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Author juggles Kerouac’s muse, underground MMA bouts

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As the winner of the 2010 Premio Aztlan literary prize, Tim Z. Hernandez will receive a cash award and is invited to lecture at this week’s National Latino Writers Conference. (See column this page.)

Hernandez will receive the prize at the conference, which will be at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, but he probably won’t give a lecture. No, he’s not shunning the chance to speak. It’s that when he’s standing in front of an audience, he’d rather give a performance.

“I’m more of a performer. I call it storytelling,” Hernandez said in a phone interview from Denver, where he is the program coordinator at the Colorado Center for the Book. “Even when I’m touring to promote a book I don’t read from my book much. Maybe a line, to give it context.”

He said he’ll probably tell a story or two from his prize-winning novel “Breathing, In Dust,” which was published by Texas Tech University Press. And he’ll probably talk about what he’s working on now. At the moment the 37-year-old Hernandez is developing two books.

“The main project is a novel of historical fiction. It’s based on the same agricultural communities where I grew up in (California’s) San Joaquin Valley,” he said.

Set in 1947, it is a story about a female farmworker whom Hernandez considers “a Chicana Mona Lisa figure. … She became an unlikely muse for what many consider one of the great American novels of all time. She played a key role in the novel.”

That novel is none other than Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and this woman appears in a 30-page chapter of that iconic American road novel. Her name is Beatrice Franco, and Hernandez’s planned book is her story.

“My book will be basically about her life,” he said. “Years ago I became interested in her, and that led me to the archives of a New York publisher. And then I found her family. The crazy thing is that her family only lived one mile from where I lived in Fresno.”

Hernandez said he is seeking a publisher for the manuscript. The working title is “Manna Means Heaven.”

His other writing project is a young-adult novel in verse about a boy who dreams of being a mixed-martial-arts fighter. He’s in an underground backyard MMA ring and is trying to fight his way out of his situation, Hernandez said.

Hernandez’s Premio-winning book was praised as a “coming-of-age novel like no other” by author Alex Espinoza, “… a purely original and courageous book penned by a writer of uncanny wisdom and heart.”

It’s centered on 17-year-old Tlaloc, who witnesses life in migrant farm communities and the dashed hopes of family and friends.

Albuquerque author Rudolfo Anaya and his late wife, Patricia, established the prize in 1993 to recognize novels or short story collections by emerging Chicano and Chicana writers.