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Interview with Teresa Dovalpage, Author of Habanera

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Please welcome my special guest, award-winning Cuban playwright and novelist Teresa Dovalpage. She’s here today to talk about her novel, Habanera.

Teresa has a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature and is the author of five novels, three in Spanish and two in English, and a collection of short stories in Spanish. Her plays has been staged in Chicago by Aguijon Theater and in small theaters in Miami. Her articles, reviews and short stories have appeared in Rosebud, Latino Today, Afro-Hispanic Review, Baquiana, La Peregrina, Letras Femeninas, El Nuevo Herald and other publications. She currently works as a freelancer for The Taos News and the bilingual paper Mas New Mexico. Visit her website at www.dovalpage.com.

Teresa presently lives in Taos, New Mexico, where she teaches Spanish and Spanish Literature at UNM-Taos. Her blog in Spanish, that complements her narrative workshop, is dovalpage.wordpress.com and her blog in English, where some of her articles are posted, is teredovalpage.wordpress.com.

Q: Thanks for this interview, Teresa! When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

A: Thank you, chica! Now that I think of it, I probably decided to become a writer when I was a teenager. I grew up in Havana during the ’80s and entertainment options were quite limited then — camping out in rustic settings or going to Saturday night parties. I was never the cheez boom bah type (in fact, I was a nerd) and was afraid of snakes so I stayed home in the company of books. After reading thousands of pages, there came a time when I thought, “Hey, I bet I can write one too.” And I began to write… some really awful stories, according to my mother.

Q: Did anyone in your family write or have creative interests?

A: My grandfather used to have long conversations with himself and he often wrote them down. He transcribed them carefully, in dialogues between two characters “Yo” and “Mí mismo” (I and Myself). I don’t know if this counts as creativity, though… I tried to depict a few of his eccentricities in Ponciano, the main character’s grandfather in my novel Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family.

Q: Did you have any struggles or difficulties when you started writing?

A: While I lived in Cuba I didn’t think there would be any opportunity for me to publish my books so I just keep writing for the love of it, por amor al arte. But I knew I would eventually leave the island, which happened in 1996. Once I came to “La Yuma,” as we call the United States, it was quite a smooth road. I didn’t even have an agent when I began, just sent the manuscript of A Girl like Che Guevara to as many publishing houses as I could think of. “Someone is going to pick it up, someday,” I figured.

Q: Did you have any mentors?

A: Pues claro! There are two writers that I greatly admire and consider my mentors, mis maestras. One is Lorraine Lopez, author of The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters and a finalist of the 2010 PEN /Faulkner Award. I always learn a lot about plot development and structure from reading her books. And my fellow Cuban Ana Cabrera Vivanco, currently living in Spain and author of Las Horas del Alma, a brilliant novel that I expect to see translated into English soon.

Q: Let’s talk now about your novel, Habanera, which has garnered some rave reviews. What is it about and what was your inspiration for it?

A: It started as a memoir, but at a given moment I realized I had reinvented history too much. After some prodding from my mother, who called me a liar among other things, I decided to turn it into fiction. It is loosely based on my own family, though I added many events that never happened in reality. (There was no ghost at home, at least that I knew of.) But the characters are inspired in my parents and grandparents who were — and are — a weird and motley crew.

Q: Habanera combines quirky humor with compelling drama. How do you decide when to incorporate humor in this type of novel? Is it a conscious decision or does it come natural?

A: Well, some things that people find funny were never intended to be humorous at all, hehehe…

Q: One of the reviewers wrote: “Dovalpage is a master of quirky, loveable characters, and emotionally resonant narrative.” How do you create your characters and make them genuine? How do you make your prose shine with emotion?

A: In this case, I copied most of the characters from reality so creating “genuine” characters was relatively easy. After all, I knew the models well… As for the emotion part, I try to give as many details as I can, to get inside the characters’ heads and let hem do the talking.

Q: What was your writing process like while working on Habanera? Was it difficult to go back in time and relive that experience?

A: Since I started it as a memoir the writing process was like keeping a journal backwards. I wrote down a series of episodes as they came to my memory (the unfortunate event with the Christmas pig at home, the visits to the cemetery…) But when I decided to turn it into a novel I changed the timeframe, from the ’80s to the ’90s, so I had to go back and rewrite some scenes… In general it was fun to relive my childhood experiences. I could see for the first time how quirky it really was.

Q: Tell us what the revision process is like for you. Do you edit as you write or do you edit later?

A: Both. I edit as I write and when I finish the manuscript, I have someone read the final draft too, particularly when it is in English. Ay, these pesky prepositions! My husband Gary has been very helpful in that respect.

Q: How was your road to publication?

A: It hasn’t been too difficult. After my first novel in English, A Girl Like Che Guevara, was published by Soho Press, I had three more novels (in Spanish) published—Posesas de La Habana Posesas de La Habana, (Crazy Ladies of Havana, PurePlay Press, 2004), Muerte de un murciano en la Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana) that was a runner-up for the Herralde Award in 2006 and El Difunto Fidel (The Late Fidel) that won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009. It was a little more complicated to find a home for a collection of short stories in Spanish, Por culpa de Candela and Other Stories, but I finally did. And then came Habanera

Q: What do you love most about the writer’s life?

A: The fact that I can write at home when I feel like it, surrounded by my cats and dogs… And wearing my moo-moo, though I only do that when my husband isn’t around. And most importantly, to hear from the readers, to get the personal feedback that makes all the butt-hours spent in front of the computer worthy. There is a fan of Cuban Literature in Spain who has created a website called La Biblioteca Cubana de Barbarito (Barbarito’s Cuban Library). When I get a message from him or from another reader, I feel in seventh heaven…

Q: What Latina authors have inspired you?

A: Many of them! But I want to mention Elena Avila, who sadly passed away last March. She wrote Woman Who Glows in the Dark, a national bestseller about curanderismo, and several beautiful plays. I used Woman Who Glows in the Dark as a textbook in my Santeria and Curanderismo class at the University of New Mexico and it inspired me to write a book on that topic, 101 Questions to a Curandera, that I am presently co-authoring with an eight-generation curandera, Patricia Padilla. The only thing I regret is not having been able to meet Elena in person.

Q: Did you establish a connection with other Latina writers when you started writing? How important do you think is a supportive community for budding writers?

A: Bueno, we have a very supportive and active community in NuncaSolas! I also have a wonderful circle of Latina writers and we trade first drafts and give each other advice. It is an invaluable help.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

A: Don’t store rejection letters… I have heard that some writers do it but can’t imagine anything more depressing, plus it seems like bad Feng Shui. And above all, keep writing!

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.