Xochitl Gonzalez, OLGA DIES DREAMING

Xochitl Gonzalez, OLGA DIES DREAMING

“The idea that people value what you wrote enough to give you that time to read it… what a privilege that time was spent with your book.” Zibby is joined by debut novelist Xochitl Gonzalez to talk about her book, Olga Dies Dreaming, out this week. The two talk about Xochitl’s thirteen-year career as a luxury wedding planner as well as when she knew it was time to make a change, which led her down a path to publication. Xochitl also shares why her protagonist is like her if she had never started therapy, which aspects of the book were inspired by her real life, and how important it was for her to be involved in the Hulu adaption of the novel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Xochitl. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Olga Dies Dreaming.

Xochitl Gonzalez: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited to chat about this, especially — I think you’re a native New Yorker also, yes?

Zibby: I am a native New Yorker, yes.

Xochitl: Awesome.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners what Olga Dies Dreaming is about?

Xochitl: Olga Dies Dreaming is a family saga set primarily in Brooklyn and secondarily, I’d say, in Puerto Rico. It’s set in 2017 in the months before and after Hurricane Maria. It follows Olga Acevedo, who’s a wedding planner to Manhattan’s elite, and her brother Prieto, who’s a congressman representing Sunset Park and Queens. In reality, it’d be Nydia Velázquez’s district. In real life, it would be Nydia’s district, not that we’re trying to get rid of her or anything, but my fictional politician. They were abandoned by their mother when they were young children. Their parents were Young Lords, which is sort of a political movement of the early seventies. Their mother continued to get radicalized. She left them to pursue more militant politics. They were raised by their grandmother. We meet them as adults where they’re forced through circumstance to confront a lot of wounds that they had swept under the rug. I kind of think of it as a midlife coming-of-age novel in a funny way. We think of a coming-of-age novel only being about kids. I think we all often meet middle-aged adults who have not healed. This is my way of looking at how healing and forgiveness and finding self-satisfaction can come at any stage in life. That’s the gist of it. It does get political. It involves natural disasters. It involves gentrification. At its heart, it’s really a story about family and love and lots of different kinds of love, familial love, romantic love. I always say it’s really about resilience. It touches on some dark stuff, but in the end, I think of it as a pretty feel-good kind of book.

Zibby: That was a great description. This is one of those books where the minute you start reading, you’re drawn in right away, that immediacy and relatability and intrigue and everything. It opens up with the wedding planning scene and this dichotomy between how the rich and the poor deal with their napkins at events. It also shows right away, Olga’s role in her family and the competition she has with her cousin and how she tries to be almost a Robin Hood-esque wedding planner, taking the spoils from the weddings and bring them home. It’s an example of creating a likeable character immediately, which is great. It was just great.

Xochitl: I think it’s kind of fun to have morally dubious but likable characters. We were just chatting before we started recording. One of the things that the pandemic has revealed is all of our weird, flawed logic. It’s like, I won’t go to this, but I was going to go to my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. I think we all have weird logical patterns that I think this has exposed. We used to try to pretend that we all think normally about everything. Olga, she just has this bizarre logic pattern that somehow, you follow it. You’re like, I think what you’re doing might be wrong, but I follow where you’re going with this. You go along for the ride. I had a lot of fun writing that. I always say that she’s kind of like if I’d never gone to therapy.

Zibby: That’s actually the best writing assignment ever. Write a character as if you’d never gone to therapy in a world where you hadn’t gotten help. That’s great. I love that.

Xochitl: You just extrapolate where you were at when you started therapy and all of your worst traits and just amplify them.

Zibby: I would be stuck on a street corner turning in circles not being able to make any decisions or going one way, changing my mind, going another way. I would literally be in one place changing my mind.

Xochitl: I would just be the pettiest person in the world. I’d be so competitive. This would be really an intriguing exercise. Actually, it was a lot of fun. You’re like, well, is she in a relationship? It’s like, how could she be in a relationship? It was a great way to make choices about the character in a lot of ways. It was a fun, bizarre exercise. She goes through a lot in the book. You kind of come to love these people, but you have to do mean things to them. In the name of growth, it’s like, okay, but she could stand to become a better person. Maybe she’s going to learn something from this. That was my way of being mean to my own characters that I came to really like.

