Happy July, friends! To kick off the month I’m excited to introduce Natalia Sylvester, whom I feel like I’ve known forever! Below, Natalia shares with us a wide range of wonderful thoughts—from her journey to publication, how the novel has impacted her family connections, what it’s like to write a novel set in another country. Natalia’s advice for writers is priceless: don’t forget to keep learning while you’re striving. Be willing. That’s the key. What an important reminder.
Please welcome Natalia Sylvester to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Debut Author Natalia Sylvester Says Always Be Willing To Listen, Learn, And Grow As A Writer
Amy: Welcome to WFW, Natalia! I feel like we’ve known each other forever and it’s exciting to share you and your debut novel, CHASING THE SUN, with WFW readers. Can you tell us a little about the book?
Natalia: Thanks so much for having me, Amy! It’s such a thrill to be here after following your blog for so long.
Chasing the Sun is the story of man whose wife is kidnapped in Lima, Peru, just as their marriage is falling apart, and how far he’ll go to save her. This traumatic event exposes all the hairline cracks in their relationship that Andres and Marabela have tried to conceal over the years, and now every choice he makes has consequences for him, his wife, his children, even his friends. Though the book was originally inspired by questions I had about my own grandfather’s kidnapping in Lima when I was too young to remember, the story and the characters quickly took on a life of their own.
Amy: CHASING THE SUN is traditionally published by New Harvest, which is an imprint of Amazon. For WFW readers who might be unfamiliar with this, can you explain a little about your journey to publication and how Amazon is a publisher–and how that differs from self-publishing on Amazon?
Natalia: Amazon Publishing launched in 2009 as a completely separate venture from their self-publishing arm. Like any house, they’re a traditional publisher and they acquire, publish, and distribute books through their many imprints (I think there are 14 total) in print, e-book, and audio formats. When my agent initially started shopping Chasing the Sun to publishers, New Harvest was one of the first on the list because she felt the story would be a good fit for one of their editors, and she was right! Because they’re a traditional publisher, the differences between publishing with them and self-publishing is very similar to the experience of authors at any other house. What I’ve most enjoyed is the support of my editors, the art team, and the publicity/marketing team. They’ve helped me polish the book and grow as a writer, they designed a cover that I’m absolutely in love with, and they’re getting the book into the hands of readers in ways I never could’ve imagined (or done on my own).
Amy: How has the publishing process surprised you?
Natalia: I think because I was so curious about the process even before I was in it, there were a lot of steps along the way that I already knew to expect. Things like getting an edit letter, seeing first pass pages, interior design pages, THE cover, getting ARCs in the mail—these are all things I’d read about as much as I could. But what was most surprising is that there’s a difference between learning about something on paper (or, online, in my case) and then actually experiencing it. It’s the difference between dreaming about something (which I did for so, so long) and then realizing you’re living in it, vividly. I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for the bliss of these individual moments, when I had to keep reminding myself, this is actually happening. Take it in, be grateful for it, even when it’s a little scary.
Along those same lines, what’s also been surprising is that publishing a book is life-changing in some ways, but in others, it isn’t. Day-to-day my life is still very similar to what it was like before the book deal, and I think that’s a great thing, because if my happiness hinged on just this one accomplishment, how would I feel during the in-between moments, when it’s not all book launch fun and excitement?
Amy: Without giving us any spoilers, what was one of the hardest scenes in the book for you to write?
Natalia: There’s a moment in which Andres, having learned about an old friend who was also once kidnapped, goes to visit her in the rehab facility she’s been staying in to cope with her trauma. I knew it would be emotionally intense because of what she’d been through, and because of what she and Andres once meant to one another. I remember feeling like I had to submerge myself into the depths of the greatest sadness I could imagine, while at the same time, pulling from my closest friendships in order to arrive at some semblance of hope. I felt very vulnerable that day. There are days when you can make things up and let your imagination go places and then come back to your life unscathed. But much of writing this book, because it made me confront parts of my family’s past that I’d always been afraid to ask about, left me feeling tender (for lack of a better word) from the hurt I had to explore. The challenge and what made it all worth it, is that in the end I also found hope.
Amy: Do you have any one particular moment since CHASING THE SUN launched that stands out in your mind above the rest?
