Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Inside the Writer's Studio with Bettina Restrepo

Today at Inside the Writer's Studio we have with us talented Texas author Bettina Restrepo.
Bettina is here to share about her new book--her first novel, Illegal which has garnered the following rave from Kirkus. "With searing realism, debut author Restrepo describes Nora's anger, desperation and loss of faith... This memorable coming-of-age story will awaken readers to the overlooked struggles of immigrants."

A bit more about Illegal, from the publisher, Katherine Tegen Books:

A promise.
A promise that we would be together on my fifteenth birthday . . .
Instead, Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—waiting for her father's return and a better day. When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas. After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place. Now, Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her precious quinceaÑera.

Bettina Restrepo's gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl's unique yet universal immigrant experience.

Now, on to the interview!

How important is community in keeping you inspired? What authors are a part of your virtual and/or hometown community? 

I adore writers and artists of any nature because their hearts are more open to the world around them.  I am part of the class of 2k11. While we are a marketing co-op, these are the people I turn to with my book craziness as they are sitting in the same soup with me.  Because, I had a picture book come out two years ago, Moose and Magpie (Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2009), I had a few more experiences with the publication process.  It’s been nice to pass along my knowledge to other friends who are experiencing angst.  We laugh and cry together – all online.  I plan to physically meet most of them in May 2010 as we get together at Book Expo America in NYC. 

I also have a critique group here in Dallas.  Julie Richie, Sally Lee, and Stephanie Parsley.  Each one of us has different experiences that we write from, whether it is edgy YA or poetic, rhyming picture books.  They are live people that I intimately share my life with in a noisy Einstein’s eating yummy bagels and sipping endless cups of steaming coffee. 
When I lived in Houston, I was part of a very special critique group.  Although Joyce Harlow died this fall, she mentored me through the writing process with tea and cookies every Sunday for five years.  Jenny Moss and Mary Ann Hellenhausen  added so much to my world, as friends, and as valuable educators in my writing world.  

Is there a favorite quote you turn to when the rejection blues get to you?

Cynthia Leitich Smith once told me, “It is better to publish well than fast.”  I truly believe if the work was rejected, it wasn’t supposed to be at that publication or wasn’t in the form it needed to be. 

What do you feel is your strength as a craftsperson? How do you turn your weaknesses into strengths?  

My strength has been voice.  I write when I hear the character speaking to me – which is why I work in 1st person. I’m on the right track when the voices of the character WILL NOT leave me alone – even if I beg them to.  

My weakness in writing is grammaticism and distractibility.  Three languages swirled in my house growing up.  Typically, I grabbed any word that I could think of.  I fought with my language art teachers because I felt grammar (diagramming, verb changes, etc) was distracting me from the good stuff – the reading. 

I can’t tell you the rule of why something works; I just hear it and know.  Luckily, I have critique group to help and I revise mercilessly examining every word and how it relates to every sentence. 
Also, I work in short spurts of 1-2 hours.  I have a young son with apraxia who requires a lot of time and attention.  Like any mother, I often feel like I have forty things going at once.  But, this doesn’t allow me to neglect my work.  I just have to pull myself back to whatever I was doing.  Managing several things at once is helpful, because publication mode is quite different than creation mode.  Both require work with completely different parts of yourself and your brain.  

How does “place” come through in your writing? How important is place in this current novel/picture book? Is it tied to a place you once lived or are familiar with or is it a new world entirely?

 In Illegal, the place is real – Houston, Texas.  I worked in the community I wrote about, but it’s not to say I didn’t take liberties with changing a few names of street, apartments or parks.  Houston served as a model from which the character grew and lived, but it could truly be anywhere in the world.

Speak a bit about the importance of dialog? 

I’m a dialogue girl, while one of my critique partners is an exposition girl.  I like to have my characters reacting to the world around them through voice and interaction around them.  But, some writers do it all in the character’s head – me, I just write down what they tell me in their own personal dialogue.  Perhaps it’s the difference between 1st and 3rd person, but each technique has a different result.  Me, I like dialogue.  

I once heard Deb Caletti say when asked how her life has changed since becoming a published author that she feels she is living the life she is meant to live. How has your life changed since you became a published author? Has it? What lessons have you learned that you’d care to share since becoming published?

Personally, I know that your life will NOT change whether you are published or not – it’s how you feel about it.
You will not become thinner, more beautiful, or more significant to the world than you already are.
You will merely have a book on the shelf that you can point to and say “I created that.”
98% of those with one published book won’t even make enough money to earn out their advance.  

But, you can create a work of art that is important to you or your family… maybe even an audience of one.  I think too many people (me, once included) feel like the only way to validate themselves was through publication.  Some stories just aren’t meant for a wide audience – thus, not profitable for a traditional publishing house.  Perhaps it’s only a story to share with friends and family, or a beloved friend. 
We should rejoice in the art of a story well told.  

Writers love books; we love reading. What book do you turn to over and over again and why do you love it?  Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont (Riverhead).   No matter where I am in my life, I feel like she can speak and guide me – whether in publishing or in life.  I like the book’s spiritual side.

Which character of yours do you hope your readers most relate to? And why?

I hope they relate to Mr. Mann.  He is a homeless and mentally ill man in ILLEGAL.  He is a forgotten person.  Invisible.  He is all of us and none of us.  At the core, we have to remember that we are all human deserving dignity.

Be brave. Share a paragraph from a WIP. 

This is a story I personally need to tell – and it scares me to death.  The character wants my attention, but I can’t hear her voice clearly, so I am having trouble with the story.  By sharing it with your readers, I hope to push myself to finish the story. 

Currently Untitled.
It begins with a sucking noise.  Like a vacuum gagging and sputtering on a sock.
You can hear the machine as they start the other girl’s abortions.
“You’ll just feel a small pinch,” the doctor says, his voice sounding far away. The speculum is cold.  I can feel a push on my insides.
The nurse pats my arm as the doctor inserts the aspirator. I don’t feel pain, just a weird tapping pressure.
I want to tense up, but my body is floating from the pill they gave.  I drank it down in a smooth gulp with water from a paper Dixie cup.
“Okay?” he asks, patting me on the shoulder, but I close my eyes as a response.  I just want it done.

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.

I went to high school in Wichita Falls, Texas.  When I say this, people think, I know that city, but I don’t remember it.
It’s 2.5 hours northwest of Dallas on the way to Amarillo.  Although it’s a city of 100,000 - people only stop there to pee.  I know, affectionately, call the place “Urination, Texas.” 

Thanks Bettina for being here. Thanks for being brave enough to show some of your wonderful WIP and for being the brave writer behind Illegal.

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