Author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, A Woman for all seasons
By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Deputy Managing Editor, Herald de Paris
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, with more than one million books currently in print. Time Magazine named Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez one of the twenty-five, "Most Influential Hispanics," in the United States. Hispanic Business magazine has twice named Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez one of the nation's top one hundred most powerful Hispanics. Latina Magazine named her, "Woman of the Year," and Entertainment Weekly hailed Alisa as a, "Breakout Literary Star."
Alisa's novel THE DIRTY GIRLS SOCIAL CLUB is currently in development as a TV series with Ann and George Lopez. Alisa's novel HATERS is currently in development with Teen Nick as a TV series with Nick Cannon as executive producer. Alisa is an actor and has recorded her own critically acclaimed audio books; she is also a regularly featured guest on two national talk-radio shows.
Before becoming a novelist, Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez was a staff writer for the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times. She was nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize, and holds several first place awards for her feature writing. Alisa is also a former on-air reporter for WHDH-TV in Boston, where she narrated an Emmy-winning documentary. With a bachelor of science degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she majored in tenor saxophone performance. Alisa also holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York.
Always eager to try something new, Alisa recently scored her first standup comedy gig at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood (March 2010), and hopes to do more comedy and acting.
Alisa's father was born and raised in Havana, Cuba; her mother is a 6th generation native New Mexican. Alisa lives in New Mexico with her son and has two new novels due in 2010, including THE KINDRED, a young adult crossover supernatural romantic thriller.
Alisa Lynn Valdes was born in New Mexico. Her father, Nelson Valdés, is a retired sociology professor at the University of New Mexico, who emigrated from Cuba in the early 1960's. Her mother, Maxine Conant, is a seventh-generation New Mexican and a poet.
While a student at Berklee, Valdes began writing freelance music reviews for the Boston Globe. After graduating from Berklee in 1992, she took an unpaid internship at the Village Voice before going back to school to earn a master's degree from Colombia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1994. In 1994, she was hired as a staff writer for the Living/Arts section of the Boston Globe newspaper. In 1999 she was hired as a staff writer for the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times, where she was the first American reporter to cover the Latin music industry as a full-time beat. Valdes-Rodriguez was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and won the SUNMAG contest for best newspaper essayist in 1998. Her articles have appeared in dozens of newspapers and she has written cover stories for Glamour Magazine and Redbook.
Alisa's first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, was purchased by St. Martin's Press a little more than a year after she left the Los Angeles Times - after five publishing houses bid for the manuscript. In a profile of the writer entitled, "The Latina Terry McMillan?" Chicago Times reporter Patrick T. Reardon wrote, "What made [the book] especially hot was the belief among publishers that Valdes-Rodriguez could be the long-sought 'Latina Terry McMillan' - a writer whose work would jump-start Hispanic book buying in the U.S. and create a new profitable publishing niche..." The Dirty Girls Social Club garnered media attention and went on to become a New York Times bestseller and a Booksense 76 top pick.
Valdes-Rodriguez has since written five novels: Playing With Boys (2004); Make Him Look Good (2006), a young adult novel; Haters (2006); Dirty Girls on Top, a sequel to The Dirty Girls Social Club(2008); and The Husband Habit (2009).
In 2005, Time dubbed Valdes-Rodriguez, "The Godmother of Chica Lit," and named her one of the twenty-five most influential Hispanics in the United States.
Herald De Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, was quite taken with the opportunity to speak to one of the most important writers of this generation. For Alicia, writing novels will no doubt be the platform from which she may very well become the next transcendent, bi-cultural Oprah.
AC: Your Father was a professor, your mother a poet; can you recall a specific point in time when you decided to become a writer? How did/do they inspire you?
AVR: I honestly think writers, like composers, are born rather than made. Shakira once told me (in an interview I did with her for the LA Times) that she was born "condemned" to music. I loved that! It is exactly how I feel about writing. I do not write; I am a writer. There's a difference. Writing is not my hobby or my job. It is who I am as a person. It is how I think, what I live for, and the thing in life - other than being a mother - that brings me the most joy. My parents are both writers. I think there must be a gene for it. My parents have inspired me in so many ways. We were pretty poor when I was growing up and, to entertain me, my mother would invent word games. Say, maybe we were heading out into a blazing hot day. She'd say, "Get ready to fry like a chicken," and I - about five or six - would have to respond with an analogy of my own: "Get ready to boil like an egg." That was what we did for fun in our household. My dad had every disadvantage an immigrant might have when he came to the United States from Cuba at the age of 15; he was an orphan, he spoke no English, he had no money. What he had, however, was brains and conviction, and an incredible work ethic and ability to focus on a goal. By his late 20's my father had not only learned English, he'd mastered it and was a PhD professor in sociology and history, the very departments he'd cleaned at night as a janitor to put himself through college.
