"Dangerous Business, Book-Writing": An Interview with Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

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Readers, I am thrilled to be able to offer this Q&A with a wonderful writer I've long admired. 

Already an award-winning journalist and a musician, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez had her first huge success as a novelist with Dirty Girls Social Club in 2003.  Several novels later, after becoming a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Alisa has very recently published the third installment of the Dirty Girls series, Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, the first chapter of which appeared in the October issue of Latina magazine.

Named one of the 25 most influential Hispanics and the "Godmother of Chica Lit" by TIME magazine, a Woman of the Year by Latina magazine, and one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in America (twice) by Hispanic Business Magazine, she is known for the warm, casual, intimate voices of her believable characters, her irreverent sense of humor, her focus on female friendships, and her iconoclastic brand of social critique.  Also the mother of a son, she writes a column at Mamiverse.com.

As a devoted fan since Dirty Girls Social Club (long-time readers of the blog will have read about Alisa's work here), I received my copy of Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith in the mail on Thursday, stayed up way too late to read it, and finished it over my morning coffee. 

This Q&A occurred afterward.  Huge gratitude to Alisa for her thorough, swift responses.

My questions, gentle readers, may seem a bit wonky.  (One cannot entirely escape one's academic leanings.)  But the freshness and humor of Alisa's replies, which made me smile and laugh out loud more than once, should more than compensate for that.  She discussed craft issues, boundaries and hybridity, ideology, ethnicity,  publishing, and more.  Enjoy.


Joy:  One of the exciting strengths of this new novel is its deft use of suspense.  Lauren, our main character, finds herself in terrible, life-threatening trouble, and several of her chapters end with dangerous situations.  Cliffhangers.  The narrative then switches to chapters focused on other characters, prolonging and intensifying reader anticipation about Lauren's fate.  Can you talk about pacing?  How do you time these intervening chapters?  Do you have a sense of how much delay a reader can bear?

Alisa:  This is such a good question! I am a huge, huge fan of Dean Koontz. No one does pacing like he does. He is the king of the cliffhanger. So I guess I've been studying him a little. That said, I worried a little about breaking up the forward motion of the main ("A") story in this novel, the chase of Lauren by Jason, with the intervening Rebecca and Usnavys chapters. I wondered if it would be just a bit TOO agonizing to have to wait that long. In Koontz's books, the momentum is relentless, a high-speed race from start to end. Because I was sort of creating a hybrid genre with Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, melding the rotating first-person "chick lit" of the first Dirty Girls book with a new suspense format, I had to tread carefully. I hope it worked. So far, I am getting excellent feedback from readers, lots of them saying they couldn't put the book down. That's what I was hoping for, a page-turning suspense/women's fiction hybrid.

Joy:  The novel's psychopathic villain, Jason Flynn, a Nietzschean nihilist with a penchant for sadism, is depicted with scary relish.  As a result of his presence, this novel includes more action and suspense than some of your other work, and you mention in your prefatory note that you "wanted to explore the suspense genre a bit, within the confines of a commercial women's fiction book."  Can you talk about your interest in exploring a psychopathic character, as well as discuss this novel's experiment in blending (or breaking) genre categories?

Alisa:  Oooh! I like very much how you characterize Jason! He absolutely is a Nietzschean nihilist, and I bet he'd LOVE that description of himself, too.  Thanks, too, for finding him scary. I became interested in sociopaths because of my own interaction with a person who has some sociopathic tendencies. I began reading a lot about sociopaths, and one book in particular just absolutely blew my mind and changed my life. It is called The Sociopath Next Door, by Harvard professor Martha Strout. In that book, she gives compelling evidence for the sociopath's lack of empathy being a GENETIC problem, unrelated to upbringing, something these people just can't help. She also talked about how 1 in 25 people in the United States are literally without a conscience, many of them skating by undetected by the rest of us. I was like many people and had stereotypes about sociopaths, that they were obvious, like Hannibal Lecter, obvious creeps, when in fact the truth of most sociopaths is that they are brilliantly charming chameleons who not only blend in with the rest of us, they often end up RULING the rest of us. I found this idea fascinating. It went against everything I had learned as a child raised by a sociologist who taught me that everything was a product of socialization, even criminality. This is not actually the case. I wanted one of my Dirty Girls characters to run across one of these charming monsters, and I wanted to explore the mind of a person who goes through life with no emotions whatsoever, barring envy, boredom and fear of getting caught. The sociopath's primary emotion is boredom. They act out as manipulators and, in the extreme, violent criminals, because there is nothing else that interests them. Jason Flynn is a sociopath, a genius, and a charmer. To me, this is the most dangerous combination of qualities to be found among human beings. I would like, eventually, to focus my adult fiction on suspense/thriller books that center around dangerous people. I find them fascinating, and I think that the more the rest of us know about how they function, the better prepared we will be to defend ourselves against them.

