March 8th is the official release date for Bettina Restrepo’s debut novel Illegal, so I’m incredibly excited to post my students’ interview with her! I hope that you’ll check out her book and get a copy for yourself 🙂 Thank you, Bettina, for doing this with my students!
Summary of Illegal (From Goodreads):
A promise that we would be together on my fifteenth birthday . . .
Instead, Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—waiting for her father’s return and a better day. When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas. After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place. Now, Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her precious quinceañera.
Bettina Restrepo’s gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl’s unique yet universal immigrant experience.
- Do you write any of your books based on personal experiences or are they completely made up?
A little of both. ILLEGAL is based around people I saw in a Hispanic Food market I used to work in www.fiestamart.com , but I’m in a lot of the story. I’m a bit of Nora, Manuela, even the nasty lady who makes fake documents. (No, I’m not a counterfeiter…. But I am Colombian!)
My next novel is TELENOVELA and I’m in a lot of it, and yet, as a writer, it’s my job to make stuff up and just make it SOUND real. The secret is that writers can’t help but pull from their own personality.
- What’s your favorite type of book to read?
I love a book that speaks to me at a personal level. Somehow, I think, ‘how does the author know this about ME?’. I also love a book that makes me laugh and cry on the same page. While I like urban fantasy (Melissa Marr, Maggie Stiefvater) I tend to stray away from high fantasy.
- What was the most challenging part about writing this book?
That it took me seven years and a lot of waiting. I didn’t know this book was teaching me to write and to be patient.
- If you weren’t an author, what would you be?
Sadly, I would still probably be an auditor. It was a boring job which I could do well, but kinda-of sucked my soul out of my body. When I’m not being an ‘author’ – I’m really just a Mom – doing four things at once, forgetting to cook dinner, yelling at my son to pick up his toys, and complaining about the amount of laundry created by the other two people in the house. But, if I had to start again and really truly bring in a paycheck (yes, most writers are broke, I’m lucky to have an engineer as a husband) – I would do something varied like half dog walker, half freelance copy writer, half waitress. (Yes, I know this is 3 halves – I’m busy like that). Even if I was scraping out a living, I would be aiming to get myself back there.
- What goes through your mind to start writing a book?
It’s a manic stage. Too many people (in my head) talking at once. Flashes of scenes, rushes of emotions. It’s like falling deeply in love during the first draft. Revision is like realizing that the person you fell in love with isn’t perfect and farts in their sleep, but you’ve invested too much energy to break up.
- When did you know you wanted to be an author?
I had a flash of it in 2nd grade when an author spoke at my elementary school. I was totally in awe that someone was responsible for the WORDS in the book. Then again, in 4th grade when I read Bridge to Teribitha. It was the first time I read words that explained how I felt, and I wanted to be able to do that for myself. Then, I spent the next 25 years convincing myself I wanted a real job in corporate America that paid a salary every month. It was when I finally grew some confidence that I began to write again. I have since burned my pantyhose. Never, never again will I wear those torture devices.
- How did your story come to you?
Nora’s story grew in inches. I would see something, and it would spur a scene. I would see a girl by the side of the road, and she would haunt me. I would read immigrant stories and not be able to get them out of my mind. Like a thousand seeds planted deep in the dirt of my mind, one day, without my permission, needed to grow and it was my job to sit down, shut up and type.
- What is your method of creation?
Work hard, try not to rush, then work some more. Also, taking time to relax and hear yourself is important. Also, walk the dog.
- How did it take you to write Illegal?
On and off, seven years. First draft came in 3 months, then I rewrote it and crafted the story as I learned.
- Will your future books share the same theme?
Yes and no, because I’m not just the “Latina” girl. While I write from a Hispanic sensibility, I find that it translate simply to people are people, only the setting and the flavors change. If you see my picture, I look white. Okay, just so you know, I dye my hair blond (like every Latina and Texan I know)…. And another secret – the Hispanic population comes in all colors. Brown, yellow, white and black. My next book is quite funny and campy… because I just needed the lighter side after dragging Nora through the dirt for so many years. So, I will write books that intrigue me, and if they have a Latino or immigrant feel, we’ll see.
- What advice do you have for young writers?
All of you are going to hate this advice – writing is not about publication. Writing/telling a story makes us human. Write and tell your stories and celebrate them for what they are. Very little will end up on the bookstore shelf – but this doesn’t mean the story isn’t important. Let the art and the love of story guide you.
- Did you do any research for Illegal?
I worked around many of the types of people in my book. I also looked at gang issues, statistics of border crossings, and visited shelters that housed immigrants. I couldn’t tell you how much because I am a voracious reader, and it seemed when I need a piece of information, it would materialize in front of my eyes.
- What do you feel readers should take back from your book?
That we are all immigrants. Not every issue is black and white. We should treat people, seen and unseen, humanely.
- Why did you choose writing as a career?
It chose me. It takes a special kind of crazy to be a writer.
- Is your main character, Nora, based on anyone you know?
Nora is fictional – her story, I’m sad to report, is very common.
- How do you accurately write about the feelings of an illegal immigrant? Do you know someone or have you asked someone what it’s like before writing the book?
Good question! My family earned their citizenship to the US, and I’m the first one in my family born on US soil. I don’t believe in illegal immigration, but currently, the process the government is difficult and nearly impossible to navigate unless you already have someone living here in the US or you have a lot of money. But, until the law changes, people shouldn’t immigrate here until they have a legal footing.Also, we, and I speak broadly about the US, because many of you may feel differently about this topic, allow the need for immigrants to do our unpleasant work. Those who come across do so out of desperation. They also do it because American’s will pay for their work. As you live your life in the next week, look around and guess – how many people do you interact with who might be illegal? Don’t just think Hispanic. Look at all races, nationalities, religious and sexual orientations. How did they get here? How did YOU get here? We all have a story. Nora came because he father stopped communicating, and their financial livelihood was at stake. Is it right that she broke the law – no.
I focused on her feelings that she just wanted to find her father and return home to begin her life.
If you would like to participate to win a signed copy of Illegal, please answer the following question via comments:
“Would you break the law to find your family across a foreign border?”
You must answer the above question.
You must be at least 13 years old.
This is an international contest being sponsored by Bettina 🙂
Not mandatory, but it would be cool to know your city and state of residence or country.
You will be entered to win 1 of 5 signed copies.
The winner will be announced on Bettina’s Facebook and on Twitter (@BettinaRestrepo) on April 1st!