Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Interview With Author Diana Lopez

Diana thanks for this interview for La Bloga. How would you present the book to the audience? Tell us about it.

In Confetti Girl, Apolonia Flores (or Lina), is a sock-loving, volleyball player with a major crush on a boy named Luís. She’s going through a hard time. Her mother died a year ago, and she has figuratively lost her father, too, because all he does is read books. Lina reacts by sabotaging her English grade, which introduces even more problems. Meanwhile, her best friend, Vanessa, struggles with a recently-divorced mom who now hates all men and who cooks eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (even Thanksgiving), so she can save the eggshells for her cascarones, the only activity that seems to give her peace of mind. So how are these girls going to rescue their parents, and themselves, from the consequences of anger and grief?

You begin each chapter with a popular dicho. Who was source of inspiration? Did you grow up with dichos?

My parents’ favorite sayings were actually in English. “If you start something, finish it,” “If you’re going to do something, do it right,” and “If you make a mistake, fix it.” I heard those quotes when cleaning, sewing, or doing homework, and even now, they run through my head nearly every day. They’re good mantras for a writer, for everything, if you think about it.
But occasionally, I heard dichos like the ones in the book, usually from an uncle, a teacher, or lady at church, always someone who was an elder, who was trying to guide me somehow. So including them in the book, as something a father would say to his child, felt natural. I started asking around, collecting dichos from relatives and friends, from the internet, from dicho dictionaries (they’re out there!). I’m still amazed by how many there are.

Your novel revolves around cascarones. The titles of your chapters refer to eggs or eggshells. Where did you get your idea to include that imagery in the book?

I had just finished describing Lina’s house, all those books, and in the second chapter, she visits Vanessa, her friend across the street. I really enjoyed writing about a house full of books, and I wanted something visual for her friend’s house too. So I was brainstorming as I drove home from work one day, and that’s when I saw one of my neighbors. She was in a rocking chair with cartons of eggs all around and a “cascarones for sale” sign. There are people in San Antonio who save eggshells all year round, so they can sell cascarones during Easter and Fiesta. “That’s it!” I thought. “Vanessa’s house is full of cascarones!”

But I had a problem. The scene was happening in fall, and cascarones are for spring. That’s when I realized that Vanessa’s mom has a cascarones-making obsession. This detail really sharpened the character for me. Why is she making cascarones? I wondered. And then her whole story spilled out.

I had different chapter titles originally, but when I realized that the cascarones were functioning as a symbol in the book, I decided to highlight the egg imagery. I have to admit that one of my favorite experiences has been introducing cascarones to people who have never heard of them. I took four dozen to the ALA conference in Chicago, and we made a wonderful, joyful mess.

Lina, your protagonist, loves socks and to play volleyball. How much of you can we find in Lina? What do you like to do?

Like Lina, I experienced that embarrassing sense of awkwardness. Tween bodies don’t stretch out proportionally, and for a while, I had these ridiculously long legs. I didn’t know what to do with them, how to move without tripping over myself. Plus, I was too tall to hide, and as a shy girl, all I wanted to do was hide. The only time I felt comfortable, (more than that, I felt powerful, free, even beautiful) was in track. I could run. I ran faster than all the girls and most of the guys. That’s what people remember about me. So I’m very aware of how an activity like volleyball (or band or student council) can rescue a young person from those horribly insecure years.

I still run, only today, I run slower than all of the guys and most of the girls. It doesn’t matter. Running is how I meditate and problem-solve. And if I don’t run, I lift weights with my husband or walk a big circle around the neighborhood. I also like to play European board games like Settlers of Catan, Notre Dame, or Princes of Florence. Collectively, my friends and I have a wonderful library of games.

You are dealing with two serious issues: the divorce of parents and the loss of a mother. There are many students in middle schools dealing with similar situations. What is your message for these children?

I wanted to explore how people grieve. Some, like Lina’s father, withdraw, while others, like Vanessa’s mom, blame the whole world. So how do you get past your sorrow or anger? And how do these emotions affect those you love, those you haven’t lost?

For me, stories start with questions, questions I don’t know the answers to. If I were wise, I wouldn’t need to write. If I were wise, I’d be a priest or counselor. But I’m a writer, one who believes Robert Frost when he says, “Poems should delight first, teach later.” So I hesitate to give a message because that’s something the reader needs to conclude for himself. But if I have to, the message would be something like this . . . look around. Who’s in your house? Who’s in your neighborhood? Who’s at your school, your church, or your job? When someone has gone, don’t forget that someone else has stayed.

Confetti Girl is your first middle grade novel. How was the switch from writing for adults to writing for children?

I got different reactions when I told people I was writing for middle-school readers. Some thought it was a great idea and others thought I was crazy. But I spent so many years teaching that age group, which means I’ve read thousands of pages written by them. They are all grown up now, but this book is still my gift to them, my thank you.

