Today I’m nursing a headache from celebrating St. Paddy’s Day, but over a cup of coffee and an English muffin, I’m having a grand time interviewing Sylvia Villalobos, whose new book, Stranger or Friend, I reviewed yesterday.
Sylvia, can you tell me about where you grew up?
I grew up in Bucharest, Romania, a country of twenty million people. One unique fact about it: even though Slavic-speaking countries surround Romania, the Romanian language is Latin derived and sounds more like Portuguese or Italian.
Why did you start writing?
Having grown up in the land of writers like Eminescu and Eliade, and having spent time reading Dickens, Hugo, and Dostoyevsky, I was influenced by that certain look into the human nature, by the good, the flawed, and the in between. By the undying belief that man can be good, as in Hugo’s Jean Valjean.
Early on, the reading led to inspiration, and ideas willed the pen into my hand. A high school teacher liked my essay on Eminescu’s “Evening Star,” so I wrote another one, followed by a short story that would have given me no peace had it not found its way onto paper.
Have you been writing for a long time?
Organized writing since high school, but writing was always part of my life in some form — jagged thoughts, unfinished stories, random descriptions and observations.
Some of the attitudes in the book reflect my observations, as an immigrant, of locals toward outsiders. The book is the culmination of two lives at a confluence of cultures: an Eastern European — the author — married to a California native of Hispanic descent. It is is an observation of intersecting cultures. Of what it takes to accept someone “different” (someone who looks and maybe speaks differently) and what happens when we don’t.
Is there a character in your book with a personality that closely resembles yours?
The main character, Zoe Sinclair, is a lawyer, and I almost became one. I work in the legal field today, so Zoe and I have a lot in common. Also, this is the story of a woman going back home. As someone who had left home and moved not only away but very far away, I am connected with Zoe in that regard.
Which character did you find the hardest to write?
The hardest character to write was Zoe’s ill mother. She is based on an aunt who helped raise me. Zoe moves back home, leaving her life and career behind, to take care of her mother who refuses surgery at her advanced age. The question is: when someone we love is ill, and refuses life-saving treatment, what do we do?
What’s your next project?
I’m working on another mystery but also have to write another Zoe Sinclair novel. She is a complex, deeply emotional character and insists I continue writing her story. Furthermore, I am putting the finishing touches on a short story with a legal bent. Continually searching for that all-important premise filled with questions, which arouse feelings that are often beyond imagination, yet seem real.
Is there one place where you find writing the easiest, the most comfortable?
Not really, although at my desk in a perfectly quiet house — that would be preferred, if possible.
Book come in so many formats now. Do you prefer e-books, hardcovers or paperbacks to read?
Until recently, I was adamant about reading paperbacks only. The idea of holding a real book in my hands, of knowing that our thoughts, too, are real and can be touched, was extraordinary. Then I started reading on my Kindle and enjoyed it just the same. Or almost the same. So, now it’s both.
Is there any person in particular whom you admire? Why?
To keep it about writing, I admire writers who explore the beauty of language, who allow a mystery or thriller to go beyond plot and fast-moving suspense and give us beautiful literary works. Writers such as P.D. James, for one. And of course, the old masters: Victor Hugo, Dostoyevsky — those who crafted a character so flawed yet so human we couldn’t help but love.
Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
I can be reached in a variety of ways. Here they are:
My thanks to Sylvia for her patience with this interview! I hope everyone who reads this post will check out her book!
I’m heading off for another cup of coffee…