Mayra Lazara Dole is the author of Down to the Bone, an amazing debut novel set in Cuban Miami, about Laura, a girl who gets kicked out of her house and expelled from school when it’s discovered that she is a tortillera–a girl who likes girls. Down to the Bone is a funny, bold, and poignant novel that I very highly recommend. Without further ado, the author herself!
How much did your own life, background, and experiences influence the writing of Down to the Bone? What do you and Laura have in common?
Laura shares my heart, soul, interests, and humor. I gave Soli my wacked-out personality and loyalty to friends. She’s a hairstylist–as I used to be–who adores life, fun, and laughter. I never hooked up with guys as a teen like Soli, but similar to Laura, I had an Argentinean boyfriend and a true best friend from first to ninth grade. Down to the Bone is entirely fictional, except for one incident influenced by a true story that starts sad and ends fun:
At fourteen, my first love and I were thrown out of a Miami Catholic high school due to a love letter she sent me about our first time making love. The robust, German-American math teacher, Ms. Titisville-Terror–or something of that nature–snatched the letter from my hand and gave it to Mother Superior Slime (can’t recall real name). Ms. Terror, unbeknownst to her, had a bad rep among the girls for being a tortillera/disgusting dyke–she honestly looked like a truck driver who’d whirl obscenities at anyone crossing her path. They read the letter to my mom who’d been dragged from one of her factory jobs to attend the infamous finger-pointing experience (finding out her little girl was a total homo)–Mami was so shocked she punished me harshly: I could never again see or speak to my beloved. The loss of my first love was grave–at the time, she was the love of my life. My best friend’s mom never let her to speak to me again. I was allowed to finish the last two months at school, where I was ostracized and treated like a leper on Ice, but my lover/girlfriend was kicked to the curb. My neighbors–they’d been family to me–forbade me to enter their homes. I felt hopeless, lonely, unwanted and even thought about suicide until, unexpectedly, straight-looking gay guys started befriending me. My heroes!–yes, I’m a bonerfied fag hag! My family had no clue they were homos. My close friend Willy and I acted like a straight couple. We went to gay clubs on weekends and won every dance contest. We became club kids in Miami’s gay scene. Laura found a family and I found a group of FUNtastic LGBTQ friends that saved my life!
Before writing your young adult novel, you wrote picture books. What is the same and different about the two types of writing, and how did your experience in writing picture books affect the writing of Down To The Bone?
I’m passionate about using Cuban colloquialisms, dialect, slang and barrio-street-beat for all my writing. I used an authentic Cuban-American voice for both. I loved bringing a microcosm known to few outsiders, privy only to Cubans who live and breathe el Miami Cubaneo, to readers of all ages. Writing picture books isn’t as simple as it looks. Your condensed story must have a hook at the beginning, strong middle, and explosive end. Writing picture books that were critically acclaimed (Birthday in the Barrio is currently being turned into a short children’s film) helped me get my foot into this cut-throat publishing industry.
Why did you choose to write for young adults?
It chose me! Laura, Soli, Tazer and Viva kept waking me up at 4 am. “Oye, chica, get up! I’m dying to get out of here and have a blast!”
What are you writing now?
Two YA novels, one adult novel, three middle-grade novels, Afro-Cuban poetry, and I’m polishing up/revising my Latina tranny YA/Adult novel set in Miami with an all Latina/o LGBTQ and straight cast–comedy/drama. I’ll also be writing a monthly column in English, with different topics for the LGBTQ magazine.
The setting of Cuban Miami is very present in Down to the Bone; it’s not a book that could be set anywhere without readers seeing the difference. What do you love most about Miami?
I love Miami’s thundershowers, crazy-ass electrical storms, spectacular cloud formations, and that she’s gorgeously green year ’round. In Miami you can kayak, swim, bike, mini-bike, go clubbing every night. There are museums of all kinds and art, music, film, and street festivals such as the infamous Miami Book Festival. If you adore books, you can visit Books and Books where authors do book signings most nights. What Miami doesn’t have are sidewalks! Regardless, most walk around in shorts and Tank tops due to asphyxiating humidity, visit friends for picnics at parks with live bands and bay views, etc. On weekends, you’ll find teens roller blading, skateboarding and playing outdoor sports. When I lived in Boston nine years, I missed Miami every living, breathing moment. Living here is like living in a Latin American country. You reside alongside Cubanos, Colombianos, Venezuelans, Nicaraguan, Argentinos, Chilenos, Costa Ricans, etc.–there’s even a Little Haiti close to Little Havana! There are two million Cubans in Miami and most speak “Cuban,” a vibrant dialect. I LOVE my Cuban heritage, Cuban culture, and speaking Cuban. I can imagine living in Spain, Italy, or Puerto Rico, but Miami and Cuba will always be the homes of my heart.
