Alina Oswald interview first published online in Sporkette Gazette – June 24, 2009 – Volume 4, Issue 8.
Alina Oswald and I became friends after she submitted a personal essay to me for publication consideration. Her well-written essay struck a chord with me, especially since it was about depression and suicide ideation. Alina’s essay was promptly accepted and published in 2002 at www.ivyvine.org – a domain once registered in my name. Since that time, Alina and I regularly correspond via e-mail and chat via phone or Webcam sessions. Although we’ve never met in person, I consider Alina a very close friend (one of three gal friends most dear to me), even though she lives in New Jersey and I, in Texas. To be honest, I feel like she’s the little sister I never had. Probably good she’s not a sibling, otherwise, maybe we wouldn’t get along so well. LOL!
Our conversations always provide me encouragement, through good and bad times. Sometimes during our conversations, we share tears…sometimes, laughter. What we mostly share is our creative passions: writing and photography. Without those, we probably wouldn’t talk so much. (That’s a lie! LOL!)
Alina, a teacher when we met, expanded her skills, becoming a professional freelance writer and photographer. I feel Alina has surpassed me in many of the talents of which we’re both gifted. A few years ago, she took on the task of writing a biography, “Journeys Through Darkness ,” that is now published. This interview centers around that book, of which, you can read my book review about it here.
So with great pride for Lil’ Sis, I present my interview with her, to you. Hope it interests you enough to purchase a copy. Ulterior motives are good, right? Heheheheh.
SPORKETTE: ‘Journeys Through Darkness‘ is about a gay photographer living with HIV/AIDS and his growth as a visual artist. Being heterosexual, what attracted you to Fine Art Photographer, Kurt Weston, to cause you to request writing his biography?
ALINA OSWALD: Sometime in 2005, while searching writing contests online, I came across a site called Unfinished Works. There was a call for artists whose works were inspired by HIV/AIDS. A photograph caught my eye–it was Kurt Weston’s ‘Last Light‘. [Read excerpt about 'Last Light' photograph below this interview.]
A few months later, my editor at ‘A & U – America’s AIDS Magazine‘ asked me if I knew of any artist creating AIDS related artwork, to interview for the publication. Unfinished Works came to mind and I realized I knew just the artist, so I checked out Kurt Weston’s site, emailed him and, to my surprise, he responded. I interviewed him and the article, ‘Warrior Within,’ was published in ‘A & U‘ in November, 2005.
In April 2006, I was invited to a party hosted by Joel Rothschild, who, like Kurt Weston, is a wonderful AIDS activist and long term survivor living in California. He’s also the best-selling author of ‘Hope – A Story of Triumph‘. I emailed Kurt and we decided to meet while I was in California. During the visit with Kurt and his partner, Terry, we came up with the idea of writing a ‘longer piece’ – a biography – and so began my work on ‘Journeys Through Darkness‘.
SPORKETTE: Since I’ve known you, you’ve almost always been active writing about HIV/AIDS or about alternative lifestyle events and functions. Why?
ALINA OSWALD: It’s really because of Mom…a medical doctor specialized in infectious diseases. She’s the one who started me on this path, without even being aware of it.
In 1986, while I was still living in Europe (where I’m from), my mother invited me to join her at an AIDS conference. I think she wanted to show me around the university building and give me a hint of what it was like to be a student there, to get me interested in medicine. (it didn’t work, I love math too much, LOL!). What Mom did not know, at the time, was that she actually opened a door toward a subject matter that I’ve become very passionate about: HIV/AIDS. After the conference, I remember my mother asking me how I liked it. All I could say was ‘interesting‘. Indeed, how fascinating (in a strange and scary way) it is for a virus, so retro, so simple, so unknown (especially at that time) to be capable of causing so much devastation, suffering, and death. And I thought, ‘What kind of virus could do such a thing?‘
So years later and on this side of the Atlantic, I became a contributing writer to ‘A & U‘ and a few other publications.
