First Draft

Her name is Ivonne Lamazares. You've probably never heard of her. Cuban immigrant, good student, dedicated teacher, devoted wife and mother. Oh, and something else. She just might be the world's next big thing in literary fiction.

After Lamazares agreed to let Hochman represent her, the agent returned to New York "to see if we could sell a fresh writing voice. Fresh is the operative word. But you don't oversell it, because we're all looking for new voices. This is literary fiction -- thoughtful, character-driven. The Amy Tan book [The Joy Luck Club] made biculture stuff very, very big. Now we all seen a ton of it. But Ivonne's writing style is just very alive, and the biculture business is still something people care about.

"How unusual is it? Publishers prefer to see a finished manuscript. But this was good enough that it sold on the basis of a partial manuscript."

Sophie's baby sitter arrives each weekday morning at 8:00, and that's when Lamazares begins her writing in the small study of the couple's modest three-bedroom house. She warms up by listening to fifteen minutes of a book on tape, "to get my ear," as she says. The book can be almost anything: Garcia-Marquez, Edith Wharton, Tobias Wolff. And then she reads for another fifteen or twenty minutes, often turning to favorite works she thinks of as her touchstones: Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, or the stories of Flannery O'Connor. The sound of language -- her second language -- primes her mind for the workday ahead.

Lamazares's parents are not characters in the novel, but they are everywhere in the story. Mercedes Lamazares was not a guerrillera, did not become pregnant by a rebel cook, and was not the irrepressible adventurer that is the fictive Mama. Nor did Ivonne have a younger brother like Emanuel.

Inevitably, however, Lamazares's first novel is her story, told in the voice of her alter ego Tanya, a girl longing for stability in a world where everyone is forever leaving. "It's the story of abandonment, for sure," she says. "I always wanted to tell the story of a mother betraying a daughter, and then the daughter betraying the mother, at least emotionally. The mother in this story is a self-involved, impulsive, nonreflective person, while the daughter is just the opposite: serious, responsible, grounded."

While Ivonne did not know her mother, she does know something about her, chiefly from letters her mother wrote to her twin sister in the early 1960s. "She had always been painted to me as a saint, a wonderful person who was good at everything," Lamazares says of her mother. "She played the piano brilliantly, she was a perfect student. But in the letters I could see who she was, get an idea of her personality. It was surprising. She was a strong person, very down-to-earth, unsentimental. She didn't talk about her illness, other than to comment with a little sarcasm here and there about kicking the bucket. I also have letters my grandmother wrote to my godmother at the same time, so I know [my mother] was in terrible pain. She was a reader, and even studied French with a tutor while ill. And she talked about me, what games we played. She said I was very imaginative, but she didn't praise me a great deal, or go on and on. She was very aware of every little thing, of my needing shoes, my clothes getting small, how she wanted to have my hair cut. She would mention if I was acting a little bratty."

Lamazares admits that writing this novel is therapeutic, a way to capture the mother who was lost to her, and to recapture a piece of herself. "I think when my mother died I lost that part of me that was spontaneous, less fearful, reckless. I became very cautious and insecure. I lost my footing."

At the same time, telling this story also forces Lamazares to resurrect feelings she has long kept buried. "Writing certainly is an emotional trip for me," she confesses. "For years I think I told myself that my mother didn't love me, and that was the reason she left. In a way that was more bearable than trying to understand why God would have allowed her to die.

"There is a lot of me in the narrator. And I know that I am often afraid to have the characters express their feelings, and certainly the narrator Tanya -- while more courageous, more direct than I am -- is not the type to go on about her feelings. So there is always some reluctance to get in there and deal with this feelings stuff.

"I know I resist writing scenes between mother and daughter. Steve tells me, 'Don't resolve all the conflicts. No, stretch that out.' And I realize I have to go there. And I do. Still, it's so painful to go into that; it brings me that terrible anxiety."

Writing is a solitary calling, but plenty of outside advice penetrates the sanctuary of Lamazares's study. "Throw everybody out of your head," Banks tells her. Says Morris: "Write what you want to read." Elena Perez cautions her friend: "Don't be too hard on yourself."

On a Post-It note stuck to the wall next to her desk, Kronen has written a five-second pep talk: "This is your first novel. You are figuring it out as you go along. You will figure it out." She reads it often.

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