Great American novelist Julia Alvarez, bestselling author of HOW THE GARCÍA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS, joins Zibby to discuss her luminescent and lyrical new novel, THE CEMETERY OF UNTOLD STORIES. Julia describes her book as a journey through an older writer’s mind as she grapples with the end of her career and all the untold stories within her. She shares some of the inspirations behind the story—from her own ritual of burying manuscripts to the cultural influences of her Dominican heritage. She also delves into the topics of aging, cancel culture, and the necessity of maintaining joy and authenticity in the writing process.


Zibby: Welcome, Julia. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss The Cemetery of Untold Stories, a novel which I have picked for my book club also because I think it is so great.

Julia: Thank you so much for having me, Sibby, and, uh, this is one of my first podcasts. I've done a couple of interviews, mostly written, so I'm really fresh and therefore not practiced at what I'm doing.

Zibby: I don't, I don't want media trained practice stuff. That's a waste of everyone's time, I feel like. We just want to know the real authors, right? People want to know what people are really like. They want to know about the pajamas and the, you know, I mean, that's the stuff of real life that people can relate to.

In fact, that's part of why I feel like I related to your book so much and why it hit home so much for me and I think for untold readers, untold stories, haha, because, you the way you write about a writer and the writing life and aging and all of the thoughts and fears that we all have and how that's all interwoven.

I mean, it's so, the voice is so relatable and accessible, even though it's beautiful writing and very literary, which is tough to pull off. So bravo to you.

Julia: Well, thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: So tell our listeners, what is the Cemetery of Untold Stories about?

Julia: My editor and publicist at Algonquin called it the elevator pitch.

And I always ask, can we, can we take the local instead of the express for this book? Because there's so many little pieces, but basically it's about...

Zibby: We will take the stairs. We can take the stairs. It'll be the stairs, the slow escalator. Just like take your time. You can take the whole podcast describing the book.

Julia: Well, it's very much a book about, um, of course, as I enter my own old age and aging also in a craft is something you practice passionately all your life. The questions and the preoccupations are, what is this landscape about? I often write To find out, not things I already know, but to understand, not in a kind of rational way, but to understand the landscape I'm traveling to, through.

It's kind of like a labyrinth, and the narrative is my little thread in that labyrinth. And so I yearn and just absolutely devour any books about aging, creative people, aging period, aging women, aging Latinas, you know, what is this experience like? And as more and more of us boomers are entering this landscape, I think we're all.

eager and curious to find out. So, I wanted to find out through story, which is the way I understand things, what it's like for an older writer as she comes to the end of her craft, the end of her energies, her animo, and what happens with all those stories she hasn't been able to tell. So, in a nutshell, that's the entry into the Cemetery of Untold Stories.

Zibby: And how did you come to that? come up with the rest of it and this whole creative idea. I mean, it's awesome. Where did that come from?

Julia: Oh my goodness. I haven't a clue. I must tell you that I've always admired books set in cemeteries, whether it's the Neil Gaiman, I think it's called the graveyard book or George Saunders, Lincoln and the Bardo or Our Town.

I mean, it goes back, you know, and you think of Dante, you think of Gilgamesh, the first. literary, I mean, written epic. And it's about traveling through the underworld. There's just an intrigue with it. And I was thinking, you know, what would a writer do with these unfinished tales? What, what would she, how would she lay them to rest?

And of course, she would, Maybe create a place where they could go. And of course, being Dominican, part of my Dominican culture, with Santeria and animism and spirits and so forth, is that there is this world of the invisible. And I've always, when I finish a book, have certain rituals I do, because the characters are still in my head.

And I want to get on to the next story, but they're still in there. So I've had rituals that I do, including within the time of the butterflies. When I was done with it, they would not go away. They would not go away. So when I was in the Dominican Republic, I went to the Mirabal house and I buried the final draft in their garden.

No. Really? Yes! Now we knew and Dr. Ling know about it, their survivors, because I thought, I need to take them home. And so, you know, in some ways now, looking back, now when I was up against this novel and didn't know where the hell I was going, it just seemed like, oh, of course! Of course, your own life has been showing you that this is the thing to do.

