Interview with Aggie Villanueva

AggieVillanueva_PhotoMy guest today is Aggie Villanueva, author of Rightfully Mine (God’s Equal Rights Amendment), which I reviewed in my last post. I didn’t know Aggie when she contacted me to offer her book for review. Since that initial contact, however, it seems that I see her everywhere, and I’ve learned that she is a talented and active lady.

She’s giving away an electronic copy of Rightfully Mine to a lucky commenter today so be sure to leave a comment to be entered in the drawing.

Lillie: Welcome to A Writer’s Words, An Editor’s Eye, Aggie. You have quite a range of talents. You’re a photographer; a freelance writer, novelist, and blogger; an editor; a writing coach and teacher… Have I forgotten anything?

Aggie: I don’t think you’ve forgotten anything. Except that all writers and photographers also wear the hats of promoter, public relations, accountant, business manager, etc. But I’m talking to other writers here, so they well know all this. I also should scratch editor. I do edit for my blog, Visual Arts Junction, but when I publish my books I mostly hire out professional editing.

Lillie: Do you think of yourself primarily as a writer or a photographer?

Aggie: I’m equally a writer and photographic artist. But I have to admit, I write daily, even if it’s sometimes only for promotional material, etc. I don’t make it to the high mountains nearly as often as I’d like. Heck, I like to live there.

And I also don’t get as much time as I’d like to work on the images I take. But both writing and photographic art are the main hats I wear. And then I add blogger to the list. I didn’t realize when I started Visual Arts Junction last year that blogging is a career in itself. I work on and write daily for the blog too.

Lillie: I’m sure my readers would like to hear something about your photography and how you came to be known as the Grandma Moses of the Southwest.

Aggie: I’ve always been behind a point and shoot camera or camcorder for my family and for sheer pleasure. It wasn’t until 2007 that I made a decision to go pro and bought my first digital SLR professional camera. I had no idea how to use it.

But I’m one of those people who go whole hog into whatever I do, so within a year I was speaking in Santa Fe at the Marion College of Photographic Arts, showing a large body of my work. I’m now represented in several online and walk-in art galleries across the nation. I also sell licensing for people to use my images as book covers and other uses.

Great place to take pictures. The Grandma Moses nickname came early on, too. Back when I had the time, I belonged to several photography forums where I learned so much from the other professionals there. Because my photo art is all from the southwest, and many, actually most, look more like paintings after I’m done with my digital darkroom work, plus the fact that they are mostly rural, they began calling me the Grandma Moses of the southwest. It stuck. I’m honored and humbled by the tag, but I have to admit I love it.

Lillie: Tell us about your home in the mountains. The photos included here show both the beauty and majesty of the scenery and your talent as a photographic artist. Have you always lived close to nature? How does your environment influence your creativity?

Aggie: Wow, Lillie. You’ll be sorry you asked that! I could talk forever about my beloved mountains. And I could write a book about your other two questions. Hmmm, maybe I will after this!

No, I haven’t always lived close to nature—quite the opposite. As a child in Kansas City I had severe asthmatic allergies. Spent most of my grade school years in a hospital, doing school work in an oxygen tent.

Besides being allergic to almost all foods and my own cold germs, I was also literally allergic to the outdoors. My grandparents who raised me, and my mother, used to call me a hothouse plant. Twice, after I’d purposely reveled in the outdoors, I was rushed to the hospital, each time the doctors saying I probably wouldn’t live till morning.

Then, because I wanted to change the world, I ran away at age 15 to do just that in the mountains of Colorado. I didn’t change the world. Not even close. But it changed me forever. And my asthma and allergies were almost non-existent in the high altitude.

Fast forward to chronic illnesses that left me mostly bedridden after 28 years of marriage, living in Kansas, and the accident of having to go to the mountains of Sedona, AZ, where I discovered anew how much healing I experience in the high, dry altitudes.

Next I got land in Madrid, NM, near Santa Fe. No water, no electricity, no phone, no house, just wonderful rolling arroyos and mesas. I loved living in Madrid. The people were just like me, a bunch of aging hippies. The town’s history is so rich; there are books about that too.

