Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez was raised in the Dominican Republic and New York City and is commonly considered one of the most prominent Latina writers of our time. Alvarez’ works of fiction include How The García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In The Time of the Butterflies (1994), and Saving the World (2006). She has also published five books of poetry and two works of nonfiction, including Once Upon A Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA (2007). She has recently published a series of books for young readers, the first of which is How Tía Lola Came to visit Stay (2001).

The list of prizes and awards that Alvarez has won is so astoundingly long that it would be impossible to include here in full. How The García Girls Lost Their Accents was given a Notable Book Award by The New York Times Book Review and was chosen by the NY Librarians as one of 21 classics for the 21 first century, along with masterpieces like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez, and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. In the Time of the Butterflies was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995 and was a Book of the Month Club choice in 1994. Her nonfiction book, Once Upon A Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007.

Alvarez has also been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for poetry and the 2009 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature given by Montgomery College, whose earlier recipients include Grace Paley, John Updike, and Norman Mailer. Her work was featured in an exhibit at the New York Public Library entitled, “The Hand of the Poet: Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters, From John Donne to Julia Alvarez” (December 1995-April 1996).

Julia Alvarez is a waif of a woman, with eyes that glitter like cut onyx. Her speech is fluid, fast, and conspiratorial. As was his habit, Shakespeare said it best, “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

What made you realize you wanted to be a writer?

When I came to America [from the Dominican Republic] at ten years old, I was not a reader. I had flunked every grade through fifth grade. Was a poor student. We got to this country— immigrants, starting from scratch, kids making fun of our accents. I knew some classroom English, but I couldn’t follow the quick-paced, idiomatic “barbaric yak” (Whitman’s phrase) of native English speakers. I had been raised in the embrace of a huge extended family, and suddenly I was closed into this little nuclear family. I’d heard we were coming to the home of the brave and the land of the free, but it didn’t feel that way to me. But I got lucky. I happened to have a good teacher— a nun, as a matter of fact— who got me started reading.

I had grown up with storytellers, oral storytellers, but I never associated good stories with reading books. I had been living in a dictatorship…you can imagine–books were dry textbooks with the official stories. Boring. No wonder I hadn’t done well in school. But when I got here [to America] it was a like Helen Keller realizing that water is this thing that is being signed in her hand. Reading gave you access to the best storytellers. I became a reader.

When you become a reader, you sit down at the big circle of storytellers. After listening, reading, listening, reading, you realize that there is one story you haven’t heard— the one that only you can tell.

So you became a writer by becoming a reader.

I really think the first step in becoming a writer is by becoming a reader. I read everything, but my special love was poetry. Now I see it was a way to keep speaking Spanish in English. Because rhyme and meter made the English more musical, more like Spanish.

What my family had come looking for in the Unites States, the great democracy, the great freedom and equality, I didn’t find in the United States in the early 60’s in the playground. I found it between the covers of books.

In high school I did a lot of creative writing. I wanted to be a poet. I knew early on that that is what I wanted to do. But how did poets earn a living? I hadn’t a clue.

A valid concern.

All I had as models of people with a career, a public life, were the males in my culture. This was not what a woman did. My grandmother never went past fourth grade! Once we got to this country, my teachers who were writers were my models. So I thought: that is what writers do to earn a living, they teach.

Tell me about your college experience.

I went to Connecticut College. I was there for two years. Both years, I won the poetry prize at the college. When I won the second time, the Dean of Students, who was a Middlebury College School of English graduate, told me I would love the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. That summer, 1969, I got a scholarship to attend Bread Loaf. I was nineteen years old. I was smitten. I had had teachers and some students who were like me, passionate about poetry and about writing it, but here was a place full of people like me, breathing, living, talking about poetry, about stories.

During the conference, I went down to Middlebury College to the admissions office. “I want to come here,” I told the head of admissions, and he said, “Well, young lady, the application date is far gone. But here are all the materials for next year.” And I said, “No, I want to go now.” He said, “School is starting in a couple of weeks, we have a procedure!” I just let loose with why I loved this place. He looked at me and must have thought: “Wow, this passion is pretty rare.” So he said, “How quickly can you get me your scores and recommendations?” I was jumping up and down. And I remember, he said, “I can’t promise anything.”

