After twenty-nine years in Cuba Havana, Teresa de la Caridad Dovalpage lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she is a Ph.D. student and Spanish instructor at the University of New Mexico. She has been writing since she was fourteen often keeping her writing private. Since 2004 she has produced two books, one in English and one in Spanish: A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, April 2004) and Posesas de La Habana –Haunted Ladies of Havana (PurePlay Press, July 2004). With the support of her husband (and two cats) Teresa will soon be releasing Confessions of a Cuban Nerd. Enjoy!
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
Teresa Dovalpage: I grew up in a house full of books and both my parents were bookworms --library mice, as we say in Cuba. I inherited their passion for the written word. But at some point I consciously made a choice about becoming a writer. As a teenager I was shy and much of an introvert, so I looked for other ways of expressing myself besides personal communication. I had more fun putting words into paper than uttering them. I enjoyed creating fictional characters more than interacting with real people, so turning into a writer was a natural process for a self-professed nerd.
Moe: When did you 'know' you were a writer?
Teresa Dovalpage: The first time I completed a short story that took place in New York –where I had never been-- and gave it to my English composition teacher. She thought I had copied it from a book and made me write another one. I tried to see the bright side of the issue and considered the incident a validation of my style. That happened in Havana, Cuba, in 1984. Though English was taught at a few high schools like the one I attended, it was still regarded as the language of the enemy. I was accused of being ideologically deviated for reading (and allegedly duplicating) "imperialist material." Ay!
Moe: Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager? Etc.
Teresa Dovalpage: I began to write short stories in my teens but I didn’t feel like showing them to anybody, particularly after the incident in my English class. I don’t know if they were any good because I lacked objective criticism. Some might have been atrocious, I am afraid. But I did have fun writing them and they provided me with a much needed escape from an oppressive real-life world. Looking back, I find odd that when I was in Havana I wrote about cities I had never seen –New York, Paris, even Sydney-- while now that I live in the United States and have visited other countries, all I write is about Cuba.
Moe: What inspires you?
Teresa Dovalpage: Unconnected events I weave together to create a story. Old myths with a modern twist. Quirky people I meet. I am now writing a novel in Spanish based on the Orpheus myth in a Cuban setting. What first inspired me was the French Brazilian film Black Orpheus and then I related it to the story of a young musician I had met in Havana several years ago.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Teresa Dovalpage: It’s difficult for me to concentrate during the day, so I have developed a night owl attitude toward writing. I wake up around eight or nine AM and work out, then I grade papers and work on my dissertation. I teach a Spanish class in the evening. I often write at night between nine PM and one AM when there is no interference from husband and pets and the house is completely quiet.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Teresa Dovalpage: It usually takes me from six to eight months to get a novel in a presentable way. I revise as I write, usually the last ten pages I have written. I give the ms. a comprehensive revision as soon as it is finished, and another one around three weeks after completing it. If it is in English, my husband checks it too before it is allowed out of the house.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you'll have?
Teresa Dovalpage: I don’t think much about the genre, though, of course, I try to follow the basic rules for each one. For example, now that I am working on a memoir, I know I am not supposed to be "too creative" with it. But I do keep in mind, when I write in English, that most readers won’t be familiar with Cuban life and culture. So I devote more time to explain, for example, what Santeria --an Afro Cuban religion-- is all about, than I would in my Spanish language novels. On the other hand, when I write in Spanish about life in the United States, I give details that would be absolutely ridiculous in English. But the average Cuban thinks of an ATM or a web cam as science fiction devices!
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Teresa Dovalpage: I start with a general plan. In the process of writing I use it as a road map, but deviate from it occasionally. The skeleton is kept, while the meat that envelops it changes quite often. Sometimes a few secondary characters are added and others disappear, but I keep rather faithful to my original idea.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Teresa Dovalpage: When I write about Cuba, I don’t need to do much research –I lived there for twenty-nine years. However, I sometimes have to check a date or the location of a street, so I do it online or call my family in Havana. If I am writing about life in the States, I generally use a setting I know well –mostly San Diego and Albuquerque, two cities where I have lived for several years. I now write about people, places, and events I am well acquainted with.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Teresa Dovalpage: Some characters are a combination of people I know and of myself, while others come to me "ready", with individual characteristics and personal quirkiness. Protagonists, for the most part, have a life of their own, while secondary characters are closer to real-life people. I don’t worry about crossing the line between reality and fiction because the act of writing, by itself, creates a space between them, a safety net of inventions.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer's block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Teresa Dovalpage: I have never had a severe case of writer’s block, though sometimes I have been too busy with school and work to write. I try to write at least three pages every day, even if I end up deleting them all the following day. But the discipline keeps my writing machinery oiled.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Teresa Dovalpage: I hope they are entertained by it. I also expect them to learn something new about Cuba, though I am aware my task is not to preach about political or social issues… which is always a temptation, considering the present Cuban situation. As for experiences, I try to reflect the not-too-obvious differences. A waiting line, for most people here, is the four or five minutes they linger at the supermarket cash register, leafing though a Readers’ Digest. In Cuba, it's a two-hour wait under the sun to get three pounds of fish with a ration card.
