22 October 2008

Interview- Diana Rodriguez Wallach, author of Amor and Summer Secrets

So how does it feel? One minute you're a regular person and then next your book is on Amazon.com, you have people telling you how much they loved it. You're getting interview requests. It must be pretty great.

It’s very surreal. I have my first signing coming up at the Barnes & Noble in Wilmington, DE and to promote it, the store actually has posters up with my picture. How strange is that? I walk by and can’t believe that’s me in the window, but at the same time it feels like so long ago that I started writing Amor and Summer Secrets. It’s all very exciting.

Have you always wanted to be an author? If not, how long ago did you decide to try it and what made you come to that decision?

No, I didn’t, which I think puts me in an unusual category. I feel a lot of authors say they wrote their first novels when they were four or five—I’m serious. I, however, took a longer road to find my passion.

While I always enjoyed writing, I initially channeled those skills into journalism. It wasn’t until after I got a degree, had six unpaid internships, and worked for several years as a reporter that I was able to admit that I didn’t enjoy working in journalism. Only I didn’t know what else I “should” be doing, until I had a dream. Literally.

I dreamt that I was a young adult author, and I dreamt the concept for an entire series of books. When I woke up and told my husband, he immediately said, “Don’t you remember that psychic?” I didn’t, until then.

Several years earlier, when he and I had taken a vacation in New England, we stopped in Salem, MA to see the witches’ houses. While there I decided to visit a psychic (when in Rome, right?)

So I sat down and the psychic immediately said, “You’re a writer.” And I was; I was a reporter. I told her this, and she asked what I wrote about. Intentionally trying to be cryptic (I mean, she is a psychic, shouldn’t she already know?), I told her that I wrote about “business.” She swiftly rebuffed that and said, “No. I see you writing books, little books, like children’s books.”

I had never considered writing a book before. But after the dream, and my recollection of that encounter, I figured it was “a sign.” What can I say? I was raised Catholic. So I sat down and started writing my first novel.

Is there anything you have to do before you can write, like listen to music?

I’m not very ritualistic. Sometimes I listen to music while I write and other times I don’t. If anything, I think I concentrate better when it’s silent. So even when I have music on, it’s at a very low decibel. But I can’t have anyone in the house when I’m writing—the last thing I need is an easy excuse for a distraction. Most writers will tell you that when you’re writing, all of the sudden color-coding your underwear drawer seems like a good idea if it allows you to procrastinate.

How do you get over writer's block?

When I’m working on a first draft, I don’t allow myself to stop writing. I write 3,000 words per day regardless of how hard they are to slug out. So I guess I push through any blocks. The few times I really thought one of my stories was “missing something,” I read a few chapters of Stephen King’s On Writing and it helped tremendously. Even though he writes in a completely different genre, just reading about his process helped clarify things in my own mind.

What inspired Amor and Summer Secrets?

The idea behind it developed during a phone conversation with my agent, Jenoyne Adams. She had been working on different young adult projects I had written, and had mentioned seeing a recent increase in interest from editors seeking multi-cultural novels. Up to this point, my books had yet to feature a Latina protagonist. And of course Jenoyne asked the infamous question, “Got any ideas?” I didn’t. But by the end of our conversation, I had pitched the story for what became Amor and Summer Secrets.

My goal was to feature a character with a background similar to my own—a girl who was half Puerto Rican and half Polish, a girl who grew up not speaking Spanish, a girl who didn’t look like the Latina stereotype. Many of the feelings Mariana expresses about her cultural identity are similar to the questions I faced growing up. And though I’ve never spent the summer in Puerto Rico, I have visited a couple of times and those trips were the initial inspiration for the story.

When you first got the idea for the book did you plan for it to be a trilogy?

Actually, when I wrote Amor and Summer Secrets, I expected it to be a stand-alone book. And the novel has changed considerable since its first draft. Initially, Lilly was 17 and the events of her birthday party occurred at a nightclub. But during the submission process, my agent received a request from an editor at Kensington who was looking for a Latina book featuring a Quinceanera.

