At the end of November, NCSCL’s Graduate Assistants Andrea Kade and Chris Deming spoke with author Isabel Quintero shortly before her talk about her book, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, her inspirations for her writing, and her future pursuits as an author.
Chris Deming: Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, your debut novel, covers a wide variety of problems and challenges a Young Adult faces growing up. What was your reaction to the success of the novel, and have you interacted with people who have expressed how much it affected them or how they reacted to it?
Isabel Quintero: It was a surprise it was a success: a happy surprise. I didn’t go in thinking “this is going to sell this many copies” or “it’s going to be taught” or “THIS is a winner.” I just said “I’m going to write this book, and I’m happy that it’s being published, and my friends and my family are going to buy this, and I’ll have an awesome release party, and it’s going to be great. I’m going to keep doing my job, and finish up grad school.” When it was up for the William C. Morris Award [award for first-time YA author], I was completely shocked and happily surprised. When the other awards came in, it was the same thing: “Is this really happening?” Other people were reading my book, and the emails I received actually convinced me to get onto Twitter. One reader wrote to me saying “I really loved your book, but I had to look for you the old-fashioned way.”
Another reader, who is also a YA writer, Amy Spalding, expressed how “this fat girl is me, you know, I’m not a Chicana, I’m a fat 30-something year old woman, and I completely connect.” I started getting more and more emails about how my readers saw themselves in the characters in this book and thought “holy crap, this means a lot!”
But it also means we have a lot to do representation-wise, and so I want us to see ourselves in books all over. Overall, it’s been fairly positive experience, but I’ve had a few folks give not so good reviews. I remember being at an American Library Association conference , and a librarian told me, “you know, we have a book club at our school, and we thought about your book, but the cover is just so scary--so ugly and frightening--that we were put off by it. We didn’t pick it up for a while. We finally picked it up and it was a good book.”
CD: That seems to go against the old adage of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’
IQ: Especially coming from a librarian. She said it was the eye that bothered her. I love Zeke Peña and his artwork. He’s fantastic, and I’m glad I got to meet him through that project. We’ve worked on other projects since then.
AK: What other projects have you worked on with him?
IQ: We have a graphic novel that just came out, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, which is a biography, and then we have another book that we are working on together.
CD: Can you tell us about your nonfiction graphic novel? What inspired you to write about Graciela Iturbide?
IQ: The Getty commissioned it. Ruth Lane, my editor, asked if there was anyone I’d want to work with. Zeke and I had already been talking about a graphic and when this came up, I asked “what are you doing for the next year?” Only later did I find out these types of projects usually take two to three years to complete.
AK: They really put the pressure on you.
IQ: The book came out at the same time as PST/LA/LA, a Getty initiative, and they are looking at the connection between Latin American art and Southern California. Graciela Iturbide is a photographer from Mexico with her work exhibited at the Hammer, Scripps College, UCR Museum of Photography, and Bergamot Station at Rose Gallery. They wanted our book to coincide with her exhibits’ dates.
AK: How did you approach writing the dialogue for this graphic novel? Did you talk to her?
IQ: Yes, we emailed back and forth. I also had the opportunity to Skype with her, but I was too scared because she is so renowned. Her work is everywhere, including the Getty. And so I’m watching her interviews and lectures on YouTube and she’s always introduced as this “legendary photographer” or “the most important Latin American photographer in contemporary times,” and I began to get so nervous about whether I'd taken on more than I could handle.
CD: No pressure there.
IQ: Yes it’s an honor, but also a huge responsibility. Eventually, I got to meet her when she gave a talk at University of Southern California, I elbowed my way through people and was like “Hello!” [laughs]. It was really cool.
AK: What did she say about the book?
IQ: She really likes it! During the drafting process, there were only a couple things where she said, “I don’t know about this.” Since she is alive, it was very nerve-wracking process. I wanted to make sure I got everything right. At first, the book was in third person, not in first. But, Zeke and Ruth kept asking “are you sure you don’t want to do it in first person?” I didn’t feel comfortable putting words in her mouth, and then I figured out a way I was comfortable.
AK: You have a new books series, Ugly Cat & Pablo, that is written for elementary school readers. Why did you decide to write for such a young audience?
IQ: I was actually writing [Ugly Cat and Pablo] at the same time I was writing Gabi. As a former elementary school library tech, I remember the kids gravitating toward funny books. They love funny stuff!
AK: My daughter is in first grade, and she loves cats. Having illustrations--especially for her age-- really entices them.
