’t know why you’re listening to this right now but please, please go listen to the piece. It’s a lovely, lovely story and you’re really going to enjoy it. So once again, thank you so much for coming on the show, Ruth.

Ruth Hernandez 20:33
Thank you, Teresa. It was a pleasure.

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