Crafting Stories With Diana López by Robert Longoria Our special guest is Diana López, author of Confetti Girl and Sofia’s Saints.
Growing up, what were your favorite authors? I read and enjoyed Anne Frank, S.E. Hinton, Judy Blume, Greek mythology, and horse stories like National Velvet and Black Beauty. I also read The World Book of Knowledge, volumes A to XYZ. It was published in the early ‘70’s so I have a very Cold War perspective of the world. I didn’t read it front to back, cover to cover. I wrote the letters on little pieces of paper, put them in a can, and randomly selected. I still love to randomly select reading material. Could you tell us a little bit about “Sofia’s Saints” and “Confetti Girl”? Both books are set in my hometown, Corpus Christi. Sofia’s Saints is the story of a woodburning artist who uses a pyroelectric pen to draw her own interpretations of saints. She does not want to compromise her artistic vision, but then she learns that she needs to raise money to buy the house she’s been renting for years. The novel explores definitions of family, ownership, art, and miracles. Confetti Girl targets the middle school audience. It’s the story of Lina, a sock-loving, volleyball player. She’s worried about her father who has withdrawn into books after his wife, her mother, dies. Lina tries to help him heal and at the same time struggles with a bully, a best friend who’d rather hang out with a boy, and mountains of books and cascarones. Going through the process of developing a story, what has influenced your creative brainstorming?
Inspiration is multi-directional and non-stop. Trust me, there is no shortage of stories out there. The trick is to be receptive and put aside the “monkey brain.” “Monkey brain” means many things to me. On
the one hand, it’s the doubting voice that tells me to quit or makes fun of my ideas. Or it’s the internal editor that constantly corrects me and keeps me from making progress because it wants my writing to be perfect the first time. Or, it’s the distracting voice that reminds me about all the tasks I have, the chores, the job, the family and friends who need me. So, I must occupy my monkey brain with rote activities like walking, driving, cleaning to get at the real thoughts underneath. I have the best brainstorming sessions while I’m doing mindless activities like this. How do you imagine a scene or chapter in your stories? When you’re writing a novel, you have to be aware of your character’s goals. There is always the primary goal that takes an entire book to accomplish, but each scene has a goal too. So what does the character want, what forces get in her way, and how does she deal with that? For example, Lina’s main goal is to help her dad heal, but she has these other goals too like winning a volleyball game, completing her science project, and kissing a boy. This is what pulls a reader through. So I start a chapter by asking, what does she want now or how is she going to deal with this situation? Between writing for completely different audiences (such as the ones for “Sofia’s Saints” and “Confetti Girl”), which one is easier to write, character and story-wise? It really depends on my emotional state. The younger stories come from a lighter, more humorous place, even when they are dealing with tough issues. The adult stories come from a more subdued, even skeptical, place. The humor is a bit more wry. I need both emotional landscapes to make sense of my world. One of Sofia’s challenges, and mine, is how to maintain the magic of childhood when confronted by the disappointments and the obligations of adulthood. It’s like Blake’s “Songs,” how he’ll take a fly or an infant or a chimney sweeper and show us both the naïve and the cynical perspective. There are advantages and disadvantages to both views, but if you can somehow marry them, you can have the best of both worlds. So I oscillate. I was charging ahead with another teen book last month, but then I stopped because I feel called to write an essay. I don’t know what I’ll do with it, only that it needs to be written right now. As for characters, some are Athena, bursting from my brain fully formed. In Sofia’s Saints, Chimuelita and Susie were like that; in Confetti Girl, Ms. Cantu. But I have to dig for most characters, and this is true for both types of books. I like the first person, which means I have to become someone else. I’m 44. It’s not easy to be 13 again, to forget everything that my adult life has taught me, and to write in a way that feels contemporary and immediate, not retrospective. I wrote a piece for Texas Monthly a couple of