IQ: I really like the job [Tom Knight] did with the illustrations. Cats are a little ornery and they can be assholes, but they’re good characters. I wanted to write a friendship story, and I wanted it to be funny, and I wanted them to be Chicano, and I wanted them to speak Spanglish. Kids need to see themselves in books. As an elementary library tech, I would try to get books that reflected the population we served, mostly Black and Brown kids. But we didn’t have books about Black or Brown kids on our shelves. So I started writing Ugly Cat & Pablo. When I finished the book, I gave it to a second-grade teacher and asked “can you read this? Do you think your kids would like this?” She ended up reading it to her class, and at first I was like “why did you do that? I didn’t ask you to do that.” She said “I didn’t tell them it was you, I just asked them afterwards if they liked it.” When they finished the book, the kids came into the library asking “do you have any more of the Ugly Cat and Pablo books?” It felt really good to hear that from the kids because that was my target audience.
And I know they’re eager, but they’re also very honest about what they like and don’t like. One of things I found with kids who are “reluctant readers,” is that they haven’t found the right book yet. The books they enjoy are the ones that would make them laugh. If I can have a kid associate happiness and joy with reading, then I’ve done my job and it makes me feel good.
AK: How was the process of working with an illustrator? Do you just submit your manuscript, or did you sketch things out by yourself? How is the process of that collaboration? Did you get to pick the illustrator?
IQ: No, I didn’t. Gabi was sold without an agent because other agents and small presses had rejected it. So I sent it to Cinco Puntos (publisher for Gabi) where you actually have to call Lee Byrd, editor and owner, who will say “oh yeah, that sounds interesting. Go ahead and send us ten pages” or “Hey, good luck somewhere else.” The good thing is you don’t have to wait months to find out, but the bad part is you hear immediately “we don’t want your work.”
CD: And in person.
IQ: [laughs] Yeah. So that’s what happened with Gabi. With Scholastic, I actually got a letter from Nancy Mercado, my editor, and she said “Hi, my name is Nancy. I’m sure you have heard from other people, but I was wondering if you had anything you’d like Scholastic to look at.” I was like “Yes! I have this [Ugly Cat & Pablo]!” The second book, Ugly Cat & Pablo and the Missing Brother is coming out in 2018. This process is the reason I got an agent, because Scholastic has a much larger and longer contract. As for working with illustrators, you usually submit your work, and then they ask if you have anyone you’d like to work with. I gave them a list, but none of them were available or an option, so they had Tom Knight work on the project. I really like how he rendered the characters, and appreciate his illustrations. It’s been really good!
CD: We have an MFA program here at SDSU. We were wondering if you had any advice for aspiring Children’s and Young Adult authors trying to get their books published, or trying to start writing, or general advice?
IQ: Just write. It’s easy to get discouraged. I think one of the things about being a writer is--we don’t say it often, and maybe I shouldn’t say it--but we think our work is good enough to be published. That’s why we write! We write to understand ourselves, we write to understand the world, we write for various reasons, right? But when we submit stuff out into the world, it’s because we think it’s good enough to be published. But, when that’s rejected, we feel pretty shitty about it.
Michelle Serros said [of Gabi]: “This is your baby. No one is going to love your baby like you’re going to love your baby, so you need to do what’s best; no one will know what’s best besides you.” No one is going to know what is best for my work besides me. People can give advice and suggestions about editing or revisions which are helpful. But I would say take your work seriously because, if you don’t, it’ll be hard for others to take it seriously. And you have to realize that it is work. There is no recipe or “here are these five rules to get published.” It just doesn’t work that way. I know people who have been working a long time and putting poetry manuscripts together, but then you have folks who are super young--amazing writers like Ocean Vuong or Kaveh Akbar--who are under 30 and have amazing success. Stay dedicated and find a dedicated community that is supportive. I think that really helped me with Gabi. I was part of a writing critique group (it was a poetry group) but we were honest and supportive of each other. Finding a group who will be honest with you, not hurtful, but also not like “good job, good job,” because we don’t need that.
CD: Not cheerleading but constructive criticism.
IQ: Yeah, because our parents or grandparents can tell us “good job,” but we need people telling us what to work on. We need people in our lives who are going to tell us “this character needs more depth” or “this doesn’t make sense.” Just keep working, don’t be discouraged, cry when you need to, take a break when you need to, and writing doesn’t always happen on the page. I’ll go for hikes or go for a walk and just think about my writing. I’ll stare at my ceiling and talk to myself. Anything that gets me to think creatively.
