Welcome to the monthly Author Interview series at The Writing Life. Today I have the great pleasure of chatting with Dr. Ivelisse Rodriguez on a special day, the debut of her short story collection, Love War Stories (The Feminist Press, 2018).
Ivelisse Rodriguez has published fiction in the Boston Review, All about Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, Obsidian, Kweli, the Bilingual Review, Aster(ix), and other publications. She is the founder and editor of an interview series focused on contemporary Puerto Rican writers in order to highlight the current status and the continuity of a Puerto Rican literary tradition from the continental US that spans over a century. The series is published in Centro Voices, the e-magazine of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. She was a senior fiction editor at Kweli and is a Kimbilio fellow and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Welcome and congratulations, Ivelisse.
What is your book’s genre/category?
My book, Love War Stories, is a collection of short stories. It is literary fiction.
Please describe what the stories are about.
My book is about the burgeoning sense of womanhood in Puerto Rican girls and young women. I am interested in the love stories women have been told generation to generation and how anti-love stories need to rise up to give women other alternatives.
How did you come up with the title?
The title comes from the last story in the collection where mothers and daughters hold “love wars.” Daughters tell love stories and mothers tell anti-love stories. The title captures the trouble with love that is evoked throughout all the stories.
What inspired you to write this book?
This book, I think was written for my college self. I think that these are the stories young women who break themselves for love need to hear, that the self is more important than being beholden to love. Women need to hear different stories that they can be more than women in love.
What is your favorite part of writing?
Being done. Or, in the interim, writing really good lines.
What do you find is the most challenging aspect of writing?
The most challenging part is sitting down and doing it. You have to face your fear of failure every time you sit down and sometimes it is so overwhelming that you just have to walk away. Another challenging aspect for me is revision. It is easier for me to start something, but when you revise, you really have to focus on the larger story and your word choices, so this part of the writing process is much slower for me.
Ivelisse, did the writing process uncover surprises or learning experiences for you? What about the publishing process?
During the writing process, I learned to be more patient versus rushing to send out a story that needs more work. I also learned that consistency is the only way to get your story done.
What I learned about the publishing process is that it is pretty mysterious and plenty of other writers don’t know what is going on either. I wanted to know how everything works—who got my ARCS, who got my press kit, etc., but I didn’t want to stalk my publicist. I’m just super nosey, and I wanted to learn about the process. And other writers and I would trade any information we were able to procure.
What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
I hope they gain some insight about love, and the ways it can break women in particular. I also hope they will be deeply moved by the stories I have to tell. I hope it is a book that people carry in their hearts.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you write and market this book?
In terms of marketing, my query letter did a good job of describing my book. That partly stems from the feedback I received from a professor in my Ph.D. program who was working with the students going on the job market; for my academic job letter, she told me to make my book sound more interesting, so I worked a bit on that. And I name-dropped in my query letter, so that helped too.
What didn’t work as well as you’d hoped?
What didn’t work is that I sent the book out when it wasn’t ready. And I think that squanders opportunity. Being on the other end as a reader of submissions for a literary journal and for fiction contests, I can tell you, especially for the contests, there were too many submissions that needed a lot more polishing, so they weren’t even in the running.
Ivelisse, do you have advice or tips for writers looking to get published?
Revise, revise, revise. And go to writer’s conferences and meet other emerging writers. Don’t be dismissive of people because they aren’t some bigwig. I have received support from people I met early in their careers, those still building their careers, and those who are literary icons. We are in this together, so don’t treat people like crap because they are not famous—just as a general rule of being a decent person but also because you never know where people will end up. I also think it is important to be a good literary citizen—again, we are in this together, so take the opportunity to help other writers whenever and however you can.
What was the last book you read? What did you think of it?
The last book I read is the forthcoming Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. I think the book adds so much to the narrative of Colombia. It’s the story of a wealthy family and a plot to kidnap the two daughters. Contreras shows how wealth does not shield one from violence or dire situations or the destabilization of home. She also showcases all the hard choices that women, in particular, have to make. It’s a lovely read, and I would highly recommend it. It’s a memorable book.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I have favorite books more so than favorite authors. Some books that I love are The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros, Middemarch by George Eliot, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange, Drown by Junot Diaz, and Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, and quite a few others.
Do you have a favorite place to write? To read?
I like to write in bed, only because I have an adjustable bed, and it is super comfy. I also like to read in bed. I hate reading paper books now because I love turning off the lights and reading my Kindle or Nook in the dark. It is one of my favorite things to do.
Tell us something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
I grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and then I went to boarding school when I was 13 (on a full scholarship).
Website and social media links?
Where can we find your book?
You can find it at https://www.feministpress.org/books-a-m/love-war-stories, or Indie bookstores, or Amazon.com.
What’s next for you, Ivelisse?
Hopefully, I will get back to working on my novel in August. It’s called The Last Salsa Singer, and it is about the friendship between two musicians in a salsa band in Puerto Rico during the 1970s. It’s about the value of friendship and art over romantic love, it’s about salsa, and it’s about an underestimated young woman who shatters everyone’s life.
Best of luck with Love War Stories. I look forward to reading the book and wish you happy writing!
About Eleanor Parker Sapia:
Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the multi-award-winning novel, A Decent Woman, published by Scarlet River Press. Her debut novel, set in turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, garnered Second Place for Best Latino Focused Fiction Book, English, at the 2017 International Latino Book Award with Latino Literacy Now. The book was awarded an Honorable Mention for Best Historical Fiction, English, at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now. A Decent Woman was selected as a Book of the Month by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club in 2015. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani.
A writer, artist, and photographer, Eleanor currently lives in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where she is working on her second novel, The Laments, set in 1926 Puerto Rico.