Zibby: You’re so funny. Take me back. I know you’re from New York. I know you went to Brown where you were class president, as we were just chatting about, which is awesome. Tell me more. Tell me about your name. Tell me about where your name comes from. What happened after college? I want to hear your whole backstory. I’m fascinated.

Xochitl: My dad’s side of the family is Mexican American. He was very involved in the Chicano Power Movement. My mom was very involved in the Socialist Worker Party and very politically motivated and militant around independence for Puerto Rico and reparations for the women that had sterilization experiments conducted on them there, which by the way, was a giant part of how we came to actually have FDA-approved birth control, were these experiments that were conducted in Puerto Rico. That’s an aside. My parents were very militant and were constantly traveling. When I was about three, I went to live with my mom’s parents in South Brooklyn. I was always a good student. That kind of came naturally to me. I was a big reader. I tell people it’s hard to imagine — the Brooklyn I grew up in was — cabs didn’t go there. We didn’t take cabs. We were very much in this little blue-collar pocket of Brooklyn. My grandparents would dump me in a library after school to kill time until they were home because that was a safe space to be. I just grew up reading.

Then I went to an amazing high school. I just actually wrote about it for The Atlantic. We had a great theater program. It was in Brooklyn, Edward R. Murrow High School. I had a teacher that was like, “You should try to go to Brown. I think you would love it there.” I really had not thought about going — I wanted to go away. I wanted to get out of Brooklyn badly at that phase of my life. Then as soon as I got out, I was like, I want to go back. They were like, “I think you would really like Brown. It’s got a similar vibe. It’s very artistic,” and all these things. It was totally true. Then to be completely frank, afterwards — I studied fine art and art history. Afterwards, my family was wonderful, so proud of me, unprepared to offer any kind of — nobody in my family knew how to get a job at a gallery. No one really had next steps. I think at that younger age, I was just a little lost. I had the chance to talk to Sandra Cisneros a couple weeks ago for a book festival.

Zibby: I just interviewed her two days ago. I love her.

Xochitl: She’s amazing. One of the things that I said to her, I was like, I never knew what happened to Esperanza when she left Mango Street. I would read it as I got older. I would cry because it was like, oh, my god, so many hard things are going to happen to you. You’re not going to know what to do, but you’re going to have left and it’s the right thing to have done. I worked in a little art gallery. I got a job in advertising planning this award show for advertising. A creative director asked me to help with their wedding, from an ad agency, because they just sort of thought I had good vibes. They didn’t want to have the normal Plaza wedding. My business partner and I, who’s my best friend, we ended up carving this niche where we did luxury hipster weddings. That was our thing. We were very successful at it, but running a small business is very tough, especially if you come from kind of a — I think a lot of Latina women, a lot of women of color, actually, just generally, entrepreneurship provides you a lot of leeway, but often, we’re undercapitalized. We did great, but then you’re surviving a recession, every little thing. Last year at the start of the pandemic, I remember having a fit of anxiety on behalf of all of my friends in events. I was like, oh, my god, an entire industry is just iced out right now.

That is very much something that I did want to keep and capture in Olga, actually, was this idea of the hustle that comes and also a little bit of, I don’t quite know what I’m doing. Sometimes you’re like, and I don’t quite know how I got here. Thirteen years later, I was like, I’ve been a wedding planner for thirteen years? How did this happen? I felt that antsy-ness. I call it an intellectual antsy-ness. I mean, I went to Brown. I was kind of a nerd. I wrote an honors thesis. I was very academic. I was also an artist. I just had left all that behind. My grandmother who had raised me — I was raised by both my grandparents, but my grandmother was my last living grandparent. I should actually say I was raised by three of my grandparents because I would spend summers with my grandmother in California and then winters in Brooklyn. My last living grandparent died maybe a month before I turned forty. We were supposed to go to Puerto Rico for my fortieth. Then Maria happened, and so we couldn’t take the trip. It was in between Irma and Maria. I had a really good friend pass away maybe a year before that at thirty-eight. She was thirty-eight when she passed away. I was just like, what are you doing? Sometimes I think when we do things really well, people compliment you. You’re doing such a great job. You therefore feel like, well, I can’t not do this, if that makes sense. It’s almost scarier to walk away from something that you’re doing pretty well than it is to walk away from something you’re doing mediocrely. Really, I just was like, I’m going to try to do this. Thank god my business partner is one of my best friends.

