Mayra Calvani


Interview with Silvio Sirias

A Nicaraguan-American, Silvio Sirias is originally from Los Angeles, where he grew up until the age of eleven.  His parents then moved to Nicaragua, their country of origin. This move is, without a doubt, the most significant milestone in his life as it shaped the bicultural and bilingual way in which he perceives the world. As an adolescent living in Nicaragua, he learned that Central America is full of wondrous, and often heartbreaking, stories. During those years, the realms of politics, family life, literature, and spirituality became of particular interest to him.

After graduating from high school, Sirias returned to Los Angeles to attend college. He fell in love with the study of literature and eventually received a doctorate in Spanish from the University of Arizona.  For several years afterward he worked as a professor of Spanish and U.S. Latino and Latina literature.  But then, just as he had earned tenure at Appalachian State University, in North Carolina, an irresistible urge to return to Nicaragua overcame him.  He surrendered to the call and moved back there in 1999.

Since adolescence Sirias has enjoyed writing, but he is a late bloomer in the writing of fiction.  Somewhat bored with producing works of literary criticism, while conducting interviews with Latino and Latina novelists—as part of a project to compile a collection of conversations with these authors—he saw how much fun they were having as pioneers in a new U.S. literary horizon, so he decided to join in.

In terms of scholarly writing, in addition to numerous published articles he wrote Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion (Greenwood Press, 2001)—a full-length study of the novels of the talented Dominican-American author.   He also prepared a new edition of Salomón de la Selva’s Tropical Town and Other Poems (Arte Público Press, 1998).  Originally published in 1918, by the John Lane Company in New York, Tropical Town represents the first English-language collection of a poet of Latin American descent to be published in the United States.  With Salomón de la Selva being from Nicaragua, and also writing in English, Sirias has felt a lifelong connection with this author.  To produce this edition, he received a grant from the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project.  Also, out of admiration for the work of Rudolfo Anaya, Sirias collected and co-edited the interviews that appear in Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya (University Press of Mississippi, 1999).

With Bernardo and the Virgin (Northwestern University Press, 2005), he launched his career as a novelist.  Hailed by Moon Handbooks’ Guide to Nicaragua as a work that “stands head and shoulders above other books about Nicaragua,” Bernardo and the Virgin is based on the “true” tale of the Virgin Mary’s 1980 apparition in the small village of Cuapa—an event that had significant religious and political repercussions.  Because of the broad canvas of this “epic” account of Nicaragua in the latter half of the 20th century, the author had the opportunity to explore every theme that possesses him: politics, history, religion, spirituality, family, war, immigration, biculturalism, shifting traditions, superstitions, and death.

Meet Me Under the Ceiba (Arte Público Press, 2009) won the 2007 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize for Best Novel.  This story of greed, love, lust, and homophobia—also inspired by a true incident—relates the bizarre circumstances of the 1999 murder of a woman in the town of La Curva, in the province of Masaya.  The author Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, judge of the 2007 Chicano/Latino Literary Contest, expressed that Meet Me Under the Ceiba is “a fascinating read—very well-written, with a delightful, lively pace.”

Since 2002, Silvio resides in Panama, where he continues to write and teach at Balboa Academy.  For more information on the author, visit his website at


Thanks for this interview, Silvio. Why don’t you start by telling us how you began your career as a writer?

As a writer of fiction I’m a late-bloomer, having published my first novel late in life.  Before that, however, as a college teacher I had been trained to write literary criticism.  Thanks to this, Mayra, I was well-acquainted with the act of writing and with the publishing process.  Yet producing publishable fiction is far more challenging because one’s work has to please a significantly larger audience, and this requires every ounce of a writer’s creativity.  But I still consider myself an apprentice in the world of fiction, so I feel as if I am at the beginning of my career.

You were named one of the 2010 Top Ten "New" Latino Authors to Watch (and Read) by LatinoStories.Com. How does this make you feel?

Learning the news stunned me, and then I was elated.  But once the elation wore off I was humbled.  I realized that I needed to work harder in my current and future efforts to be worthy of the honor.

What was the inspiration for your first novel, Bernardo and the Virgin?

Beginning in my early 30s I started looking for an engrossing story through which I could also explore the history of Nicaragua in the 20th century.  I met Bernardo Martinez, who was good friends with my father, in 1999, and the more I learned about his story, the more I became certain that I had finally found the perfect vehicle for the panoramic tale I had long wanted to tell.

Critics have called your novel, Bernardo and the Virgin, a tale of religious mysticism. Tell us about that.

In telling the story of Bernardo Martinez, who claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to him several times in 1980, I narrated the apparitions through his point of view—and this lens is indeed out of the ordinary and highly spiritual.  Whether one believes his account or not—and acceptance or disbelief became a highly politicized issue in revolutionary Nicaragua—he maintained until his dying breath that he had experienced an intimate encounter with the divine.  Nicaraguans are highly religious people who easily accept the existence of mystical experiences.  Long before the reports of Bernardo’s visions Nicaraguans fervently venerated Mary—fanatically so.  Because of this, tens of thousands immediately accepted the news of her visit.  It is this collective belief that gives the novel its mystical dimension, I think.

