By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Five years ago Ivonne Lamazares decided to learn how to ride a bicycle. As a girl growing up in Cuba, she didn't have a bike, and the couple of times she'd had a chance to ride didn't go well. "I've felt inadequate about physical things all my life," she says. "I was told I wasn't very good, and that I was clumsy. So I was scared of it."
As an adult in Miami, Lamazares thought about bicycles again whenever friends would suggest that she and her husband Steve Kronen join them for a spin around the neighborhood. She would have to say no. She was embarrassed. So one day she and Steve went to Toys R Us and spent about $100 on a kid-size bicycle -- an Alpine girl's twenty-inch model, painted a preteen purple and pink.
On the sidewalk in front of their apartment, Ivonne gripped the Alpine's handlebars in a death lock while Steve grabbed the back of the seat and ran along, holding her upright. She toppled off the curb a few times but never really crashed, and after about three days and several miles of practice, she had it.
Steve recalls how determined she was. "She would just concentrate and do it," he says, gritting his teeth in imitation of his wife's resolve. "That's her modus operandi in life. Once she gets something in her head, she just goes for it all out."
Laughing at the impersonation, Ivonne says, "But it was such a terrible fear for me. Everyone else seemed able to ride a bike. It was a challenge. And Steve, you helped me. You knew how scared I was, and you didn't laugh. But I'm screaming the whole time."
"That's true. She does that with writing, too. She says, 'This is terrible, I have no talent.' But she will do it. And her writing is beautiful, subtle, rich. There is so much going on. But she bitches about it the whole time."
Says Ivonne: "I always feel a little scared."
Says Steve: "She is a better writer than she is a rider."
A delicate-looking woman of 35 with fair skin and light-blue eyes, Ivonne Lamazares could be the next big thing. Last year, after looking at just 40 pages of manuscript, Houghton Mifflin got into a bidding war with Simon & Schuster over the rights to publish her first novel and finally signed Lamazares to a contract that includes an advance of $30,000. She has written a little more than 100 pages of her book, a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in Cuba just before and just after the revolution. She has a working title, Storm Captains, a reference to a popular, late-1960s Cuban television show. And she has a deadline: March 1, 1998.
What Lamazares is riding now is even scarier than that little-used two-wheeler sitting in the garage of the couple's South Miami home. What she is riding now is a wave of expectation. She has taken a leave of absence from her job as associate professor of English at Miami-Dade Community College, where she has taught for twelve years. She and Kronen -- a poet who makes a living as a massage therapist -- are using the first installment of the advance to pay a baby sitter to watch their two-year-old daughter Sophie several hours each day so she can write.
"Sophie knows I'm in here," Ivonne says while sitting at a desk in the bedroom-turned-study where she writes first drafts in longhand on a lined tablet. "There are times when she'll knock on the door, and if I hear her crying, I think, 'Oh, God, what's going on? I should go out there.' But she understands. I went out the other day to see about something, and she took me by the hand and led me back in here, like, 'Get back to work.'"
Even in the best of times, the book business is a crap shoot. Each year some 60,000 new titles are published in the United States. Some get reviewed, a few are read by more than a handful of people, and fewer still sell enough copies to earn back the author's advance and turn a profit for the publisher. But this is not the best of times for books. The theme of a recent New York conference attended by booksellers and authors was spelled out under a banner over the speakers' table: "Book Publishing: Dead or Alive?" Owing to the growth of superstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, individual book titles have a harder time breaking out of the pack; returns from booksellers to publishers reached record levels last year. As a result, profits are shrinking, advances are down, authors' contracts have been canceled, and reputable houses with glorious publishing pasts are being offered up for sale in a marketplace that shows little interest.
Thus pulling down an impressive advance for a first novel that is not yet written is even more remarkable. Lamazares's work in progress does not have what Hollywood calls a "high concept" -- that is, an easily grasped story line readily transferable to the screen as a big-budget vehicle for a rogue shark or Mel Gibson. No, the novel Lamazares is agonizing over is literary fiction, a midlist book that inspires an excitement that is more aesthetic than financial. "Publishing is not a science," says Houghton Mifflin editorial director Janet Silver from her Boston office. "You pick your shots, and acquire books for which you have a passion. I'm very excited about Ivonne. She has a wonderfully strong and unique voice that is at once childlike and unsentimental."
