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Vitamin in the Twinkie

Meet Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez


Interview by Cathy Booth Thomas

 

She used to be an award-winning writer for The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times. Then she quit in a snit and found a new fit: fiction. Since 2005, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez has written 13 novels, ranging from her original chica lit series, The Dirty Girls Social Club, to her newest romance series for teens called The Kindred Trilogy. (Not vampire, not a werewolf, he’s a ghost cowboy in love with a prep school girl.) Amazon breathlessly describes her this way: “Published in 11 languages with more than 1 million books in print, Alisa was named one of the 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America by Time magazine; Latina magazine named her Woman of the Year; and Hispanic Business Magazine …” (Enough! You had us at 1 million books.)

Besides launching her new Kindred series this year with book one, The Temptation, she started writing e-romance novellas, promising a 100-page book each month, available for just $1.99. (Sample: Nicole Garcia, engaged to Texas oilman, runs into reckless rodeo star Billy Donovan. Sparks fly. Complications guaranteed.) Hollywood has dallied with and disappointed her before, three times to be exact, but The Dirty Girls Social Club just might make it into a feature film, with Alisa co-writing with Ron Bass. Bawdy and funny, Alisa writes a regular blog about the cowboy hunk who made her see that Learning to Submit was the best thing for this reformed Ivy Leaguer and recovering journalist. Her memoir will be out in 2013.

 

So, you were supposed to write a piece for Mayborn about your love life – I mean the love of your life – but your publisher freaked. They want to sell the first installment for big bucks. Imagine that! Give us a preview anyway.

I’m not sure that’s exactly how or why it happened this way, but I’m happy to give you a sneak preview. My memoir is called Learning to Submit: How Feminism Stole My Womanhood, and the Traditional Cowboy Who Helped Me Find It. The title is a pretty accurate summary. The book chronicles the first eight months of dating this amazing man who spurred a pretty big life transformation in me. I use “submit” to mean trust, in that I think it’s very hard for professional women who are used to being in control of their careers to negotiate romantic relationships, where biology and evolution still play a pretty big role whether we like it or not.

 

Aren’t you a bit young for a memoir? What makes your story so different?

Thankfully, memoir isn’t autobiography. Memoir is a snapshot. Biography is the whole box of photos. Besides which, 43 ain’t young. Not to me.

 

You quit “journalism” and wrote a 3,400-word resignation letter to your bosses at The Los Angeles Times, accusing them of racism and discrimination against … uuummm … was it Spanish speakers or Latinos? Any regrets?

This is ancient history and I’m honestly disappointed and exhausted to see you bringing it up. This stuff is really only of interest to journalists, and for all the wrong reasons. That letter was private. I never intended for anyone to see it. For that reason I ask that you respect my privacy and stop peeking in my windows to comment on my choice of underwear. Thanks.

 

Where did you get the idea for your first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club?

I really wanted that novel to be a vitamin in a Twinkie. I wanted to illustrate the broad diversity of what “Latino” means in the United States, which essentially invented this ethnicity. I knew that the best way to do it wasn’t in journalism, but in fun fiction where you could actually get to know the characters and care about them. I have found much more freedom to express complex truths about race, ethnicity and socioeconomic class in fiction that I ever found in journalism, which ironically believes things like “race” to be scientific fact, contrary to all sound science.

 

Do you feel Latinas are under-represented in fiction today?

I will answer by fondly remembering a great quote by Ernest Hemingway. He was once asked whether he liked “the Russian writers,” and answered that he did not believe there were such thing as an ethnic or national writer. There are only writers, and as writers we belong most easily and only to the nation of writers, inhabited by other writers. Though I am consistently labeled by my perceived ethnicity by journalists who, I remind you, believe such things to be extremely important for reasons that continue to baffle me, I personally am not concerned with a writer’s ethnicity. Ever. I judge writers by the content of their character(s). Period. If you read a writer solely because of their ethnicity, race, sex or any other label, you are no better in my eyes than someone who would avoid a writer for the same banal reasons. Louis Armstrong once said there were only two kinds of music in the world, good and bad. So, too, for writing.

 

Why fiction? You’ve got a master’s in journalism from Columbia!

Journalism is a great training ground for any and all types of writing. I’ll never forget the day I read from one of my novels for a literature class and the professor, head of the department, confronted me with grave concern wrinkling her brow. “Your work is very clear, simple and easy to understand,” she scolded me. “Is this a problem for you in the sophisticated world of letters?” I laughed out loud. I told her what I tell everyone, which is to say that I am consistently unimpressed by insecure people who express small ideas with enormous words, just as I’m consistently impressed by generous communicators who express complex ideas in sparse, elegant, simple, precise language. Any jackass with a pen can obfuscate in order to inculcate the academic pedant, and it is always an exercise in ego inflation to exact such violence against language and ideas. It takes an artist, though, to make something people want, rather than have, to read. It’s easy to make people cry; much harder to make them laugh. If my clear writing that lots of people like makes me untouchable to the world of letters, so be it. I’d rather slum it with the regular folks than bask in my own ability to complicate what is already a very complicated and difficult life for most people. I blame William Zinsser, who wrote the best book on writing, ever, called On Writing Well. It was required reading in J-school and should be required for anyone who fancies themselves a scribe – which is a fancy way of saying so you think you can write? G’head. Try.