How was your creative process while working on this novel?

The first task was to conduct the research.  That’s always the most exciting part for me; it’s where I vicariously experience the story I’m preparing to write.  Once I’m confident that I have most of the information I need, I sketch a general outline of all the chapters, and this includes the ending because, for the sake of my nerves, I need to know how the story ends.  Then I begin to write with the help of a detailed outline of each chapter.  As I write, I start each day by revising what I have written the day before.  This helps my mind get back into the story.  I then start a new section and write straight into the mid-afternoon.  This cycle repeats itself until the rough draft is concluded.  Then I will work on a chapter at a time, revising it until it is as perfect as I can get it.  When I polish the last chapter I share the manuscript with my peer editors, a wonderful team that has served me faithfully.

How is this work different from your second book, Meet Me under the Ceiba?

The primary difference is in the scope of the novels.  Bernardo and the Virgin explores important events in Nicaragua’s history through the lives and thoughts of characters that represent ordinary people.  As a result of this exploration, the pace of the narrative is leisurely.  Bernardo is more like a ballad, while Meet Me under the Ceiba, which is based on an actual murder case, has more of a rock’n roll pace.  The reader has to practice a little patience during the opening chapters of Bernardo, but there’s a big payoff when the stories begin to lock together.

Which novel has a closer place to your heart? Why?

Both novels are very dear to me, Mayra, but for different reasons.  Bernardo and the Virgin is my first-born, and like any parent a lot of my hopes and dreams about the legacy I hope to leave as a writer are contained within those pages.  What’s more, I wrote Bernardo as a tribute to the people of Nicaragua.  I am most grateful for everything they’ve taught me.  On the other hand, the goal of Meet Me under the Ceiba was to write a fast-paced story with an unusual structure that would capture the reader’s attention from the onset and hold it throughout.  By all accounts I’ve been fortunate enough to have succeeded in both attempts.  I’ve received feedback from many readers with ties to Nicaragua who have thanked me for writing Bernardo and the Virgin because they claim that the novel, in addition to telling Bernardo’s story, captures the essence of life in that country.  And I’ve also heard from several readers of Meet Me under the Ceiba who have said that they had to read the novel in one sitting because they couldn’t put it down.  Because of such positive feedback, and because the books are so different, the answer regarding which one is closer to my heart depends on the mood I’m in at a given time.  I love them both, for varying reasons.

What’s the hardest part about being a novelist? The most rewarding?

The hardest part is being able to afford the time to right.  People have misconceptions about the financial aspect of being a writer.  But it’s not entirely their fault.  For instance, in most films, as soon as a character who’s a novelist publishes his or her first book they become wealthy, get to ride in limos, and they hang out with celebrities in upscale New York restaurants while learning to elude the paparazzi.  The reality is that very, very few novelists receive public acclaim or get to live off of their royalties.  Many sacrifices are required to become and remain a novelist.  The ideal situation, for me, would be to earn just enough to stay home and write full-time.  I can do without the limos and the glamorous company.  Regarding the most rewarding part, for me it’s been what I’ve learned along the journeys of each novel.

How has the publishing process been for you?

Because I had already published books of an academic nature, I was familiar with the world of publishers.  As a writer of fiction, I’ve had nice experiences with Northwestern University Press, the publishers of Bernardo and the Virgin, and with Arte Público Press, who published Meet Me under the Ceiba.  With Bernardo the road got a bit bumpy when there was a delay during a crucial promotion period, and then the editorial team that strongly supported the novel left to work with other publishers.  Because of these problems, which were beyond anyone’s control, when Bernardo and the Virgin was released it went under the radar, barely getting noticed.  But that’s all part of the game.  Also, I confess that at the onset of my career as a novelist I was naïve, believing that publishers would do all the promotion.  But after learning that it was in my interest to become actively involved in this part of the business I’ve worked diligently to explore the ways I have within my means to promote my work.  This is something every author needs to learn, so a writer may as well become good at it and enjoy the challenge.

Who are your favorite authors?

Mayra, the list is long, very long.  But to name a few, I admire Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Miguel de Cervantes, in Spanish.  In English I enjoy Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Rudolfo Anaya, Virgil Suarez, Graham Greene, J.R.R. Tolkien, and I’m currently reading Junot Diaz and becoming a big fan.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve completed a third novel, but I need three to four months where I can devote myself exclusively to revising the manuscript as it’s not quite ready to send off to the publishers.  The story is based on an actual event in Panama, in 1971, concerning the disappearance of a priest, a noble person, who upset the status quo in a remote mountain community.  I also have a collection of essays that I will soon start circulating among publishers.  In the meantime I continue to write essays and I’m researching topics with an eye toward possible future novels.


Mayra Calvani is an award-winning author, reviewer and freelance writer. She’s had over 300 articles, stories, interviews and reviews published both in print and online. Visit her website at Though she hails from San Juan, Puerto Rico, she now lives in Belgium.

August 2010