Saying that writing for children is easier than writing for adults is like saying short stories are easier than novels. If you've tried different genres, you know this isn’t true. Each has its own set of conventions, of challenges, but the things that make a good adult story (character, plot, language) are the things that make a good story for young people.

The toughest challenge for this genre is the point of view. You have to be a child again, which means resisting the urge to write retrospectively (the wise adult looking back on her innocent childhood). My solution was to be in the moment as much as possible. That’s why I chose to write the novel in present tense. It gave me the ability to write without hindsight.

I also want to add, if you are going to write for young people, you need to read young people’s books. You also have to spend time with them . . . listen and let them be your teachers . . . don’t ever underestimate how intelligent they are and how much they have to offer.

How was the process from manuscript to publication for Confetti Girl?

I had registered to go to the Latino Writers Conference in Albuquerque, and before I went, I researched the agents who would be there. That’s how I learned about Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary. She represented children’s fiction and had a special interest in minority literature. At the time, I had two chapters of Confetti Girl. I gave them to Stefanie and she read them in her hotel room that night. She was very enthusiastic, and I could tell she understood my vision for the book. That’s what you want in an agent, someone who loves your work and trusts your vision. But, I have to add, Stefanie is also a good editor. She taught me a lot about writing for this age group.

I also learned a lot from Alvina Ling, my editor at Little Brown. I had read Firegirl and Year of the Dog, two books that Alvina edited and that I highly recommend. I knew I was in good hands. She had wonderful suggestions, but she was also respectful about changes I did not want to make. At some point in the process, your writing moves from a solitary endeavor to a partnership between the author, agent, and editor. I couldn’t have asked for a better team.

And, I just received more publishing news. Scholastic will release a paperback edition of Confetti Girl next spring!

What inspires you to write? What are you working on now?

I’ll give a short response but please know that this isn’t a complete answer. I have many, many inspirations.

I dedicated this book to my parents, so I want to give them credit for inspiring me. They weren’t avid readers or writers, but they were very project-oriented. My mother sewed, and my father designed and built things – a new bathroom, a jewelry box, bunk beds. They always had a project before them, and the same holds true today. Their example taught me about planning and perseverance. And it also made me ask, what is my talent? That’s what I thought about as I watched my parents make these beautiful things. And I concluded that if I’m going to have a meaningful life, I have to engage in some type of creative process. For me, that process is writing.

What am I working on now? Another book for middle grade readers. It’s called Breath Sisters, and it’s about a girl named Windy who seeks popularity by betraying her best friend and playing the dangerous choking game.

Thanks Diana, what are your final words for our readers at La Bloga?

I just want to say thanks for reading my interview and for supporting Latino writers by visiting La Bloga. I’ve got a lot of events coming up. If I’m in your area, put on your wackiest socks and stop by. I love meeting new people and touching base with old friends.

Diana’s Upcoming Events

September 15, 2009
Reading and signing 5:00 to 7:00 at The Twig, San Antonio

September 19, 2009
reading at 1:00 p.m. Book People, Austin

September 25, 2009
Book signing at Region 20 in San Antonio

September 26, 2009
Hispanic Heritage Month Panel at Barnes & Noble San Pedro Crossing, San Antonio; 1:00 p.m.

If you shop at the Barnes & Noble at San Pedro Crossing on September 26th, please mention the Society of Hispanic and Latino Writers at the register. B&N is donating a percentage of its sales to this non-profit organization that supports local writers.

October 1, 2009
Writing Warriors; Reading and school visits, Victoria, Texas

October 9, 2009
A Quilt of Words: Creative Writing Workshop; Hispanic Mothers & Daughters Conference; St. Philip's College, Heritage Room, 6:00 to 7:00 PM

October 15, 2009
Reception and Book Signing at St. Philip's College; Heritage Room, 2:00 to 4:00 PM

October 30 - November 1, 2009
Texas Book Festival; Austin, Texas

November 14, 2009
Corpus Christi Libraries' Centenniel Celebration
Reading and Book Signing at Greenwood Library, 2:00 p.m.

November 15, 2009
Reading and Book Signing at Barnes & Noble in Corpus Christi at 1:00 PM

December 2, 2009
Lunch Bunchers Book Club in San Antonio

Diana López is the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints, published by Bilingual Review Press in 2002, and the middle grade novel, Confetti Girl, published by Little Brown in 2009. She is also one of the featured authors in Hecho en Tejas, an anthology of writing by Texas-Mexicans (University of New Mexico Press, 2007). Her short stories have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Sycamore Review, and New Texas Journal. She has been featured on NPR’s Latino USA and is the 2004 winner of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Award, sponsored by author Sandra Cisneros. Diana López lives in San Antonio, Texas where she teaches at St. Philip’s College.

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