Natalia: It is so hard to pick just one! I think definitely, both my launches in Texas and in my hometown of Miami are nights that I’ll always, always remember as two of the happiest in my life. The Miami launch especially was surreal—I read in the same store I’d had a chance to read my senior thesis in when I was an undergrad at the University of Miami, and the project I shared was the very, very first draft of Chasing the Sun. They even had me in the same room, eight years later, and the scene I’d read back then is the only scene that survived all the rewrites and revisions the book went through.
The one moment, though. I’m almost crying just thinking about it. That evening in Miami, at the start of my talk, I spoke briefly about the inspiration for the story. How my grandfather had been kidnapped one day as he was driving to meet up with my father, and how my father had described his experience to me, years later, in vivid detail. He’d known I was writing this story, and each time we spoke about it I’d asked him: are you okay talking about it? Is it okay that I ask? And my father had always said yes, that he wanted to talk about it, and that enough time had passed that it didn’t affect him like it used to.
But in that moment at the book launch, my father was sitting maybe five rows straight ahead of me, and we locked eyes and I saw him remove his glasses and lower his head, and I knew that he was remembering it then, in a very different way than before, and that he was pushing back tears. And I had to push back tears, too, because despite everything, it hadn’t hit me until that moment just how strong he had had to be to endure what he did. It was so sad, but also strangely happy, because I felt so connected to my father, and like I understood him in a new way. There aren’t many moments in my life that I can say taught me as much about what it really means to be human, and full of such opposite emotions, and yet still experience them so completely at once.
Amy: I normally ask about women’s fiction, but in your case I’m going to ask about infusing culture into fiction. I’ve mentioned before that in the early stages of writing and editing The Glass Wives, I had a few people say only Jewish readers would enjoy the book. I knew they were off base, and didn’t look to those people for advice again. I know that CHASING THE SUN is set in Peru, and I’m wondering how you feel about mixing culture with fiction and what the reaction has been. (The reaction to the Jewish cultural tidbits in TGW has been wonderful, and mostly from people who aren’t Jewish!)
Natalia: Such a great question! It’s interesting because infusing culture is not something I thought about as I wrote; it’s something people talk about after the fact, when a book is being promoted, because the assumption is that we haven’t just infused culture, we’ve infused a different culture.
And the reason I say I didn’t really think about it is that I consider adding culture to fiction to be a given. It’s part of the development of the characters and the world-building. No one (that’s real, anyways) exists without the influence of some sort of culture, whether that’s defined by ethnicity, religion, or the simple fact that they work in a corporation so they’re part of corporate culture.
I think the hesitation that you and I have experienced—people wondering, will they relate to Jewish characters? Will readers be interested in a book set entirely in Peru, with characters that have absolutely no tie to the U.S.? (This was actually a concern of some publishers who turned the book down.)—is the unfortunate result of some people still thinking, consciously but mostly subconsciously, that there exists a standard culture or perspective, and all other choices that deviate from it are somehow exotic, and yes, sometimes exciting, but also risky from a marketing standpoint.
What I would love to see is simply all these stories and cultures and ethnicities treated as a part of the human narrative, rather than a “diverse” part of the narrative, or viewed as “other voices.” And I have faith that readers are the ones who’ll lead the way with that. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they’re excited to read Chasing the Sun because they’ve never read a book set in Peru, and because they love reading books that transport them outside of their own experience. Isn’t that why we read fiction? To lose ourselves in lives that are not our own, but somehow, still find pieces of ourselves within them?
Amy: What’s your best advice for an aspiring novelist?
Natalia: Don’t just keep going, but keep going and be willing to listen, learn, and grow. I’m always excited when I see a talented writer’s work, but what gets me pumping-my-fists-in-the-air excited is seeing them take in criticism, make the tough choices and changes we often have to make in fiction, and be willing to do it over and over again until it’s right. That’s what sets apart the aspiring novelists apart from the ones who make it: you’re not just in it for the dream, but for the writing process itself, which will always be challenging. You have to be okay with it never getting any easier, because for many of us, it doesn’t—we’re simply more willing to take it because we know the hard work is worth it.
Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four and grew up in South Florida, where she received a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Miami. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Her articles have appeared in Latina magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. Chasing the Sun is her first novel.