Portuguese American Journal

Darrell Kastin’s mystical world of fantasy and intrigue – Interview

By Millicent Accardi, Contributor (*)

Born in Los Angeles, Darrell Kastin grew up in Southern California. Like twisted aces, the writer Kastin’s family radiates in two directions, with his father’s heritage in Russia and his mother’s ancestry emanating from The Azores. He currently lives in Sacramento with his lovely wife Elisabeth.

Through the years, the author has spent much time in the Azores, even living there for an extended period; often he evokes and employs the islands as a fictional setting.

His debut novel The Undiscovered Island, chronicles the adventures of Julia Castro, who journeys to The Azores after her father goes missing. On the islands, she is introduced to incredible tales of sirens, ghost ships and the rumors of a brand new island emerging from the sea, as sort of a sleight-of-hand trick.

In her quest Julia, falls in love with the charming Azorean people, the islands, and is swept away by Nicolau a local musician. The novel is filled with flights of fantasy, folklore, magic, history, poetry and intrigue.

Novelist Richard Zimler praised The Undiscovered Island as “a lyrical and exuberantly detailed tale of mystery and mythology intimately linked to the unique history and natural beauty of the Azores,” and Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, says the book is “a kind of mystical mystery, rich with the people, the folklore, and the ambiance of the Azores.

Kastin is the recipient of the IPPY Independent Publishers’ Silver Award for Multicultural, in 2010. His latest book of short stories, The Conjurer & Other Azorean Tales, was published in November of 2012 by Tagus Press. It’s a collection of short stories which he’d been writing since he lived on the islands in 1987-88.

His short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals, including The Seattle Review, The Crescent Review, Gávea-Brown, Blue Mesa Review, The Windsor Review, and NEO Magazine. He is an accomplished musician and composer, with two albums to his credit: Lullabies for Sinners and Mar Português which sets the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and Florbela Espanca to music, and features a classical/fado like duet with his daughter Shawna and Portugal’s troubadour, Pedro Barroso. Kastin has also set poems by Luís de Camões, and Antero de Quental to music.

Kastin is currently finishing up a new book titled, A Tale of the Azorean Nights, a novel of interconnected stories, which could be called a sequel to The Undiscovered Island.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal Kastin speaks of how his work is much influenced by the Azorean and Portuguese culture, his literary tastes and influences, his creative process and of his work in progress.

What do you think are the major themes, styles or markers for a Portuguese-American literary tradition? In other words, are there similarities or themes that Portuguese-American writers share?

The sense of saudade, as well as the concept of being caught in some region that lies between the world of America and the world of the Azores. Separate, yet, at the same time, part of each side, and not being of either. It makes for inner conflict.

If your stories were written in Portuguese, would they be different? If so, in what ways?

Hopefully more poetic.

Tell me about the “The Conjurer,” a story from your new book. On the surface it is a generational tale of a grandfather from The Azores and his grandson building together an intricate project. In tone, it reminds me a little of Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” What appears to be normal on the surface becomes the gateway for the abnormal or the unexplainable underneath. Do you consider yourself a magical realist?

Although I like much of what is called “magical realism,” much as I enjoy the outlandish stories of Gogol, or an occasional story by Dostoyevsky along a similar vein, I’m not comfortable with labels. Miguel Angel Asturias was writing in the 1940’s and 1950’s in the style of what we now call Magic Realism – only nobody referred to it as such at the time. Mário de Andrade was writing in that vein back in the 1920’s & 1930’s. My novel, The Undiscovered Island, is not, a Magical Realism novel per se. I have written other books and stories that would be considered mainstream or literary fiction, but not Magical Realism.

Some people will call my short story collection “Magical Realism,” but I prefer to see them as folktales. A few are actually based on Azorean folktales, which I elaborated on, and the rest I made up. To regard these stories as fantasy is like taking sarcasm or satire literally. They shouldn’t be thought of as fantasy any more than one would call Faulkner’s or Fitzgerald’s stories fantasies. The stories depict my perception of the Azores. They represent my personal experiences on the islands, my time there, and my interactions with the people of the islands; talking to them, and listening. Others were inspired by the sheer lushness of the islands, and the sea, or gleaned from what I read in old books and magazines. They might not represent the experiences of others, but I can’t help that. To call them fantasy, I think, does a disservice to the stories and to the reader. Fables or folktales, even new legends, yes. Fantasy? No.