Joy:  The women's chapters in the novel--Lauren's, Usnavys', Rebecca's, and Jennifer's--are narrated in the first-person, while the men's chapters--Jason's, Martin's, and John's--are narrated in the third-person.  Can you talk about that choice?  Did you experiment with alternatives?

Alisa:  I feel like this is a woman's book, about friendship between women. I wanted to write it like a Girls' Night Out, where the inner circle, the women, are talking to each other in the first person, intimately, and the men are there, maybe talking in a separate conversation at the other side of the bar. I did not experiment with other ways of doing it. This just felt natural and right from the start.

Joy:  You've described English as your "native and only tongue," yet in this novel, as in earlier ones, the first-person narrators incorporate Spanish and Spanglish with ease.  How do you achieve this?

Alisa:  I learned Spanish in my late 20s. I am also a writer, a wordsmith, so I don't feel comfortable enough in Spanish to claim it as my own language. I know enough to get by, and I have listened to enough Spanish and Spanglish to feel confident in capturing the cadences and slang of those who do speak it well. I would never, ever insult the Spanish language, however, by claiming ownership of it. To own a language, you must know it as you know your own soul. I'm not there yet.

Joy:  What was the most challenging craft aspect of writing this particular book?

Alisa:  It is always challenging to write a sequel of any kind, but it is particularly daunting to write a sequel to a book as popular and beloved as The Dirty Girls Social Club was. I was always feeling inadequate to the task of making something as sincere or important as that book. That's why I stepped outside of the women's fiction genre a bit, because I am personally done with that genre, and knew I could not have the same enthusiasm or excitement for a book written in it. I feel like I have said what I wanted to say within those confines. Finding something new to say with the same characters, and a new way to say it, was the biggest challenge.

Joy:  Of what literary achievement in this novel are you most proud?

Alisa:  I am very proud of having pushed my own highly empathetic self off a cliff so that I could write, albeit in the third person, from the point of view of a sociopathic man. I am embarrassed to admit that it was a rush, and fun, and scary, becoming that person for a while. I felt empowered afterwards, though, because I knew that if I ever ran across someone like that again, I'd know how to play his game better than he did.


Joy:  In the novel, dirty cop Jason Flynn is gorgeous but predatory, while John Smith, a former assassin, turns out to be a hero with values (a sort of Jason Bourne character) whom Lauren must learn to trust.  In its story of a woman's romantic education, the novel seems to echo the Austen/George Eliot tradition that sees as crucial a woman's realization of what makes a man good or bad, trustworthy or deceptive.  To what extent is this still a salient lesson in most women's lives?

Alisa:  I can't speak for most women. I can speak for myself. Trusting men has been a huge issue for me, for a variety of reasons. This book reflects my own growth as a woman who has learned with great difficulty that there are, in fact, good men in the world, men you can trust and rely on, men who won't let you down. So much of what I'd written before this new book came from a place of suspicion and anger toward men. I intentionally made Jason Flynn and John Smith alike, on a superficial level. They are both gorgeous, they are both killers. But I wanted to show that they were, below the surface, nothing alike at all. This is an ongoing theme in my work, this idea that we must all stop generalizing about people, including ourselves. We need to take people as they come, on an individual basis, and get to know their motives before we can decide what their actions represent.

Joy:  Can you talk about women's fiction and the writers (historical and/or contemporary) who've influenced you the most?

Thumbnail image for Lauren'sSaintscover.jpgAlisa:  I can tell you that I use terms like "women's fiction" grudgingly. Ernest Hemingway once said, when asked his opinion of "the Russian writers," that there was no such thing as a "national writer" because writers belonged to only one nation, the nation of writers. I feel the same about sex and race and ethnicity in writers. It's irrelevant. Writers are writers, born with writers' souls, and we all have more in common with one another than we will ever have in common with anyone else. We are writers. Publishing has created divisions among books and writers out of their need to sell these things to an audience that they see as being segregated along extremely simplistic lines. So they label us, and our work, with simple phrases that by their very lack of nuance go against everything the writer stands for in being a writer. Writing is the physical act of thinking. Segregation (like prejudice, its mother) is, by its nature, the act of NOT having to think at all, a simple and inaccurate solution to a complex question. So, no. I cannot talk about women's fiction. I can happily talk about writers I love. The writers who have most influenced me, who consistently drop my jaw in awe and envy, are Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Dean Koontz.