As a writer of fiction, Lamazares has a very faint track record. She has published only two pieces, both short stories. The first ran in the obscure Blue Mesa Review, put out by the University of New Mexico, in 1993. The second ran in the summer 1996 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review and became the genesis of her novel. That story is included in an upcoming anthology of South Florida writers called Having a Wonderful Time.
Three years ago she was awarded a $5000 Florida Arts Council grant, and a few hard-core habitues of local highbrow haunts may have heard her read in her only two public outings, once in the Monday night Butterfly Lightning series at Tobacco Road, and once at a Miami-Dade Community College women's history celebration.
Still, there is already a buzz about Ivonne Lamazares. In August she was featured in a New York Times article about writers' conferences, which was accompanied by a photo of Lamazares chatting over drinks with Russell Banks, a best-selling author (Continental Drift) and professor at Princeton University who was so taken with her work that he offered to mentor her.
"What I saw was an intimacy, almost a physical intimacy with language," says Banks. "I think you can spot that in a writer before anything else. That's the part you can't teach. She has a voice."
Banks met Lamazares in 1994 during her first visit to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, a literary summer camp for wannabe novelists and poets held annually at Tennessee's University of the South. There in a leafy retreat on the Cumberland Plateau, hopefuls who have submitted samples of their work to win admission pay up to $1200 for ten days of classroom critiques, lectures, and socializing with a pride of literary lions.
Lamazares's submission that year was a short story with which she had struggled for months. Working on it gave her insomnia, she says, and it has since been abandoned. But when Banks read those few pages, he immediately recognized that Lamazares had a tale to tell, a tale way too big to be shoehorned into the short-story form. And he also saw she had a gift.
"Very rare," says Banks of Lamazares's talent. "I teach one semester a year at Princeton, and you almost never see it there -- maybe once every two or three years. And students, being younger, usually don't have stories to tell. Ivonne does; that was clear too."
As a talent scout, Banks has a pretty good resume. Another writer born on the island, Cristina Garcia, is a former student of his, and Banks left his marks in the margins of an early draft of her Dreaming in Cuban. In workshops he has also helped godfather breakout novels by Pinckney Benedict (Dogs of God), Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Mona Simpson (Anywhere but Here) and Susan Minot (Stealing Beauty).
"I'd put her right in that group," says Banks. "When I saw them, all had beginning, tentative, exploratory works. But they all had the same unteachable gifts she has."
Also impressed by what she saw at Sewanee was Mary Morris, a novelist (House Arrest) and professor of fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. "I saw a voice that seemed to me absolutely clear and sure of itself in a way that transcended almost any student manuscript I've ever read," says Morris. "There was a clarity of language, a compassion for her characters that was so unusual. What has happened to Ivonne -- getting an agent, getting a manuscript sold -- is rare. She is perhaps a new voice in Latina American literature."
All of this attention has turned up the pressure on a woman who has yet to complete her first book, which she is writing in a language, English, that she didn't even begin to speak until she was fourteen and new to America. "Now," said the New York Times article, "unlike most of her fellow students, Ms. Lamazares's dream has come true."
Well, sort of.
True, Lamazares agrees, much of what has happened recently does seem like a dream. "I still can't explain this," she says. Returning home from Sewanee after that heady summer before last, she recalls, "I was still so nervous that I couldn't even concentrate on teaching. I had to write a synopsis of what else was going to happen in the novel. And we -- Steve helped me -- we did. But I was so anxious about it. This is just something I never expected. It's like being in a car that's out of control, going somewhere you never expected to go. It's disconcerting."
Gail Hochman, Lamazares's agent, says her client has been swept up "in a fairy tale, really. Books are not selling, publishers are cutting back on writers and advances, so in the context of a terrible market, she's having a nice, smooth ride.
"Of course," Hochman adds, "the book is not finished."
In its latest draft, Lamazares's novel begins like this: "One day Mama said life was about to start and ran off to the mountains as a volunteer guerrillera. No one knew exactly where she had gone till she came back pregnant on a burro."