I went back home to Queens, just hoping things would work out. We didn’t hear back, we didn’t hear back. We were packing the car for Connecticut College, when I got the call from the head of admissions at Middlebury. “Do you still want to come here?” “Yes!!!!” I must have blown his ear off.

Connecticut College was an all-women’s college, because when we applied to college, that is all that my father would allow. I hadn’t mentioned to my parents that Middlebury was coed. I still remember driving up to the school. There were all these guys walking around, and Papi in the car asking, “Y quién son esos muchachos?!” I said, “Papi, I don’t know, maybe they’re the brothers of the sisters who go here…” By then my mother, who had my number, turned around and gave me a colluding look, like, “Let’s see how this flies.” It flew!

And did you write at Middlebury?

I was writing all the time. I was the first English major ever allowed to do a creative writing thesis.

What did you do after graduation?

I didn’t want to leave Vermont. I moved all around, wherever I could find work, mostly seasonal as a waitress in ski resorts. Then I got a job in New York City at this little place called Special Reports, Inc. I took it because the listing in The New York Times said: Wanted: a writer. I was in charge of the newsletter, Special Reports: Ecology. Basically, I read all the releases from the EBPA, and then wrote up summaries for the once a week newsletter. The reports were dry, and the writing was business writing, no personality, no flair. I guess that was a valuable lesson for a young writer: how not to write. Meanwhile, I’d race through the work, and spent the rest of the time in my little office writing poetry. That summer I took two weeks off to go to Bread Loaf, and the comparison was just too painful. I knew I couldn’t go back to Special Reports, Inc. A lot of the writers at Bread Loaf were working at MFA programs. So I decided to go back to school and get that degree.

You got your MFA. Tell me about that.

Back then, there weren’t that many MFA programs. The big one was Iowa, so I applied there, got in. But when I went to see it, I realized it was too large a program. I thought: “I am going to get lost here.” So I ended up going to the University of Arkansas instead. I had met one of the faculty writers at Bread Loaf, and he had talked it up. Well, once I got there, he started hitting on me. I didn’t know what to do. Those were the years before sexual harassment policies were in place. I couldn’t even talk it over with another woman, because I was the only female in the MFA program. So, finally, I went to the head of the department and I complained. He said, “Oh you’re a big girl. You can take care of yourself.” I tried being a big girl–just the phrase, now I realize, was condescending. But since I wouldn’t sleep with the professor, my poems weren’t getting workshopped. Sometimes he’d get drunk and appear at night, knocking on my door. So I decided to leave. I was crushed. This happens. It doesn’t happen as much, but is certainly still does.

Often when I felt down, I would contact my professors from Middlebury, because they were my mentors and muses, the people who could guide me in this culture. So, I called Bob Pack, told him what was going on, and he asked me if I had looked at Syracuse. So I ended up going to Syracuse, a small program back then. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.

There was an active feminist writing community there. In addition to the regular workshop, we had a women’s workshop. It was just what I needed. Writers like Adrienne Rich were writing about what it was to be a woman writer. That community was really important to me. Also, my fellow students in the workshop. Students always think who is on the staff at a program, but really, what most matters I think is the community you build with the other students because these are going to be your peers. Mary Gordon was a student when I was there, for instance.

What did you do when you graduated from Syracuse?

I got out of that and got a job with Kentucky Poetry in the Schools for two years, 1975-77. Every six weeks, I moved to a new community and did writing workshops all around Kentucky. It was a national program–don’t know if it still exists in that form–funded by The National Endowment for the Arts. I remember I had a little yellow Volkswagen, and every six weeks I would pack it up with everything I owned and move to the next place. Sometimes I would be in a boarding house in a small town in the middle of the state, other times in people’s spare rooms. Sometimes the assignment was a woman’s prison, then the next time it could be an elementary school. I really learned how to teach. I loved it. I felt like one my favorites, Walt Whitman, traveling across America, listening to the varied carols!

After the two years were up, I went around trying to replicate the experience. I did Poetry in the Schools in California, in Delaware, in North Carolina.