Joy:  There's a passage toward the end of Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith that reads like an homage to the moment in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth sees Darcy's manor for the first time.  When Lauren first visits the cowboy John Smith's "4500-square-foot stone house" on his 5,000-acre ranch, she thinks, "Everything is beautiful.  The house is incredibly perfect, and I realize with a shudder that I am already starting to feel at home here.  I could, I think, spend the rest of my life in this place. In this house.  With this man."  We know she's attracted to him physically, but in your view, to what extent is Lauren drawn to John Smith's character, and to what extent is she drawn to the security and material ease that his home represents?

Alisa:  Lauren is drawn to John for who he is and also for what he has. I don't think this is bad. She's a journalist at a time of death for the journalism industry. She has quit her job. Her financial future is uncertain, and she is relying upon her friends to float her for a while as she runs for her life. To find a man who is noble and hot and good to her is terrific, but it's even better that he's rich. This part of the book is pure fantasy, but a fantasy I think we all, to some extent, entertain from time to time. The idea was that Lauren, after such a long, hard journey, might finally be able to rest, in every way, and let go, and stop worrying.

Joy:  There's a strong turn toward self-reliance in the content of Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, which swings in a conservative direction that may surprise some of your long-time fans.  The protagonist Lauren's heroic cowboy love-interest, who inherited his 5,000-acre ranch, is retired military ("one of the best-trained assassins in the world"), who goes unquestioned when he says, "God knows how many American lives we save by taking key people out."  You're also currently pitching a memoir called Learning to Submit: How Feminism Stole My Womanhood, and the Conservative Cowboy Who Helped Me Find It, which you describe as a move away from your upbringing in a liberal, feminist, academic home.  Can you talk about your own ideological development and to what extent you see your fiction working as a vehicle for the expression of social and moral values?

Alisa:  My ideology has been turned upside down in many respects in this past year, and the new book reflects it. I owe much of my growth to my boyfriend, who, like John Smith, is a cowboy. There's a lot of My Cowboy in John Smith, but there's also a lot in John Smith that is completely fictional. There's a lot of me in Lauren, but a lot in Lauren that is fiction. I was raised to be a rabid leftist. It was the religion in my childhood home, and deviation from this ideology was not tolerated. I went through life with this religion, never questioning its assumptions about the right. Then I met My Cowboy, who is a conservative AND brilliant. I had never known those things could go together. I am embarrassed now to say this, but the truth is I was a left-wing bigot. I was totally convinced that my side was full of the smart people, and the other side was a bunch of idiots. I was very, very wrong. In coming to know and love a wise conservative cowboy, I have come to see things in a way I never saw them before. I will be exploring this journey of mine in my forthcoming memoir, and probably in everything I write from here forward. The left and the right in America have an awful lot in common. That's what I've learned. The differences are mostly in how we express these feelings and ideas. I realized there was a language barrier between us, even when we were all speaking the same language, English. For instance, the word "respect" means something very different to My Cowboy's stepfather than it does to my father. In the conservative world, "respect" connotes a certain deference to authority. The left misinterprets this as obedience all the time. In fact, it is a beautiful thing, this respect for authority that the right has, when it is done right. The respected authority is respectful in kind to those in his or her care. For the left, meanwhile, "respect" is more about "live and let live," and a tolerance of difference. The right have this same value, but they express it differently, as "personal freedom." The left, meanwhile, think of "personal freedom" as being about choices, as in the abortion debate. It goes on and on, the many ways we are all misunderstanding one another. I think the current leaders in politics and media understand these barriers, and rather than seeking to build bridges and help us all understand one another, they use them to divide and conquer. It has to stop.

Joy:  You recently published a wonderfully honest piece on Mamiverse.com about the difficult experience of mentoring a young girl, walking away when she became pregnant at 13, and fictionalizing her as a character in your first novel.  [Full disclosure:  I've been mentoring a young girl through Big Brothers Big Sisters since 2007, and it hasn't been an easy road.  In my forthcoming novel, the protagonist mentors a young girl.]  In real life, Nancy Brown eventually became a successful salon owner in Boston, and in your new novel, there's a wonderful character, Taina, who owns a salon in Roxbury and is similarly "generous" and rooted in her religious faith.  Is Taina a fictional tribute to Nancy, and can you talk about the process of making characters out of real people?

Alisa:  Taina was a subconscious tribute to Nancy. I honestly hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it, but, yes. I think it was an homage to her. It was my way of saying, through Usnavys, that we all have to be careful not to underestimate people because of where they come from.

