Interview with Maria Nieto, author of Pig Behind the Bear
This interview is being included in the 2013 Women in Horror Interview Series. Every February, Women in Horror Recognition Month (WiHM) assists underrepresented female genre artists in gaining opportunities, exposure, and education through altruistic events, printed material, articles, interviews, and online support. You can find out more about WiHM here:
Dr. Maria Nieto
Maria grew up in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and moved from the area in 1984 to attend a Ph.D graduate program in Immunology at UC Berkeley. Maria currently resides in Oakland and works as a Professor of Biology at California State University, East Bay where she has been engaged in underrepresented minority student recruitment, teaching, and research for over 22 years. As a researcher and educator Maria’s writings have taken the form of scientific journal publications, and more recently popular press articles. Pig Behind The Bear represents Maria’s first work of fiction.
Pig Behind the Bear
It’s 1971 and junior LA Times reporter Alejandra Marisol is working on a commemorative piece to recognize famed LA Times reporter Rubén Salazar who was murdered one year earlier. While working on the piece Alejandra enlists the help of characters, who challenge us to think differently about ourselves and the world we live in, as she gets embroiled in a murder mystery that appears to have ties to Salazar’s death. The reader will travel through streets and townships where rich Angelino culture comes to life, and where tragedy and despair are transformed into hope.
“Maria Nieto has managed to write a charming story that tackles huge cultural issues such as the assassination of Ruben Salazar. Part LA noir mystery, part family drama, part magic realism, Nieto takes us on a ride through Los Angeles touching the cultural milestones and heart of Chicano/LA history past and present. ” – Herbert Siguenza, founding member of Culture Clash
A. This is a great question. I wanted to write a story that revived the fervor of the ’70s; a time when people, in large mass, thought that the ability to change the “system” from the grassroots level was possible. I initially set out to write a story whereby I could change the past in order to change the present. I wanted to create a different present, one where people from all ethnic groups were connected and working in common pursuit of social justice for all. I chose a character and a time frame to begin my story for this purpose.
Q. I was very excited to learn that your book takes place in Los Angeles in the 70s – one of my books “The Moon Cried Blood” also takes place in Los Angeles around the bicentennial, and I lived there in the 70s when I was a little girl. I found myself having to do a lot of research to get details right, such as moon phases, for example. Did you find that true with “Pig Behind The Bear”?
A. I did do some research, but honesty, most of the content for the book I drew from life experiences. For good or for bad, I had the good fortune of being exposed to many walks of life. I grew up with a politically active mother, a step-father who was an LAPD homicide detective, a father who was an activist and photographer for the La Raza Party – and all of this couched in a milieu of domestic and sexual abuse. When I think of being blessed, I truly think of being able to view, first-hand, disparate worlds.
Q. At another time when writing about the 70s, I found myself mentioning ibuprofen, which of course was not an over the counter medication at the time – it came out in editing. I am curious, did writing a novel that takes place in the past present any of those kinds of challenges for you?
A. Absolutely, I had to confront my past, and the “monsters” that lived in that past, and doing so was hard. In the best moments, the hardness gets transformed into hope, but in the worst moments, I understand that the pain is and always will be there and you just have to find a way to live alongside it.
Q. Your book reflects upon Los Angeles and the diversity of the cities’ culture. Do you think Angelino culture has changed much since the 1970s – both the city as a whole and Chicano culture within the city, and the various communities and townships within the Greater Los Angeles Area?
A. Yes, I think Angelino culture has changed. I think Los Angeles suffered just like many other cities from folks fleeing the area for the suburbs. As a result many areas lost economic vibrancy. Take the downtown area as just one example. Over the last decade the importance of creating and maintaining a vibrant city is on the rise, and folks are coming back to live in Los Angeles city proper. It’s a rebirth of sorts, similar to the one occurring in Oakland. Arts and culture are on the rise, and this is a wonderful thing. With regard to Chicano culture I believe the same thing is occurring. It is important that we reflect on the past and on a movement that shaped our struggle for equality. We need to understand that struggles for rights never end and we have see our personal struggles as being tied to every other human who struggles for equality, dignity and peace.
Q. Los Angeles is almost notorious for its history of conflict between police and the minority communities, a history I as an African American am also familiar with – and Ruben Salazar was a notorious case. Do you think that controversial aspect of Los Angeles has changed much?
A. It will always be the case that some people with power will abuse that power. There are bad cops and there are good ones. Unfortunately, because police hold power over us, when even if one bad police officer misbehaves, the entire force must be held accountable. As a public we need to hold those in power accountable and this is one of our ongoing struggles that will never end and must never end. However, I also feel that as a public when we hold power structures accountable we need to also hold ourselves accountable or we risk losing legitimacy. For example, we cannot ask police to solely be responsible for making our communities safe. We as residents need to connect with our neighbors as one part of what is needed to make our communities safe.
Q. Do you think that stories like yours will help people to remember and avoid a repeat of history?
A. It appears that us humans are destined to keep repeating our mistakes. In this regard, however, it is important that we also maintain our hope that we will reach a point when we recognize our failings and truly believe that we can be different beings on this planet. I wrote the book with this belief in mind.
Q. Your story transforms tragedy into hope, and has a certain heartwarming quality even as it tackles difficult subject matters, making them accessible to the reader. What genre or genres do you consider the writing to occupy?
A. The book is many things. It’s hard to fit it into one genre so I’ve come up with historical fiction/crime-drama.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers that we haven’t covered yet?
A. When common people come together to do good works then real transformative power is attainable.
Where To Get It:
~ by Sumiko Saulson on November 12, 2012.
Posted in Interviews, WiHM 2013
Tags: 1970s, Alejandra Marisol, Angelino, Author, Celeste McCarty, Chicano, Dr. Maria Nieto, Interview, LA Times, Los Angeles, Maria Nieto, novel, Pig Behind The Bear, Rubén Salazar, WiHM 2013, women in fiction, Women in Horror Interview Series, Women in Horror Month, Women in Horror Month 2013, Women of Color