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Please welcome my special guest, award-winning Cuban playwright and novelist Teresa Dovalpage. She’s here today to talk about her novel, Habanera.

Teresa has a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature and is the author of five novels, three in Spanish and two in English, and a collection of short stories in Spanish. Her plays has been staged in Chicago by Aguijon Theater and in small theaters in Miami. Her articles, reviews and short stories have appeared in Rosebud, Latino Today, Afro-Hispanic Review, Baquiana, La Peregrina, Letras Femeninas, El Nuevo Herald and other publications. She currently works as a freelancer for The Taos News and the bilingual paper Mas New Mexico. Visit her website at www.dovalpage.com.

Teresa presently lives in Taos, New Mexico, where she teaches Spanish and Spanish Literature at UNM-Taos. Her blog in Spanish, that complements her narrative workshop, is http://dovalpage.wordpress.com/ and her blog in English, where some of her articles are posted, is http://teredovalpage.wordpress.com.

Q: Thanks for this interview, Teresa! When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

A: Thank you, chica! Now that I think of it, I probably decided to become a writer when I was a teenager. I grew up in Havana during the 80’s and entertainment options were quite limited then—camping out in rustic settings or going to Saturday night parties. I was never the cheez boom bah type (in fact, I was a nerd) and was afraid of snakes so I stayed home in the company of books. After reading thousands of pages, there came a time when I thought, “Hey, I bet I can write one too.” And I began to write…some really awful stories, according to my mother.

Q: Did anyone in your family write or have creative interests?

A: My grandfather used to have long conversations with himself and he often wrote them down. He transcribed them carefully, in dialogues between two characters “Yo” and “Mí mismo” (I and Myself). I don’t know if this counts as creativity, though… I tried to depict a few of his eccentricities in Ponciano, the main character’s grandfather in my novel Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family.

Q: Did you have any struggles or difficulties when you started writing?

A: While I lived in Cuba I didn’t think there would be any opportunity for me to publish my books so I just keep writing for the love of it, por amor al arte. But I knew I would eventually leave the island, which happened in 1996. Once I came to “La Yuma,” as we call the United States, it was quite a smooth road. I didn’t even have an agent when I began, just sent the manuscript of A Girl like Che Guevara to as many publishing houses as I could think of. “Someone is going to pick it up, someday,” I figured.

Q: Did you have any mentors?

A: Pues claro! There are two writers that I greatly admire and consider my mentors, mis maestras. One is Lorraine Lopez, author of The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters and a finalist of the 2010 PEN /Faulkner Award. I always learn a lot about plot development and structure from reading her books. And my fellow Cuban Ana Cabrera Vivanco, currently living in Spain and author of Las Horas del Alma, a brilliant novel that I expect to see translated into English soon.

Q: Let’s talk now about your novel, Habanera, which has garnered some rave reviews. What is it about and what was your inspiration for it?

A: It started as a memoir, but at a given moment I realized I had reinvented history too much. After some prodding from my mother, who called me a liar among other things, I decided to turn it into fiction. It is loosely based on my own family, though I added many events that never happened in reality. (There was no ghost at home, at least that I knew of.) But the characters are inspired in my parents and grandparents who were—and are—a weird and motley crew.

Q: Habanera combines quirky humor with compelling drama. How do you decide when to incorporate humor in this type of novel? Is it a conscious decision or does it come natural?

A: Well, some things that people find funny were never intended to be humorous at all, hehehe…

Q: One of the reviewers wrote: “Dovalpage is a master of quirky, loveable characters, and emotionally resonant narrative.” How do you create your characters and make them genuine? How do you make your prose shine with emotion?

A: In this case, I copied most of the characters from reality so creating “genuine” characters was relatively easy. After all, I knew the models well… As for the emotion part, I try to give as many details as I can, to get inside the characters’ heads and let hem do the talking.

Q: What was your writing process like while working on Habanera? Was it difficult to go back in time and relive that experience?

A: Since I started it as a memoir the writing process was like keeping a journal backwards. I wrote down a series of episodes as they came to my memory (the unfortunate event with the Christmas pig at home, the visits to the cemetery…) But when I decided to turn it into a novel I changed the timeframe, from the 80’s to the 90’s, so I had to go back and rewrite some scenes… In general it was fun to relive my childhood experiences. I could see for the first time how quirky it really was.

Q: Tell us what the revision process is like for you. Do you edit as you write or do you edit later?

A: Both. I edit as I write and when I finish the manuscript, I have someone read the final draft too, particularly when it is in English. Ay, these pesky prepositions! My husband Gary has been very helpful in that respect.

Q: How was your road to publication?

A: It hasn’t been too difficult. After my first novel in English, A Girl like Che Guevara, was published by Soho Press, I had three more novels (in Spanish) published—Posesas de La Habana Posesas de La Habana, (Crazy Ladies of Havana, PurePlay Press, 2004), Muerte de un murciano en la Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana) that was a runner-up for the Herralde Award in 2006 and El Difunto Fidel (The Late Fidel) that won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009. It was a little more complicated to find a home for a collection of short stories in Spanish, Por culpa de Candela and other stories, but I finally did. And then came Habanera

Q: What do you love most about the writer’s life?