AC: What was the first thing you wrote that made you realized you were really good at what you do?
AVR: People began to tell me I was a good writer in about the fifth grade. I figured that because it came naturally for me it must be so for everyone. It wasn't until after college that I really began to believe I had talent. Until then I felt being a writer would be cheating somehow because it would be much too easy and fun a way to make a living. Work had to be hard, or so I thought. That's why I majored in music and set out to be a saxophonist. I was talented at music, but only moderately so. It was work.
AC: Why did you study the sax? What types of music inspired you to play a wind instrument? Who is your favorite sax player and do you still play? Does knowing how to play a musical instrument help you to write more lyrically and melodically?
AVR: I began to play the saxophone in the 4th grade. I ended up going to Berklee College of Music in Boston where I got a bachelor's in music. My favorite saxophonist is a Norwegian by the name of Jan Garbarek who, like Bela Bartok, draws on folk melodies to create these haunting pieces. I still play a lot. I'm ten times the writer than I am a musician but I love music anyway. for people who are curious I've got three songs up on MySpace. I play a bit and do some spoken word. For me, writing and music are one in the same. Language is aural for me. My writing is intensely musical. I always have music blasting when I write to help with the psychology of what I'm doing. For instance, I recently wrote a scene where some very scary male demons abduct two high school girls from a dance. To get in the mood of the malevolent male characters, I played "Burn it to the Ground" (by Nickel back) over and over. I cannot imagine books without music or music without words. This is why the eerie silence of libraries has always offended me. Books are celebrations of sound.
AC: As you came up through the professional ranks, did being an attractive woman help you or hurt your career trajectory? Has being a Latina helped or hurt your career?
AVR: Well, well, well! Thank you. I am pleased you describe me in such flattering terms. My mother is an actual beauty queen and former model so the beauty question is a loaded one for me. I think beauty can help women but I also think that extreme beauty, as in the case of my mother (I am nowhere near as beautiful as she) can isolate women and make life difficult for them. Beauty is the Holy Grail in America, and yet it can also be a terrible handicap. In my case, I suppose, because I watched my mother so closely as a female child, I learned early not to put much stock in my looks. Nonetheless, I still exercise and get Botox. I suppose I am a bundle of contradictions - but what smart woman in the entertainment industry isn't? I don't honestly think being a Latina has ever hurt my career - but that is because I have never let it. There have been instances of discrimination and in each and every case I handled them the way my father taught me: Cuban style. Through confrontation. Through intelligence. Through fighting the good fight. That said, I am pretty sure I would have sold more books by now if certain types of people in this country did not automatically assume exotic foreignness upon seeing a Spanish surname. Example: I once gave a reading at a bookstore in Arizona and the manager asked me, in a bit of a panic, whether I spoke English well enough to address the crowd in that language. English is my native tongue. It's what I write in. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
AC: Would you have been more successful at an earlier age if you were not ethnic?
AVR: Not really, I was the youngest staff writer ever hired at the Boston Globe and was nominated for a Pulitzer by the age of 24. I've been kicking ass for a long time. (Kidding!) You know, I don't like to sit around thinking about myself as some kind of victim. I never took an affirmative action job because I have always believed I was as good - if not better - than the people around me. At writing, anyway. I pretty much suck at just about everything else.
AC: Why are there so few known Latina novelists?
AVR: I have no idea how to answer this question. I honestly try not to concern myself with the ethnicity of other authors all that much. Ernest Hemingway once said in an interview, when asked about the Russian writers of his time, that there was no such thing as an national (or "Russian" or "American") writer, because writers, by their very nature, belonged only to the nation of writers. I agree with that. Writers who focus only on their own ethnicity bore me to death and are not, in my opinion, writing at the highest level of their humanity, or in the service of humanity; they are writing in the service of their own personal needs for ethnic validation by the dominant class. Writers who focus on timeless stories of universal appeal and importance - and this can be done within an ethnic context, of course - hold my attention and earn my respect. I don't care what background a writer comes from. My friend, the editor Marcela Landres, once told me she saw a crisis in middle-class American Latina writing majors coming out of schools like Brown University thinking they had to write novels about experiences that were utterly foreign to them, like being immigrant maids from Mexico, because they didn't think publishing would believe them otherwise. That kind of work is disingenuous and caters to stereotypes. It is insincere and morally irresponsible. To be meaningful, you have to write with your genuine voice. A lot of Latina authors try to write like Sandra Cisneros because some literature professor assumed that's what all our lives are like. Lame! Dispense with narrow expectations of your abilities and insights. Sing the song that only you can sing, whatever that is. The rest will follow.