What is your writing process like?
I go to sleep thinking hard about whatever story I’m writing and awaken before six with ideas and dialogue. I unhook my phone, sit to write, eat breakfast and lunch while writing, and don’t stop till around 4 pm. I write to live, so inspiration and discipline are a must.
Where do you do your best writing?
In front of windows, facing coconut palms, pregnant mango and avocado trees and blooming red bushes.
Could you share the story of your path to publication?
When I was naïve about the publishing world, I submitted dozens of stories in Spanglish I believed publishers would love but ended up with a pillowcase of rejection letters. As a test, I rewrote one of my Spanglish picture books in correct English, peppered with Cuban Colloquialisms, and submitted it to twenty-five publishers interested in multicultural, bilingual work. Children’s Book Press’ Puerto Rican exec editor emailed me immediately, informing me she was crazy about, and interested in, one of my stories! Lo and behold, I worked hard at revising but The Crusty Committee said, “Sorry. It’s too universal.” (I’d managed to “mainstream” and “Americanize” the story for fear of more rejection and it didn’t fly.) Instantly, I knew the exact formula needed: “organic without Spanglish.” Out of pure inspiration, I wrote two bilingual, Miami Cuban picture books that poured out of my heart in one day, about Chavi’s adventures–a tumbadora-playing Cubanita rebel–in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho Festival and in Miami Beach. Feeling insecure, I asked a Cuban librarian acquaintance to help me translate the English to Spanish. After her translation, she made it clear to me, “You have no authority in writing children’s books.” Hurt and dejected, I read her sterile, cold, boring textbook Spanish translation, and tore it to pieces. I became fired-up, worked excruciatingly hard, and sent in my authentic Cuban dialect translation version, using my colorful dialect and colloquialisms. My editor went nuts over it and my “Cuban,” not Spanish, translation got published! In the meantime, I worked diligently on rewriting Down to the Bone--then titled Act Natural!–from Spanglish to English in an authentic Cuban-American voice. After Birthday in the Barrio was released to critical praise, I became empowered and submitted Down to the Bone to a Miami African-American agent. She called to let me know she was mad about my “strong and unique voice” and “compelling story.” After so much rejection, I’d never heard more beautiful words! A week thereafter, I was emailing with my beloved exec editor at Harper Collins who loved everything about my novel and asked for an exclusive. I revised Down to the Bone with her critique and the rest is herstory.
What is your favorite part of Down to the Bone (a passage, a scene, a character, anything)?
I can’t decide which chapter I loved writing most: The Kiss, Act Natural, Tongue Tango, Keepin’ it Down Low, Stinkin’ Liar or Untangling. I was passionate about creating the main characters and every scene they appeared on. I even relished the only two characters that spoke “street” and broken English who rarely made it into most chapters, such as:
Diego: Yah, dawgs. I’m ill. Sick. The most ridiculous pimpin’ gangsta ever.
Viva: Ay, Laurita! Garlics keeps evil espirits and vampiros away.
Tazer, the handsome, scriptwriter B-O-I was amazing to craft. Mami’s engaging and powerful personality hit home. Laura’s love for Marlena and passion for Gisela blew me away. Soli, the “Dominatrix,” kept me laughing. Chispi, Laura’s puppy who wore a “size three bikini” was loads of fun to create.
I’m in love with all my characters and miss them!
What was the most difficult part of Down to the Bone to write (again, a scene, a character, whatever you like)?
I wrote Down to the Bone while dying after being chemically injured by pesticides and living sealed in a “bubble,” but that’s another story. I was ecstatic to be able to move my fingers and use my brain even though the rest of my body barely worked due to a damaged immune system. The entire process was inspiring, exciting, great fun and kept me alive.
Now that you are a published novelist, what is your favorite part of the experience? Something you could do without? The most unexpected part?
I love creating characters that leap off the pages, grab me, and pull me into their lives. Making up dialogue is thrilling! I could do without computer crashes during an intense scene–my editor must be the best in the history of publishing and so is her assistant, making my experience the sweetest an author could dream of, thus I have no complaints. The most unexpected part is that straight teens and LGBTQ adults also love my novel.
Now ask yourself a question (and answer it).
My Question-What do you think of the questions asked by your interviewer?
I LOVED them. I think she’s a brilliant, talented, open-minded, unique teen. She should be in the Guinness Book of World’s Records for reading 150 pages an hour, trying to read a book a day, writing extraordinarily concise and interesting reviews, and coming up with interviews for authors. Thanks Jocelyn!
Thanks so much, Mayra!