A: The fact that I can write at home when I feel like it, surrounded by my cats and dogs…And wearing my moo-moo, though I only do that when my husband isn’t around. And most importantly, to hear from the readers, to get the personal feedback that makes all the butt-hours spent in front of the computer worthy. There is a fan of Cuban Literature in Spain who has created a website called La Biblioteca Cubana de Barbarito (Barbarito’s Cuban Library). When I get a message from him or from another reader, I feel in seventh heaven…

Q: What Latina authors have inspired you?

A: Many of them! But I want to mention Elena Avila, who sadly passed away last March. She wrote Woman Who Glows in the Dark, a national bestseller about curanderismo, and several beautiful plays. I used Woman Who Glows in the Dark as a textbook in my Santeria and Curanderismo class at the University of New Mexico and it inspired me to write a book on that topic, 101 Questions to a Curandera, that I am presently co-authoring with an eight-generation curandera, Patricia Padilla. The only thing I regret is not having been able to meet Elena in person.

Q: Did you establish a connection with other Latina writers when you started writing? How important do you think is a supportive community for budding writers?

A: Bueno, we have a very supportive and active community in NuncaSolas! I also have a wonderful circle of Latina writers and we trade first drafts and give each other advice. It is an invaluable help.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

A: Don’t store rejection letters… I have heard that some writers do it but can’t imagine anything more depressing, plus it seems like bad Feng Shui. And above all, keep writing!

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Cuban author Teresa Dovalpage has published three novels, one in English, A Girl Like Che Guevara (Soho Press 2004) and two in Spanish, Posesas de la Habana (Haunted Ladies of Havana, PurePlay Press, 2004) and Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana, Anagrama, 2006), which was runner-up for the Herralde Award in Spain. Her collection of short stories, Por culpa de Candela, was recently released by Floricanto Press in 2008. Her short novel, El difunto Fidel (The Late Fidel) just won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain. Dovalpage currently lives in Taos, NM. Visit her at www.dovalpage.com.

Thanks for this interview Teresa. It’s a pleasure having you here. Tell us a little about your childhood? Were you an avid reader?

I grew up in Havana, in a house full of books. And I was definitely a bookworm, or, as my mother liked to call me, una ratona de biblioteca —a library mouse. I could always be found with a book in my hand or scribbling something. I was too shy to play with other kids and that made me long for the company of those quiet, faithful paper friends that don’t talk back or tease.

When did you start writing?
When I was a teenager I wrote my first short story. Quoting my mom again, it was horrendous. It had something to do with a deadly plague, and not too cheerful… But I didn’t get discouraged. I bought an ancient Underwood typewriter (it was during the 80’s, in Cuba, and computers were then considered as science fiction devices) and continued to write away.

What was your inspiration for A Girl like Che Guevara?
My American friends, who kept asking me how life in Cuba was. I started writing a series of vignettes about Santeria, life in the school-in-the-fields (a program in which high-school students used to spend a couple of months working on the tobacco fields) and other Cubanese stuff. And it turned out to be a full-length novel after all!

On average, how long does it take you to write a novel?
The first decent draft (not the “vomit draft”, eh, but a well-polished one) may take several months, from six to eight. It seldom takes longer because I start getting bored with the plot and the characters. But I have learned to put it on the back burner for a while and return to it before sending the ms. out. I always find a lot of things to change in that phase so I start rewriting it… Then, all together, maybe a whole year.

What is your writing ritual? Are you a disciplined writer?
I write for several hours every day when I have the opportunity. I work part-time as a Spanish professor at the University of New Mexico and that allows me to devote time to writing. Though I wouldn’t use the word “disciplined” to describe me in this context. I need discipline to go to the gym, to study a new language and even to get up early. But I love writing so I keep doing it whenever I have a chance.

Did you have a smooth path to publishing?
It wasn’t too rough. I sold my first novels by myself and now I have two very good agents who take care of that part of the business. But still, it does take time, energy and commitment. And discipline (here I would definitely use the word) to send the manuscripts out and not to get discouraged with rejections.

Do you have any favorite authors? What type of books do you read for entertainment?
Yes! In English I love Ann Tyler. I have read all her books several times. One of my favorites is The Accidental Tourist. I also admire Lorraine Lopez, who just published The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters and who is also a creative writing professor at Vanderbilt University. I like the Spanish classics of the nineteenth century (Benito Perez Galdos, Leopoldo Alas, Armando Palacio Valdes). In fact, I brought all the way from Cuba a ragged copy of La Regenta. I supposed that I could find the book here but just in case…I am also a big fan of Daina Chaviano and Pedro Juan Gutierrez.

What’s on the horizon?
My play Hasta que el mortgage nos separe (Until Mortgage Do Us Part) will be staged on Chicago by Aguijon Theater in May and June and my short novel El difunto Fidel (The late Fidel) will be published by Editorial Renacimiento in Spain so I will be promoting them this summer. I am also working on another collection of short stories in English.
 

Thanks, Teresa! And good luck with your work!

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