But I made very little money. And the disruption of always moving was tough. I couldn’t get enough traction to sustain the writing. Especially when I started writing longer narrative pieces. I couldn’t just work on a poem in little bits of time. Besides a lot of my energy was being spent on periodic job searches, on moving, making friends, setting up a household in a new place every year. I needed roots. A steady job with a decent salary so I could settle down. Most college teaching jobs required a PhD even for writers. So I started wondering if I should go for the PhD to be more marketable.

So…did you go for your PhD?

Once we came to this country, my father wanted his children to get the highest degree in their field because it was “portable wealth” you could always take with you. He had been exiled twice from his country, and so that’s the way he thought. He didn’t know much about American colleges, but he knew about Harvard. So he kept saying I should apply to Harvard. Finally, I said, “Okay, okay, Papi, I’ll apply.” But of course, I thought: I’ll never get in but this will get him off my back!

Wouldn’t you know it, I applied, and I got in! My father pleaded with me. On the walls of his little office in Brooklyn he had all his daughters’ degrees on the wall. If we got a letter from a teacher, it was framed and put on the wall. I kept fending him off, “Papi, it’s not me, I’m not a scholar.” He said, “Please, my daughter, just go up and check it out.” So I spent a day, sitting in on PhD classes at Harvard, talking to graduate students, some of whom had been there for ten years, with writers’ block, working on their dissertations on some obscure thing. I thought, I’ll die as a writer, I will, if I come here. The hardest thing was going back and facing my father. “I can’t do it, Papi,” I told him, “but tell you what? I’ll give you the acceptance letter and a copy of the letter I write to Harvard, declining the offer, and then you can say, ‘I had a daughter who got into Harvard and she turned them down!’”

No PhD for you. What did you do instead?

I decided to teach at the high school level. I didn’t have a teaching certificate, so I was limited to private schools. I got a job teaching at Andover, a lucky break, someone had dropped out at the last minute. But it was a boarding school, twenty-four seven. So really it was only during the summers that I could write. I see now that even though I didn’t have a plan, and I was willing to try stuff, in the end if it wasn’t nourishing me as a writer, I moved on.

One plug for high school teaching. Elementary students can be fun, but high school students are reading to hone their souls, to figure out who they are. They have a lot at stake. And if you can get them interested, they are incredibly passionate readers. They have the same kind of intensity about what they read as a writer does.

While I was teaching at Andover, I went for two summers to the Bread Loaf English Masters program. Mostly it was because I had started to write fiction, and my concentration at Syracuse had been poetry. So I took a fiction-writing workshop, which I loved. It was a lucky break because the professor, who taught at the University of Vermont, got a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he called me at Andover and asked if I would fill in for him for the year. So I gave up the job at Andover, because I thought: this is the beginning. The next year, another writer in the department got a fellowship for the year. So I taught another year.

Now that I was sort of in the loop of the writing/teaching world, I found out about different fellowships for writers. One was the Jenny McKean Moore Fellowship at George Washington University in Washington D.C. I applied, got it. Again, I had to move, that was tough, but the schedule was light, so I could teach and also write. It was only a yearlong gig. Again I had to move. Do we hear a theme?! But now I had three years of college teaching under my belt, and having won that fellowship, well, I had a little more clout. So I got a tenure track job at the University of Illinois. I moved again. After three years, Bob Pack called me up from Middlebury and told me there was an opening. Vermont I could not resist. So I came here [to Middlebury].

You really worked the college circuit. Was the tenure race a tricky one?

After a few years at Middlebury I was coming up for tenure. My chair met with me and said that I had great student evaluations and I was liked by the department, but I needed a book. I had had a poetry book when I was thirty-four, Grove Press. I think they did like 700 copies, it never went anywhere. And now I needed another book. I was panicked.

So here I was, forty years old, I didn’t have much to show for myself, but I had at least gotten this tenure track job at Middlebury College. Suddenly, I had to just go out there and find a publisher. I had some stories that I was putting together.

Years before, one of my stories had won a prize called the General Electric Young Writers Award. The winners were flown into New York City to do a group reading at the New York Public Library. The audience was studded with agents and editors. One of the agents came up to me and gave me her card. I put it away. But thank goodness, I’m a pack rat, so I found it all these years later. I contacted her and sent her my manuscript. Later she told me she sent it to about thirteen publishers, all rejected. But Algonquin finally accepted it.