The themes of the book are abandonment and betrayal, according to the author, and although the story does not exactly parallel Lamazares's own family history, it is suffused with echoes that are both familiar and disturbing. Mercedes, Ivonne's mother, died in 1965 at the age of 25, when her only child was just three years old. After giving birth, Mercedes developed a painful bone cancer that kept her confined to bed in their decaying home in the Old Havana section of the Cuban capital, but Lamazares does not remember that. In fact, she has no memory of her mother at all.
Lamazares's father too is a phantom. He did not live with his wife after Ivonne was born, and left Cuba for the United States when she was six. They later met again, in Spain and in Miami, but the reunions did not take, and Lamazares has not seen her father for years.
Ivonne was raised by her mother's parents. Her grandfather -- now 100 years old and living in Miami Lakes -- had been retired from the grocery business by the revolution, so he had time to spend with Ivonne. When she entered school at age five, she could read and write. Born in 1962, Ivonne is the product of a revolutionary education. In bare-bones classrooms hung with portraits of Che Guevara, she was schooled in math, science, and the evils of American-style capitalism. The United States, she was taught, was both imperialist and rapacious, forever scheming to undermine Cuban sovereignty, and Miami was a cutthroat city filled with traitors. Lamazares says her education was rudimentary, riddled with political sloganeering. Yet she was a reader, and a Spanish translation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights sparked the imagination of a young girl who often felt isolated and displaced. "I thought if only I could write a book like that," she says, "then I would be happy."
Lamazares recalls beginning to hear talk about leaving Cuba around 1970, when she was eight or nine. Her father's parents, who lived nearby, wanted to join their son. Her maternal grandparents agreed that Ivonne should go too. Although she was not thrilled at the prospect of leaving home and her friends, "I never told them pointblank that I didn't want to come," she says. "That would have made me feel guilty, as if I was saying I didn't want to see my father. And that was a dream of mine -- to have parents, to have a real family."
Lamazares and her paternal grandparents left Havana for Spain in November 1975. Her father flew to Madrid to meet them, and was reunited with his daughter for the first time in more than seven years. "He was retiring, quiet," she remembers. "It was awkward." He visited for about a week.
Three months later, when their U.S. visas came through, Ivonne and her abuelos flew to Florida and settled into a cheap, one-bedroom apartment in Hialeah. She had been a ninth-grader in Cuba, but without any English, she was placed in the seventh grade at Hialeah Junior High and sent to classes in ESOL -- English for Speakers of Other Languages.
"Socially, I felt like a fish out of water," she says. "Even the Spanish the teachers and kids here spoke sounded different. I remember this one teacher explaining the rules or something to me, and he was speaking in Spanish, but after every sentence he kept saying, 'Okay?' And he wanted me to say that, to indicate I understood, but I just couldn't. I just kept saying, 'Esta bien.'
"I remember the first day in the cafeteria, they were serving sloppy joes, which I had never seen before, with the bread and the meat separate, and you put it on your tray and then put it together. And there was this big brown cookie. And I thought this must be the hamburger that I had heard about. So I put that in the bread, with the meat on top.
"I was so self-conscious. I got stomachaches every Sunday night thinking about school the next day. It was culture shock."
After several months in her new home, Lamazares realized how poorly she and her grandparents were living. "I started to see how ugly the apartment was, with used furniture," she says, recoiling at the memory. "Nothing matched. We were on welfare, and got hand-me-down clothes. It took awhile, but I got depressed and felt hopeless."
Instead of staying depressed, however, Ivonne says she got a summer job, took typing lessons, saved her money, and bought a new bedroom set for the room she shared with her elderly and ailing grandparents. She also rediscovered the key to self-esteem: academic achievement. "I was never popular, or socially adept," she says, "but I could do well in school, and that was a source of stability."
As a straight-A student, Lamazares spent just one semester in the eighth grade before being promoted to ninth. Central to her academic success was language, of course, and Lamazares says that by the time she entered Hialeah High she was obsessed with mastering English. "I practiced my accent by doing a lot of singing along with the radio," she says. "Sometimes I didn't understand the song, but I got my mouth going to the English sounds and intonations. I began to talk English to my refugee friends. Some didn't like it. These kids felt comfortable in their culture and their families, so they felt comfortable in Spanish. But I felt like I didn't have anything to hold on to. My grandparents were dying. My position felt unstable, precarious. So I thought I had to do well in school, be a part of the country, fit in, because if not, what was I going to do?"
