I can’t tell you how happy I am to post this interview with writer friend Natalia Sylvester—because it means her debut novel Chasing the Sun has been released! I hope you’ll forgive me for injecting a loud “YAHOO” here… because Natalia and I have been great blogging and Twitter friends since I first went online, and I have followed her path to publication with great anticipation and excitement. In addition to being a close writer friend, she is one of the finest writers I’ve met through social networking. I have been fortunate to have Natalia as a super-duper early reader on two of my novel WIPs, and she gave me invaluable feedback that helped me shape my thoughts not just about the partials she read but also about my fiction writing in general—thank you Natalia! Although Natalia and I have not yet met in person, I’ve had the great pleasure to talk to her via Google Chat, and I can tell you she is as charming in person as her book is in writing.
I highly recommend Chasing the Sun…And here’s the good news! You could win your own signed copy of this wonderful novel—Natalia has generously offered to give one copy away. Simply enter the Rafflecopter at the end of this post!
Natalia and I are often on the same wavelength in our blog posts (and without any coordination have posted about very similar topics on the very same day)…but her Fresh Ink series is uniquely her own. Fresh Ink focuses on debut novelists and their journey to publication. When I prepared for this Q&A, I thought it might be fun to ask Natalia some of her own Fresh Ink questions…and here’s what Natalia said when I asked her:
You won’t believe this! Talk about being on the same wavelength: JUST the other day I was thinking how it’d be fun to ask someone to do a Fresh Ink interview with me, flipped! So of course I’m beyond ecstatic to see question #1 (but not surprised that you read my mind).
I just want to take a moment to say how thrilled I am to be a guest at your blog today, Julia. You’re one of the first bloggers who I connected with when I sought out social media to meet other writers, and I never imagined that I’d not only find writers, but true friends. Thank you so much for having me!
Thank you, Natalia! The feeling is entirely mutual!
1. Here goes…this first question is Fresh Ink…flipped!
Length of time from book’s start to pub date: 9 years (Though I did set this book aside for a period of 5 years in between.)
# of agents you queried before signing: 17
# of books written before this one: 1
# of revisions you went through: 3 complete rewrites and probably 3 revisions per rewrite
We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?
I never would have predicted how much I’d learn throughout the process of talking about the book and being asked questions I’d never really thought about. Since the book launched, I’ve learned that the first memory I have—one that I thought took place after we’d moved away from Peru—is actually me remembering a night in Peru when we all the power had gone off in our house. These blackouts were common at the time; groups like the Shining Path would often set off bombs, set fires, or set off the power throughout the city.
I’ve also remembered the moment I learned about my grandfather’s kidnapping in more vivid detail that ever before, because talking about it forced me to dig deeper than I’d tried to dig in the past. I’d always expected writing a book to be an act of self-discovery, but hadn’t anticipated that promoting it would be just as eye-opening. The curiosity that readers bring to a story opens up a whole other world of possibilities.
2. Can you describe a little bit about your writing process? I know that in addition to being a novelist you’re also a busy freelance writer—how do you balance those two (potentially competing) writing endeavors?
It’s funny that you ask how I balance them, when in fact I feel like they balance me! Writing fiction has always been a very emotionally intense process for me: most days, I’m overwhelmed by insecurity, wondering if the words will come, if the story and the characters will take shape like I hope they will. This, paired with the scary or difficult-to-imagine places that fiction tasks us with going, can be draining. So I can’t imagine writing fiction all day every day, but my work as a freelance copywriter allows me to keep pulling from my writing “toolbox” daily. Things like voice, word choice, tone, and the importance of telling a story, are parts of the craft I get to practice through copywriting.
At the same time, switching between the two forms doesn’t always come easy for me, so I try to write fiction first thing in the morning—two hours before I’d normally wake—and then spend the rest of the day on social media, marketing, and also my freelance work. Of course, that’s in ideal conditions! I’ve had deadlines for revision force me to mix things up a bit, and that’s always a welcome challenge because it pushes me out of my comfort zone.
3. You’ve talked about how Chasing the Sun was partially inspired by your grandfather’s kidnapping in Peru. Having written fiction that started with a tiny germ of my own life, I know it doesn’t take much…and I’m so curious how your story strayed from reality and where…
Where it’s most rooted in reality is in the questions I was hoping to answer through the story, things I’d always wondered about my grandfather’s kidnapping but had been too afraid to ask: How does living through an experience like this affect a person? How does it affect not just the victim, but the family, who are also victims tormented by the waiting and the not knowing? What happens when this person returns—can things ever go back to normal, and does normal even exist? And most importantly, is there any hope left once we’ve survived such a dark, traumatic experience?
But from the beginning, it strayed from reality starting with the characters because I wanted this story to be about something bigger than my family. At the same time, I wanted to create some distance and give my grandfather’s story the privacy and respect to be his own, while still exploring it in what I hoped would be a more universal approach. Andres and Marabela very quickly took on a life of their own—I didn’t even realize they were having marital problems until the end of one of the first drafts. Suddenly the story wasn’t just about a kidnapping. It was about a frail marriage, and on top of it, Marabela is taken and all these hairline cracks in their relationship are exposed. I was much more interested in this because even tragedy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, under ideal conditions. There are always so many complex factors at play, rooted in the deeply personal. So the book also became a character study, which I think all stories are, to some extent: if we’re only looking at the action and not at the characters it’s affecting, are really looking close enough?