When I came up for tenure, I didn’t even have the book yet, but I had the contract. So I got tenure. I thought: “Phew! My tenure book. I made it.” And then the book [How the García Girls Lost Their Accents] did so well!

So you had tenure, and sudden success, all at once.

And I also happened to have gotten married that year to a great guy I met in Middlebury. It was a lucky year.

But after a while, again, the old itch, trying to fit in the writing around the teaching. And once you have tenure, you have a lot of other duties as well. I started thinking: all your working life–twenty plus years by then– you’ve been a teacher who writes on the side. So I decided to be a writer who teaches on the side instead. And, these days, mostly a writer.

As you can see, based on my life, I can’t offer young writers a map of where to go and what to. Everything I’ve done has been kind of by serendipity, flying by the seat of my pants, with many burned bridges behind me and dead-ends ahead. You can only plan up to a certain point. But I guess one thing I mentioned before is that somehow if where I had landed was not feeding the springs of the writing. . . in the end I moved on.

How do you view success?

I have had writer friends who really became successful early on. I spent two decades burning that midnight oil. Sometimes I felt bad that it just wasn’t happening for me. But I can say that by the time it came to me, success, I already knew I was in it for the long run, I was in it for its own rewards. It was my life and my calling. There’s something to be said for that discovery, that certainty. There is a kind of purity of motive there–though sometimes it felt more like insanity!

Success is capricious. I knew that by the time it came to me. I might be the writer flavor of today, tomorrow we want vampires. And none of us knows, down the line, whose work is going to be meaningful? That’s not why you do it, anyhow. You do it because, you discover, you can’t not do it. It’s a practice. I hear my Buddhist friends talking about their practice- meditation, focusing, concentrating, losing the sense of self, disappearing- and they could be talking about the writing process, at least my writing process.

There were writers in my workshops in college who were much better writers than I am. But they stopped. They learned that when it got hard, they could give it up. And that they were happier. Not that it’s sad. They learned that they were so unhappy doing it and that they would be ok giving it up, and they did because they didn’t need to do it. It’s a wonderfully brave and wise choice. Because the hard work can in the end make you a hard and bitter person. But the hard work for me was just how I was living my life. And when the success came…well. I still kept doing the work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not turning up my nose at success. It is affirming to give readings or to have a publishing house willing to take on your next book. It would be ridiculous to minimize how affirming that can be. But the bottom line is, when you sit down to write, the new book you are trying to write doesn’t know about any of that stuff. You still have to learn how to write that book and it’s still hard work. So it’s really got to be about that.

What are your work habits like now, and what were they like before?

When I was teaching full time, writing was what I fit in whenever there was time. Now, when I’m home and not out giving readings or touring with a new book, I put in a full work day. I start at the beginning of the day, and end at about 3 or 4 to do what I call “book biz.” There’s nothing mystical about it, it’s my work. I think of it like a dancer. If a dancer decides to take off a week, say, and then she puts on a piece of music and tries to dance, she’s not going to have the agility and fluidity she had when she was exercising those muscles every day. In fact, she might even hurt herself, pull a muscle, fall on her face. It’s the same with writing. It’s the muscles, the exercise, the limberness, the constant moving inside the language, the crafting of a beautiful structure built with words–the doing of it, day after day, that builds agility. Maybe other writers can just jump into it and do it now and then, but I can’t and I have yet to meet a good writer who does it in that spotty way.

One thing I try to get my students to understand is: the habit of art. A habit is not something you think of like: “is this fun, do I feel like it today, can I fit it into my schedule?” It is a discipline. Some days it’s hard, some days it goes a little easier.

Even on easy days, the next day when I read what I’ve written I know it needs another draft. I’ve found that a piece of writing always needs one more draft than I want to give it. And this is the difference: a writer gives it. It you are more in love with the idea of being a writer, of seeing your name in print, than the writing itself, you dismiss having to go at it again: “It’s good because I wrote it. This is original Alvarez.” If you really are about the writing, then the writing needs tinkering, Alvarez better get to work, even if she grumbles and groans and swears up and down, right before she settles in to do one more revision.

Every craft involves the labor, but there is also the art of it. And when you get it right, there’s nothing like it. It’s almost like you’ve disappeared. You’ve used the fuel of yourself up and created this beautiful thing.