But, nevertheless, it is a tourist town. Though I lived in the hills outside of Madrid where I was so isolated I didn’t even have walls around my outhouse, I found it was just too crowded; too citified. So I sold the land and moved further north.

I now live in the more remote and forested foothills of the San Pedro Wilderness, surrounded by the Santa Fe National Forest. It’s a tiny four-room log cabin, less than 900 square feet. I’m about 20 miles from the nearest village, in a hamlet so small you can drive through it and miss it. There are two gas pumps and a quick-stop type store downtown.

As to how my environment influences creativity, living so remotely and so close to nature have great advantages and almost no drawbacks in every way, including enhancing creativity. In fact, just a few years ago, because I was in better health, there were no drawbacks. It takes two hours to drive to the nearest ANYTHING.

But, oh the advantages: fine art pictures taken on my own lil’ acre, living so close to my beloved mountains I can almost touch them, and can definitely walk to them, and so much more. An hour’s drive will get me to the peak of most of the ranges in my area. The Quiet. The Solitude. You can hear the air, especially when snowed in during winter. You almost believe you hear the echoes of the past. I wax poetic, but honestly, if you live here, how can you NOT!

November 15 09 Ag ShootAnother enhancement to creativity is when you’ve learned how to live without what most consider necessities, such as phones, electricity, heat, water, even sounds such as TV and radio. At one time for a few months I had to survive on fresh fish caught daily as there was no other food, not even spices or salt.

But on a more esoteric level, I’d say living here taught me what I’m capable of. Never again will I panic if I don’t have the necessities of life. Money means far less to me. I know things about myself that I would never have figured out before.

I also know I can do anything, endure anything, become anything, all the while humbled daily by the harsh surrender of nature that surrounds me, and grateful to Spirit in all things. Each of these things, and all the hurdles to come, shows through every word I write, and also each piece of photo art I complete.

Lillie: Your passion is obvious, Aggie—in the description you just gave of your environment, in your photographic art, and in your writing. Rightfully Mine fascinated me. I’ve read the Bible through several times, so obviously each time I’ve read the passages in Numbers that inspired your story. However, they never made any impact on me until I read your book. What captured your attention in these few short verses to motivate you to tell the story of Zelophehad’s daughters?

Aggie: Thank you, Lillie. I’m honored. I’m also showing my age here: In the early 80’s the big political issue was ERA. Feminists were pushing hard to get a women’s equal rights amendment passed. Debate within the church became particularly heated.

RightfullyMineAggieVillanuevaSMALLI had already written a slightly controversial novel with Thomas Nelson about a literal prostitute whom God chose to be the symbol of his beloved bride. I still chuckle about my editor, who was tense about the wedding night scene after reading my synopsis of a detailed portrayal, so I don’t think they weren’t surprised when I approached them about this book idea.

Still, they wouldn’t allow me to use the blurb, God’s Equal Rights Amendment. They told me it was too controversial a subject within the church, and might hurt my sales. I disagreed, as is evident from the present title, now that I’ve republished.

Lillie: How did you create three-dimensional characters based on the little information in the Bible? Your main character is based on the daughter called Noah in the Bible. You named her Rizpah in Rightfully Mine. Did you change the name just to avoid confusion with Noah the ark-builder or were there other reasons?

Aggie: Yes, Thomas Nelson suggested changing Noah’s name to avoid confusion. They were right, of course. The first thing I did was research the meanings of each daughter’s name. Names are quite revealing, and I gave them all characteristics accordingly.

I then got to know my characters as most writers do; I wrote reams posing as them, in first person, describing themselves, answering questions I asked them, etc. Ha. Now that I think about it, they were among my first interviewees.

As in any time period, the era and environment also shape personalities. So my research of the times added greatly to characterizations throughout. I traveled to Israel to deepen the reality of the research.

The men were easy to characterize, especially Caleb, Joshua, Moses and other biblical heroes, about whom much is written. The girls’ father was easy too. He had to be exceptionally insightful, loving, attentive, and even pro equality, even if that was an unknown concept to him, in order to raise a family of girls who would change history against all odds. These women set the stage for Israel to accept women leaders in battle and female prophets, all within the next few generations.

