This week, TheLatinoAuthor.com is featuring the critically acclaimed novelist Diana López. Ms. López began her career as a teacher and then became a novelist; although, she has been journaling all of her life. She grew up in Corpus Christi then moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she met her husband Gene. She currently works at the University of Houston in Victoria, Texas. Read our interview with Ms. López to see what compelled her to become a success in her many endeavors as well as an award winning author.
Please begin by telling us a little bit about yourself; where you grew up, where you currently reside, family upbringing, or anything you would like our readers to know about you?
I grew up in Corpus Christi, a coastal town in Texas. For many years I lived in San Antonio where I met my husband, Gene, but we recently moved so I could work at the University of Houston-Victoria. I love my job, but I admit missing San Antonio. I’m getting used to Victoria and especially love its proximity to my hometown and to Houston where my brother lives. As for my upbringing, my parents are creative people though not in the storytelling sense. They design, and then build or sew things. Their lessons about planning, fixing, being patient, and sometimes accepting failure apply to my life as a writer and as a teacher.
Did the “want” of being a writer come to you after you became a teacher, or was this something you always wanted to do?
My parents had a rule: we (their kids) had to be self-sufficient and out of the house by twenty. It was a good rule that I accepted without question. But my parents had no money for my college, and an English degree takes at least four years. So I had this practical matter to take care of. Instead of studying English, I got an applied science degree in medical technology and got my first job at twenty, working as a lab tech, something I did for six years. I didn’t seek teaching certification right away, especially when I learned that lab techs make more money. But I burned out at the hospital, so I went back to school. Becoming a teacher is one of the best choices I’ve made even with the pay cut. But let me get back to writing. I was doing it the whole time—not stories or novels, but journals. I love journal writing most of all—and books. Books are why I became a teacher.
Your first novel was an adult novella and then you moved into young adult fiction. Was this difficult or was it a smooth transition? Can you tell us a little bit about that journey?
I wrote SOFIA’S SAINTS (my adult novella) while an MFA student at Texas State. Then I graduated, and I was all alone trying to write another book, this one about a lab tech. Guess I wanted to work out some issues. I wrote it, but it was pure drudgery. I needed a break from the emotional landscape of that book, so I went back to my experience as a middle school teacher, where every day something made me laugh. I found that I had an ear for the tween voice because I spent so much time talking to kids. In that respect, the transition was smooth, but don’t be fooled. Writing for young people is not easier than writing for adults. It’s a different genre with its own set of rules. You have to know your audience, and you have to write from a place of no experience without “dumbing” down. Young people are not dumb; they’re new. There’s a huge difference.
Which of these areas did you find more challenging, writing for adults or for young adults?
When it comes to writing, they are equally challenging but for different reasons. I have a lot of story ideas floating around in my imagination, so I don’t get writer’s block for lack of ideas. I get it when I can’t hear the voice. And sometimes, it’s hard to be a kid when you’re forty-five years old. When it comes to adult fiction, the characters have so much baggage. They have layers and layers of memories and experience with things that succeeded or failed, that they’ve enjoyed or despised, and all this creates their current selves. As a writer, you have a lot of territory to mine in order to understand their motivations. It can be exhausting. That’s why I find it helpful to switch gears now and then. I really want to be someone who writes and publishes works for both audiences.
What people, authors, or books have influenced your writing career?
I have been blessed with mentors—not necessarily writing mentors, but people who have been generous. In high school, I ran track, and I met a police officer, David Cook, who coached me over the summer months. He didn’t get paid for this. He did it because he loved running. He was a tough coach, but I learned how to relax, how you shouldn’t force the movement, a very important lesson for a writer. Susie Reyna, my guitar teacher, was another mentor. When my parents told me they couldn’t afford my lessons anymore, Mrs. Reyna offered to teach me for free. This was her livelihood! Yet she was willing to give me her time. We spent the first 30 minutes on our lessons and an extra 30 minutes listening and discussing music. She taught me to hear. My high school English teacher, Cindy Sullivan, made us keep two journals—a standard journal and a reader response one. I was very shy, so I didn’t say much in class, but Ms. Sullivan and I had conversations via the journals. When I graduated, I had so much to discuss, but no one around me who could entertain what I was thinking. I called Ms. Sullivan, and she let me visit her, ramble on, for hours. She saved me in so many ways. And finally, though he would never admit it, Dagoberto Gilb has been a wonderful mentor too. When he was my thesis advisor, he did two things that helped me as a writer. First, he line-edited one page of SOFIA’S SAINTS. He went crazy with the red pen. Then he gave it to me and said, “Look at this, and go fix the rest of your book.” That’s when I learned how to write a sentence, truly. The second thing he did was say, “Quit being so polite!” That was an important lesson for me. I don’t like confrontation, but you can’t be a writer without it. You will offend people, even with the stuff you think is innocent. But also, stories are all about confrontation. And then you put your work into the world, and people respond. Some say wonderful things; others have harsh criticisms. But you can’t think about all that when you’re writing the story.