4. One of the things I loved about Chasing the Sun was your use of language—your writing flowed beautifully and simply and yet was complex in language (I hope that makes sense), and I found it quite reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its descriptions and visual richness. I felt I was seeing the world as the characters saw it, particularly so with Andres. His voice and presence is so loud and clear. Very impressive. Can you describe a bit how you came to see the world through his eyes and talk through his voice? How did you make him come alive to yourself and to the reader?
You awe and flatter me by bringing up Gabriel Garcia Marquez—thank you! Much too kind of you!
It’s interesting that you bring up Andres’s voice because out of all the characters in the book, his voice was the one I struggled with the least. I think it’s because, while I don’t agree with a lot of the choices he’d made in his life (and does make throughout the story) I could most relate to him being on the outside perspective of this kidnapping, because that’s how I’d felt my whole life in relation to my grandfather’s kidnapping: I didn’t know what it’d been like for him, and all I could grasp at were my imagination and unanswered questions.
I also knew from the beginning that he was a very driven businessman, that he’d put everything into starting his company and growing it, sometimes at the expense of spending time with his family and nurturing his relationship with Marabela. As a freelancer, I’ve also started my own company, and though I don’t feel I’ve neglected my family for it, I’ve often feared getting to that point. So developing Andres’s character ended up being an exercise in placing myself in some of my deepest fears in order to better understand a person like him.
5. I love when I find a line in a novel that makes me realize where the title originated—and when I read the sentence about Andres driving like he was chasing the sun, I immediately understood the significance and the importance of the title. I know you had a different working title…and I’m wondering, can you discuss how you came up with the first—and this—title?
Oh my goodness, titles, my weakness! I went through so many throughout many stages of the process, but once I submitted it to my agent (it was called Take This Woman then, and already I was begging for alternate suggestions!) we decided to shop it as Where We Once Belonged, and that’s what it sold as.
During the revision process with my editor, we discussed how, while the title was beautiful and hinted at the importance of the past and relationships, it didn’t have a sense of urgency, or any heat (yes! She and my agent actually used that word). I reread the book, highlighted lines that stood out to me, and kept coming back to Chasing the Sun for many reasons. One: the sun is such an important symbol in Peruvian culture. For the Incas, the sun was their god (named Inti, Quechua for sun) and even our currency was once called the Inti and later became the Sol. And two, I felt Chasing the Sun captured how so many of the characters, including Andres, are always chasing after what most eludes them, and what perhaps will always be out of their reach.
6. “In the eerie glow of the red light, they work in silence, and when they’re done the room is just another poorly lit windowless office with a view to nowhere.” This sentence (on page 68) was so evocative for me. I loved that Marabela was a photographer during the time of darkrooms—as a photographer myself, I can say you described the processes and feelings and products so very well…particularly later about the spools for the film, in the pitch dark. Have you worked in a darkroom?
I took photography in high school, and this was a couple of years before digital had really become a thing. My school had this big, beautiful darkroom where I would spend hours and hours developing pictures, waiting for the images to manifest in the liquid-filled trays, and even days after, I could always smell the chemicals still on my fingertips. I loved everything about the process because it was so sensual: not just sight and smell, but a special kind of silence, paired with the act of feeling your way through the dark, developing spools of film in complete blackness. I have to admit this is one part of the novel that involved very little research. I miss the darkroom so much that really, Marabela’s desire to go back there is my own. It’s really what made her come alive for me, because I didn’t know she was a photographer until the second to last draft. Suddenly, we shared a passion and I felt I understood her, and how she saw the world, so much more clearly.
7. If you were a novelist being interviewed for your own Fresh Ink, what question would you ask her/yourself? (And then please answer!)
One question I was recently asked that I really enjoyed was from a reporter who said he loved the exploration of masculinity and what it entails, particularly because Ignacio, Andres’s son, is a teenager but also on the cusp of being a man. He wanted to know if this was intentional. I was fascinated by the question because I wonder how much of what we write is truly intentional, and does it really matter? Intentional or not, these words and themes still come out of us, sometimes from our subconscious, and the process of writing actually becomes a process of learning about ourselves. So while Ignacio’s struggle with becoming a man is something that I didn’t originally set out to explore, once I noticed it in my drafts it felt very true, and I intentionally left it in. I think in writing there are choices we make, and choices we don’t realize we make, and both teach us something new about ourselves.
Thank you again, Natalia. I am so thrilled to have had you on my blog for this Q&A!
A former magazine editor, Natalia Sylvester now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. CHASING THE SUN, partially inspired by family events, is her first novel. Connect with Natalia on Twitter and Facebook and on her blog, too.
Readers…don’t forget to enter the Rafflecopter for your chance to win a copy of Natalia’s book!