How did your family feel about your decision to pursue a life as a writer?

Remember, I was a generation before the feminist movement, really, and my parents were Dominicans, very old world. They thought high school education was enough for girls. Once we came to this country, they adopted the standards here and wanted us to get a good education. The highest degrees. Portable wealth, remember? But there were often mixed messages: a good education, but come home to live with la familia until you meet a good man and marry and start your family. That story was the one I was being pushed to live out.

But time wore on, and I didn’t have anything to show for myself, I did feel like maybe I was fooling myself that I, a Dominican woman, could become an American writer. My cousins in the DR were marrying, having their first child, having their second, having their houses, being substantial women. I hated reunions, because I could just report on my many moves, my speckled job record, my mounting list of rejections. My parents started to worry and feel like, “you are going to have to give this thing up.”

It was actually my father in the end who proved to be the most supportive. After he forgave me for Harvard. He realized there was something in this kid that nothing had shaken out. And actually, as my father got older, he started to write books. Self-published books on odd subjects. How to learn Chinese as a Dominican. How to be a happy old man. How he was abducted and taken to another planet where all the problems on earth had been solved. So, I think there was a side of my father that always wanted to release this creative side, and he never had the opportunity to do that. So, he became very supportive.

My mother was less so. She felt like I was the black sheep. I had gotten divorced–a brief marriage that had happened at the end of my time doing poetry in Kentucky. A divorce in a Catholic, Latino family…that was a big deal. But I think my failure as a female gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. I was damaged goods already. It freed me in a way. I knew I wasn’t in the running to be anybody’s golden child.

You have been writing children’s books recently. How is that?

Some of my adult novelist friends think I’ve taken some time to go off to pasture, take it easy and write children’s books. Are they kidding?? Children’s books are like the poems of fiction. They might be shorter, but how does that line go? I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead? Kids’ attention spans are short, so you have to keep the writing really sharp and clear and engaging.

There is all this doom and gloom talk going around about the “end of the book.” What do you think about that?

Okay, here’s the good news: stories aren’t going to go away. The bad news for many writers of my generation is that we are attached to getting our stories via books, via print media. Young writers are going to have to discover new ways to deliver, perhaps even new ways to write stories. I think one of the biggest issues, is since the Internet is free, how are writers going to get compensated for their work so they can keep doing it? But imagine some of the positives: I mean you can reach an incredibly wide readership, you can save trees, you might not even have to go on book tours. My tour for my last children’s book was online! A virtual tour. So I don’t want to knock the Internet, but we have to find ways to pay our writers. Some professions are maybe going to fall by the wayside that were part of the book-way of delivering stories. Young writers especially can’t put their heads in the sand.

But I said to Bill [her husband] after hearing all these wonderful young writers read at Bread Loaf this summer. “The world of stories is going to be just fine.” It was very heartening. Talented, accomplished, wise young writers who know so much that it took me so long to learn. It is sort of like feeling: it is getting passed on. The world is going to be OK.

Do you have any advice for fledgling writers?

The challenge of trying to write excellent work, that in itself is huge. To also figure out a way to make a living doing what you love is incredibly difficult. You have to be creative. Some writers make excellent teachers, but that is not every writer. And I don’t think it’s the best thing for our literature that all the writing come from academia. There is a real richness that comes out of life experiences. Charlie Parker said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” So one way for young writers to think about it is: what can I do that will actually enrich the writing? I think the best writing comes out of community, out of passionate engagement, not just with your life, but with the lives of those around you.

I think this is something that has been known in our so-called Third World, developing countries. People always say: is your writing political? As if you choose the flavor of your writing aside from the life you’re living. When you live in these small, challenged communities, your life is part of your work. So I think that would be a way to think about it. Your passionate, engaged life will give you your material. A teacher I had at Syracuse, Philip Booth, once wrote: “How you get there is where you’ll arrive.” He was a wise man. A wonderful teacher.

Finally, the advice is just: if this is what you do, you do it. You find a way to do so.

Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Photo copyright © by Bill Eichner

Copyright © 2010 by The Days of Yore. This interview is the creation and copyrighted property of The Days of Yore and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the proprietor.

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