NiteTalk: Julia Alvarez Brings Her Butterflies to Miami

With state officials threatening to slash public library budgets and bookstores feared to go the way of the dodo, it's refreshing to know that at least one publisher still considers books less for their commodity and more for the magic they may bestow and behold. We speak of Algonquin, and its revered Book Club, which is currently featuring Julia Alvarez's breathtaking In the Time of Butterflies. Niteside got with the award-winning writer before tonight's live chat with Edwidge Danticat.

Tonight Edwidge Danticat will interview you for the Algonquin Book Club. Wanna fill us in? The Algonquin Book Club officially launched in January. They host four events a year that are held in bookstores around the country and simultaneously streamed live at the Algonquin site. I was really delighted and honored that Algonquin chose In the Time of the Butterflies as their first book club pick! And who better than a Haitian-American writer to have a conversation with a Dominican-American writer?

How'd this all come about? Algonquin came up with the book club idea and approached my agent, Susan Bergholz, for possible writers who could interview me. Susan suggested Edwidge Danticat and the rest is history.

You and Ms. Danticat have a sorta literary kinship; have you two a common history as well? I actually first "met" Edwidge Danticat on paper. Susan Bergholz asked me if I would look at the galleys of a novel by a young writer being published by Soho Press. I was especially intrigued because she mentioned the writer was originally from Haiti, the neighbor country to my own native country Dominican Republic. I read Breath, Eyes, and Memory and was blown away! I've watched Edwidge grow as a writer and also watched her career success with great pleasure as I consider her part of my own literary familia. We have very different immigration stories but we share a lot of the same feelings of being from dual cultures and languages and arriving in place where we felt we didn't totally belong. Also with a great deal of responsibility to the culture and country we left behind.

Speaking of kinship, if someone were to say you set the stage for the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, who could they say set the stage for you? Definitely Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.  Before that book, I wanted to be a writer, but since I didn't have any models of writers who focused on other than a very mainstream American (or British) experience, I didn't know that it could be done. Even though her experience was Chinese-American, she could have been writing about my Dominican family and experience. She really broke that 'class ceiling' that relegated ethnic subjects to sociology.

Do you think you'd be where you are career-wise without Algonquin? I've had other offers for my books and I would never leave Algonquin. Algonquin sticks with its writers over a career, not just one book sensation. They gave me a chance with How the García Girls Lost Their Accents before multicultural literature was an 'in' literature to publish. My editor, Shannon Ravenel, and I go way back to that first novel, and she is good match for me. She "gets" the book I'm trying to write, and she is very good and getting me to write the book I want to write, not just the one I've already written or the book I already know how to write. And so I grow as a writer.

Before we go, is there anything else about you we need to know? If you'd like to check out our project, Alta Gracia, up in the mountains of the DR, a coffee farm and literacy project.  It's where I'm now writing you these answers.

Julia Alvarez in conversation with Edwidge Danticat March 21, 7pm at Books and Books 265 Aragon Avenue Coral Gables. The event is sold out. Live webcast at North Dade Regional Library 2455 NW 183 Street Miami and the Pinecrest Branch Library 5835 SW 111 Street Pinecrest. For more information log on to Miami-Dade Public Libraries

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