With Gabi, there came a point where I was stuck, and my editor had said Gabi lost her voice in a certain section of the book. I was just stuck; I felt Gabi had stopped talking to me, and I didn’t know what to do. I was talking to a friend of mine (who was this old hippie) and she said “you know what you should do? You should go for a walk and talk to her.” I was like “Out loud?” [laughs], and she said “yeah, talk to her like a person.” I got desperate though and started to do that. I would walk, and I would talk to Gabi, and then she wouldn’t shut up!
It’s some of the best writing advice that I’ve gotten. I did that also for Ugly Cat & Pablo. There was a part there that I just didn’t know what was happening, so I’d go hike in these hills and take my phone with me to record the notes.
CD: It sounds like a freeing and fun way of doing it too where it’s just a release of ideas.
IQ: Yeah, because you are constantly in your head when you’re writing, and you need a break, you need to say things out loud.
CD: How does your Latinx identity inform a lot of your writing?
IQ: Well, I can’t stop being Chicana: that’s what I am. Do we ask white writers how whiteness informs their writing? I’m Chicana, a Mexican-American, and also American. But my American experience is different than your American experience, and different than another Chicano’s experience from some other part of the country.
We are a part of this society: we have to tell our stories, but we are fed that we are not and sometimes we believe it. In that way, my multiple identities inform my writing. If you have read Joe Jiménez’s Bloodline, he re-writes Hamlet from the second-person. He’s an incredible poet, and it’s beautiful and heartbreaking, but he’s a queer Chicano writing this beautiful story, and it’s very different, so his identities are going to inform that differently. Gabi is a lot like me. She’s also a lot not like me. She’s foul-mouthed, I’m foul-mouthed; she’s a light-skinned fat Chicana, and I’m the same thing. But, she’s also braver and able to do and say things that I was too scared to do or say at that age. It all informs and shapes the way I see the world, and what I want to write. Especially with language, I have multiple languages to grab from and to incorporate, so I don’t have to stick with Standard American English. I can use Spanglish and slang and code-switch.
AK: Do you consider yourself a Latinx feminist? Are there any overlaps or tensions of being Latinx and a feminist?
IQ: Sure. I’m a feminist… Yeah, I’m a Latinx feminist. The only reason I respond that way is because I think when we put ourselves in or are put into categories, we are expected to behave or say certain things that are homogenizing. Like, all Latinx feminists think this way, and not all feminists think the same way. So, I’m feminist and also Latinx. It is really important for me. The dedication in Gabi is specifically to all young women.
Of course, I come from a Mexican background. We have a lot of machismo in our culture and we live in a patriarchal society. Just look at our news and our President. It doesn’t matter who you are, patriarchy runs everything.
There is tension any time a woman or anyone who identifies as a woman, queer, or non-binary, will have some push-back for writing about their stereotype or expectations set for them. I remember reading a review that said, “Well, Gabi isn’t really true to a high school experience because teenagers don’t talk like that.” How I read it was “Brown teenagers don’t talk like that” or “Latino teenagers don’t talk like that.” I don’t think I’ve heard the same critique from other writers like John Green, whose characters have a pretty extensive vocabulary for high school students. Someone like Gabi isn’t expected to be able to use these words. There’s that push-back, or tension, right there.
Talking about sexuality was one thing I was a little bit worried about [in Gabi], and I realized I would have to talk to my mom at some point about what was in this book. I’m in my 30s and I’m still scared my mom will scold me! She didn’t though and said “if you think this is helpful for other young women, then I’m okay.” It was completely unexpected. But it gets folks talking, and I appreciate that it gets young women talking about their bodies, about autonomy, about pushing back against these traditions because not all traditions are good. I love my culture, but we have a lot of flaws, like machismo. As a teenager, I was not allowed to cut my hair because my father would not let me and my hair was down to my butt. When I finally did cut it, he didn’t speak to me for a few days. He was very, very angry with me.
Tension with my mom was there too, though. She wanted me to go to school, but she also wanted me to get married. It was one of the most important things, and that was my goal as woman growing up because you have to be married. So, I did get married, and I’m no longer married. That was kind of tough because I had to reconcile…I think many women do--not only Latinas-- but this one thing I was supposed to do, I failed at. Like, I was supposed to be a wife, and I failed at that. There is that and getting those kinds of thoughts out of your head. Even though I’m writing these things that are feminist, that try to question expectations put on women, I still struggle with them because this is what I grew up with; this is what has been expected of me. It’s rough, and I see that with my friends, whether they are writers or not. We all deal with the same thing. You have a lot of divorces, a lot of kids, and a lot of “why don’t you have kids?”, so that’s another thing too: questioning “what kind of woman are you?” or “when are you going to get serious?” I think I’m pretty good where I’m at. I have four books, I have a fifth one coming along. I’m doing okay.