SPORKETTE: After reading ‘Journeys Through Darkness‘, I felt you had put your heart and soul into writing Kurt’s compelling story. Do you, too, feel that way, and why or why not?
ALINA OSWALD: Yes, indeed. During the almost three years I’ve worked on the book, I literally lived the story I was writing. I believe that kind of attachment is important in order to create the best possible work. It also makes it quite difficult to let go of the work once it’s finished, because you are so emotionally and passionately connected to the work.
SPORKETTE: Several of Kurt Weston’s B&W photographs appear in ‘Journeys Through Darkness‘ – which is your favorite and why?
ALINA OSWALD: ‘Dark Angel‘ – the one that Kurt later gave me, signed and with a wonderful dedication. I was drawn to ‘Dark Angel‘ from the very beginning and for several reasons. The image is dramatic, powerful while, in the same time, displaying a funny (so to speak) element through the white cat looking so innocently at the angel. The cat is not afraid of the dark angel, which is an angel of death, an angel of AIDS, which, at the time (mid-eighties), was an immediate death sentence. I connected even more with the image after listening to the story behind the image and that of the making of the image. [Read excerpt about 'Dark Angel' photograph below this interview.]
SPORKETTE: What is the title of the photograph used on the book cover and why did you choose it for the cover art?
ALINA OSWALD: The cover image is called ‘Journey Through Darkness‘ and by Kurt Weston, which is featured in the AIDS Museum’s permanent collection, in Newark, NJ. I titled my chapters after some of Kurt’s images. He came up with the idea of ‘Journeys Through Darkness‘ as the book’s title. I personally thought that using ‘Journeys‘ (plural) emphasizes his two journeys – through the darkness of AIDS (especially through the terrifying darkness that dominated the first years of the pandemic, 1981-1985) and also his journey through the darkness of blindness. In the process, he rediscovers the warrior fighting with his disease, and the fine art photographer within, which allows him to create award-winning visual art.
SPORKETTE: You have a couple of appendixes at the back of the book, and a couple of other sections there as well – what are they and why did you add them?
ALINA OSWALD: When I first started working on ‘Journeys‘ and trying to figure out the structure of the book, I talked to Kurt and we both agreed that it would be a good idea to add more info about medications and other HIV/AIDS-related medical terms. That’s how I started putting together the Glossary, including a list of terms and brief explanations for the lay audience. Then I thought that a short article about CMV and CMV retinitis would be helpful, especially for those who are not familiar with this kind of retinitis or the virus that causes it. I also thought that a candid Q&A session with Kurt would help readers better identify with the photographer. The Acknowledgments section includes a brief story of my own, of how I got involved in covering the AIDS pandemic.
Most of the time people think that one has to have AIDS or be infected with (or affected by) HIV to get involved. I think that’s not true. If we tried to fix only the issues that directly affected us, then where would we be and how much would we really achieve? But if we find a cause we truly care about and feel passionately about, we can really get much more done, accomplish more and, quite possibly, find our call in our professional life, in particular and in life, in general.
SPORKETTE: Why did you opt to self-publish ‘Journeys Through Darkness‘?
ALINA OSWALD: Originally, I decided to find an agent to represent my manuscript, and for a while, had high hopes. I contacted a few agents and also attended the 2007 Book Expo of America, where I talked to quite a few agents and editors. Several of them showed interest. Per their requests, I sent proposals and parts (or the whole) manuscript. In return, I received praises and referrals to other agents who’d be better fit for my manuscript. I also received personalized and full of praise rejection letters. (I can show them to the skeptical ones). Two agents (husband and wife) from San Francisco read the proposal and manuscript. They sent a letter telling me how great and ’sellable‘ (but for them) was my manuscript. I also received a very encouraging rejection email from a NYC agent, referring me to another NYC agent–whom I later contacted and never heard back….
Anyway, as time went by, I decided to self-publish.