I looked at my novel and thought about whether it could possibly fit this objective. Ultimately it couldn’t hurt to try, so I spent two weeks revising the manuscript and was shocked when I loved the book so much more afterward. It added an element that I didn’t know was missing. We submitted the revised manuscript to Kate Duffy at Kensington and it sold within days. Then, to my great surprise, Kensington said that they loved it so much they wanted to publish a three-book series to expand on the character.

Whenever I write a book, I always think about would happen next to my characters—much the same way you wonder about old friends. So when the offer came in, I already had a mental outline of what the future held for Mariana and Lilly, and I was thrilled to get the opportunity to write it.

What can you tell us about Amigas and School Scandals?

Amigas and School Scandals picks up right where Amor and Summer Secrets leaves off. Mariana is heading back to Spring Mills and her cousin Lilly is coming with her. You can get a sense of where the story is headed by viewing my Book Trailer: Link

Aside from what’s on the book jacket and in the trailer, I can say that the novel features some fun frat party scenes at Cornell (there are some goldfish involved, that’s all I’ll say). And Mariana will be celebrating her Sweet 16, which brings about a lot of controversy.

According to the back of Amor and Summer Secrets, you have a Puerto Rican father and Polish mother like Mariana. Are there any of aspects in your life that are same/similar to hers?

While I am not Mariana, I did give her my ethnic background. Come on, how many Polish Puerto Ricans do you know?

But seriously, I wanted to write a multi-cultural novel from the perspective of a girl who didn’t quite identify with either of her parents’ cultures. I feel this is a very American story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re half Polish and half Puerto Rican, or half Thai and half Jamaican, I think a lot people (and a lot of teens) can relate being torn between two very different ethnic groups.

Aside from her ethnic make up, Mariana and I are both from the Philly suburbs (though Mariana’s family has a much nicer house). And both of our father’s were raised in Utuado, Puerto Rico (though my dad’s nothing like Lorenzo Ruiz). We also both have reddish hair and freckles. Again, how many Puerto Ricans do you know with red hair and freckles? We come in all shapes and sizes, folks.

Were any other characters inspired by people you know?

No one character is inspired by any real person in my life, but many of the character have traces of people I know. For example, many of Vince’s antics at Cornell—from Amigas and School Scandals—are based on my husband’s fraternity stories (he’s a Cornell alum). And some of the stories about Mariana’s family in Puerto Rico are based on stories that my dad told me growing up (he gets a kick out of that). But as a whole, all of the characters and all of the plots are fictional.

Who is your favorite character to write?

Vince, because he’s light and silly. It’s always fun to write the comic relief parts of any story, and Vince is perfect for that. Plus, he reminds me of my college days.

What's the first book you remember reading?

When I was in elementary school, I used to read the Berenstain Bears books. I loved them. There was one about strangers and another about the dark that I particularly remember. I used to make my parents buy them for me when the school had book fairs.

What was your favorite book as a teen and now? Favorite author?

My favorite YA author as a teen was Christopher Pike. I loved Remember Me? and Fall into Darkness, and his adult book Sati. I really connected with his work, and I think it’s one of the reasons I was attracted to writing in the genre. Christopher, if you’re reading this, I’d love to meet you sometime.

Currently, I think Stephenie Meyer is my favorite YA author. I’m a huge fan of the Twilight saga. Her character development is amazing and really draws you in.

What are some books you'd recommend to people who like your book(s)?

Well, if you’re asking for my personal taste, I jump around quite a bit. For instance, I just finished reading Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, and now I’m reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Seriously.

That said, I can tell you that my publisher says fans of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” might also like my books (very flattering). And other reviewers have suggested Amor and Summer Secrets in the same vein as Cruel Summer by Alyson Noël and Oh. My. Gods. by Tera Lynn Childs.

I want to thank Diana so much for this interview. You can ask my friends, I literally squealed when I saw this in my inbox. Then I got mad cause it didn't want to download but all is well, obviously.