Elena Perez, a junior high classmate who later would become Ivonne's best friend as well as her Miami-Dade faculty colleague and officemate, remembers the newcomer as "very quiet, observant, and nervous, always running her fingers through her hair. She was less concerned with her appearance than others at that age. We were in different groups. We hated each other."
By her junior year in high school, Lamazares had become an honor student in English, and the old enemies became friends after Lamazares led Perez into an impassioned discussion of Wuthering Heights one day in journalism class. But Lamazares's perch in America still felt shaky. Her grandfather had died, her grandmother would soon follow, and whatever stability she had, she says, came from her attachment to her boyfriend, a Chilean immigrant.
About the time her grandmother died, in the summer before Ivonne's senior year, Lamazares got a break. Her late mother's twin sister Catalina, who is Ivonne's godmother, moved to Miami from New York and took her in. Her godparents had three children about Ivonne's age, and living with her cousins, Lamazares says, gave her for the first time "something that looked like a family, a huge extended Cuban family, the kind I never had even in Cuba. They gave me stability, love, and attention. It was another shock."
After graduating from Hialeah High in 1981, Lamazares went on to Miami-Dade Community College, taking advance-placement courses to earn her associate in arts degree in just one year. From there she entered Barry University as a junior, graduating in 1984 with a degree in English. In Cuba Lamazares had kept journals, in which she talked out her adolescent fears and confusion in a prose style modeled in part on religious confessionals written by Catholic priests in what they imagined as the voices of young people. In those journals, Lamazares says, she recorded her views on what she saw as the hypocrisy of fellow parishioners, her reasons for refusing to take communion, and her love-struck musings on a handsome classmate.
When she left Cuba, she entrusted the journals to a friend, who swore she would hold them in confidence. Later she would learn that her writings had been widely circulated among the friends she left behind. Though that betrayal may have led her to give up diary-keeping for a time, it did not extinguish her yearning to write. At Barry she won a couple of competitions sponsored by the university's creative-writing club, of which she served a term as president. Still, Lamazares's instinct for survival told her to make a career of teaching. So while working at Miami-Dade as a writing tutor, she enrolled at the University of Miami in a program that led to a doctorate in higher education.
Steve Kronen grew up in Miami, graduated from Killian High School in 1971, and ducked in and out of junior college before finally taking a master's degree in fine arts from Warren Wilson College, a nonresidency school for writers based in North Carolina. He met Ivonne in 1989 at a poetry reading at Books & Books, Mitchell Kaplan's venerable Coral Gables bookstore.
Kronen is a serious poet whose verse has both intelligence and heft. He has published in the Paris Review, the New Republic, the Kenyon Review, and the New Criterion, among others, and has twice won Florida Arts Council grants. He was reading the night Ivonne was there to listen. After the program, they were introduced by a mutual friend and joined a group that first went for ice cream and later to Coconut Grove to dance. Lamazares says she doesn't recall the poem he read that night, but she does remember him, and when he called the next day they began a steady courtship. Within a few weeks they realized that they had met years earlier when both were students at different Miami-Dade campuses. Each had entered a writing contest sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. He won first prize and an award of $200; Ivonne took fourth. She got $75.
At the awards ceremony, Kronen read his poem. "It was good," she remembers, "but I didn't understand any of it. I just thought he's a way better poet than me. Then one of the ladies there asked me, 'Have you met the winner?'
"I said no.
"'Well,' she said, 'He's the real thing.'
"So later I read his poem, and I still didn't understand any of it."
Steve and Ivonne were married in 1991. They honeymooned in New England, spending three days at a Connecticut ashram and stopping at Walden Pond. When they got back to Miami, Ivonne defended her dissertation, "The Effects of Computer-Assisted Instruction on the Writing Performance and Writing Anxiety of Community College Developmental Students," and Steve learned that his first volume of poetry, Empirical Evidence, had been accepted for publication by the University of Georgia Press.
In a wedding poem Steve wrote for Ivonne, "The World's Deserts," the speaker marvels at the vastness of the universe and the fatefulness of discovery, and ends his musing by looking at the sky: "And there,/other stars, more it's said,/than all the sands on all the beaches,/kaleidoscoped before him as they do now/forming pictures before us this cool night/-- a horse with wings, and there/-- a barking dog, and there --/a skinny man holding fast to a beautiful woman/having come many hard miles to find each other."