Joy:  A follow-up.  In the new novel, characters allude to the possibility of betrayal via fictionalization.  Usnavys says to Lauren, who's beginning a novel about six Latina friends, "Just don't base none of them on me, okay?" and when Lauren suggests writing a book about Rebecca's complicated marriage, Rebecca warns, "You better not!"  Lauren replies, "Never be friends with a novelist."  Can you talk about the ways, if any, in which your novels, which are so focused on women's friendships, have drawn from your real-life relationships with female friends?

Alisa:  I think this is a good time to invoke my Miranda Rights.

Joy:  Has publication ever had an impact upon those relationships?  To what extent must an honest writer accept loneliness?

Alisa:  Yes, absolutely. My family and friends have often recognized themselves in my characters. In one case, I had a friend whose husband was always hitting on me and our other female friends. I knew that if I told her directly she would never believe me, and I knew that he was dishonest enough to defend himself in such a situation by telling lies about me. It broke my heart for her to know what he was doing, so much so that I had to get it out somehow. I wrote a character in The Three Kings that was very much like her, down to the profession, married to someone very much like him. I said what needed to be said there, knowing that she would read it. It was a terrible, passive-aggressive way to do it. She has not talked to me since. I don't know what he told her. I was trying to protect her, but it is quite possible that she saw it as me humiliating her. I don't know. I think writers are driven by a need to tell emotional truths. Unfortunately, the world doesn't always want the truth. So, yes, to a large extent writers are a lonely bunch. We are the observers. The quiet people who are always watching, listening and taking notes. People who only know me by my writings are often surprised when they meet me because I'm not an obnoxious loudmouth in person. I have kind of a high little voice and I try to avoid conflict in person. I get all my aggressions out on the page.

Joy:  Your Twitter stream recently focused on the vexed issue of ethnicity, which, if I'm understanding correctly, you see as a harmful social construction we should debunk.  ("I confess to having been, in my 20s, seduced by ethnicity and all the benefits that come with being its handmaid.  Never again.  No more lies.")  In this novel, most of the characters' ethnicities are included:  Jason Flynn is Irish American, Martin Bernstein is Jewish, Usnavys is Boricua-Dominicana, Rebecca is a New Mexican Chicana, and Lauren is half Cuban, half white.  John Smith, who is white, is otherwise as ethnically ambiguous as his name--which nonetheless echoes that of Captain John Smith, who was purportedly rescued by Pocahontas in the legendary story of early American conquest.  Ethnicity seems to remain significant to you.  Can you talk about the relationship between the role of ethnicity in U.S. political life and its role in character development within your own work?

Alisa:  There is no short answer to this. I'm giving a TEDx talk on this subject later this month and maybe you can link the video after that?  [Readers:  I will. --JC]  Basically, race and ethnicity are social constructs without any scientific way to prove they exist at all. In this regard, they are rather like religion. All three are taken on faith. That you can't "prove" there is a God, or a race, or an ethnicity, does not make the results of people BELIEVING in these things to be any less real. So it's a complicated relationship I have with all of them. Something can be untrue, yet real in its impact on people's lives. In a way, fiction is in this same category. Ethnicity is a social fiction that sustains many people and damages many others. I have been both sustained and damaged by it. I have never been comfortable with labels of any kind, but that doesn't make them any less fascinating to me in their outcome. I explore the falsehoods of these things in my writings, and yet so many people miss that altogether. If I mention ethnicity in my work, it is usually to deconstruct it. But most people miss that, and just "identify" with the character instead. I set out with my first novel to prove there was no one marker, no one thing you could point to to say "that's what a Latina is". The book was meant to show that this was a false, entirely made-up category, specific to the United States. The ironic result of the book was that I was held up as the new "Latina author" du jour. It'd be hilarious if it weren't so sad. Many people mistake what I'm saying to be self-loathing of some kind, when in fact I am aggressively asserting that every human being has a right to self-determination, and that none of us need be corralled or penned in by categories created for us by the U.S. government. We are people. Period. In a way, I'm like an author who writes about Christianity in a critical way, almost to disprove its existence, but who is held up as a "Christian writer" after the fact. It is fascinating.

Joy:  In the novel's prefatory "NOTE TO MY READERS FROM ALISA," you write that both you and your readership have

likely moved past the shallow materialism of the 'chick lit' era.  I find few things as distasteful in this era of extreme need and desperation as books or other popular culture offerings that glorify materialism, narcissism and consumerism.  Those are the sins that got us all into this mess in the first place.  I cannot be party to promoting consumption as the road to happiness anymore.
I'm sure that many readers will agree and that your audience will appreciate the sensitivity and tact of this shift.