years ago, and I had to be a man, very Texan, and in trouble with the law. That was a real stretch for me, but fun too. The strategies for plot work in both the adult and teen genres. But, I think adult readers are more patient, so I’m comfortable slowing down the action or using more internal tension, letting the details and environment, rather than the supporting cast, push the conflict. What was your inspiration for “Confetti Girl” and “Sofia’s Saints”? For Sofia’s Saints, I was partly inspired by Selena’s death, by my landlord’s decision to sell the property I was renting, by flea markets and tagged walls, by a woman at a crafts show burning wood, by the images of saints I saw in my parents’, grandmas’, and tia’s houses. But Percival Lowe is in there too, and Juan Diego, the Virgen de Guadalupe, Michelangelo, Botticelli, the beach, and Bayfest. And let me not forget the Spanish songs my sister sings or the promesas my mother makes. So you can say that much of Sofia’s Saints is a collage of the imagery that surrounds me. Like I said earlier, the inspiration is multidirectional. At its earliest stages, Confetti Girl was called Dad’s Windmill, and it focused on this father who had delusions as funny as Don Quixote’s. But it wasn’t working. I asked myself, why is Don Quixote so crazy? Well, he reads too much, so I made this father an obsessive reader and then realized he was reading to escape grief. The other details – socks, cascarones, whooping cranes, Watership Down, embarrassingly long legs – are also part of my life collage. Would you consider cultural background of authors important in the development of literature? Of course. No one can escape culture. Here are some examples. I love to read sci-fi. You would think that a sci-fi writer tries to be progressive in his thinking, doing his best to accurately portray the futuristic world. But he can’t escape his current world no matter how hard he tries. Take the original Star Trek series. This is supposed to portray the future, enlightened world, yet the women are subordinate personnel or they’re pining for Captain Kirk. The same types of women are in early 60’s sci-fi books like The Man Who Fell to Earth or Stranger in a Strange Land. Yet here we are, in 2011, historical time for some of these books, and women are Secretaries of State, justices on the Supreme Court, doctors, pilots. So let’s take the opposite side of the coin and look at historical fiction written today. Two that I read recently – Allende’s Daughter of Fortune about the Gold Rush and The Lady and the Poet about Anne More, John Donne’s wife – had female protagonists with the strength of character and intelligence to determine their own futures. Why so many willful women in historical fiction? Because we can’t help projecting how we see women today onto our stories of the past. Ever since Linda Hamilton got buff for Terminator 2, women have been kicking ass. But you probably wanted to know about ethnic culture. The answer is the same. For the literature of El Movimiento, culture was the driving force of stories; oppression and assimilation were the dominant themes. They are still powerful themes, but alongside those stories are other stories with conflicts that
do not stem from culture clashes but that are part of the universal human experience, like dealing with loss as in Confetti Girl. Still, the culture is there. It has to be. What are some of the difficulties of getting published (if any)? The greatest difficulty is encouraging a reading community. Our dollars are our votes. If we want books, we have to vote for them, which mean we have to buy them. People stopped buying cassette tapes, and now they’re gone. That’s what I mean. There is interest in minority fiction right now, but it’s dangerous, too, because you have to fight against stereotypes. There’s this tiny space between writing a book that’s too brown and not brown enough. I didn’t think about it when I was writing Confetti Girl, but then the publisher asked if I could bring in more cultural “flavor.” I took it literally. They want flavor, I said to myself, I’ll give them flavor. So in chapter one, for example, I changed “potato chips” to “chicharrones.” No kidding. And they loved it. But I wasn’t taking out the quiche or the fried pickles because guess what, Mexican Americans eat that stuff too. And Lina’s dad isn’t a migrant worker; he’s a teacher, an English teacher. He reads Shakespeare and Camus, but he says dichos, too. I could give you the boring story of “how I got published.” It’s writing, revising, getting feedback, revising, waiting, waiting, hoping, feeling rejected, submitting again, waiting, getting feedback again. You need patience and thick skin, and it doesn’t hurt to introduce cascarones to the world. Are there any future novels that you are currently developing or have written out, waiting for publication? Yes, to all those questions. This month I’ve got a story featured in You Don’t Have a Clue, an anthology of Latino teen mysteries published by Arte Publico Press. Also, Scholastic will be publishing my book, tentatively titled Breath Sisters, next year. It’s another middle grade story, this one about the choking game. Finally, I’m hard at work on a book I’m calling 9 Bikinis, 500 Names about a girl who visits the shrine for La Virgen de San Juan del Valle to make a promesa after learning her mother has breast cancer. Diana López, thank you very much.
Author Bio: 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 teaches English at the University of Houston in Victoria Texas.