AC: Why did you come to LA to write for the Times? Did you have any theatrical plans? You did some on-air work in Boston so why didn't you pursue it?
AVR: I was born in Albuquerque, went to college in Boston and New York, and worked in Boston before relocating to LA to take a job as a pop music writer for the LA Times. I moved because the opportunity to be the nation's first mainstream newspaper reporter covering the Spanish-language music industry as a beat was incredibly exciting for me - on various levels. I never had my sights set on being on screen or stage until I began to do book signings and public speaking and realized I had a gift for comedy and acting. I did on-air work in Boston after a manager at one of the stations there noticed me in an interview I was doing for a feature on the networking group 100 Black Women, and suggested I would be good on TV. I loved doing TV but it was impossible to work at the newspaper and the TV stations both, at that time, simply because of time constraints. Being a writer, I chose to stick with writing.
AC: When you left the Times you wrote a 3,440 word resignation - what did you say to cause such uproar, all the while knowing that burning a bridge like the Times would keep you out of the print game forever?
AVR: I don't discuss this anymore, both because it happened a decade ago and feels like ancient history, and also because that letter was never meant to be seen by anyone other than the supervisors I emailed it to. Having it made public was a violation every bit as painful and real as rape. Continued questions about it feel likewise. It is irrelevant to my life now, and besides, I won anyway. I always do.
AC: In 2005, Time magazine called you, Valdes-Rodriguez, "The Godmother of Chica lit." How do you feel about that and how do you define that genre?
AVR: I think the people at Time magazine - who gave me this little nickname in the context of naming me one of the twenty-five "Most Influential Hispanics" in America - must smoke crack in the break room. (Kidding!) I don't know. I don't like being called a "godmother" because it makes me sound like I'm old and paunchy, with slicked-back hair and a pinky ring. As for genres - I don't define them. That's the job of marketing departments. I write books and clever people with MBAs and journalism degrees give them clever little categories.
AC: You have over one million books in print, are they written for Latinas? Who is your audience and how has the media climate changes since the advent of new media, especially social networking?
AVR: I write in the hopes that human beings will read what I've written. I would never be so arrogant as to think I know what any single human being would want from a work of fiction, much less an entire ethnic group of tens of millions of people. My audience is probably seventy-five percent Latina, however, because even though I write for everyone, not everyone likes the looks of a Spanish name on the cover of a book, apparently. As for social media, I think it has yet to be seen what sort of impact this will have on book sales. It's an exciting, terrifying time to be in print media of any sort. The good news, though, is that humanity has always shown itself to be in need of good storytellers, regardless of the available media or technology. That will never change. Happily, I'm quite flexible about media.
AC: You've recently started doing standup comedy. What inspired you to do that? What kinds of material do you do and what has the response been? Where would you like that artistic platform to take you?
AVR: I was inspired to do standup comedy by the many people who have heard me speak at universities or other events and said, "You know what? You should do standup." Public speaking, or comedy, are forms of communication and sound - my two favorite things. I like Jerry Seinfeld's definition of comedy as socialized rage. I think that's partly right. There's a lot for Latinos to be enraged about in America right now. We need someone standing up to the xenophobes and bullies with the best possible weapon other than the pen - humor. I also just like to make people laugh. It's a power trip, frankly. Most comedians won't admit it, but we are class-A narcissists. Larry David admits this. By the way, Larry David is my ideal man. I heard he was dating Sherry Stringer. I have often been told I look like her - and I don't have "string" in my name. Bonus! Larry? Call me. Oh, another person I madly admire is Hal Sparks. He's a comedian, musician, compassionate human being and all-around smart and good-looking egomaniac. I sort of see myself as Hal Sparks, if he were played by Jennifer Lopez.
AC: Your book The Dirty Girls is currently in TV development with Ann and George Lopez' Production Company. How is it working with Ann and Lynette? What would be the perfect outcome of this union?
