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    Monday, July 15, 2024

    Julia Alvarez wrote her new novel as if it were her last

    Julia Alvarez, 74, has been thinking a lot about what it means to be an elder. In her latest novel, “The Cemetery of Untold Stories,” the central character — a celebrated Dominican American author, like her creator — regards her literary reputation with skepticism: “The glow of celebrity now tinged with nostalgia might keep the fan fires going, but Alma didn’t want anyone’s condescension or pity. The time had come to stop beating herself up for not being able to finish anything. She was trying to hold on to the literary version of good looks, the plastic surgeries of astute agents and editors nipping and tucking the flagging work.”

    Like “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents,” Alvarez’s pathbreaking novel from 1991, her new book explores sisterhood, immigration and return, and family secrets. But it also charts new, at times surreal, territory for Alvarez. Alma, unwilling to simply coast on readers’ nostalgia, resolves to build a little house on some inherited land in the Dominican Republic, where she literally buries her unfinished work. But the characters of these abandoned projects have their own ideas: They whisper their stories to Filomena, a local woman hired as the cemetery’s caretaker, and to Filomena’s nephew Pepito, an aspiring academic.

    I spoke to Alvarez over video in late March. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

    Q: What were the first seeds of this novel?

    A: As I get older, I’m more and more interested in the landscape of aging. What does this experience — the end of your life, latter life — feel like? More specifically, what is it like for someone who has spent a lifetime in a craft? I didn’t have answers. I was just curious. My last novel, “Afterlife,” came out during the pandemic, in 2020. There was a sense of mortality — not just the aging of a population but the aging of a planet. Everyone felt it was the last days. Also, a lot of attention was being focused on us, the vulnerables!

    When I could wrap my head around writing at all, because we were all so shellshocked by what was going on, I started working on this novel. I realized I have all these stories I want to tell, and I have boxes where I began novels that dead-ended or researched a historical figure or had these little jottings. It was so many boxes. You know, when you’re young, you think, “Someday I’ll get to that.” When you’re old (laughs) and getting older, you know, there’s not going to be time to get to all of them. How do you make peace with that? And how do you make peace with the characters that have been haunting you, and how do you exorcise them?

    I started writing, and in the midst of it, I had a health crisis. I lost vision in my right eye. And after two major surgeries and a long recovery and not being able to read — the other eye was seeing double — I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish. I was finally fitted with these prism glasses, and I worked very slowly, maybe an hour or two at a time, because of the strain. There was a new urgency to the novel — as if it were the last novel I would ever write.

    Q: I’m struck by the way you describe having to work in this more limited, very careful way. Was that a big change from the way you’ve typically written?

    A: I think I’m a little impatient to get something written, usually. And I just had to be patient. It’s not that I didn’t want to grab (the characters) while I could and get it down; it’s just that I couldn’t. So maybe that forced me to be a little more like Filomena in the book — to listen more carefully. And there was, I have to say, ironically — not that it wasn’t hard, as writing is always hard, and bad days are hard — a new joy in the writing. Because I was doing the thing I love that I thought I would never get to do again.

    Q: Alma, Filomena and the other characters think a lot about the ethics of storytelling. There are many people in their lives who are angry or irritated by the way their stories have been shared. Has that been on your mind more than it has been in the past?

    A: Of course, I do wonder — I’ve had a lot of flak, especially when she was alive, from my mother. I used to joke that I think every Latina of my generation could start their novel: “Mami told me to keep my mouth shut about this.” A woman wasn’t supposed to have a public voice or bring up certain tricky, sensitive issues. There was that sense of: Are you betraying caution and a sort of courtesy that you were supposed to have for your family? Are you being disloyal to that family, in order to be loyal to the story?

    That is always a tension for any thoughtful writer — but also as a writer who comes originally from another homeland, a so-called Third World that has often been exploited for the ease and comfort and pleasure of the First World. Is there a literary version of that? I don’t have any answers; that would be death to the novel. I just have a lot of questions and inquiétudes.

    But part of the reason that Alma, a.k.a. Scheherazade, takes her unfinished manuscripts back is to lay them to rest in their native land. It’s a way of bringing them back to where they maybe really belong — and at the same time, giving over the narrative to the storytellers who won’t get their tales told by the big megaphone of the First World.

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