So, of course, Alma, my main character, a. k. a. Scheherazade, her pen name, goes back to the homeland to put her stories into the ground they came from, because so many of her stories come from there. And just like that Mexican saying I've seen on protest signs for immigrant rights, They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.

It's almost as if Alma's stories, once she's buried them, say, she tried to bury us. She did not know we were stories. So they won't stay put. And so the whole neighborhood in Barrio, And all their stories come into the cemetery. And so it goes. And that's the way stories work.

Zibby: Wow. I think I'm particularly fascinated because I've joked often that with all the books in here and I spend a lot of time here in my office, I'm sitting here in a room surrounded by books.

I wonder, like, what happens to the characters when I leave the room? Or is Do they all kind of get to know each other? And sometimes I'm so deep into all these books that I'm like, Oh my gosh, the woman in this book really needs to be friends with the woman in that book. Like they would totally get along.

And I even went so far as to introduce two authors and I said, listen, your main characters really need to like have a conversation. And they were like, thanks, but no thanks.

Julia: Oh, how beautiful of you. I love that. I really, really love that.

Zibby: Anyway, so I'm very interested in this whole thing. Like, where do all the characters come from and, and where do they go?

Could they exist on some planet or, I don't know, it's just, never mind. But I, I like to think about it.

Julia: Also what you were saying, you know, characters, sometimes they're more vivid and real because you see their interiority in a way that you often don't see even intimates and that kind of fullness. And sometimes, you know, I'll be walking, I think, Oh, that woman looks just like Mrs. Dalloway. Oh my God, that could be Ahab. Oh, you know, you're like, but these are fictive characters. And sometimes you go to a reading and someone who's loved an earlier book of yours comes up with a, a real little kid and says, I named her after Minerva. And it's just, I know it's part of our world. Like I was talking about spirit cultures and that these imaginative creations accompany us.

They're, they're critical. In fact, they help us map the world and understand it and that's pretty important, you know, so I totally understand.

Zibby: I actually, so I wrote a novel that just came out last week and the main character is named Pippa Jones. And in my Instagram direct messages, I got a message. From Pippa Jones.

And she's like, I am Pippa Jones and that's my name and she's like, I bought your book because of the name and then I ended up really liking your book. And I was like, Oh my gosh. So then I was like, I was like, wait, tell me more about you. I was like, maybe she really is this person, but she's, I don't know.

Julia: Well, congratulations. Thank you. You're yet another kind of mom to a book. Yes. Actual children.

Zibby: Yes. That would be good. Like a hashtag book mom on a shirt or something like that. Julia, can I just read a couple of things that you wrote? Even just About aging and about writing that I was like starring everywhere because the way you use even analogies to talk about it Let me just read this one thing Critics like to write about the late style Usually a euphemism for a messy grasping for what has passed the glow of celebrity now tinged with nostalgia Might keep the fan fires going but Ama 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 every worker knows to put aside her tools at the end of the workday, even that paramount narcissist, Prospero. I love that. I just love that. You say also, um, one thing she could choose after spending decades giving characters lives a shapely form, Alma wanted to close the story of her own writing life in a satisfying way.

And then the last one, so easy to pontificate and so difficult to bring a character to life. The words made flesh. If her readers could only see her on any given writing day, humbled by the continual little failures of getting a sentence right or a character's name or tone of voice. Oh my gosh, I could just keep going.

Uh, love all of that. There's a way you use your language. I mean, it's just really awesome. Are you worried about your own career, the end of your career? And, you know, tell me more about these thoughts and feelings.

Julia: Well, you know, worried, I'm not really sure that's the word, but it's in my zeitgeist. How does this end?

I had begun this book, and then I went through a health crisis in which I lost vision in one eye. Oh, I'm so sorry. But the resulting thing is that with the other one, I was seeing double. So all these questions of whether or not I was going to finish what I had started, I And what would be, how I would end it all.

