This year is certain to be a busy one for Joy Castro, an associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, "Hell or High Water," will be published in July and she's already finished a draft of its sequel. Her second memoir will be published in September along with a paperback edition of its award-winning predecessor (with an introduction by Dorothy Allison). Castro is also finishing a collection of short stories, editing a collection of essays about family and revising a scholarly book on American Jazz-Age writer Margery Latimer. Her work ethic and keen sense of style combined with compelling subject matters lend support to Castro's rapid rise in the literary world.
"I get bored easily, so I like being able to move among different kinds of work," said Castro of her upcoming projects. "If I get stuck, I can turn to a different project for a while. I don't beat my head against a wall when something's not working. I don't get writer's block."
"Hell or High Water," Castro's first novel, is a psychological thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans, following a reporter sucked into a mystery of missing sex offenders and a world of poverty. Castro, whose husband is from New Orleans, said she was drawn to the city's history and culture, emphasizing the importance of location in her writing.
"Place is huge," she said. "Place shapes us. Place forms character. It's there for writers whether we want it or not. I happen to want it and I suspect I'll go on wanting it."
Castro pointed out how the different aspects of a community, natural and otherwise, come together to create a profound sense of place.
"The human-built world — a particular place's customs and norms, as well as its architecture, roads, and so on — determines so much of how we live our lives and what we can imagine for ourselves," she said. "The natural surroundings — the climate, the water, the kinds of trees and plants, the wild animals — are where we find our own deep humanness, our home, our animal selves: those scents, that humid breeze, the way our bodies move in space, those tree-shapes that are so familiar and beloved to our eyes."
Castro has published and taught poetry and spoken of the importance of rhythm and sound to her writing. The music of New Orleans would seem to be a perfect fit, but she said recreating the city's signature musical styles in her writing wasn't one of her goals.
"I'm not really a very musical person," she said. "I have no technical proficiency on an instrument. I have always loved being around musicians. My husband is a guitar player, our son is in a band and when I had a sabbatical, I took cello lessons, because I love the cello's sweet and sorrowful sound. But to recreate in prose the effect of the music of New Orleans is far beyond me."
With a sequel to "Hell and High Water" already underway, Castro spoke of the specific differences between writing the two books.
"The first book took much longer," she said. "I really didn't know how to write a novel, much less a thriller. I couldn't have cared less, initially, about things like suspense and cause-and-effect. My outline was probably the worst outline in the history of novel-writing."
She said an initial focus on language, character development and epiphanies in "Hell and High Water" made for a slow process leading to many realizations.
"I kept having to go back in and make things happen, make the characters do things instead of just sit around and think things," Castro said. "I thought this was pretty heavy-handed and I felt awkward and unnatural doing it, like a bossy puppeteer."
Her second novel, by contrast, went more smoothly due to the mistakes and, ultimately, the lessons she gained from the first.
"By the time I began the second book, I got it," she said. "I got plot. I got the need for cause-and-effect, for dramatic structure, for turning points. I cared more about the reader's experience of the story. Drafting was a much swifter process."
In addition to writing, Castro is an award-winning teacher, who has published articles on innovative classroom strategies. As in her writing, Castro considers justice an important part of the classroom, but said she wants the texts she teaches to speak for themselves and for students to think for themselves.
"Maybe it sounds kind of weird for a teacher to say, ‘I don't want to be didactic,' but I don't," she said. "That would be boring. My best professors never told us what to think or even how to think. They shared great, important, complicated material with us, modeled various approaches to it and let us tear into it. They trusted us to be smart. That's how I like to teach."
Susan Belasco, Chair of the Department of English at UNL, holds Castro in high esteem.
"Her work as a creative writer, teacher and as a colleague is outstanding and all of us are delighted by the success with her memoir, ‘The Truth Book,' and for her forthcoming novel," Belasco said. "In addition to her increasing national prominence in creative writing, Professor Castro is a fine scholar and students and colleagues alike appreciate her courses in literature. Best of all, she is very good company: smart, savvy and very funny."
The variety of genres, subjects and talents in her upcoming projects demonstrates a wide range, but Castro's approach evidences the unique and purposeful perspective she brings to her work.
"The variety keeps things lively," Castro said. "Thematically, they all seem linked to me — all part of one larger project — but I'll leave that to readers to decide."