Yet the novel hardly reads like what's now being labeled "recession fiction."  Lauren delights in the well-appointed house (with three master suites) that's loaned to her as a hideaway (since it was just standing empty, unused by its well-to-do owners).  Her friend Rebecca has two adobe houses on her property, and even "the smaller house," where she installs her mother, has three bedrooms, "a soaring loft," and countertops of "blonde granite with black flecks."  The straw that finally breaks the back of Usnavys' marriage is when she cleans out her family's two-thousand-dollar emergency fund from the Bustelo can and goes shopping at Nieman's with it.  She also gets her Mercedes Benz repossessed, her home foreclosed upon.  But she *has* two thousand dollars in an emergency fund.  Moreover, even though she returns briefly to the projects where she grew up,  Usnavys has used her entrepreneurial ingenuity to begin making a bundle again with Taina, her new business partner, on women's beauty products within a month or so.  Even Lauren, who abruptly quits her job and drives a borrowed old Impala cross-country to escape her violent ex, has "enough savings to survive for a couple of years."

So while they're not shopping for designer bags, these characters are all well cushioned from "extreme need and desperation."  Can you talk about the role of escapism, fantasy, and consumer desire in commercial fiction?

Alisa:  Hmm. I'm not sure I agree with your assessment. Usnavys hits rock bottom pretty hard. There is, I will grant you, an element of escapism in all of my work.

Joy:  Do you think this differs between women's commercial fiction and men's commercial fiction (like thrillers)?

Alisa:  Hmm. I don't know if I've read enough of each to comment intelligently on it.


Joy:  Publishing has become turbulent and complicated, and self-publishing is on the rise as a viable option for many writers, including successful authors such as New York Times bestselling author Scott Sigler, who signed a 5-book deal with Random House in 2007 but still went the self-publishing route in 2009 because, as Tay Nguyen wrote recently on Jane Friedman's blog, "he wanted more control over his own destiny."

You wrote a really interesting piece about why, after your fantastic success with St. Martin's Press, which included becoming a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, you decided to go the self-publishing route with the third installment of the Dirty Girls Social Club series.  [Full disclosure:  My debut novel is forthcoming from St. Martin's in July 2012.]  Is there anything else you'd like to say about the choice to self-publish this time?

Alisa:  I was just curious to see how it would work out, whether it would. I am still publishing with major houses for my teen fiction and memoir. I'm still comparing and contrasting the experiences.

Joy:  The e-book and paperback of Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith were released in September.  Can you give us an overview of how it's all going so far?

Alisa:  It is selling just as well as my last books with a publisher, only instead of making a dollar a book, I'm making between $4 and $9 per book.

Joy:  Do you have any advice for writers who plan to self-publish?

Alisa:  Proofread.

Joy:  During the process of publishing Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, were there any elements of traditional publishing that you missed ?

Alisa:  Proofreading.

Joy:  At the end of the novel, a note informs readers that they can purchase "the X-rated Very Dirty Chapter" at amazon.com.  The note says that you "did not want to offend any sensitive readers," but can you talk further about your choice to publish it separately?  What are the censorship barriers that define the boundaries of women's fiction, and to what extent are those boundaries imposed by readers?

Alisa:  I like erotica. I even like some pornography. I think that the natural outcome of a loving relationship is good sex. I like to write about sex. But I know there are lots of people who would be offended by it, so I wanted to separate it out.

Joy:  You've described your sixth novel, The Husband Habit, as your "attempt to write literary fiction."  In Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, the character Usnavys tells Lauren,

"Okay, but if you do base a character on me, make sure she's glamorous and employed.  You want it to be aspirational fiction, not the shit that wins Pulitzers and makes everyone who reads it want to slit their fucking wrists.  Whatever you do, promise you won't go all E. Annie Proulx on me, because ain't nobody actually likes them books of hers."
Can you talk about what you see as the differences between "literary fiction" and commercial fiction?  All of your fans are familiar with your many strengths as a writer of "chica lit," including warm voices, believable characters, humor, and social critique.  What drew you to literary fiction?  Do you think the publishing industry overstates the case for drawing boundaries among different kinds of books?

Alisa:  Again, it's all about barriers created by people other than writers. Literary fiction and commercial fiction are categories created by academia, mostly to justify the MFA in writing degree. Louis Armstrong once said there were only two types of music, good and bad. I believe the same of writing.

Joy:  Lastly, one of your characters in the new novel says this great line:  "Dangerous business, book-writing. . . .  You never know who's going to read it, or how they're going to react."  Comments?

Alisa:  I will allow Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to answer for me: "A person hears only what they understand."


Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith is now available as an ebook or paperback, and you can purchase it directly from Alisa's website.  Thanks so much, Alisa, for your time.  Amistad y gratitud.


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