Today I’m sitting down to chat with my pal Bettina Restrepo, about her debut YA novel Illegal, out now from Harper Collins. I’ve known Bett for awhile – having wormed my way into her heart by schlepping up to the Huntsville Hastings for a Sunday afternoon book signing she did when her picture book Moose and Magpie came out. Huntsville, for the uninitiated, is a lovely town – truly- but is best known for being the home of the giant statue of Sam Houston, the state prison, and the Prison Museum, where one can visit ‘Old Sparky’ – also known as the electric chair. It’s also a college town. Make what you will of all this. Let’s just say that Bettina was glad to see me. We’ve stayed bonded ever since.
Bettina was glowing a few weeks ago at her book launch party at Blue Willow. And she’s been on the road – both literally and virtually – ever since, promoting Illegal, which is a novel that comes from a deep place in her heart. It’s gorgeously written, emotionally resonant, and a damn fine YA that you need to start reading immediately!
Here’s what Amazon has to say:
A promise that we would be together on my fifteenth birthday . . .
Instead, Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—waiting for her father's return and a better day. When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas. After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place. Now, Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her precious quinceaÑera.
Bettina Restrepo's gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl's unique yet universal immigrant experience.
And here’s what Bettina herself had to say:
1. One thing that always fascinates me is the writer's journey. I know mine has been rather twisty, turny and tumultuous. How about yours? Can you give us a quick glimpse into the road that led you to the day that Illegal appeared on bookshelves and virtual shelves?
9 years times 365 days = 3285 days, which doesn’t seems so long now. Illegal was the book that taught me to write and re-write a novel. 2 agents, 35 rejections. It was a lesson in patience.
2. What's your writing process?
I wish my writing process was clearly defined so that I could repeat what works, but I seem to be all over the place. Truly, the story comes in a vision where I know the beginning middle and end. Then, I write 50 pages, change everything and then decide to do an outline. Then at page 350, I decide everything is wrong, and rewrite the first 100 pages. Personally, the entire process is convoluted and something I’m trying to improve.
3. Illegal puts faces and personal stories on the topic of illegal immigration. I've heard you speak about what influenced and inspired you to write this book. Can you talk a little about that here?
I worked in an ethnic supermarket as an auditor – so my job was to watch and listen. I noticed how precarious the financial life was of many of the patrons. I translated those moments, traveling through the stores, watching people, and my own personal story into Illegal.
4. Reading Illegal got me thinking about my grandparents, all of whom immigrated from various spots in Europe to America. They didn't know a soul here, just came on faith that things would be better. So although they came through Ellis Island, the emotions are somewhat similar. And I always wonder - would I have been brave enough to basically pack my belongings in a bag and come to a country without even being able to speak the language. How about you? Would you do what Nora and her mother do?
It’s very scary to think about packing up what little you have and just showing up somewhere else. Now that I’m older, no, I wouldn’t do it.
But, as I recall my childhood – I was a child of immigrant parents who were also military. We were constantly packing up and moving to a new place. Sometimes I knew the language, sometimes I didn’t. There never seemed to be a support system – and yes, it was always scary.
4. Chocolate or peanut butter?
Yes. Both. Constantly.
5. Where do you write?
I have a faux office in the front of my house facing thte front window so I can spy on people in the neighborhood.
6. How do you balance writing time with the rest of your life?
Precariously. I write from 7-11 with one break to walk the dog and put in laundry. Then, I lunch, take a quick nap or exercise at the gym (I love ZUMBA). Then, at 2 pm, my mommy/carpool hat comes on. After he goes to bed, I walk the dog and collapse into the bed to read. Then, back up at 5. Repeat, Rinse.
7. What's next for Bettina Restrepo? Any projects in the work you can tell us about?
I have another novel in its final stages (or so I hope) of revision. Like I said, it’s a convoluted process, so I never know when it’s done.
CONTEST: Want to win a signed arc of Illegal?
Comment on the following question: Would you cross the border illegally to find your family?
Best answers go into the contest hat and the winner gets the signed arc! Contest is open until 5/31! Good luck!