Towards the end of 2008, I asked Guido Sanchez, former CEO of Hudson Pride Connections here in Jersey City (now with Center Link , continuing his work as a dedicated activist) to write a Foreword. Guido agreed and impressed me with ‘Finding Visionaries‘. Afterwards, I self-published ‘Journeys‘ with a Print-On-Demand publisher, because the price wasn’t too bad and quality was good.
SPORKETTE: Compared to writing creative non-fiction articles, how difficult was it to write a biography?
ALINA OSWALD: Writing, in general, is like figuring out a puzzle. It starts with doing the necessary research, with looking for and choosing pieces of the puzzle that would/could fit together. Once you have all (or most of) the pieces that you think you need (once you have all the research done), you usually outline the project. Only then does the actual writing begin as you start trying to fit together pieces of the puzzle, that, in turn, make the story.
When it comes to writing a book-length manuscript, the puzzle is huge, enormous. You don’t only swap around paragraphs, but parts of or full chapters. You read (reading aloud helps) and reconsider each and every word you use, and think long and hard of the reasons why that word is the best one to express whatever you want to express. With lengthy manuscripts the writing and editing process may seem overwhelming, especially when ‘The End‘ is nowhere in sight. Therefore, it’s much easier to make mistakes, and it’s much easier to just give up. That’s why you need a few pairs of eyes – of well-meaning individuals who’re also interested in reading your work – to read the manuscript in order to catch errors.
Not to worry, mistakes are human, and more prone to happen when working on book-length manuscripts because, after a while all words start looking alike, black on white scribbling. When that happens, it’s time to stop and take a break from editing. Go do something else–maybe work on something with colors (like photography or painting) or just close your eyes and meditate to allow your mind to relax a bit, do something that’s not necessarily related to writing. You’ll get back to editing with fresh eyes and ideas.
My additional pairs of eyes came from those who’ve offered their help, for which I’m forever greatful: Patricia Spork, professional writer who read my final and intermediate drafts and shared her opinions that, in turn, helped me polish my manuscript; and Ira Weitz, my editor, who’s done a phenomenal job and who’s always been so very patient with me. He knew when to push me and how much to push me, especially when times were tough (in my writing process). An artist and former contributor to ‘MAD‘ magazine, Ira has read the manuscript so many times, I lost count, each time for various purposes. ‘Journeys‘ is finished because of Ira Weitz. I have no words to express my appreciation, so I just simply say “THANK YOU!”
Also, it’s always good to have people to talk to about the book, about issues related to the book but not necessarily writing/editing related. Especially other authors who’ve been through the experience themselves can be of tremendous help. I’m lucky enough to call some of them friends. Many thanks, to T. J. Banks (author of ‘Soleido‘ and ‘Houdini‘), for the long phone conversations, encouragements and being a real shoulder to cry on. Many thanks, to Patricia Spork, who opened the first door to my writing career and who’s been there for me, a wonderful friend ever since. I treasure every moment. Many thanks, to Ira Weitz, who, by now, knows of my experience with the book by heart. Many thanks, to my family, for their support, ideas, tips and advice.
SPORKETTE: To me, Kurt Weston’s story should be turned into a feature film because he’s made a positive impact on society in many ways and turned his disadvantages into advantages for himself and others. So, would you ever consider converting the biography into a screenplay or allowing someone else the right to do so? And why, or why not?
ALINA OSWALD: I thought about that, myself. I talked to a filmmaker (who’s also covering HIV/AIDS) about it. One never knows. I think Kurt’s story would make quite a movie. Who’d play Kurt Weston? Now, that’s the question [smile]
SPORKETTE: What tips can you provide for anyone interested in writing a biography?
ALINA OSWALD: One may decide to write a biography for two reasons: money and interest in the particular subject. To write a book-length manuscript the writer has to connect, at least at some level, with the subject and his/her story. The writer has to be dedicated to the research, the writing and editing, and also the marketing and promotion. In other words, the writer has to believe in his/her work when others may not, to consider all opinions and make his/her own decisions, because, down deep inside, he/her should know that the work is worth being published. It can be an overwhelming task, but it can be done, especially if the writer sets intermediate deadlines, show up every single day and work on something related to the book, and keep the goal always in sight.