Nothing is said of his wife, so I had her die in her last childbirth. And actually, there is more information than those few lines in Numbers. In fact, I found Rizpah’s lineage. If I ever have the time, and I pray I will, I plan to write two more sequels to Rightfully Mine, stories of the two generations following her that are just as dynamic as she.

Lillie: I look forward to reading those sequels. Rightfully Mine was originally published by Thomas Nelson, and now you’ve re-released the book yourself. Can you share your perspective on the pros and cons of publishing through a traditional publisher compared to self-publishing? Were there advantages to having the book first published by a publisher who provided editing and other services?

Aggie: Everything is more immediate nowadays, such as POD, which is how I published Rightfully Mine. Some people cite lack of quality against self-publishing. I know my writing is of acceptable quality because, well…I’ve been accepted by standard publishers, but in truth, I think I would know that without their stamp of approval.

So I don’t abide by the criticism of self-publishing creating a sea of inferior writing. And let’s not forget how intelligent and discerning is the reading public, and they get more so with each decade. If a self-published book is of questionable writing quality, it won’t sell. The same goes for poor quality books from traditional publishing houses, of which there are many.

I have nothing but good to say about Thomas Nelson publisher—they were a joy to work with, but having been through the traditional publishing cycle, I also know that they do very little marketing unless you’re a big name author, and they take most of the money.

These days, even traditional publishers nearly require that you have already built your platform following before they will publish you, and request that you continue your marketing plan even more aggressively after publication. So why give them most of the money when you’ve done, and still do, most of the work?

It’s true that if you are a proven seller, they will invest in marketing you. But their promotional power is in the traditional bookstore, and our bookstores are changing. For one thing, if I ever sign with a publisher, I will retain all electronic rights, and I hear more and more authors agreeing.

Our traditional bookstores are even becoming their own print-on-demand publishers. More and more malls, bookstores, even county fairs. are installing the Espresso book machine, where you choose from a nearly unlimited list and watch while your book is printed, cut, bound, and delivered into your hands in about 10 minutes.

And the Espresso print-on-demand list isn’t limited to traditionally published paper books, but includes self published and eBooks converted into print form. What bookstore can stock hundreds of thousands of books and give you access to twice the titles that traditional publisher can offer? They can with the Espresso print-on-demand machine, and the number is already predicted to soon reach millions of books. And the Espresso is just the first in a long line of similar machines. See my short report on my blog.

Lillie: Another of your talents is being an exceptional interviewer, and you have a new book showcasing those talents. What is it that makes you such an outstanding interviewer? Who are the subjects of the interviews in your book?

HotAuthorsFront300dpiAggie2009’s Hot Authors: Interviews by Aggie Villanueva, available in both print and e-book, highlights authors I’ve interviewed at Visual Arts Junction.

I guess the difference is that I don’t just use the same list of questions for every interviewee. I research my subjects, as you did me, so that I can ask intelligent questions about their work and not waste their time on a standard set of questions or information I can find out myself if I take the time to research them thoroughly. I think you’ll notice (how could you not?!) how, because I can tell by your questions you’ve researched me, you got these (sigh) verbose, lengthy answers from me. Hopefully that is what you wanted!

I spend a lot of time researching in order to write in-depth introductions to each interviewee where I tell about their past, what prompted them to write, and anything else my research turns up, which can sometime be quite surprising, even to the subject. Including lots of pictures enhances the piece too.

I also contact their closest friends and loved ones for a short interview. I want readers to feel they know the person after reading my interview, especially the introduction. I’ve had a few subjects use my introduction in whole for their promotional material. Researching this fully also allows me to create the tone of my own writing to match the subject’s.

For instance, my interview with Larry Brooks. I discovered in my research that Larry is a hard-hitting, no-nonsense person who tells it like it is and shies away from nothing because it may be uncomfortable, but with a fabulous sense of wry humor that permeates everything he writes and all his professional relationships. This is why my intro is so tongue-in-cheek. Even the manner in which I asked some questions automatically takes on this tone.

