When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
As a teenager, I had a collection of poetry in a large binder & also I tried to write a story about a Scottish couple that was friends with my parents. My English teacher gave me a big fat F on the story & the binder of poetry was stolen. After that I stopped thinking about writing until I was in New Orleans hanging out with a Salvadoran. He introduced me to the poetry of Roque Dalton, who I ended up having my protagonist possibly be related to him. I also heard Carolyn Forché' read her poetry from "The Country Between Us," something I would never forget.
Forche' talks about the"poet as witness." I consider myself a "writer as witness." My writing tells readers what happened that likely didn't make it to the papers, but is important to understanding our history as Americans, as well as our history as citizens of the world.
How long does it take you to write a book?
You could say my debut novel "Secrets & Lies in El Salvador" took 35 years to write, but I started writing in earnest to finish my thesis to receive my MFA in Creative Writing from National University in 2009. So, I actually spent about seven years writing that story.
My second book, the prequel to SLIES, "Crimes & Impunity in New Orleans"took about four years to write.
I'm hoping this third one goes more quickly. But I find I need a lot of time to just let the ideas percolate in my mind & in my dreams before I can start writing.
Hopefully, books 4, 5 & 6 will go faster as I get to know my protagonist & the life & adventures I want her to have.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
The best stuff comes at the end when you know & understand your characters better.
I also learned that a good editor is worth their weight in gold.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I don't hear from them a lot. My books aren't well known yet.
But the ones I do hear from want to know how much of the books are true. They often mistake me for my protagonist & they often tell me they're sorry for what I went through.
CIINO actually is largely based on my own time as an activist in New Orleans though Shelly is smarter & braver than I was. SLIES is based on historical events but the protagonist & the people she meets there are fictional.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
I get energized when I have a new idea that really pulls the story together.
I wouldn't say it ever exhausts me, but I do a lot of procrastinating. I think much of it is important because I'd rather wait & be sure about what I'm writing than write stuff I later need to throw out.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
My love of stories means that I love to read. I love the great new TV series that are out. Especially those that take place in other countries. And I love great movies that put us in a world we've never been part of.
AND I love my friends who are from all over the US & the world. I love to hear their stories, to be supportive & to try to show them empathy for what they've been through.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I don't know what readers want. I definitely am not into romance or porn or anything like that.
My stories are based on my own life. Fortunately, I've lived the life of about ten people!
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Almost any translated author piques my interest because it's a world I've never known.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "100 Years of Solitude" was heavy & hard to get through, but I love all his other books.
I suppose it was the same with Isabel Allende. Maybe the first book is always hard because you know nothing about their style of story telling. Allende's books are a treasure, both for the US & Chile & the entire Spanish speaking world.
At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?
I guess whenever each particular person feels that is what they are.
I actually went from nothing to claiming myself an author. I always knew I wanted to write to get my stories out to the world, not just for myself.
What do the words “writer’s block” mean to you?
It means: you need time to learn about life, about writing & about the particular story you want to write.
Basically, the writer needs time to LIVE!
Are there therapeutic benefits to modeling a character after someone you know?
Not therapeutic for me. But it is easier to make a character real if you start with someone you know & expand on that.
About 90% of the characters in CIINO are real or started out as real. I even have a dream that a few of them will recognize themselves & contact me.
What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?
Plot & characters come together. Since much of my writing is based on my own experiences, once I remember what happened, I start remembering the actual people so I'm molding them both at the same time.
How would you describe your book’s ideal reader?
Someone who has traveled, who cares about the everyday people, especially the poor & oppressed.
Or someone who wants to travel & get to know the world & its people.
Several reviewers have said my books are not for the faint of heart.
How much research did you need to do for your book?
I do a lot more than I need to, but it's better to have too much information than not enough.
One professor of Latin American Studies felt I should have called SLIES historical fiction, but I call it historically based fiction so I could play with the timeline & not have history buffs tell me I made mistakes in the telling.
Besides they say historical fiction is supposed to happen 50 years BEFORE the author was born. I'm telling the history of MY time so ... I'm already out of that game.
Tell us more about your book/s?
The books follow both the news that happens in that time period as well as events that never made the news. In the 80s, you really had to be around a small group of dedicated people to know what was really happening because the newspapers were paid to bury stories that the powers that be didn't want known.
That's how racial crimes and sexual crimes happened over & over & people had no idea that there were thousands of other victims just like them.