So often, the setting for your fiction is mainland Portugal or The Azores or immigrants who are from these places.  Have you lived there?

I lived on the Azores between 1987-1988 and I’ve returned a number of times. I have also spent some time on the continent [Portuguese mainland] as well.

Another story, “Dona Leonor’s Dress” reads like a fable. Is there a lesson to be learned?

Hmm. I think there’s a bit in there about the little things that can be appreciated such as the joy of life, passion and to seize not the day but the whole world. Also, my story, “The Woman who stole the Moon,” published in The Windsor Review, on the surface it is a simple story, absurd or ridiculous from the perspective of the rational world, and yet, the story is really deeper than the surface reveals. What do we really see and/or know of the ones we love? What do we know of the miracle we call love?

Has your Portuguese heritage been helpful for the writing process? If so, how?

Well, it’s given me an identity, or a background from which I could draw. And a locale, which I have used in much of my work.

Could you share a story from your childhood about food or a festa or church related to your Portuguese heritage?

I have fond memories of eating linguiça, São Jorge cheese, Pico cheese, the sugar from the islands that used to be made out of beets. Maracujá. I have a vague recollection of seeing the bonfires at night on Pico during the festa of São João. I have attended a number of Espirito Santo or Holy Ghost festas, too, in various places in California.

Do you have a favorite Portuguese saying or expression?  For me it was “coitadinha,” [poor thing]. When my dad said that to me, that meant I better stop feeling sorry for myself.

“Tudo vale a pena se a alma não é pequena.” [All is worthwhile if the soul is not small] from a Fernando Pessoa poem. That one, and “Tradução é traição.” [Translation is treason] or “Oxalá, se Deus quiser,”  [Hopefully, if God wills it]. These were the things my grandmother Josefina Amarante do Canto e Castro used to say. She was a poet, music teacher, and journalist, who for years wrote the column “Da Minha Janela,” for O Dever, a newspaper published on Pico Island, Azores, and the Portuguese Tribune published in California. She was loved by many on Pico and elsewhere. I dedicated The Undiscovered Island to both her and my grandfather, Francisco do Canto e Castro. While growing up, although I didn’t have my grandfather around, but he would occasionally send me little scenes from the islands that he painted. These tokens reminded me of what they had left behind. Another saying “Sonhos cor-de-rosa,” [Sweet–pink–dreams] is also a nice expression.

When did you first start to identify as a writer?

In the fourth grade I wrote my first attempts at poetry. My teacher lost the packet of poems I wrote that were heavily influenced by my first reading of Poe. I clearly remember feeling like I had just discovered my secret grandfather. When I was twenty, I had my first harkening back to that idea of writing, vague, unformed at first. It took some time before it really crystallized.

How has your creative process changed since then?

It hasn’t really. Sometimes I know where I’m going, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have a whole story in my head, all at once, sometimes just a beginning.

What inspires you?

I’m usually inspired. Typically overwhelmed with various projects, all demanding my attention. I get inspired by what I’m reading, music, beauty, the islands, Portugal, travel––hell, at this point just being alive. There’s a book, The Power of Crowds, by Elias Canetti. I’ve never been able to finish it, because every time I start reading it, I get inspired to write something.

Would you describe your writing ritual? Do you prefer the morning? Do you write at a desk or outside? Do you play music or prefer silence?

Every day, seven days a week, I go to the coffee shop – where I sit with whatever I happen to be reading – my writing, and my coffee. I do my best first thing in the morning. Early! Sometimes I bring my headphones and listen to Beethoven while I read or write.

What writers do you admire the most?

Too many to name. So, I’ll start off with the ones I like with whom people may not be as familiar: John Fante, Davis Grubb, Joseph Foster, Robert Nathan, Gerald Kersh, B. Traven, John Collier, Saki. I also love Dostoevsky, Twain, Poe, Shirley Jackson, Fowles, Dickens, Emilia Pardo-Bazán, Cervantes, Eudora Welty, Eça de Queirós, Amado, Chandler, Hammett, Borges, Saramago, Antunes, Pessoa, Angela Carter, Dickinson, Paz, Llosa, García-Márquez, of course. I love nothing more than finding a writer I’ve never heard of before, someone like Frank Fenton or Tommaso Landolfi.

