Litdish: Forge a Nontraditional Path to Success: 10 Questions with Alex Temblador

As I began reading Secrets of the Casa Rosada, Alex Temblador’s young adult debut novel, I was hooked. The vivid worldbuilding creates an unfamiliar, scary place into which Alex immediately drops her main character—sixteen-year-old Martha. As she tackles living with a grandmother who’s a complete stranger and who doesn’t speak English, Martha forges a path of self-discovery and growth. The authentic passion that pervades Temblador’s writing comes from her tapping into the source of who she is and everything that has shaped her.

Alex was born and raised in Wichita Falls, TX, and now lives and works in Dallas. Writer, creative writing instructor, copyeditor, and public speaker, Alex contributes to anthologies, magazines, and reviews, in addition to writing novels. She identifies “as a Mixed…Latinx woman who is a proud feminist, an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, and an advocate for people with intellectual and physical disabilities.” Alex began writing Secrets of the Casa Rosada while pursuing her MFA from the University of Central Oklahoma. The book has won several awards and recognitions, including the 2019 NACCS Tejas Foco Young Adult Fiction Award and the 2018 Writers League of Texas Book Awards (MG/YA Discovery Prize Winner). Her second book, Half Outlaw, is a novel for adults featuring magical realism. It was acquired by Blackstone Publishing and is expected to be published in 2022.

During a recent interview, Alex graciously shared with me insights about her writing journey, processes, inspirations, publishing challenges, and more.

1. Your debut novel is for young adult readers. Was there something special about this age group that inspired you?

When I began writing Secrets of the Casa Rosada during my MFA program, I envisioned an adult audience. The novel was originally split to encompass Martha’s experiences as a sixteen-year-old, and the effect of those experiences on her seventy-year-old self. By the time I defended Secrets as my thesis, all of my advisors agreed that the YA chapters were the strongest. So I adjusted my focus, got rid of the other chapters, and worked to develop the YA voice. In writing Martha’s teenage experiences, I worked through my own childhood and young adult experiences as they related to my Mexican-American identity. I wanted to explore the insecure feelings surrounding this identity, such as my inability to speak Spanish growing up, my lack of understanding of certain cultural elements because of where I was raised, and the pull between an American identity and a Latinx one. Many young Latinx adults and children in the US struggle with similar feelings.

2. The protagonist in Secrets has to cope with a great deal of change as she enters her grandmother’s world. What do you hope your readers can take away from Martha’s story?

Change is something that we tend to push against. However, I hope Martha’s story helps readers understand that when we learn to be adaptable in different environments and open our minds and hearts to new experiences, we are the better for it.

3. The worldbuilding in Secrets is outstanding, from the milieu to the culture to the sensory descriptions, like the smells of food, fumes, and potions. What is your worldbuilding process like? Do you build as you write, during revision, or both?

I think one of my strongest writing skills is the ability to envision a world—a setting—and create it as I write. I enter my character’s body so that when the character steps into a new room or a new scene, I am able to take stock of everything in that place. How does it smell? Feel? Look? How does it affect the character? Through this method, I can build the world step by step as I write, without having to go back during revision to add a lot more detail. Setting is such an under-appreciated aspect of novels, and I think more emerging writers should focus on this.

4. Did you experience any unexpected hiccups while writing this book or getting it published, and how did you handle them?

Writing Secrets was fairly easy for me, even though I resisted some major suggested storyline edits during my MFA program. Getting the book published was far more difficult. After finishing my MFA in 2014, I revised the book for another year and then queried more than one-hundred literary agents. Many responses indicated that although the story and characters were great, they were declining the book because it “wasn’t mainstream” or “there weren’t audiences for it.” This was not an uncommon response that authors of color, and authors whose books had characters of color, received at the time. Instead of quitting, I allowed these rejections to fuel my drive to get published, because people who look like me deserve to see themselves in books. Relying on the advice of a prior professor, I pitched directly to two small publishers, one of which was Arte Publico, the largest US Hispanic publisher. Although their usual response time was three to six months, they emailed me an offer within two weeks. A week later, I had an agent.

5. Your upcoming novel, Half Outlaw, is an adult novel. Why did you switch to this age group, and how did your writing experiences align or differ from your experiences writing for young adults?

Although I was a big YA book fan for years, my reading tastes expanded during my MFA program and centered primarily on adult literary fiction. This inspired my goal to write adult fiction. I write books to understand different life experiences. By the time I began writing Half Outlaw at the age of twenty-seven, I was trying to figure out some adult-related life challenges. Although this is a shift from my YA novel, readers will find that I didn’t abandon the YA element altogether. Half of the chapters in Half Outlaw feature my main character as a child and teenager. I wanted to show how our childhood experiences affect who we are as adults, and I utilized my YA writing experience to accomplish this in my new book.