I stepped away from the business. We ended up selling it to the person that was doing the bulk of the wedding work at that point anyway. I got a day job. I was like, I think it’ll be easier to have a nine-to-five job. Even a hard nine-to-five job is easier than running your own business, just for creative space. I went to Bread Loaf as a contributor. I started out in nonfiction. Then I kind of found a writing group there. I started working on fiction. I decided to apply for my MFA. I got so much better in ten days at Bread Loaf. I was like, let me see what happened. Really, the original thought is, let me just go at night, get my MFA in New York. I’ll work on my book in mornings and weekends. Then hopefully, I can sell it and then get a job in publishing or something. I was like, maybe you could be a middle-aged Latina Toni Morrison without as much talent. You’ll edit. You’ll write. Then I ended up getting into Iowa. I was terrified. I had a rent-stabilized apartment. I was like, what are you going to do? Give up this apartment? My best friend was like, “It’s going to take you twice as long to do this any other way. Just go to Iowa.” I walked into Iowa with two hundred pages of Olga. I started Olga the day I found out I got into Iowa, coincidentally. I had the idea just coincidentally. This whole thing’s been so weirdly blessed. Then I finished it my first semester. I polished it during my winter break. I did revisions. I went down to Puerto Rico. I did revisions there. Then it sold at the beginning of my second semester. It was really a gamble that absolutely paid off. I don’t have a day job now. This is my job. I’m writing. This is really lovely and amazing. It was just this weird thing of finally listening to the voice. I always think my grandmother’s such a happy ghost. I feel like she was like, go, do this. It was this beautiful thing.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that story. Wait, so I’m confused. Had you finished the whole manuscript when you sold it?

Xochitl: Yes. I went from New York to Iowa City. I had two hundred pages of what’s basically almost a four-hundred-page book, but not quite. I got to Iowa City. I was so much older — let me just say, an MFA is a fully-funded . An MFA is an awesome way to get the hamster wheel of adulting if you’re middle-aged and of a stage where you can do that. That was the one benefit. I had been married. We got divorced without having kids. I had moments where I was like, was that a mistake? The only good thing is it was very easy to pack up your life. Not only good thing. There’s other good things about it. It was one of those moments where you found the agency of that. I was like, oh, you can just go, which is kind of exciting. You’re like, I’m kind of, I don’t want to say unaccountable, but I’m like, I could just go and do that. Now I’m going to do it. I was dedicated on the nights and weekends before I got to Iowa to working on this book. I was obsessed, obsessed, obsessed. Then I got to Iowa. I was so much older than all the older students, so much older. The average age in the program was twenty-five, twenty-six. I turned forty-three the of school. No, forty-two.

I was like, okay, what else are you going to do? There’s nothing to do in Iowa City. The food’s okay. There was one place that made a decent martini. I think I left the house like three times a week. I was like, I’m just going to hang out with my imaginary friends here in my apartment. I just was around the clock. It was super exciting. When you have something that you can do that you get in the zone — you’re a writer. More often, life pulls us away from the zone than it is not wanting to be there. It was this amazing present to just get to live in that space. I cranked out an unbelievable amount of work that I didn’t feel badly about, but everything gets better on revision. Everything gets better on revision, but the shape of the story was always kind of the shape of the story. Not a ton changed. The amount of room that Prieto gets and their relationship got stronger on revision. Definitely, the first draft was pretty close in terms of spirit and plot to what it currently is. I think it felt like it came out relatively formed in this weird way, but I feel only because it was placed there by something bigger than me.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. I love it. I love the vision of you sipping a martini in the middle of Iowa desperate for company with all these young people around you. I just love that.

Xochitl: Totally. I would go to this one place. I’m like, are you really eating oysters in Iowa? There was a raw bar. They made a decent martini. I was like, I guess I’ll come here once a week just to feel normal.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. I just love it. Okay, so you sold the book. Then what happened?

