Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and lived in Gurabo until I was five. After that, my mother moved to Maryland so I spent a lot of my time both there and in my father’s house in Puerto Rico. (And in airplanes. Lots and lots of airplanes).
What sorts of books were in your family home?
I’m not sure actually. I know my mother has several boxes of children’s books somewhere in the basement, but I don’t really remember those. Most of my books growing up were from the library. I’d go once a week, stick my nose in the corner of the fantasy section, and come out with an armful. I know it took several years of rereading before my mother finally gave me the Harry Potter box set for Christmas.
Who were early formative influences as a writer?
Sandra Cisneros — she was the first (and only) Latina writer I ever came across in a classroom growing up. After that I think came the epiphany of “Oh, I can use Spanish in my writing?” Also I still credit my fiction teacher at Brown University, Michael Stewart, for teaching me not only how fiction worked, but how to think about writing for myself.
Do you write many drafts?
Depends. Sometimes (rarely) things come out fully-formed and you don’t feel the need to touch them afterwards. For me, that only happens with poetry (although I’m learning now that that’s probably not how that works either — so much of writing [and life] is thinking you have an answer, and realizing you don’t). Anything prose-related could have drafts into infinity. It’s usually deadlines or publication that make me stop editing — although vice versa, it’s usually deadlines or publication that force me back into editing in the first place. I very much believe in letting things stew between drafts or after having just written them, and that could take months. I always say every piece of writing is like throwing a dart at a dartboard and trying to get as close to the center as possible — or if not, creating a nice pattern of darts around the center. Regardless, whatever you’re aiming to do, you’re never going to get it exactly right. So really it’s about getting it into a shape that satisfies you, that you can look back at and be like, “You know, that’s close enough, it’s time to move on now.”
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
Embarrassed: I have an old Microsoft Word doc from middle school somewhere in the recesses of my computer called “Poetry Journal” complete with ugly cursive, clipart, multi-colored font, and a whole lot of angst.
Proud: Hm. Usually the last thing I’ve written is the thing I’m proudest of. But usually I also view it as one step of a very long journey. So it’s not so much something I’m proud of as another attempt that has taken me a little bit more forward towards — well, I don’t really know where I’m going. Up, I guess.
Your views on success?
There’s a difference between “success” and “Wow, there are a lot more people paying attention to my writing than there were before.” When it comes to writing, I don’t think I ever “succeed” — the only thing I (hopefully) do is get a little bit closer to the kind of writing I’d like to do. As for notoriety, I think people often get the two confused. I keep meeting young writers asking me how to get published, how to get noticed, etc., etc. And really I think they’ve got it all wrong. The first question should always be about the writing — once it’s “finished,” you can try and find a home for it. And if not — well, great, it gets to stew some more. That said, it is odd to know that somewhere out there there’s an actual countable number of people reading your writing. Career-wise it’s definitely comforting, but it’s also disconcerting to be “comfortable” this early on (I’m only nineteen), and to know that there really are people watching. It feels a little bit like I’m doing everything that I was doing before, but now there’s a crowd of people at the window I wasn’t expecting. (Which I guess is kind of like theatre).
What are you working on now?
A play about Hurricane Maria. And poetry—always poetry.
Your views on book publishing?
Writers should probably get paid more. AND HIRE MORE PEOPLE OF COLOR, GODDAMMIT.
What are your favorite literary journals?
I don’t read any consistently — I’d say I sometimes find myself on The New Yorker’s website or Poetry. A lot of my reading material comes from recommendations, me accidentally finding a cool poet on the Internet and eventually buying their book, or my creative writing classes at Columbia. It’s kind of a scavenger-hunt way to live, but I enjoy it.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Your views on social media?
It hasn’t really. I’m kind of a turtle in that sense — I only got my first smartphone and Facebook after I graduated from high school (so like two years ago). I had to join Twitter for an author Q&A last year and to be honest, it’s still weird for me. I have adults telling me “Twitter is the main platform for authors!” and I’m like, “OK — retweet? Hashtag? What?”
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
Good God no. I’ll stick to paper, por favor.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Cuba. El Malécon. Sunset. I went there once and it was the calmest I’ve ever been. Also I can’t really go legally so I might as well go for the sake of the fictional premise of the question.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Shakespeare, my grandfather, Annie Baker, Christophe Maé, Stephen Hawking.
Your favourite prose authors?
Elizabeth Strout, Joan Didion, Carlos Eire
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
I’m not a “hero” person in terms of fiction. I like characters to have flaws, so I wouldn’t necessarily call them heroes. In real life, I think it’s a similar situation. But if I had to pick someone, I’d say it’s my brother. He is a person whose goodness consistently baffles me.
What other authors are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
My creative writing teacher from high school, Suzanne Supplee, is a relatively well-known YA author, although I rarely think of her that way. She’s been there since my novel’s conception and all the way through every step of this wild award-winning, book-publishing process. Every time I’m panicking about something book-related (or personal-life-related), I always know she’s just a phone call away. I consider her less a mentor for sentence-by-sentence writing and more a how-do-I-live-this-crazy-life-as-a-writer mentor.
I think the teacher who has influenced me most recently in terms of my writing itself is my poetry teacher, David Tomas Martinez. He’s the first teacher that has really gotten across to me that I don’t have to be a Stephen-King-like-lunatic writing 24 hours a day and constantly seeking publication to be successful as a writer. It’s all about patience. In terms of the dartboard metaphor, throwing ten thousand darts willy-nilly and seeing how they land won’t get you anywhere. Take your time. Pick your dart. Eye the board. And throw. And you’ll probably fail. And you’ll probably feel very very frustrated. But that’s okay because you’ve got plenty of darts and plenty of time. You just have to trust the process. The other thing I’d say he’s taught me is how to hold myself accountable in my writing — it’s so easy to think you’ve done “good enough” on a piece when really there is so much more you could do to get it closer to its core. It’s all a balancing act in the end. Which I think I already knew, but I wasn’t quite sure what that looked like until he took his scalpel of a blue pen to my poems and revealed their insides (or lack thereof). He’s a good reminder that there is always a lot (and I mean A LOT) more to learn.
Your five favourite feature films?
Begin Again, Ratatouille, His Girl Friday, 20th Century Women, Whiplash.
Your chief characteristic?
Loudness. Literally and metaphorically.
Your chief fault?
Conflict resolution. I’m either too polite, too aggressive, or too passive-aggressive. And I never have the right words until it’s too late.
Your bedside reading?
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson; My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout; Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.
I don’t know if I have a motto, but I currently have two Post-Its taped to the spot above my desk. One is from my poetry teacher and the other is from Autobiography of Red. They read:
(1) “I’m not trying to sell you on poetry — what I’m trying to sell you on is patience.” – DTM
(2) “Reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it not just keep yelling.” – AC
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