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Powell's Q&A

Julia Alvarez

Describe your latest project.
First off, where do I get off naming my novel, Saving the World? What can I tell you? I'm not feeling very optimistic as to where we are headed as a human family. But as the Seamus Heaney poem says, hope and history can sometimes be made to "rhyme."

This novel is about two women, one contemporary and one historical, who want desperately for this rhyme to happen. The historical story I came upon while doing research for my novel In the Name of Salom?. A footnote in a history book I was reading caught my eye: due to the occupation of the colony of Santo Domingo by the French, the 1804 Spanish smallpox expedition going around the world with the newly discovered vaccine did not make a stop there. This was the first world-wide effort to eradicate a deadly disease. Back then, travel was slow, on ships. There was no refrigeration, so the only way to keep the vaccine alive was through carriers, sequentially vaccinated. The carriers were, for the most part, orphan boys. The first group of twenty-two boys, between the ages of three and nine, came from an orphanage in Spain, and here's an incredible detail for a novelist to come upon: the rectoress of the orphanage went along to take care of them. Nothing is known about her except her name, Doña Isabel, her surname variously misspelled.

The second story in the novel is about Alma, a contemporary writer undergoing her own dark night of the soul. Alma has lost faith in writing, lost faith in most things. She is married to a wonderful man, whom she dearly loves, and that saves her from total despair. Her husband, who has a job at an international aid consulting firm, finds himself mixed up with an AIDS clinic (our 21st-century epidemic) in a Third-World country where a pharmaceutical company is testing a new vaccine. These two stories, seemingly so different, begin to "speak" to each other, and I hope there is, if not a full rhyme, then a sort of half-rhyme: a hope that stories can make a difference in a world that increasingly seems beyond any kind of redemption.

  1. Saving the World: A Novel
    $5.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

  2. In the Name of Salome
    $2.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    In the Name of Salome

    Julia Alvarez

  3. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
    $9.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

  4. Before We Were Free
    $6.99 New Mass Market add to wishlist

    Before We Were Free

    Julia Alvarez

  5. Woman I Kept To Myself Poems
    $12.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

  6. A Gift of Gracias: The Legend of Altagracia
  7. In the Time of the Butterflies
    $2.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
I love Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, a guy who isn't self-promoting, does a lot of good behind the scenes, generous and not self-serving, big hearted but disciplined, and knows a smart girl when he sees one.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book/place to start with.
I really love J. M. Coetzee's work. I'd start with Disgrace.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Here's a stanza from Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, which was my mantra as I was writing Saving the World. Not a surprise that I made it the book's epigraph!

History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

What is your favorite literary first line?
"Back out of all this now too much for us."
This is the first line from Robert Frost's wonderful poem "Directive." How'd he get away with a whole first line of mostly prepositions?!

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which I learned about from reading one of Rachel Donadio's terrific feature pieces in the New York Times Book Review. Before that I read another fascinating nonfiction book, Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back by Norah Vincent, again tipped off by the NYTBR. Before that, I read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, which my stepdaughter, who is a great reader and whose taste in books I share, recommended.... I keep a book list and a reading diary. I write down a book's title and put who recommended it. My friend Rob Cohen, the novelist, always makes great suggestions. He just tipped me off to A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous (one of my favorite historical characters — see below).

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Okay, my best breakfast is a hard roll, French bread — made by my compañero, Bill Eichner, who is a great baker and cook — accompanied by Caf? Alta Gracia, from our farm project and literacy center in the Dominican Republic. I actually love the blend Tres Mariposas, which Paul Ralston at Vermont Coffee Company makes from three coffees: one Sumatran, one Costa Rican, and our own Alta Gracia. This simple breakfast with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice can't be beat.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
The breakfast above with my compañero, then a day of writing, a good day of writing I should say.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
A day of writing, a good day of writing...

Why do you write?
Because it's my favorite indulgence (see above), "absolute" happiness (also see above). Writing helps me clarify things, center myself, know what I think. And then, it also connects me with people at the deepest levels, my readers. As William Carlos Williams wrote: "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there."

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
One time a reader called me up from California. He was the son of one of the worse torturers in the secret police in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo regime. He identified himself, said his mami had fled to California, leaving his father. She never told him any of the stories. Once he mentioned my novel In the Time of the Butterflies, and she told him not to read it. But he was curious and picked up a copy, read it secretly. He said that at last he understood who his father had been, what he had done. The young man was weeping. I told him that just his reaction was an incredible redemptive sign, that we all carry the dictator and torturer within us. As Terrence, the Roman playwright, wrote, "I am a human being. Nothing human is alien to me." It touched me so much to know that he had pursued the truth, that he was strong enough to face it, fragile enough to let himself feel remorse.

What do you dislike most?
Dishonesty, sell-outs, injustice of all kinds especially those that parade as righteousness, stupidity with power (check out the White House), opinionated folks who don't keep any windows and doors open. Oh man, I could go on and on...

Talk about your vision of the ideal life.
If I could live part of the year and work in the Dominican Republic that would be great. That would mean that a lot of the inequities between "third and first" worlds would have to be corrected. I love my homeland, love being there, would love to do my deepest work there, i.e., writing. But when I'm there, I'm drawn into action because so much needs to be done and there aren't, it seems, enough people to take care of the many triage situations all around me. No social service agencies. No Medicaid. No unemployment. No teen pregnancy program. Writing feels like a luxury there, and that's a hard thing to come to terms with when you think of it as your calling.

The second part of the ideal life would be to return to Vermont, to this beautiful, still-rural landscape, to a state that has a social conscience, to dear friends who are exceptional big-hearted human(e) beings. If I could have both these worlds at once!

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
The little people who are always anonymous and carry the weight of history on their backs. They're the ones whose little efforts make all the difference. The mothers and wives and sisters who cooked and cared for the famous people whose names we know, who sewed the famous people's clothes; Milton's daughters transcribing his poems. Gwendolyn Brooks has a great poem about these people called Behind the Scenes. These are my favorite characters and I always want to find out more about them and put them in my stories.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I love Goya. You look at a Goya painting and you feel a deep, soulful humanity in the vision presented; you get stretched by his paintings; you feel the range of being a human being, the light and the dark. I look at his paintings and I feel what Wordsworth felt looking at that painting of Peele castle, "A deep distress has humanized my soul." I'm talking about the Black Paintings especially, the later work, after Goya got fed up with being a court painter and started going deaf— though just for the record, even his court-painter paintings are complex and powerful; you can see exactly what he thinks of this flaccid king, this greedy queen, this lame royal family. Robert Hughes's book Goya, by the way, is a wonderful read. If anyone knows where I can get a poster of Dog Drowning, let me know. I didn't buy one at the Prado when I went to visit the museum just to see that painting because I thought it'd get wrecked during my banging around Spain (researching the current novel). Since then I've tried to get a copy whenever I'm in a museum store, even tried Googling it, and have not been able to find it.

[Editor's note: Ms. Alvarez, perhaps you mean The Dog by Goya?]

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
Thank you, thank you.


Copyright 2006 by Julia Alvarez. By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services. All rights reserved. spacer

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