Moe: Can you share three things you've learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Teresa Dovalpage: First, a writer is his/ her own best publicist. Even if the editor pays a professional to arrange interviews and book signings, the publicist will usually have several projects going on at the same time. But a writer is the book’s only parent and should promote it as much and as shamelessly possible! Sending emails to magazines, organizations, colleges, and even individuals who may have an interest in the topic –I have contacted every Cuban group I could find in the web, as well as numerous Latin American departments at colleges and universities— doesn’t cost a cent and takes a minimum amount of time. Arranging local book signings and radio interviews is another possibility. Second: continue writing. If you are natural writer, you will do it anyway, but there is also a practical reason to keep at it. In general, editors are more likely to promote an author who keeps sending them manuscripts than to support a "one-book author." Third: get in touch with a community of writers, locally or online. It is a source of encouragement, advice, and helpful business contacts.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Teresa Dovalpage: The first time I got a letter from a reader I was elated. I thought, wow, people are actually reading my books. I always reply and thank the readers who take the time to contact me. I have been asked more than once if I am a santera --a practitioner of Santeria. I’ve gotten a few requests for an "amarre" recipe –a Santeria work intended to keep a man in love forever. Unfortunately, I am not a santera, so I have been unable to help. The only time I got hate mail (including email viruses) was when I published an article about Che Guevara in Hispanic Magazine. It wasn’t very complimentary. Ay, ay ay, I didn’t know Che Guevara still had so many followers here!
Moe: What's your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Teresa Dovalpage: I am working on a memoir in English about my childhood and teenage years in Cuba --the 70’s and 80’s. I got the idea after reading two powerful memoirs by Cuban authors (Dr. Carlos Eire and Dr. Gustavo Perez Firmat) that deal with their experiences in the 50’s and 60’s. I thought of offering a female point of view of what life is like in a communist country from a present-day perspective. It is non-fiction, so my work is limited to putting some order in the memories and to arrange them in a coherent way. In Spanish I am writing a novel that combines the myth of Orpheus with the life of a musician, a salsa player, in Havana.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Teresa Dovalpage: Fiction, most of the times. In English, my favorite author is Sinclair Lewis and I love all the social awareness novels of the twenties and thirties. I also enjoy contemporary "chick lit," like The Dirty Girls Social Club, by Alisa Valdez Rodriguez, and What A Girl Wants, by Liz Maverick. In Spanish, nineteenth century Spanish novels by Leopoldo Alas and Benito Perez Galdos, and contemporary Cuban writers like Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Zoe Valdez.
Moe: When you're not writing what do you do for fun?
Teresa Dovalpage: I spend time in the New Mexico Mountains with my husband and our two cats. We have a cabin in a quiet spot called Tijeras and go there every weekend. No phones, no computers, no TV…Just silence and pines. I also like to go out with friends and to do girly-girl stuff, like attending a British afternoon tea ceremony or having a group pedicure session.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Teresa Dovalpage: Write every day if possible, at least one page. This is particularly important when you are writing your first manuscript and have no assurance of having it published. It’s easy to get discourage unless you establish a personal connection with the book you are working on.
Moe: If you weren't a writer what would you be?
Teresa Dovalpage: A Spanish instructor, which I am now, part-time. In the future I plan to combine writing with teaching at the college or university level. Sometimes I fancy I could have been a veterinary doctor. My mother was a physician who didn’t like to work with patients, but I believe I would have loved my four-pawed ones.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Teresa Dovalpage: Fluffy –usually in the combination "pink and fluffy." I have "pink and fluffy" clothes, accessories and furniture.
Purchase A Girl like Che Guevara from Amazon.com.
Purchase A Girl like Che Guevara from Amazon.ca.
M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario, Canada. If you are going to find this eclectic reader and writer anywhere it is probably at her computer. For more information visit her official website.