It was right up against me, you know, how will this end? And in a way, when I was able to slowly, you know, with a magnifying glass, get back to work, I felt instead of like this dread, I felt this kind of joy, this rebirth that. I had returned to writing out of the sheer joy and playfulness, the careerism, the, the getting published, the getting attention, all that stuff that had kind of bowed me.

I was out of the game and now I could write and enjoy myself again. And that has been one of the gifts of this. So, yeah, I was, these issues were very much alive in a personal way. And also I, you know, this was during COVID where death was. all around us and how to navigate this landscape with these figures of people dying that became, I mean, unbelievable and hard to picture.

You know, it just felt like we were living in this underworld. And so, yeah, the issues of, I mean, we're seeing it now with presidential candidates. Is it appropriate? Does a writer stop writing? I mean, you have the Alice Monroe's and Philip Roth's who say, that's it. I'm, you know, I'm done. And many of them come back and say, but on the other hand, one more thing, but still, you know, it's a sense that I'm never going to stop writing.

It's part of how I breathe and put things together, but you know, whether or not your stories are going to be told out there in the larger public, it's just a question, you know, and it's not that. The book comes to any conclusion or message, but it does what I love fiction can do and what Chekhov said was the task of the writer, not to solve the problem, but to state it correctly, to have the questions and wonder about them and not stick your head in the sand, but look at them from varying angles of when do you sit down?

and applaud the new generations coming, you know, their writing, their talent, their energy, their brilliance. I mean, I believe in evolution. When I see some of these young writers writing incredible books, I couldn't have written at their age. So yeah, it's questions that we ask ourselves, you know, when do I step back and, you know, let my face sag and my, my body do what gravity does to it with the years and not try to be.

You know, a cosmetic surgery beauty, and that, how does that apply to the writing?

Zibby: Can you tell me more about the things that had taken your joy away?

Julia: Well, I think all of us that, you know, are trying to be writers have, in the course of now, my gosh, almost 50 years in this world, have seen more and more the writers are taken into a public sphere.

I mean, think about an Emily Dickinson. I that's the extreme. Okay. Cause you also have the self promoter Walt Whitman, but usually a writer wrote the book. And the way I responded to a book I love is I would stroke the cover. I would hold it. I would reread it. I would head for the library and find the next book, uh, or another book by that writer.

And now. You go online and there's all kinds of other accessories to the book and you as a writer are asked to participate in that and it can be overwhelming especially some writers have the personality to do that and do that well and do that joyfully and some are more You know, they have Emily Dickinson genes and it's hard for them to be out there.

And, you know, there, there's a kind of exposure after being so intensely private and writing for years, you're out there and it can become overwhelming. And also if it took you a long time to get there, I didn't publish Garcia girls till I was 41. I see young, struggling writers. And I think. You know, someone helped me out, you know, someone sat in my front row and clapped and said, Bravo, someone did that, you know, and I want to, if I have the microphone, share it and feel part of a community, and that involves sometimes adding on, adding on, and soon you're just overwhelmed with just how much you can do and still have a life.

And students and other things that are important. So that's the thing that can get stale on the public sphere on the private sphere. You've learned certain things. And as I said before, part of the excitement of writing is to try to find things out to try to discover things. And when you feel like you already know them, you can't learn something you think you already know.

So you have to release, not, you don't already know everything, but you have to release that kind of mind frame so that you can rediscover and everything is fresh again. And that's something you have to regain with each book, I feel, you know, that kind of, Okay. This is a different book. Moms know this, you know, this is a different child.

What work with the first one is not going to work this time. And I have to relearn this role with this child or with this book.

Zibby: That's an interesting analogy. Back to your whole book mom thing. This is great. Just keep this going. How in the course of your career, how have you learned to deal with Trends, or the market, or any of that versus what you feel like writing, like what do you do with all that? Or do you just ignore it?

Julia: Well, I think, uh, luckily, for a writer with my personality, I live in Vermont, where sometimes I'm the last person to know things. Or I'll find out that word is a trigger word or this is, oh, you know, nobody told me that. So I think part of it is I don't live in like a hub like New York or Boston where there's readings and tons and tons of bookstores out here in the countryside.

