Jervey Tervalon

Jervey Tervalon and his daughter at their home

Jervey Tervalon and his daughter at home

writer, professor, literary sage, cultural recorder, working class hero, father

As the literary director and founder of both Literature for Life and LitFest Pasadena, Jervey’s vision is to make Pasadena a city that has a vibrant literary culture that serves our public schools and our working and middle class families.

With these organizations he is exploring offering writing camps that do extensive creative and expository writing development that prepare our public school students for high school, college and beyond.  Ideally, the goal is to lay the seeds that will create the Rose City Center for the Literary Arts, an institution that would parallel what the Armory does for the Visual Arts.

With a growing family, several community project brewing, a couple of new business ventures and teaching responsibilities, how/when do you make time to write a novel?

I guess it’s an example of counterintuitive behavior. I enjoy writing, fiction and nonfiction. It’s pleasure to be lost in a fictional moment or trying to organize my thoughts to make a complicated idea not so unwieldy.

At every point in my life where it seems my writing would suffer, having kids, long commutes, broken heart, I still did work. I have two novels on my hard drive. One is at my agent, the other I’m kind of doing an edit, but I’ve it edited too many times.

The problem with writing is publishing. The money, when it comes, makes sense of the work, but it also leads to wanting more and envy. I envy the success of other writers and it’s stupid and beneath me, but I engage in it. Oddly, the most beloved writer I know is Jonathan Gold. I don’t envy him, I enjoy his work and that share in the pleasure of reading. There isn’t the smell of desperation of those of us who came from competitive writing programs.

I can’t complain about a damn thing even if a safe fell on my head and squashed me like a water bug. Every good thing in my life comes from my writing and the habit of reading obsessively. I’ve had the good fortune to be paid to write about the black folks I grew up, about life in Santa Barbara, and Pasadena and now a memoir about race, children, and long distance courting–from Pasadena to Shanghai.

What stories of the world are so interesting to you that you want to write about them?  In other words, where to you find the threads of an idea or concept and then how do you begin to weave them into a novel?  What is your creative process?

I usually write about experiences that resonate with me over time.  Sometimes it’s something that happened to someone I know well.  My best selling book, Dead Above Ground was written in the voice of my mother about the murder of a cousin who fell in love with a handsome psychotic.  

My most recent novel, Monster’s Chef was from the point of view of an insane celebrity.    Though I ‘m not insane—fingers crossed!  I’ve known people who have had the experience of working with powerful crazy people.

It seems that there are more books than ever that are being published, however, with social media, 500 television channels, netflicks, and numerous other ways to entertain oneself, what is the status of reading literature in this country?

What I remember reading is that more people are reading books than ever, or at least books seem immune to the streaming music nightmare where those who creates recorded music can’t make a dime.  It’s incredibly hard to sell a novel and I’ve been fortunate to have sold a number of novels to major publishers, but it wasn’t for teaching and having a wonderful wife with a good job I’d be living in a refrigerator box.

What is the impact of kindle and audio books on the reading community?

It’s all good.  However readers want to experience a book is fine with me.  I read books on my phone but it’s not fun.

Our city has several programs intended to inspire reading among our citizens and to highlight the talents and efforts of writers (One City One Story, LitFest, etc.). What are your thoughts about the impact each is making on the members of our community?

One City, One Story is great!

What we try to do with LitFest Pasadena is to create an event that reflects Pasadena.  At least half our panels and readers are of color.  Diversity is becoming ever more important to be taken seriously in the arts and sciences.  Exclusion generates anger and misunderstanding.  It needs to be confronted and defeated by goodhearted folk. 

We aspire at LitFest Pasadena to have the most diverse literary festival with the best writers.    Diversity and quality are entwined.  Most writers of color have read white writers all of their lives and now we’re showcasing the rest of humanity.

If you could, what changes would you make to these programs to expand their reach and influence?

Require that literature taught be using diverse writers as possible.  Students engage more readily when they see themselves in what they read.  And encourage school districts to use local presses.

Our local school district is working on improving 3rd grade reading scores, what are some strategies you would suggest to accomplish that goal?

Bring excitement and joy to the teaching of reading and lighten up on expectations of short term progress.  Kids at Waldrof schools usually learn to read in later grades and do great.  Not all kids decode text at the same rate, but inculcating a passion for story has the best potential to make a nonreader become an enthusiastic reader. 

Big testing is about money and crushing teachers.   We need to respect teachers and pay them and create the environment to do the best instruction.

What is the role of collaboration in education and in idealcircumstances how would it be manifested?

To do the best work you need to be open to change.  If teachers want to try to collaborate that’s great.  If they don’t, that’s fine.  The cookie cutter approach is the enemy.  Kids and teachers are unique in how they instruct and how they learn.  Variety is necessary in nature…and it’s necessary in education.

You have a small child so how have you incorporated reading and literacy into her life?What are some suggestions you have for parents to provide solid early childhood education for their kids?

Our house is filled with books. Houses filled with books have children who want to read.  If a parent values literacy chances are so will the children.

Parents need to show that they value education so that the child values it too.  To some degree we need to educate parents on how to be better educational parents/educational partners.

What was the process like to publish your first book? How did you overcome those challenges?

I had a great literary education, studying with Marvin Mudrick, Robyn Bell, and Max Schott and the College of Creative Studies at UCSB and then with Oakley Hall at the MFA program at UC Irvine.  I sold my first book, Understand This, and that was my thesis in the MFA program to William Morrow.

Within the realm of writing, what other genres or artistic endeavors are you interested in accomplishing?

I would like to have my books adapted for film. 

Also, I’ve started Literature for Life, a literary magazine that reflects the diversity of California with wonderful well-known writers like Jonathan Gold and Janet Fitch, and great work from unknown writers.  We create curriculum for all the work and now have the pleasure of seeing it used in the classroom.  

My wife, Jinghuan Liu Tervalon and I have started a press, Locavore Lit.LA and with Amok books will commence publishing in the next year.

What is the role of the writer with respect to social justice issues?  As a chronicler of events, or as an activist?

My books I write as I read them.  I don’t control them as much as they control me and write themselves.  I do write enjoy writing political essays for various publications; LA Times, LA Weekly,…

What are you reading right now?

A great novel: “The Sympathizer”Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen.