Severo Perez is the writer, producer, or director (and often all three at once) of several well-respected and award-winning films including Seguin (1982), …and the earth did not swallow him (1995), Willa Brown: An American Aviator (2000), Carmen Lomas Garza: Looking Back ((2005), and Rudy Perez, Countdown: Reflections on a Life in Dance (2008). Recently, Severo has turned to writing novels. He joins La Bloga today to talk about his historical fiction book, The Challengers Aero Club, and his future writing projects, as well as a few insights into the life and times of a Chicano filmmaker.
Ramos: Welcome to La Bloga, Severo. Real pleasure to have you here. First, give us a brief synopsis of your book The Challengers Aero Club. What can readers expect from this novel?
Perez: The Challengers Aero Club is about black aviation in Chicago before World War II, and the three remarkable people who were at the right place at the right time to challenge the U.S. Army’s exclusion of black aviators.
Ramos: What drew you to the stories about African-American aviator pioneers? How did the making of your documentary,Willa Brown: An American Aviator, fit in with the writing and publishing of your book?
Perez: In 1995, I was commissioned to research and write a half-hour documentary about Willa Brown. As I interviewed the folks who had been part of the Chicago experience, I became aware that if I didn’t record these 88 to 94 year-olds immediately, their words would be lost. I used my writer’s fee to hire a crew and flew them to Chicago and other locales where these folks lived and did the interviews. By the time I completed research and finished the documentary, nearly all of the interviewees had passed away.
The half-hour documentary was well received and screened on PBS stations across the U.S. What weighed on me was that I had much more information about the lives of the main characters than I could use in the documentary. If I didn’t tell the story I had heard and uncovered, it would be lost. I started to write sketches for a feature film and showed them around, but there appeared to be zero interest.
Ramos: Your book is historical fiction, which, for me at least, presents several unique challenges to a writer. For example, how much of the book comes from Severo Perez and how much from historical documents and first-hand accounts? What was your research process? And did you ever find that the history got in the way of telling your story?
Perez: Real life does not have dramatic arcs. I made a few changes in chronology to get the story started. The chronology I gathered from black newspapers chronicling activities and events in Chicago. Handsome young people and airplanes made good copy. The interviewees had photo albums, and even better, they had boxes and envelopes with photo rejects, snapshots not enlarged and part of the albums. These rejected photos turned out to be revealing. There in the background were the actual locales and the planes they flew. Each photo was painstakingly copied. The images were then blown up to 8×10 and arranged chronologically. That’s where I found the story unfolding.
To begin the tale, I had the the interviewees’ versions about how they longed to learn to fly, and in the process they gave me gossip and details about the three main characters. As the wars in Asia and Europe began to loom, the activities of a flight school in Chicago gathered national and international notice. Learning to fly, to forming a flying club, to starting an accredited flight school, to the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen became the spine of the novel. Much of it is essentially factual. Who was present at this or that event, and what exactly was said is entirely imagined. I added fictional episodes to bring the world of 1930’s Chicago into their lives.
Ramos: Another special aspect of historical fiction is that characters are based on actual people. Your Preface indicates that you had the cooperation of some of the people who lived through the events you write about, and also relatives and friends of your main characters. What has been the reaction from your sources to your depiction of people that they knew? And how much of the real Willa Brown or John Robinson or Cornelius Coffee ended up in your book?
Perez: The real Cornelius Coffey and Willa Brown end up in the book pretty much as I found them. They were the right people at the right time. Johnny Robinson’s personal story has taken on imagined and mythic qualities which I have attempted to keep realistic. I liked him a lot, part daredevil and talented pilot. He was used by Tuskegee to promote the institution and when the time came for Johnny to come to the school to start pilot training, Tuskegee dropped him in favor of a better connected, politically acceptable flight instructor. The episodes in Ethiopia are mostly fiction, though he was there during the Italian invasion. He did create a flight service. He was Haile Selassie’s personal pilot, which is saying quite a lot about his character. He lived out his life as a pilot in Ethiopia where he died in 1954.
The relatives and participants who have read the book have liked it. Nobody is calling for it to become an HBO series, yet.
Ramos: Your book is self-published and available primarily (only?) online. Why did you opt to publish in this manner? What has been your experience with this format? Do you recommend this process to other writers?
Perez: The book is available as a paperback or a kindle download. I was hoping for a publisher. A friend who happens to be a National Book Award finalist gave me the name of two agents. I followed the guidelines on the agent’s website and sent them what was asked for. I received nearly exactly worded rejection notices not signed by the agents. The majority of my films have been self-produced. They’ve been screened at festivals, licensed for television, earned royalties and no one looked down their nose at that. I can only speak for myself. I don’t regret self-publishing for a moment. The book itself is quite handsome, and while it’s not a best seller, it does sell and the reviews have been good.
Ramos: Was the transition from filmmaker to novelist difficult? Which creative endeavor do you prefer? Are you working on another novel? Maybe another film?
Perez: Writing a screenplay is demanding. It’s similar to creating architectural drawings, except with language. Structure, story, character, and atmosphere are part of the design, and it also has to be a good read. However, some things are left to the imagination because the actors, costumes, set design, photography, sound, music and editing are what bring the film to life. In writing a novel, there are no shortcuts. Every word, sentence, paragraph and chapter has to stand on its own. It’s an entirely different discipline, with some similarities. You have to sit for a long period of time to finish both.
I started out to be a writer, wrote my first short story in the seventh grade, took short story and play writing classes in college. I had just gotten discharged from military service, was living in San Antonio and decided not to pursue academia. I was clueless as to how and where to publish. I picked up a 16 mm camera and fell in love with film making. It has been a forty-five-year journey and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
It didn’t occur to me that undertaking a novel would be hard. After rewriting the first chapter for several months, I realized I was Wily Coyote in that moment when he runs off a cliff and discovers there’s nothing below him. I didn’t need a road runner to hand me an anvil. I had no idea what I was doing, and I was dropping fast.
I humbly put aside Chapter 1, and got to work on Chapter 2. After that, when I finished a chapter I went on to the next. What followed was shaping the mass of chapters into a hopefully engaging, readable narrative. Now, as I work on a draft of my second novel, I look forward to the solitude needed to submerge myself in the narrative and exist on the page.
Another film? Unless someone comes to me with money, it takes too much time and energy to launch a film project. Nothing takes less than 3 years, and most often longer. At 75 years of age I have to pick my creative projects carefully.
Ramos: How about other projects – what can we expect from Severo Perez in 2016 – 2017?
Perez: I hope my new book, Odd Birds, will come out this year. I have personal writing commitments I need to get to, and like planes lined up on a runway, they won’t get clearance to take off until Odd Birds is off the ground.
Ramos: Finally, I have to move our discussion to your remarkable film … and the earth did not swallow him. In my opinion, that book is a masterpiece of writing. I even look to it for insight into what I call Chicano noir. Tomás Rivera’s precise writing can’t be honored enough for what he did with the story of the migrant boy caught up in discovering the world and his own humanity. I also admire your film – it managed to convey the “feel” of the book on the screen. You added what was needed for a movie but you preserved the honesty and reality of the book. I’m sure you’re very proud of that project. Unfortunately, there are few movies based on Chicana/o Literature. Do you have any thoughts about making another film based on another classic Chicano novel?Bless Me, Ultima has been done, but there are many others. Any suggestions for aspiring filmmakers?
Perez: Thank you for the comments on …and the earth did not swallow him. For me, Tomás Rivera’s book is like dense poetry. Powerful, beautiful, poignantly true. What struck me was that he wrote about a world familiar to me. My family didn’t do migrant work, but my grandfather did sell vegetables from the back of a cart, and later a truck. I saw the movie in my mind the first time I read the book and became determined to make it into a film. I even called Tomás, who was at UTSA, and told him so. Of course, I had no idea how I would do it, and he must have thought I was nuts, except that I did everything in my power to make it happen. It took 21 years before the film premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and won the audience award for best feature film. I am proud of the film. It went on to win 11 international awards, with special screenings at the Cannes Film Festival, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian among many others.
My suggestion to aspiring filmmakers is to develop a mastery of the whole of the film making process: scripting, production planning, budgeting, production and post production. How do you get that kind of experience? By making yourself available to work on a crew. No matter how poor the pay, get on a professional production and figure out where you want to be. Volunteer if you can. Make yourself indispensable. Crews can be clannish, develop a tough skin, watch and learn. Never miss an opportunity to work on a production, experience is everything. Make a plan and see it through. Don’t wait for an opportunity to come to you, make your opportunities.
Is that the only way to break into the industry? No. You are all living in a fascinating time. The technology to make content is available on your phone; editing can be done on your laptop. And the cost is affordable. Give yourself a real project, not cat vines or stupid human fumbles. Learn to tell a story, whether it’s a documentary or a dramatic piece. Concentrate on the quality of the sound and images. Think about how your images flow one into the next. Take a risk by producing something suitable for broadcast. Consider every project you do a finger exercise for something more important to come, and get so good at it that producers will want you to make content for them.
What project have I daydreamed about making? I would have loved to take part of Americo Paredes’ George Washington Gomez and parts of Hammon and the Beans, and write a film about the Texas border. It’s all there, epic and intimate.
Ramos: Thank you Severo – Excellent advice and I’m sure our readers enjoyed your perspective on writing, film making and the creative life in general. Good luck with your future endeavors. §