siel ju

live and write in l.a.

Every month, I interview an author I admire on her literary firsts.

June’s featured author is Samantha Dunn, author of Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation.

This memoir is funny, irreverent, and heartfelt. It starts with the newly divorced, thirty-something Samantha’s introduction to salsa — via a lover who quickly becomes an ex lover because he turns out to have other lovers — then quickly spirals down to her sleeping with her very short salsa instructor — then spins into a heartwarming story of her actually learning to dance — on the dance floor and off.

Samantha’s also the author of a previous memoir, Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life — which details the self-analysis and recovery following a major horse riding accident. In addition, she’s written a slim novel called Failing Paris, which I briefly reviewed here.

In this interview, Samantha reveals what she learned about life through dancing, why you should jump into things with both feet, and how to cope with your book going out of print!

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Siel: I love the LA salsa scene you captured in Faith in Carlos Gomez — and even recognized some of the characters. We’ve both taken lessons with Laura Canellias! That said, your memoir is now already 12 years old, and I’d imagine your life back then as a single, freelance writer dancing the night away is quite different from your life now as editor of Coast magazine, wife, and mother. When you reread or rebrowse through this memoir now, do you still identify closely with the narrator — or does she feel like a different, bygone person?

Samantha: Ah! She is still me, except a lot thinner and better looking than the me of now.

I have very deep affection for that book, because without who I was then, I would not have the life I have now. Like Alice through the looking glass, I tumbled into a world that changed me forever. Through salsa I learned to love my body; I learned to appreciate men in a whole new way and to trust them (if only, as one of my friends once said, three minutes at a time!). I also radically improved my Spanish, and have a passion for Latin music that will never leave me.

Becoming a dancer made me understand things about my own mother I had never really understood or appreciated. As you know from the book, my parents met dancing. Two very different people, from very different worlds, who met on the dance floor and totally clicked. Their passionate connection, though, wasn’t meant for the real world, only the dance floor. I had to dance in order to really know how something like that could happen.

What I miss most is the special camaraderie of the friends I made during that time. Dance friendships are like no other. You know each other on a physical and spiritual level in a way I have never known elsewhere. I’m still close to Laura Canellias–in fact we were up at 2 a.m. the other night talking on the phone!–as well as Veronica Zarate, who is also mentioned in the book.

Long gone though are the weeknight meet-up to catch a dance at the Cock n Bull or Monsoon, or the spectacular nights at Sportsman’s Lodge–I don’t even know where the scene is anymore! What makes my heart ache is that the desire for a home and a family of my own, things I had never really had in my life, led me away from people I loved, some of whom I will never have the joy of dancing with again. Beloved Don Johnson is one, and just this week the amazing Albert Torres, the godfather of the world salsa scene, died. That’s unbelievable to me. You know Albert factors largely in my book. I still can’t get over the fact that I will never know the joy of sharing a dance with him again.

This line of yours really struck me: “For a long while now I have felt like I’m floating on top of my life.” I still feel like this quite often. Does this end? If so, do you miss it?

Oh honey. Yes. It does end–if you jump in with both feet. The way to do that is to stop worrying about perfection, about being or finding the perfect person. Just…dance, metaphorically speaking.

I miss the things I mentioned above, but I never, ever miss the sense of not being invested in the world, despite the heartache that being among it all can bring.

In addition to Faith in Carlos Gomez, you’re the author of another memoir as well as a novel. Which book do you feel closest to?

Hmm. That’s an interesting question. I don’t really think about it that way. Everything I have ever written is part of me, an archive of who I have been and what I struggle to be.

But you know, those books, they don’t exist for me. We write, or at least I do, in the hope that something in our experience can connect with other people and move them, inspire them in some way. Honestly. I think if you are not in some way writing as an act of service, then what are you doing? Self glorification is useless and boring. I mean, who cares? People read to find glimmers of their own experience, or their own hopes and desires, reflected. And perhaps they find a key to moving forward or letting go, being inspired or enlivened in some way.

I was sad to find out Faith in Carlos Gomez is now out of print, though copies are still gettable, thanks to the internet. Still, do you have any advice for authors who may also see their books go out of print? How does one come to terms with this, psychologically and professionally?

Oh, this could be a long answer–you’d need to understand the vagaries of the totally nonsensical publishing industry to really get it. I’ll tell you, it used to be only a relatively small percentage of books stayed in print. Untold thousands, probably millions of books, have evaporated from our consciousness as a result of being out of print. The internet has changed that, like you said.

But this book in particular, that was tough for me, because the original publisher essentially buried it. The editor liked it but the marketing department didn’t get it, and when they don’t get it, you’re dead. Still, it developed kind of a cult following that exists to this day. It was also optioned by Hollywood and almost made into a movie–who knows, it still may be one day!

The experience with Faith in Carlos Gomez taught me more than any of my books that as a writer, as any kind of artist, you have to just make what you make and keep going, divest yourself of expectations around success. Having someone write to me 12 years after the fact and say they loved a book of mine, like you have, and that it meant something to them–well, isn’t that the best, really? Isn’t that the goal?

Do you still salsa?

Not at clubs. In the kitchen! With my son. He’s got some natural moves for an 8 year old. I think it’s about time he went with Tia Laura (Canellias) and got some official instruction…


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