By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
What else do you miss about your hometown now that you're based in L.A.?
I miss knowing where to get a great café con leche on the cheap. And I miss Power 96! I know they kind of play the same 18 songs in a row all day long, but seriously, that station was the soundtrack to my life. Thank God I can stream it live off the Internet. I also miss my family and not being around for the day-to-day stuff, like if the dog peed in the house or if my sister backed up into the fence again.
What literary role models influenced you along the way?
I don't know if they count as literary (they certainly do to me), but my abuela and my mom are master storytellers. Almost everything I've learned about dialogue, plot, and suspense I picked up from them. And Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God taught me that you could get that oral tradition on the page. That and all those Superfudge books by Judy Blume. Those were the shit!
You've experienced being Latina in Miami, the Northeast, the Midwest, and now the West Coast. Any observations you care to share?
I don't recommend living in the Midwest unless you're in Chicago. L.A. is great, but I can't find the Cubans. Oh! I did find one — in Echo Park, there's a bust of José Martí's head! Maybe I should tell Pitbull about it. I think anyone who reads the book will figure out real quick that you can't really leave where you're from, but also that you don't really want to.
Upon leaving Hialeah, the protagonist in the title story is confronted with rabid stereotyping. How do you deal with this sort of thing?
I deal with it the only way I know how — by calling it out. Outside of Miami, I get a lot of "You must like to dance!" or "You're pretty feisty and fiery!" I just ask outright: "Why would you think that?" When people realize their answer is "Because you're Cuban and from Miami," I think they pretty much realize what they're doing on the spot. In writing, as is the case of the title story, the use of the second person let's me get at that immediately.
You'll return as a hometown hero for the Miami Book Fair in November. Excited?
I'm not a hero! Can I be a hometown hottie instead? Hometown hippo, maybe? But I am super-excited. As a kid, I always dreamed of being an author reading at the Miami Book Fair, and I still can't really believe it's happening. Anyone who comes by and sees me can expect a hug and a kiss, and of course some free swag.
What kind of free swag? Lollipops? Cupcakes?
Some kind of candy, for sure. But also, my husband and I have been working on an EP of original songs inspired by the stories in the book. The songs take minor characters and give them a little more space or sometimes open up the stories in a new direction. It's mostly just for fun. I'll be giving it away to anyone who buys a copy of How to Leave Hialeah at the fair and anywhere else I happen to be.
You manage a balance of fierce compassion and uncompromising truth incredibly well in your storytelling. Will any of your characters find their way into your next book?
I'm not sure. Some of them, like Luis from "The Next Move" and Sandra in "Men Who Punched Me in the Face" may still have something to say. Also, I'm incredibly worried about Rebecca and Jovany in "Drift" — I didn't leave them in a good place. I'm working on a novel now and I can see some of these characters finding their way into its pages, at least in some small way. Of course, the novel is set in Hialeah, so they all have to run into each other at Sedano's eventually.
That brings me to your background in performing and writing comedy. You and your husband met while performing in a sketch comedy troupe at Cornell. Have you considered adapting any of the stories in How to Leave Hialeah for the stage or screen?
That would be awesome! But no, I haven't. I know that my comedy roots and time as a member of a sketch group definitely influenced the way I wrote the stories and staged them on the page. And some of them did start off as just funny riffs on something but eventually became bigger ideas, and then naturally, stories.
Can you talk about that process a bit?
The more time characters hang out in your head, the more nuanced they get. You start to see the dark side of what makes them tick, and sometimes what's found there isn't funny at all. The story El Destino Hauling, for instance, started off as this funny story about a fight at a funeral. Very Que Pasa, USA?. But the more time I spent with that narrator on the page, the more I realized that she wasn't laughing.