AVR: Ann, George, and Lynnette are all truly amazing human beings. They completely "get" my material and me and my worldview. I pinch myself at least once a day when I remember that my first novel is in their very capable hands. All I can think is that, once again, there was divine intervention in making this happen. It is a blessing. The perfect outcome is going to be that THE DIRTY GIRLS SOCIAL CLUB becomes the fun, sexy, kick-ass TV series it was meant to be because we have the best possible team assembled for the job working hard to make it happen. I can't wait!
AC: You are also working with Teen Nick with Nick Cannon as executive producer. Would you consider transitioning from novelist to screenwriter? Do you have any acting aspirations?
AVR: Nick Cannon is on board to executive produce a TV series for Teen Nick based on my first young adult novel, HATERS, and, again, I have to pinch myself. Nick is incredible! I've never come across any single person with as much energy and intelligence as this man. On his Twitter bio Nick says only "Mr. CEO," and that's pretty much all that needs to be said. I would love to write shows and movies. I'm at work on a feature film right now. It's a whole new world for me, but one I enjoy immensely. Maybe I suck at it. I really don't know yet. I want to act. Yes. It's on the radar. I am one of the few authors who can make more than one dismal facial expression so I figure I'd better take advantage of that.
AC: Your newest effort, Kindred, has been considered better than Twilight by industry heavy weights. Want is your ultimate aspiration for this property?
AVR: It is hard for me to talk about THE KINDRED BOOK ONE: THE TEMPTATION OF DEMETRIO VIGIL yet because I've only just finished the first of four books in the series. I will say that I believe - and those who've read it agree - that it is my strongest, most plot-driven and commercial work to date. It is in the young adult crossover romance genre. I loved writing this book, and feel that it embodies all that I've learned as a writer and human being in the past ten years since leaving journalism to become an author. I am incredibly proud of this book and desperately in love with my characters, particularly Demetrio Vigil, the male lead. THE KINDRED was born to be a feature film. As I wrote the book, I envisioned it as a film starring Jake T. Austin as Demetrio. Jake is only fifteen now, but is already one of my favorite actors and thinkers. That kid is a force of nature. By the time the book comes out, and a film deal is done, he'll be just right to play the eighteen-year-old Demetrio. I'd love for THE KINDRED to be a mega bestseller as a book, and as a film I would like to see it be the first role to put Jake on the map as a grownup actor and romantic lad - er, lead.
AC: How do you decide which story to write and the genre to work in? When you write, do you have an audience in mind, a demographic or psychographic profile in your head, thinking they may like this but not that?
AVR: I approach writing books as a business. I know the genre, the audience, I seek to capture. I am methodical. If one hopes to make a living from writing this is the only way to do it. There are themes and formulae that work and they work for a reason. Within those confines, I believe a true artist can be boundlessly creative. As being a mother has taught me, it is often within the strictest of boundaries that children (and works of art) thrive best. Too much freedom or a selfish need to commit therapy upon the public via your own writing ruins a story. I cannot read ponderous, self-absorbed writers. I'm a self-absorbed person, but not a self-absorbed writer. There's a difference.
AC: Your characters are often exotic, off beat, and sometimes quirky. Where do they come from?
AVR: I have no idea. Not Wal-Mart.
AC: If you have five things on a bucket list, what would you like to conquer in the years to come?
AVR: Wow. Great question! I very much want THE KINDRED to become a franchise. This is important to me, as you might have guessed by now. I want to write and perform a one-woman comedy show or play in LA and NYC. I want to fall in love again, eventually. I want to see my son grow up happy and healthy. I want to become the Latina Oprah - in English! - Because we need a Latina Oprah in English, the language spoken by the majority of US Latinos.
AC: What do you consider to be your biggest success so far? What is your biggest regret?
AVR: My biggest success in life is that I am raising an amazing little boy, all by myself. Professionally, my biggest success is that I have never given up, and never will. My biggest regret? Living reactively. I have often reacted to people and situations that, in retrospect, should have simply been ignored or deleted. Live and learn, eh?
AC: How would you like history to remember you?
AVR: I'd like history to remember me as a Great American Author, period. I'm quite certain, however, that my obituary in the NY Times - presuming that paper outlives me, which is doubtful at this point - will read Hot and Spicy Exotic Latina Chica-Chica-Boom-Lit Author Died Explosively and Quite Hispanic from Deep Throating the Whole Passionate Enchilada, and What Can You Expect from Those People Anyway - aka Where's My Border Wall Dagnabit? In the end, it is probably best not to worry too much about how history will remember me. I can't control it. I'll be dead. Hopefully I'll be cavorting among the billions and billions of stars with Carl Sagan and enjoying a big cigar with Mark Twain.
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