I first met Alexandra Villasante at an author panel that focused on diversity and inclusion in publishing. I loved what she had to say, and I immediately bought her book, THE GRIEF KEEPER, which has one of the best beginnings I’ve ever read. Have a look:
Seventeen-year-old Marisol has always dreamed of being American, learning what Americans and the US are like from television and Mrs. Rosen, an elderly expat who had employed Marisol’s mother as a maid. When she pictured an American life for herself, she dreamed of a life like Aimee and Amber’s, the title characters of her favorite American TV show. She never pictured fleeing her home in El Salvador under threat of death and stealing across the US border as “an illegal”, but after her brother is murdered and her younger sister, Gabi’s, life is also placed in equal jeopardy, she has no choice, especially because she knows everything is her fault. If she had never fallen for the charms of a beautiful girl named Liliana, Pablo might still be alive, her mother wouldn’t be in hiding and she and Gabi wouldn’t have been caught crossing the border.
But they have been caught and their asylum request will most certainly be denied. With truly no options remaining, Marisol jumps at an unusual opportunity to stay in the United States. She’s asked to become a grief keeper, taking the grief of another into her own body to save a life. It’s a risky, experimental study, but if it means Marisol can keep her sister safe, she will risk anything. She just never imagined one of the risks would be falling in love, a love that may even be powerful enough to finally help her face her own crushing grief.
How have you gotten to know and embrace yourself as a writer and author?
I think I’ve come to the realization that, much as I might wish it were different, I don’t write fast. I can edit and revise fast – and I often have no choice! But when I’m drafting, I take a long time to let ideas marinate and play in my head before sitting down to write anything. And I don’t just mean in the beginning – I mean throughout the whole process. I’m pulling in lots of threads and ideas. That takes time.
It definitely does! THE GRIEF KEEPER has one of the best first paragraphs I’ve ever seen. How do you approach your beginnings when crafting a manuscript?
Thank you so much! The first paragraph is a part of the book that, through all the revisions, never changed! I think that when I’m writing opening scenes I want to select an image or theme that encapsulates what the book is about. When Marisol says, “We believe in luck. The good kind and the cruel,” the reader knows that the journey they’re about to go on is ultimately about belief. It’s also important to begin a book with a clear idea of how the main character or characters view the world, so we can immediately see what follows from their perspective.
I also love that Marisol’s view is so relatable, while also being both nuanced and interesting. When I saw your panel, you mentioned “the temperatures of emotion.” In what ways, if any, can writers tap into these within their own work?
So, my drafting process is a MESS. I don’t know if I’ll ever be one of those people who meticulously plot out every scene and every emotion. I am definitely telling *myself* the story in the first draft. But when I’m revising, I really want to see what the ’temperature’ is in the room – what’s the emotional heat map, for lack of a better term – between the characters in any given scene. Sometimes, because you want the reader to have information, you forget that these are people in relationships with tempers, tension, love, hate, desire, it’s all fluctuating in the scene. That’s something I look at closely in scenes and between scenes, so that the emotional energy flows through the book – and so that those emotions hit correctly on the page! Emotional heat-maps – you heard it here first!
What an excellent way to assess scenes and how they relate to one another! What are some of your current projects?
My next book comes out in Spring 2021 – and it’s tentatively called THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS. It’s about a girl named Esther who has a half brother she’s never met, who she blames for breaking up her family. When she fails Religion Class at her Catholic school and has to go to summer school, she’s forced to stay at her estranged father’s house and contend with this little brother she calls an ‘alien.’ It’s about how the same things that can break a family apart can help bring that family together.
I’m also writing my first short story for a possible anthology and I’m having so much fun – it’s about love and identity and it features the late, great Walter Mercado!