In Steve and Ivonne's partnership, he was always the writer in the family and she was always the aspiring writer. That distinction began to dissolve when Ivonne realized she had been toiling in the wrong literary vineyard. "I had started to read Steve's poems by the time we were married," she explains, "and realized what the lady said was true: He's the real thing. But I just didn't have it."
In 1992 she signed up for "The Writer's Voice," a workshop taught by South Florida author John Dufresne (Love Warps the Mind a Little) at the Jose Marti branch of the YMCA. "And there," Lamazares says, "I began to learn the basics, like what is a scene. John would tell me, 'Take us there and write the scene. Don't report it, but have it happen, in a certain time frame, moment to moment.'
"I didn't understand this at all. One of the things wrong with my fiction was that I wasn't in scene. I was telling, not showing. There was no sensory information, just talking heads."
Pursuing fiction writing with characteristic resoluteness, Lamazares next enrolled in a course in narrative technique with Florida International University professor and writer James W. Hall (Bones of Coral), in which she began work on a short story.
"For the first time in my life I started writing something with no outline, and it was terrifying," she remembers. "I am someone who plots out life; I hate being in the dark. But I realized in Jim Hall's class that my writing was so much better without an outline, and I knew I would have to work this way if I wanted to write something worthwhile.
"I had insomnia. I wanted to have something in mind, to force the story to go in a certain direction. I started with the image of a building in Havana crumbling during the night, where you would wake up and find part of it missing. So I had an idea, of the people in the building, and I was writing about that, but I also had this voice that would come out, and I was trying to follow that voice. I was going from one word to the next, and it was terrifying."
In 1994 Kronen was invited to the Sewanee Writers' Conference as a scholar, meaning that in exchange for partial tuition he gave a reading and helped less accomplished writers. And that year he suggested that Ivonne go with him.
That also terrified her. "He had to talk me into this," she recalls. "I thought I was a very bad writer and that everybody was going to laugh at me. Nobody would like my Cuban stuff. I was very insecure."
Nonetheless Lamazares submitted the short story she had begun in Hall's class, and she was accepted. Paired at Sewanee with Banks, Lamazares says it didn't take the white-haired writer long to get his pencil out. "He said it had some problems," recalls Lamazares. "He said I need to tighten the language. So he took one paragraph and crossed out half the words, and he read it back and it sounded great. I was amazed that he could do that."
Neither Ivonne nor Steve went to Sewanee in 1995, staying home instead for the birth of Sophie. But they were back the following summer with the baby in tow, and Ivonne had a new manuscript to work on. Mary Morris remembers when she first saw it. "There was an authority of voice that seemed so unusual," she says. "I have been teaching for 25 years and I almost never find this."
Morris introduced Lamazares to Gail Hochman, an agent with the New York firm Brandt & Brandt. "I go to these conferences looking for new talent, but every time I go I assume I won't find people to represent," says Hochman, who speaks in a rapid-fire, run-on way that suggests the hurried pace of big-league commerce. "So I do some educating, just to tell people who we are, how we think, how the publishing world works. You meet some wacky types, strange folks at weekend conferences, but Sewanee is by manuscript submission, and I've been back for four years."
Hochman, a veteran literary agent who also represents Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent) and Dennis McFarland (The Music Room), among others, says she found Lamazares "a very thoughtful, humble, nonarrogant person, unassuming, gracious, a lovely, unspoiled person, and I thought, 'If she has talent, wonderful.'"
Right from the top of the 40-page draft she read, Hochman recalls, she did find talent, shining through "a musical prose that I just fell for immediately. You get a lot of information in paragraphs without being told you are being fed information. There is a huge life force, a positive spirit in the characters.
"I remember that Sophie, who I guess was one year old then, was climbing all over her, this tiny little baby, and I thought here is this incredibly talented person who probably has four minutes a week to write, and if this stuff is so good, what can I do to help get her some more time? So I thought, 'Buy her a year of baby-sitting!'"
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.
Weeks ago Lamazares sent her editor almost 100 pages of manuscript, and Janet Silver telephoned to voice serious concerns about the direction the story was taking. That threw the author into another minicrisis. "Every time I wrote something, I'd think, 'How is Janet going to like this?'" she remembers.