What special attribute would you like to steal from a writer you admire?

Great descriptive passages, character quirks that bring the characters to life.

Could you name one or two examples of character quirks or great descriptive passages, from another writer, that have left a lasting impression on you?

Well, I’m right dab smack in the middle of a move, so everything is in boxes, nothing at hand. But examples? There are hundreds, from Scout and Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird, to Jim and Huck in Huckleberry Finn; Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, Arthuro Bandini in John Fante’s work, Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter, Marlowe in The Big Sleep. There are too many.

Here is an example that contains both character quirks and is a descriptive passage, which I read just last night from Fool’s Parade, by Davis Grubb:

Mattie’s weathered sandstone features comprised a face which forty-seven years of prison life had blanched but not eroded. In fact, through the years its lines of carven dignity had deepened until they gave him the look, in certain winter lights, of a kind of human cathedral, stormed often but not yet in ruin: the genial gargoyle of his big-boned cheeks and granite chin flying from above the windy buttresses of breast and shoulder. And he had a pipe-organ voice which rolled when he laughed or sighed or menaced softly or sang some fool tune of old, lost Tudor love. While the dark wild-wood eye seemed to focus these gothic features into an expression of cloven and unnatural wisdom. There came a time in Glory Prison when it was believed by many of the other convicts that decades of penitential twilight had driven Mattie’s live eye blind and that the wooden eye had learned not only the trick of sight but of second sight.

conjurerWhy does writing matter? Do you feel that writing makes a difference in the world?

I think writing matters a lot. To live without reading would be like living without music. It isn’t living. Freud and Jung explored fiction, poetry, and plays to formulate their ideas and theories. Jules Verne basically invented the future with his novels. History courses have students read the novels of the particular country being studied for a good reason. People need to not be lazy, to go out and actively seek books they might enjoy. Imagination is something that should be exercised, not discouraged as many parents and teachers do.

What do you work the hardest to achieve in your writing?

I try to write real characters, dialogue that rings with verisimilitude. I try for language that evokes a mood, an atmosphere. A story doesn’t necessarily have to have a strong plot if there is something else you are attempting to do with language and mood. I try to do my best, even, as I said, if that means a hundred re-writes. I’m always going back and tweaking the story. Before sending it out again I ask myself, “Is there any way I can make this better?”

Is there anything that gets you back to work when you’re uninspired?

Usually, being tired is the only thing that makes it hard to feel inspired. But I love getting to work on a new writing project. So, say four shots of espresso, a good book, and my writing.

Is there a story or book you wrote that stands out as being particularly challenging?

Yes, a novel about a teenage girl who finds a diary she believes was written by a murderer––her former upstairs neighbor. She tries to convince the new tenant in her building to read the diary, to take the diary seriously as a confession as opposed to a work of fiction. It was challenging because it first started out as a short story.

Then, after years of working on it, I expanded it into a novel. I tried it as first person, then changed my mind and decided to write it in third person, with a whole crop of new characters. The theme of the book is summed up by the epigram at the beginning: “…of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything.” The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

We are all responsible on some level, to some extent, for what we create, what we leave, what we raise. The monsters among us are not created in a vacuum. So, yes, this was a tough book. I hope I managed all the difficulties well, and that the book will find a publisher.

What excites you about other people’s writing?

I enjoy reading work by writers that is vastly different from mine. I know writers who think there is one way to write, and only one way, their way, but how boring is that? All writers should not write like Hemingway, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or any other writer. I don’t believe in schools or categories. Ugh! You read to be inspired, but work to develop your own style.

Has anything surprised you about your creative life? Like something that happened you did not expect?  A nice surprise or bonus you did not or could not have predicted?

Just endings when I thought there was no ending in sight, no way to end a story, and then, voila, there it was! That’s always nice. Or when I feel I can’t write anything, and before I know it, there is a new story that arrives out of left field. I always find it interesting what a particular person picks as a favorite story (or song, for that matter) out of the collection. Everyone has a different take. It’s interesting.

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(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming). She has received fellowships from CantoMundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD) and California Arts Council. Recently, she taught poetry at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk; University of Texas, Austin; The Gathering at Keystone College; Nimrod Conference in Tulsa, and the Mass.Poetry Festival. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie