Please join me in welcoming back to the blog my good friend and classmate at VCFA, Lyn Miller-Lachmann. It’s my pleasure to help her celebrate today’s launch of her young adult historical fiction book, Surviving Santiago, published by Running Press Kids/Perseus Books. (Click on the publisher to read a synopsis of this book.)
Lyn is represented by Ellen Geiger at Frances Goldin Literary Agency. Her publicist just happens to be another classmate of ours: Val Howlett.
El Space: Happy Launch Day, Lyn! When you wrote Gringolandia (Curbstone Press, 2009), did you envision a sequel to follow? Why or why not?
Lyn: I didn’t expect to write a companion or sequel. Technically, this is a companion rather than a sequel because it has a different protagonist, one who was a major secondary character in the previous book. When I started Gringolandia as a contemporary novel back in 1987, I saw it as a stand-alone. Then, when it lost a contract with a major publisher and I couldn’t find another editor to take it on, I didn’t think I’d get one book out of all my work, much less two.
Over the next fifteen years, I’d occasionally return to the shelved manuscript, rewriting it from different characters’ perspectives because I loved the story and characters so much and couldn’t bear to let them go forever. However, Tina was never one of the characters I chose. For serious Gringolandia fans who want to know, the characters tapped to tell parts of the story over the years were Daniel, Courtney, Papá, Mamá, and one of the solidarity committee members from Chile, Patricio Wheelock.
In Gringolandia, Tina appears as more of a victim of her family’s turmoil, struggling with her own problems. Had I written her story, it would have become the focus. I think that’s one of the reasons my late editor at Curbstone Press, Sandy Taylor, suggested I write an entirely different novel from Tina’s point of view. He wanted to know what happened to her. Over the years, Gringolandia readers asked the same thing, and that’s why I wrote the initial draft of Surviving Santiago and kept working on it even after my editor had passed and my publisher had gone out of business.
El Space: Please walk us through the development of your character, Tina Aguilar. What traits, if any, do you share?
Lyn: Unlike her older brother, Tina never knew what it was like to live in Chile under democracy. She was born in June 1973, at a tumultuous time three months before the military coup. There were strikes, food shortages, and continuous demonstrations on both sides that sometimes led to violent confrontations. After the coup, her father, like many other supporters of the previous government, was detained for a few months—she was an infant then—and after that he went from being a sports journalist to a taxi driver who practiced his real profession underground. So insecurity and fear were in the air even though she remembers her childhood before her father’s lengthy imprisonment as an idyllic time. Along with losing her father, though, she lost her home, her country, and her language, and when she saw her father for the few months after his release, it was yet one more traumatic experience.
Like me, Tina has a lot of difficulty adjusting to change. Her problems, though, are due more to trauma and growing up with a lot of stress and insecurity that I didn’t experience in my own childhood—though being on the autism spectrum and not knowing why one is different and/or struggles with social relationships creates stress of its own.
El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Lyn: The hardest part was getting inside the head of Frankie, Tina’s Chilean boyfriend. While he’s not the protagonist, he has needs and desires, and his relationship with Tina changes him as well as her. I needed to know him well to make him a convincing character, but while I knew a lot of immigrants to the United States from Chile, I didn’t know any teenagers personally who’d never left the country and thus spent their entire lives under dictatorship.
El Space: What excites you about historical fiction and this time period in particular?
Lyn: I like the world-building aspects, using my research and writing skills to recreate a different time and place. In terms of world building, historical fiction is a lot like speculative fiction because you’re taking the reader somewhere else and hopefully making it worth the trip. Historical fiction also allows readers to see history from the eyes of ordinary people who generally don’t make it into textbooks, except, perhaps as statistics.
I grew up with the us-versus-them mentality of the Cold War, and learning that the United States installed and maintained regimes as oppressive as those of the Soviet Bloc was eye-opening and disturbing. And while a growing number of authors are writing books about the Cold War era in the United States—Deborah Wiles and her award-winning linked titles Countdown and Revolution come to mind—and some have written about the Castro regime in Cuba and life behind the Iron Curtain, very few books have addressed the experiences of people living under repressive anti-Communist regimes.
El Space: What do you hope readers will glean from this story?
Lyn: Violence flourishes when we cease to see our neighbor as a human being just like ourselves because of politics, religion, race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation/gender identity. And sometimes we get so wrapped up in our us-versus-them patterns of thinking that it takes an outsider—someone like Tina—to point out the truth. Most teenagers feel like outsiders, but they also have fresh perspectives that deserve consideration. I hope Surviving Santiago inspires teenagers to speak out when they see hatred and injustice directed against anyone.
El Space: Which authors inspired you on the journey to making this book happen?
Lyn: I’m a fan of the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, and a central element of his novel Distant Star (New Directions, 2005) appears in Surviving Santiago. I also want to let people know about two outstanding works for middle grade readers that depict violence by the U.S.-supported military government in Guatemala during the Cold War—Marge Pellegrino’s Journey of Dreams (Frances Lincoln, 2009) and Skila Brown’s Caminar (Candlewick, 2014).
El Space: How would you encourage an author to write historical fiction and make it relevant for a teen audience?
Lyn: Like the popular genre of speculative fiction, historical fiction sets the reader in a different world and addresses big themes. Too often, though, readers have been turned off because the author’s extensive research shows through. For my own writing, I read a lot of dystopian fiction and try to capture that vibe in Surviving Santiago, which is set in a very real dystopia. We history buffs enjoy sifting through minutiae, but more than a little to provide the atmosphere and world building bogs the story down and contributes to the reputation of historical fiction as boring and too much like school. Surviving Santiago is above all an innocent romance that turns very dangerous very quickly because Tina is unaware of the depth of hatred in the society. It’s a story that could happen anywhere—past, present, or future—and I tried to put in enough detail to make it tangible and interesting without slowing down the action.
Thank you as always, Lyn, for being my guest!
I’m giving away a copy of Surviving Santiago. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on June 10.
Happy Launch Day also to another classmate of mine, Cordelia Jensen, whose novel in verse, Skyscraping, debuts today. She’ll be here June 8 to talk about her book! Stay tuned!
Book covers from Goodreads. Book birthday sign from romancingrakes4theluvofromance.blogspot.com. Map from platoslatinos.net.