So there's a larger book of nature and, and community and old rhythms. Which I'm more involved in than a literary world. And so trends, of course, I'm aware of them. I mean, in a sense, you could say that benefited me because I was trying to get published in the eighties and I would get things rejected. And it was sort of like books about.

Latino characters, or by us, were kind of like sociology, not literature. And then came this huge multicultural boom, you know, you think of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, and all of a sudden the literary doors blew open, and everybody became interested. And this multicultural writing and the writing of Latin America, the Latin American boom.

So in a way it benefited me. But then, you know, there's always the downside that you become, you know, what was it that Adichie talked about? The, the danger of, of a single story. You become like, This is the story of Dominicans, so you don't want that because you're not a brand and you're not a spokesperson.

So it's got its double edge, these trends. And I think, you know, finally, I'm more interested in a culture of true inclusiveness and generosity, where you don't get down in your ethnic or racial or literary bunker, because we're all in this together. And if anything teaches us that, it's the world of story.

You know, where anybody can become somebody else, totally unlike who they are across time and gender and even species. So that's why I came to story and I have to remind myself that's why I'm still there, not to be, you know, A brand or, and I really never want to get involved when there's kind of a, I don't know, going after a writer for this, that, or the other, because I think we're all on a learning curve.

And if we make a mistake publicly and we grow from it and we're chastened by it and we get bigger because of it, for heaven's sakes, you know, we got bigger things to do than, you know, ussing and theming and all of that stuff.

Zibby: I totally agree. That's very wise and very true. I'm not a fan of cancel culture.

Julia: Oh my god. Oh, finally. Yeah, I, I lost the word as I was talking to you. Yes. Cancel culture. How scary is that that we would do that to people? I mean, some people are truly egregious and refuse to recognize their issues and they need to be called out on it, but not buried.

Zibby: Yes.

Julia: As much as we would want with certain people.

Zibby: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Julia: Oh, so classic for my boomer generation, but I'm, I'm a meditator and I'm a yoga person, and I do believe in a practice and writing is no different. The practice of writing, it's a habit that you embed in your life. If every day I said, well, you know, I don't feel like doing that yoga, I don't have the bandwidth to meditate.

You still do it. It's not going to be perfect. The same with writing. It's a way of life. Ensure the publications, the attention, that you've done good, girl. Applause is great and gives you fuel for going forward on those things. difficult days, but it's really about that love. That's what I said. It was so important to regain that joy, that joy in writing that not that it's easy.

It's, you're still pulling your hair, but there's something that feels enlarging. You lose yourself. The world becomes as Filomena says, once she listens to these stories, her heart becomes larger. There's more room in it for everybody else. And that's That's its own reward.

Zibby: I love that. Oh my gosh. Thank you.

You did a great job on one of your first podcasts. That's it.

Julia: As I said, I got a little scared when I saw your color coded bookshelf. No, no, no. I don't even have my fiction and my poetry properly. So I have to search all my bookshelves, and there's a lot of them, to find certain things.

Zibby: Yeah, I can't, I can't find anything, but it looks pretty, so there you go.

Julia: Zibby, what about when they do a new edition and they change the color of the cover? How do you deal with that?

Zibby: I'm not touching that wall. I don't care what happens. I don't care if there's a paperback. I don't, I don't know. That's not moving anywhere, and everything else can be shoved in somewhere else.

Julia: Oh, yeah, along with keeping the same page numbers, no matter the edition, because as a teacher, you're always worried, oh, a new edition.

If I say turn to page 42, will everyone have the same thing on page 42? That should be a requirement. Keep the same color for Zibby. Keep the same

Zibby: color. Yes, yes. Thank you very much.

Julia: Hashtag, same color cover for Zibby.

Zibby: Well, thank you for the new hashtag. Now we have book mom and this one. Yeah, there you go.

Julia: Thank you.

Zibby: Okay. Have a great day.

Julia: Bye bye.

Zibby: All right. Bye bye.


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