But I want much more than that the reader feels they know the interviewee. I spend my own time putting together a picture of who and why they are for another important reason too: so that I need take only enough time from my subjects to grill them about the particulars of their specialty.

I can spend their limited time delving into asking the technicalities. I’ve had many interviewees, after finishing my interview, say things like, “Whew!” “You pulled more out of me than anyone.” “You really put me through my paces.” And they seem to love that I ask them to dig so deeply.

I want my readers to learn something new about writing (or photography if that is my subject). Because this takes so much time is why I can only finish 1-2 interviews per month. But I feel that limitation, and the investment of my time, is worth it.

Time is so short for everyone; the reader, the interviewee. If I don’t waste their time; if I offer something of value to the reader’s professional life, that draws more readers and that gives valuable exposure to the subjects. Everyone profits.

I am honored every time someone reads my interviews and each time my subjects dig down further than usual for me. They’ve both invested something valuable, and I want them both to gain something valuable.

Lillie: Tell us about your family. Are they creative like you? What do they think of your creative endeavors?

Aggie: I think my family feels good about my creative endeavors. Yes, my children are all creative too, as are my grandchildren. They are in Kansas so I only get to see them once a year when I travel there for a special time of being together. I look forward all year to this time together.

My two boys, Eddie and Nicky (and his wife, Vanessa), are creative in the artistic areas of drawing and painting, writing, jewelry making, leather work, custom-made gravity bikes—the list is long.

My daughter, Angie, follows my mother’s path of what Mom calls creative financing. Angie just performed her artistic magic in that she found a hall to be married in, plus hold the reception, for less than one-fourth the cost of even less attractive buildings. I just took a virtual tour of the place and the grounds. I’m amazed that she accomplished this feat.

Lillie: It sounds like your family is as talented as you are. Where can readers learn more about you and your books?

Aggie: I’ll give you a list.

Lillie: Is there anything I’ve failed to ask that you would like to share with my readers?

Aggie: I do have a work in progress. I’m deeply into the research for a book on chronically ill and handicapped artists. Since I fit this category, I know it’s been therapeutic, and difficult, for me to thoughtfully compile a lengthy list of interview questions for the artists. So I get it when many have commented that it’s a good thing I gave them up to a month to complete the questionnaire, because it’s sometimes painful to plumb these areas.
I empathize, because I’ve been through it also. I want to bring these problems to the forefront that millions of artists endure daily, silently, heroically, with no accolades for their courage. Few people understand, sometime not even closest family members, friends and co-workers, who don’t quite always believe we’re really that sick. A possible working title for this project is Still We Dance: the Invisible Heroes of the Arts.

Lillie: Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing with us something of your amazing talents in such detail and with such passion. Readers will probably have more questions for you. Will you check in during the day to respond to comments and answer questions?

Aggie: Thank YOU so much, Lillie, for having me. I will love to hang around for the week. I look forward to meeting many great talents here.

Lillie: Readers, don’t forget to leave a relevant comment to be included in the random drawing for an e-copy of Rightfully Mine that Aggie has graciously donated. The drawing will be open for a week.


Writing since the late 70’s, Aggie Villanueva’s first novel, Chase the Wind, Thomas Nelson 1983, was published before she was 30 and her second, Rightfully Mine, from Thomas Nelson in 1986. Villanueva freelanced throughout the 80s and 90s, also writing three craft columns and three software review columns, for national magazines. Villanueva was featured on the cover of The Christian Writer Magazine October 1983.

After teaching at writers conferences throughout the Midwest, she founded/directed the 3-day Mid-America Fellowship of Christian Writers conferences for four years until 1990. For the past several years Aggie has blogged. She is founder of Visual Arts Junction and is known for her in-depth interviews.

Photographic art entered in 2007, and within two years Villanueva was critically acclaimed and award winning. Dubbed the Grandma Moses of the American Southwest by her artistic peers, Villanueva is represented in several online and walk-in art galleries across the nation.

 Added 2/5/10: Congratulations to Helen, the winner of the drawing for an electronic copy of Rightfully Mine. and Smashwords links are affiliate links.

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