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Author Cristina Garcia finds connections by remaining unplugged

Luke Quinton

Alongside a bottle of water at JP's Java, Cristina García beams with a subdued confidence. The Michener Center's Visiting Professor this semester, García, a National Book Award nominee, has just published her fifth novel and accepted a permanent position at Texas Tech, where she'll teach each spring and write each fall.

She's on the first draft of a new novel, writing longhand for the first time. It chronicles two "titanic male octogenarians," a "Comandante" who runs a nameless Banana Republic, and his adversary, a dissenter in exile. "Longhand seemed to suit them better," she says. "It changes the rhythm and the way I'm writing them."

García wears earplugs when she writes. "I am the anti-multitasker," she says. And that deep concentration can be straining, "I've just been living with these cathedral-like silences in my head for so long."

She paints as a cure. "It's a wonderful counterpoint to language. You can just go RED," she says, miming wild brushstrokes. "It's very visceral and wonderful — you can just turn the music up."

García was a Miami correspondent for "Time," then moved to Los Angeles where her writing career took form. She recently purchased a home just north of Santa Fe, N.M., that's without an Internet connection.

"I finished this latest novel, 'Lady Matador's Hotel,' in a burst of about six weeks," she says. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that with Internet that would have taken me six to eight months to finish, and not in the same way, with that same intensity."

García's principal muse is the island of Cuba and its generations in exile. More than perhaps any other artist, she has re-framed the Latin American identity as more diverse, more nuanced and less politically homogeneous — emphasizing Cuba's Chinese heritage (yes, Chinese) and the role of Santeria.

Inevitably, conversation drifts toward Castro. "As a citizen ... I'm kind of tired of him, and ready to move on. Things need to change. But as a fiction writer, I'm utterly fascinated.

"He's had a resurgence of health now and he's everywhere. It's like he's been resurrected. There were all these rumors that he'd been embalmed and dead, and they were using body doubles ... he's back with a vengeance, he's going to live forever!" she says, not quite incredulous. "He comes from a long-lived clan. "

The family dynamic between the Castros intrigues her. "[Fidel] really mistreats his brother, like disses him publicly. Once Raul burst into tears at this meeting because his brother scolded him, made him apologize to someone. You can't make this stuff up. It's tough competition."

This semester, García is teaching a graduate writing workshop and a class about politics and literature at the University of Texas. The rest of her time she's been writing and doing readings around the country. "I have a couple of Iraq veterans in my class. It's incredible!" she says.

Her favorite stories take chances, like the one that caught her attention last week. "It's a story about a violent gay love affair in Iraq between two soldiers. Like, move over Annie Proulx, move over 'Brokeback Mountain.' "

After other students' critiques, she walked in and said "Don't touch that story for a month ... Don't mess it up." Everyone's jaw dropped. "What made the story so good is it didn't follow the rules, it was just so extreme."

Workshops can stop these stories cold. "Things get way too domesticated. It's just a wild thing, you need to let it be," García says.

Are readers as adventurous? García says people simply don't "put everything else aside and get in that armchair and like lose themselves in a made-up world. That, for most people is a waste of time."

What's capturing our imagination is other things. "It's movies or sordid lives of reality stars, or stalking our enemies on Facebook," she says, laughing.

But novelists can't focus on readers. After all, a visiting professor has a sweet gig. "I can read extra work at my discretion, and people invite me to dinner. I mean, I would stay if I could, honestly. It's that good. I could be here the rest of my life."

Book signing

García will give a reading 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 in the Avaya Auditorium, Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences Building, University of Texas campus. Free. 471-1601. www.utexas.edu/academic/mcw