Diana López is the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.
In this interview, Lopez discusses the importance of strong imagery, how to find a contemporary teen voice, and when to explain cultural/regional details to a broader audience.
To read the opening chapters of Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and an exercise on creating conflict with subtext, click here. For those in Austin, Lopez will be reading at the Westbank Library on March 12.
One of the more challenging technical aspects of fiction writing is getting characters onto the page for the first time. Your novel does this really effectively. The opening pages use a simple object (bikinis) to introduce four of the major characters (the narrator, her mother, her sister, and her little brother) and also the major conflict (the mother’s breast cancer). All of that happens in about three pages. How did you approach this introduction to character and story? Did the book always begin with the bikinis?
Yes. The original title of the novel was “9 Bikinis, 500 Names,” which are now the first and last chapters. I have no idea where the number nine came from, but I knew that I wanted to tackle breast cancer from a daughter’s perspective, a girl who is maturing and who has a lot questions about the body. I wanted her mother to be a strong character with a positive attitude, someone who was going to celebrate her days before the mastectomy by showing off. What better way than to wear bikini tops?
I can’t overstate the importance of strong imagery. The best way to make an okay story into a memorable one is specific imagery. My students often struggle with this. They miss so many opportunities. But consider all the power an image holds. First, it gives the reader a chance to experience via the senses—the bikini colors and patterns, the texture of the fabric, even the hot sun that we associate with them. Second, images hold connotative powers. I don’t have to say that Chia’s mom is fun loving, daring, and sexy. What kind of conclusion would the reader draw if the mother bought oversized T-shirts instead or if she threw away her bras the minute she came home from the doctor? In other words, a good image lets the readers co-create as they arrive at their own conclusions about the characters. Imagine all the assumptions we make about a forty year old woman driving a minivan versus a sixteen-year-old boy.
There’s a really tender moment in the first chapter between the narrator’s dad and mom:
He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so, too, because she hesitated before sitting down.
When the narrator’s little brother demands juice, her dad gets it instead of her mom, which causes her mom to say, “Your father’s treating me like an invalid.” What I love about this moment is its complexity: the father is trying to be kind and considerate—and in most situations, his actions would be seen that way—but because of the situation, the mother interprets these actions as insulting and painful. As a result, the reader is shown something deep and powerful about the characters. Did you try to find scenes that would result in this kind of awkward collision of intention and effect? Or was a scene like this a happy accident? Did it just pop onto the page one day?
I am always looking for opportunities to heighten the conflict. It’s what drives a novel just as it drives a good conversation. Imagine how bored you are when your friend is relating the non-eventful details of her day, and then imagine how attentive you are when your friend is talking about someone in trouble. We love conflict.
I spent a lot of time figuring out my characters. I write a lot about each before I put them in scenes. What’s the mom like? Where does she come from and how does she spend her days? How about the dad? Where did they meet? Of course, this doesn’t make it into the final book but it definitely informs the scenes.
So to answer your question about that dinner, I imagined the family at the table and the parents having to deal with the mother’s breast cancer. It made sense for the father to be overprotective, and by then, we already know the mother has an independent streak. So the way she takes offense is natural and logical, given who she is. You could put two different people at the same table with the same looming news and get a completely different scene. In fact, that would be a good writing exercise, wouldn’t it?
You don’t shy away from featuring technology in the novel. In the first chapter alone, the narrator texts her friend, searches through Google Images, and uses her iPod as a point of comparison for something as important as boys. Was it difficult to write about these things from an 8th grader’s perspective? I ask because my students at Texas State have a far different relationship to cell phones and technology than I do—and certainly different than I had at their age. These same students, however, tend to view their younger siblings as getting far more privileges than even they got. They sometimes sound like old geezers complaining about the kids these days. As a writer, how are you able to bridge the generational gap between you and your characters, especially with technology?
Good question and one that brings up a very important aspect of writing for young adults. You have to know your audience. I like writing contemporary books, so they have to take place in the here and now, not decades ago when I was a teen. This can be a challenge, but here’s where research comes in. The best way to bridge that generational gap is spend time with teens. Talk to them. Observe them. “Friend” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Soon you’ll start hearing that contemporary teen voice and you’ll get a good sense of how they relate to each other and to technology. I teach too, and I’m still writing on the board. Instead of copying the notes, half the class takes a pic with cell phones. Many public schools are doing away with books and distributing iPads to their students. I only know these things because I’m out there paying attention. A good tool for writers is observation and engagement with the people you hope will read your book.
I’m curious about the audience for this book. It’s about a Latino family living in San Antonio. They use corn tortillas for tacos—not flour—and take a trip to a cuarto de milagros. In other words, they have an intimate relationship with a particular culture and place. As a result, I was interested in this passage about migas:
Migas was our favorite Tex-Mex dish—a mix of corn tortillas, eggs, tomatoes, onions, and cheese. We loved the recipe. Thing was, migas were for breakfast, not dinner.
The description of migas is clearly meant for readers who do not have the same cultural knowledge as the narrator and her family. This seems to point to a tension that is inherent in a novel about characters who do not often appear in national fiction (though this is changing). How do you balance the need to clue in an audience not familiar with things like Tex-Mex food with the equal need for an honest depiction of a narrator who wouldn’t walk around explaining the basic elements of her life? How do you decide what to explain and what to leave to the reader to figure out?
Excellent question and one I have struggled with. I want my book to be accessible to many readers. That said, I don’t intentionally highlight these details. Seriously, they are part of my world so it doesn’t occur to me to give the recipe for things like migas or to explain the process of making cascarones like I do in Confetti Girl. This is where an editor who lives in New York comes in. We’ll get to this point in the revision process where she has highlighted places with unfamiliar images or words. I remember the first time this happened. I wrote a book set in Corpus and mentioned T-heads, never realizing how unique that term was. The editor had no idea what I was talking about, so I added an appositive phrase for clarification. Ultimately, that’s what I have to determine. Are there enough context clues or should I be little more explicit? The last thing I want is a reader to stop because she’s confused. In that sense, I am very grateful to have an editor who is not from my world and can point out these places—then lets me decide whether or not I should add that recipe or definition.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.