Can you discuss some of the technical elements that you came across as you wrote your first novel and how you overcame those?
Voice has always been my strong point, but I struggle with plot and pacing—probably because when journaling, you don’t really think about plot. You just ruminate. While writing SOFIA’S SAINTS, I learned how to bring in the back story without interrupting the current action. I’d stop in the middle of a scene to let Sofia remember something. Her memories were important, but they were misplaced. I also learned how to handle multiple conflicts because I’d been compartmentalizing too much. I’d work on this conflict, then this other one, and since I was using first person, it seemed as if Sofia forgot all about her money problems when she was dealing with her best friend. That’s not how real life is. Our worries pile up and feed each other, so I had to find a way to create that multi-layered awareness for Sofia, and for the characters I’ve written about since.
Can you tell us a little bit about the marketing and publishing challenges you’ve experienced along the way?
Publishing is tough. I have never had a story or novel accepted on the first try. Then you publish a book, but how do you get it into people’s hands? So many forces are working against you. First, fewer people are reading. Then, there is so much competition—not only with other books but with other forms of entertainment. Finally, publishers are spending less on marketing. I know some writers who are excellent salespeople, but I’m not one of them. I have to try other avenues.
Can you provide some insight as to how you overcame or worked through some of those marketing and publishing challenges?
My solution for the publishing challenge is a common one. Keep trying. Work on the craft first, and when you’re absolutely sure your book is ready, send it out, send it out again, and however many times it takes for a yes. As for marketing, I entered the publishing world at a time when marketing is mostly on the writer’s shoulders. You have to be a big-time author to get a formal book tour. If you’re like me, you create your own book tour, taking advantage of every local venue you can find. You need humility because sometimes, you’ll drive 200 miles and no one will show up. Luckily, these are balanced with events that have great turnouts. You just never know. For a while, SOFIA’S SAINTS was picked up by college courses teaching Chicano literature. If you can get your book into a college course, that’s a good thing. Not only will you sell a class set, but your work will be part of the conversation. CONFETTI GIRL was taught in children’s literature classes, and since it’s a tween novel, at elementary and middle grade schools. I’m hoping the same happens for my new book, CHOKE. There are more and more Latino authors, but there still aren’t enough, in my opinion. The best way for us to get our books out there is to support each other. I would love for everyone to buy my books, but I’m realistic. My works aren’t going to appeal to everyone. That’s okay. But if you don’t like my books, buy someone else’s. Check out ALONG THESE HIGHWAYS by new author Rene Perez or this year’s award winners, UNDER THE MESQUITE by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Pura Belpré Award) or TREE OF SIGHS by Lucrecia Guerrero (Premio Atzlán Award). Buy our journals—HUIZACHE or BORDERSENSES. Buy something. If we don’t create a market for our stories, no one will publish them. It’s economics 101, right? Supply and demand.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and the “writing” business world?
Love the craft first. Love writing. Recently, a dear friend expressed an interest in writing and wanted my insights, but he asked all the wrong questions. He was like an aspiring musician who asks about how to book a studio, how to get gigs, how to negotiate contracts, but never asks about reading music, or phrasing, or the structure of song. That kind of thinking offends me. It’s a major theme of SOFIA’S SAINTS, this idea of approaching art as a commodity. But also the implication that it’s so easy to write a story. So to all you aspiring writers out there love the craft first, do your best to master it, and the rest will follow. And if publishing doesn’t work out, you won’t care because you love writing so much.
Can you tell us a little about any new upcoming books or projects?
Yes! My new middle grade book CHOKE has just been released. It’s about a girl who discovers she has to play the choking game if she wants to be part of the in-crowd. I have another middle grade novel being published next spring, ASK MY MOOD RING HOW I FEEL. In this one, a girl visits the Virgin de San Juan del Valle Shrine and makes a promesa to get 500 sponsors for a fundraiser after she learns that her mother has breast cancer. If you liked CONFETTI GIRL, I think you’ll like my next two books. For the adult audience, I have works being published in the next issues of PALABRA and BORDERSENSES. I’m also editing the journal, HUIZACHE. Our second issue will be released in October and will feature works by Lorna Dee Cervantes, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gary Soto, Rigoberto González, and the Librotraficantes. On the teaching front, I’m excited to say that UHV is now offering a Creative Writing concentration for their humanities degree program and that I’ll have the opportunity to share my love for fiction writing with students. To learn about my upcoming projects and events, visit my website http://www.dianalopezbooks.com or follow me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/dianalopezbooks or Twitter (dianalopezbooks).
Visit her at: http://www.dianalopezbooks.com!