Also, working as a team can be an advantage. In my case, I set up weekly phone calls with Kurt, during which I taped his story and took notes, and later transcribed the interviews and figured out where I could use parts of the interview material. I had to have something done from one week to another, to talk to Kurt about it, ask questions, go back to some interviews, and so on. Kurt was fantastic during this process and very patient with me. I could see my work’s progress, a bit at a time, from one week to another. And my phone chats with Kurt, well…those were the highlight of my week, and I’d talk about them with everybody willing to listen.
Money is one thing and we all need it (who says that money is not important doesn’t have to worry about paying bills). Anyway, I think that interest in the subject matter is much more important, when it comes to writing a biography. Money (compensation) alone surely increases the writer’s interest, but not necessarily to a genuine passionate level. If a writer is interested in (or passionate about) the subject of the project, then he/she also becomes passionate about the work involved, and ‘lives‘ (so to speak) the process of writing and finishing the manuscript. And the level of emotional involvement usually has the power to give life to the story…or not.
‘Journeys Through Darkness‘ – Excerpts:
‘The Last Light‘:
“The photograph featured an old man with drawn face and ghostly eyes. He was sitting in a chair with his back at a tall window. The weak daylight poured inside the room to mingle with the pale artificial light of a night lamp. The only other source of light in the photograph was the man’s eyes, glowing with serenity. He seemed unaware of the mist of shadow and light surrounding him. Rather, he gazed at something beyond the visual sphere of the photograph, as if he found himself at the crossroads between two realms, about to follow a path unfolding in front of him, into some mysterious unknown.”
“‘Dark Angel’ caption: ‘Inspired by Broadway’s Angels in America, Kurt Weston’s Dark Angel is an angel of AIDS and of Death. While created in total darkness, the image symbolizes the darkness of the early epidemic. Only the angel’s face is illuminated because AIDS, as horrifying as it was, has transformed people’s concepts about living and dying, and has turned funerals into celebrations of life.’”
“Weston’s Dark Angel symbolizes an angelic figure composed of a play of the elements often used in the artist’s work—darkness and light—to manifest the subtle interaction between what’s real and what is not. This interaction further transposes between the dark angel and the white cat that doesn’t seem afraid of the angel, but rather interested in his stake. The cat was actually “a happy mistake,” the artist explains, talking about the technical part involved in creating the image.
The photographer used a view camera, which is a large camera that requires a piece of film, called sheet film, inserted in a film holder. He put this sheet film in the back of the camera and had the subject standing as he appears in the photograph, holding on to his stake.
The room was completely dark, as the artist started walking around the room with a handheld flash, popping the flash off in different angles to create different shadows as he walked around, thus creating the shadowy wings of the Dark Angel.
Unknowingly to Weston, while he was moving around and working on his photograph, his cat, Che (from Che Guevara), walked inside the room and was accidentally illuminated when the flash came off. It wasn’t until during the developing process that the photographer discovered the cat, which wasn’t supposed to be in the picture, staring straight at the angel’s stake.
Although Kurt Weston created Dark Angel in total darkness, he also interjected the only light into the image to illuminate the angel’s face. The light is a symbol of hope and of life’s triumph coming through the immense blackness of the (then) terrifying AIDS epidemic.”
Alina Oswald is a freelance writer and photographer, and the author of ‘Journeys Through Darkness‘,” a biography. Her works have appeared online and in print, in local and national publications, like “A&U Magazine – America’s AIDS Magazine,” “Beyond Race Magazine,” “Extra-Extra,” “Go NYC,” “Next Door Magazine,” “NY Blade” and “Out IN Jersey“. Alina’s photographs have appeared in NYC art shows, such as Visual AIDS’ “Postcards from the Edge,” Leslie Lohman’s “Strike A Pose,” and solo exhibit, “Backbone,” at 32 Jones Gallery. For more information, visit Alina’s blog.