 

The Dirty Girls Social Club, published by St. Martin’s Press, sold more than a half million copies. Yet for the 3rd in the series, you decided to self publish. Why?

I’m a control freak. That is all.

 

Tell us about the land mines along the way to self-publishing. Or was it a piece of cake?

It’s a lot easier than people think. Don’t trust anyone who promises to teach you how to format a book for a thousand bucks. You can learn this on your own. You can learn it all on your own. You will need a copy editor, though. That’s the biggest drawback of self-publishing: typos.

 

Your mother copy-edits. How’s that working out? Does that make you edit out naughty thoughts?

My mom is very professional, and a dear friend. We have fun. She’s a hell of a writer, too, and the reason I am a writer. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so my mom used what she had to keep me entertained, and that was her mind. We used to play metaphor and simile games when I was a toddler. It started there. “Get ready to roast like a chicken,” she’d say as we prepared to get into a hot car. I’d have to reply with my own comparison then, such as, “Get ready to boil like an egg.” Language was fun in my childhood home, and I have my lovely mom to thank for that. We still have fun with language.

 

Cover design? Surely you need an expert to design them?

I design my own. So far I haven’t heard any complaints.

 

Everybody knows authors do their own marketing and publicity these days, but how hard is it?

It’s a full-time job to promote yourself. It’s also really annoying. I think most books sell word-of-mouth via social media these days, and there’s just not a whole hell of a lot a writer can do other than keep throwing words out there in hopes that someone notices.

 

Distribution must be a pain in the butt.

Not at all. E-books are obviously very easy. Print books are also easy through sites like CreateSpace, which distributes your book to all major retailers for you.

 

But you still have a publishing house for your young adult books. Why? Was it their idea?

I use major houses for all but my chica lit and romance these days. My decision. Seems a little safer to have a diversified portfolio.

 

Worried about running out of ideas writing an eRomance a month?

I’ve been accused of many things, but void of ideas has never been one of them. I’m a bit of an idea machine. I write fast. I’m almost like those people who write all the time, on their walls, their hands, their pets. It’s a sickness, writing. At least for me.

 

New writers labor over sentence structure and grammar, but you think of writing as a sound track. Tell us how you write.

Writing is a visual representation of speech to me. And speech is an imperfect aural representation of the inner workings of the soul. I have never seen writing as a visual medium. It is an aural medium. I’m a musician. My bachelor’s degree is in music. Words are music to me. I write to a soundtrack, meaning I always have music playing when I write. I’m listening to Lana del Rey right now. I’m not sure what that says about our relationship, Mayborn, but I’m pretty sure we’re about to break up.

 

You’re going to write an e-book a month, churn out the next book in your Kindred series and finish your memoir this year. You’re a single mom. How do you do it?

I write because I can’t not write. For me it is not painful. It is fun. I’m sorry. I know this pisses off a lot of people. Writing is so good I do it when I’m supposed to be doing other stuff. It feels like cheating on everything else in my life. Writing is the hot secret lover I keep texting when no one’s looking.

 

Ever worry what your son will think of his mom’s racy books when he grows up?

My, what a very Texan question. No. I don’t. If he hasn’t figured out how he got made by then, we have bigger problems than that. My son has a great sense of humor. And my books aren’t all that racy. They just have racy titles. They’re actually sort of smart. Some of them are used in sociology classes in fancy universities.

 

You broke with journalistic convention and let the cowboy read your manuscript for the memoir. Why? Did you delete anything for him?

I didn’t delete. I revised. He wanted his quotes to be more like he’d say things. I hadn’t recorded him, so they were approximations at times. He set me straight. Oh, wait. He did make me delete a sex scene. “That’s private, dear,” he said. He is an old school cowboy in his 50s, a conservative, so there are just some things you don’t talk about. At least not when he’s around. Call me later and I’ll fill you in. Wait, what?

 

Just to upset your publisher (and promote your book), what’s the message in your memoir?

There are a few messages, I guess. I hope that the messages are different for each reader, because to me that’s what good writing is supposed to do, connect differently with each spirit ingesting it. That’s why you try to show rather than tell. I show a story, a snapshot, and it’s up to all y’all to figure out what it means … to you.

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Meet Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
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