6. What books, stories, and/or authors have influenced or inspired your novel themes and style of writing?

Fantasy, supernatural, science fiction, and historical novels were my first loves. They shaped my ability to build worlds and understand how history and social systems play roles in characters’ stories. These genres also ignited my search for a genre in which I could feel at home, which turned out to be magical realism—a narrative mode that allows for beautiful and creative discussions of difficult societal issues such as crime, war, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Diverse authors—especially those in the Latinx community—such as Luis Alberto Urrea, Ana Castillo, Isabel Allende, and Sandra Cisneros, influenced my writing style and stoked my drive to be published. Other diverse authors who impacted my writing are Amy Tan and Celeste Ng, and my current reading interests focus on authors who, like myself, are—or showcase characters who are—Mixed-identity (e.g., Ruth Ozeki, Heidi Durrow, Zadie Smith, and Chandra Prasad). As the number of multiracial persons and families increase, I hope to see more Mixed stories that represent, affirm, and empower these identities.

7. What does your typical writing routine look like?

I write every single day—whether it’s for my fiction or freelance writing. On good days, I write a bit of something for both. I don’t have a daily writing routine and I’ve long rid myself of any guilt associated with that. When I’m working on a new novel, I wake up at about 7 a.m. and write at my desk for fifteen to twenty-five minutes. I write fast, so I can get a lot of words out in that limited amount of time. Working this way, I can complete a novel draft in about three months. The rest of the year I focus on revision. If life gets in the way, I take breaks that can last from a few weeks to a few months. When this happens, I’m still reflecting on my stories— writing in my head—so when I sit back down to write, the book appears almost effortlessly.

8. You write across multiple mediums. From a craft perspective, how do you approach each form? Are some mediums more challenging than others? How do you juggle?

Writing a book is no more of a craft challenge than writing an article—they both involve skills that come with practice. In approaching different mediums, novel writing requires more personal reflection. I’m looking at myself, my experiences, and the world, and—through my storytelling—trying to work through my life problems (for the most part, my stories are not autobiographical). My goal with articles is to help open readers’ minds and hearts. In this medium, you’ll find my social activism. (Activism is also in my novels but is subtler.) Simultaneously juggling multiple undertakings in different mediums can be managed with attention and organization. I use a planner (not Google Calendar or my phone calendar) to keep track of my projects, appointments, and due dates. A benefit to juggling is that I can shift to a different project when one becomes overwhelming or I become blocked. I also take care to balance my work and personal life, so when I later look back, I’ll know I lived fully at this time and in this world.

9. What are your interests outside of the literary world?

My non-literary interests span from sewing clothes and making art (I was a working artist for about six years) to engaging in home décor and design. I’m obsessed with visiting estate sales, thrift shops, and antique stores. I’m an athletic person who loves to work out, go for walks or hikes, and/or participate in sports. On the more adventurous side, I’ve traveled around the world, immersing myself in the cultural experiences of the regions. Closer to home, I participate in art shows, plays, and small concerts.

10. What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and what advice do you have for emerging writers?

My mentors taught me that a literary career doesn’t have to be traditional. This could mean publishing with small houses, foregoing a literary agent until after a few books have been published, submitting your work to a literary contest, or self-publishing. In that vein, my advice for the emerging writer is this: If publishing is your goal, you don’t have to be the best writer—you just need to work the hardest. Don’t listen to those who tell you that your book will never be published or find success. Don’t crumble under the pressures this career throws at you. I’m forging a nontraditional path to success and doing everything in my power to make it work, not just for my own achievements, but so I can be a model for those who follow behind me.

Excerpt from Secrets of the Casa Rosada: “I grabbed a few candles and put them on the small dresser. I stood in front of the candles and closed my eyes and dug within my memory for a picture of my mother….I prayed for [her]. Not anything as specific as health or safety. I just prayed in my mind, and before I ended I asked God to let me discover what had happened to her and where to find her. When I opened my eyes I saw the candles were lit. I stepped back in surprise…Had I done that? I hadn’t lit them, but somehow a flame flickered back and forth on each wick. These candles had a life of their own.”

Gail Vannelli retired from a career as an attorney in 2016 and actively pursued fiction writing, mostly in the middle grade and young adult genres. She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She has won several Writer’s Digest awards for her fiction, and her more recent work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, where she is an interviewer, blogger, and assistant editor, and in Cynsations, where she is an industry news reporter and writer.