Those who know Ivonne Lamazares have the confidence she sometimes lacks. "I have no doubt the book will be good, and that she will be famous," declares Elena Perez. "Although anyone who writes wants recognition, she is not writing for fame. She is very achievement-conscious. She's always got a goal."
Banks says he expects Lamazares's work to be "as successful as a serious book can be, which ought to bring her enough income to write a second book. That's all a writer can hope for."
Morris predicts that although Lamazares will initially be grouped with other writers who mine the immigrant experience -- Julia Alvarez, Edwidge Dandicat, Sandra Cisneros, for example -- "Ivonne could transcend category."
At the same time, Morris recognizes the changing reality of publishing today. "It would be nice if writing were about getting up in the morning and moving words around," she says. "But there is a powerful business aspect of writing, too, in this market-driven age of publishing and bookstore chains. There is pressure on any writer, and a lot of people to please. But at end of day, or in the morning, the novelist has to work like a poet -- slowly, through every line and every sentence. So much of writing is a certain determination to keep doing it, keep revising. And Ivonne knows that."
Of course, Gail Hochman, the agent, has an obligation to look beyond the process to the finished product. "When we get a final manuscript," she says, "I'll send it to ten or fifteen agents who handle foreign rights. I'll find a Hollywood agent to handle it out there, to take it to producers or directors.
"Right now I know the main character is vibrant, but until I see the rest of the plot, I can't tell how viable it is for the movies. Movies need a plot.
"But I don't worry about anything. If she writes a wonderful book, things will fall into place. The publisher will sell it to a book club, and sell the paperback rights. And the lack of a track record in the marketplace is great. She's a new discovery, and we get to launch her."
Talk like that makes Lamazares even more anxious. When the book contract was first offered, she and Kronen considered turning it down, simply to avoid upping the pressure. And even though they went for the money, to buy time to write, Ivonne admits, "I do freak out at times, and talk about giving the money back. If I didn't have Steve here to talk me out of it, I would."
The contract, the money, the pressure, the attention -- all can take a toll on a marriage, too. For months now a new collection of Kronen's poems has been bouncing from one university press to another. The rejection slips are piling up. But even if Kronen does succeed in bringing out a second book, a poet's reward comes only in prestige from a very small circle of readers.
"When all this happened to Ivonne, I said, 'Geez, I'm being eclipsed here,'" Kronen says one recent Sunday morning. He and Ivonne are sitting next to each other on the couch in the living room while Sophie is nearby in front of the television, eating peanut butter and bread and laughing out loud at a Barney video. "But that feeling only lasted 24 hours."
"I warned you that you would feel eclipsed," says Ivonne. "It's the money issue. But you're so involved. You keep me from going crazy with this, this -- mystery, this impulsive mother, and how is the narrator going to deal with her and find her way, her fate? Am I right?"
"Yeah," Steve responds. "And find some sort of resolution in her heart, the narrator with her mother."
"And the politics of Cuba," Ivonne continues. "The mother wants to leave, but that gets her a terrible job because she's outside the system. The mother acts out and the daughter tries to deal with that."
Steve: "And the mother is sort of narcissistic."
Ivonne: "She hates the revolution, but the daughter wants her to get her act together and the mother just won't do it."
With her eyes fixed on the middle distance, Ivonne brings her hand to her mouth and, distracted, nibbles on a fingernail. "I think it's going to come to a head," she muses.
There is lingering silence, and then Ivonne blurts, "Aaaah, it's just so slow. It's so slow!"
"She knocked off her dissertation in two months," Steve says.
"I thought working on a novel would be about the same," says Lamazares. "I didn't know."
From the Florida room, Sophie scampers in to report on the cartoon. "Barney ya!" she burbles, a bilingual exclamation that the video has ended.
"One of the things I've learned, and the hardest thing," says Ivonne, watching her daughter return to the television, "is to give up some of the conscious control over my work. Some of the process goes on subconsciously. So this morning I sit here and work on this scene, and I don't know when I look at it tomorrow if any of it will be any good. I need to have faith in the process."
"She plots everything out," says Steve. "That's why writing the novel terrifies her. It is not fully plotted."
"That's it," Ivonne agrees. And then she adds, in a declaration that could be about her novel or her life: "I just don't know how it's going to turn out.