Xochitl: I sold the book. Then shortly after, I sold the film rights. This is the awesome part about doing stuff old, older. I met this guy through my agent, who’s a director and producer, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. He had done Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. He’d done a bunch of American Horror Stories. He won an Emmy for it. I was already a fan of his work. Our agents introduced us. He was like, “I want to work on this with you.” Prior to that, my agent had said, “We’d have a better chance of selling these rights if you weren’t attached because you haven’t screen-written. Sometimes people don’t want to work with authors.” I felt, because this character was basically a version of me that had not gone to therapy with a brother and a grandmother instead of grandparents, I was like, no. I said, “It’s ten AM in California. If by six o’clock you can find me another middle-aged Nuyorican screenwriter to talk to, I’ll consider stepping off, but I need to know who –” I’m also part Mexican American. I was like, “It’s not the same. It’s very specific. This world is very specific.” Two hours later, they called. They were like, “Let’s just go out with you attached to it.” A week later, we got an offer from Hulu. That is how that came together. I’d already fallen in creative love with Alfonso and our vision of it together. Then Hulu loved his work. It just came together. I spent my second year of the program basically screenwriting the pilot and working on doing the show bible and then doing revisions on the novel. It was kind of a strange time. I would be in workshop on a Zoom and then have to duck out for five minutes to take a notes call. You’re like, hold on one second. I was really determined to finish. It’s weird. I had a bunch of people that were like, you don’t need to finish this program.

My grandparents always wanted me to get my — what they understood was school. They were like, “Why don’t you have a master’s degree? You’re so smart.” In some weird way, I was doing it for my grandparents. It’s been a really cool experience. As I’ve been prepping this, we shot the pilot. We’re finishing up the audio mix now. We wrapped October 1st. We shot over the course of a month. Now we wait and see if it turns into a full-blown show or not. It’s been a beautiful adventure. It’s been gorgeous to see so many people from different walks of life relate to this story and to these characters and find themselves there. It’s been especially rewarding, I felt a real mission to write about the challenges of upward mobility, but particularly an American story about Puerto Ricans because we are part of America. I think it’s been really amazing — we did the table read. It was over Zoom. There’s a cast of thousands in this script. You’re interacting with different clients. The world is so big. So many people that we cast are Nuyoricans. So many people are Latinas, Latinos. At the end, people were weeping when we got to the end, and clapping. It was the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen on a Zoom, to be completely honest. It was just so moving. I think my desire to even take it to the screen was just because I wanted the story to be broad and for people to see themselves in that way. I was sort of frustrated that we keep getting such flat versions of ourselves. I think things are getting better on the book side, for sure. Oh, my god, I think we’re in the middle of a renaissance of Latinx literature right now that’s really cool. I definitely think on the TV and film, you see how things can get flattened. I think there’s also a sea change coming there. It’s exciting to be a part of that in some way.

Zibby: If you find a great manuscript that needs a home, I started this publishing company called Zibby Books a couple months ago. We are actively acquiring and would love to get something awesome. In your wanderings, if you think of something that would be a good fit, let me know, as an aside.

Xochitl: Okay, I will. Definitely. That’s also been so cool, by the way. To that point, it’s been really beautiful to meet so many Latinx and diverse writers and readers that are so passionate. That’s been a beautiful present that I hadn’t been quite — I guess that’s dumb to not expect that. You’re so worried about getting the revision right. I’ve been wearing many hats now because I’ve been executive producing this show. Bringing a book out, it requires so much love and care and collaboration with your team. I think you’re so in the midst of doing that you sometimes are like, oh, wait, people are going to feel something when they read something. That’s so crazy. Then they are so sweet to share that. That’s a beautiful, amazing thing. Also, just the name of your podcast — one thing that I’ll say wedding planning taught me, many things, but time is the ultimate privilege. I think it’s the thing that is a commodity that universally is scare no matter what your walk of life is. The idea that people value what you wrote enough to give you that time to read it, it’s an even greater transaction than the purchasing of the book in some weird way because I understand how hard that time is to come by. I know it can be relaxing and all these other things, but I think it’s hard right now, so many people work from home and raising families. What a privilege that that time was spent with your book. It’s just really amazing.

Zibby: I feel the same way. Sometimes I’m like, it’s amazing anyone still reads when they’re shorting TikToks from eleven seconds to seven seconds for attention span. Thank god. I love to read. You love to read. I can think of nothing better. Time stands still when I’m reading. I think that’s what I like about it. I stop the constant countdown that’s usually in my head as soon as I’m in it. I have to set an alarm or make sure I don’t miss the next thing when I’m totally in it. I love that freedom, really.

Xochitl: It’s a version of meditation in a weird way because it just pulls you out and makes time sort of stop. That’s a special thing. In fact, it gets more and more special. Maybe that’s why people are still reading, because it’s harder and harder to do that. It’s just harder and harder to do that. Even if you think about it, I remember years ago it would be rude to keep your phone out while you were at a meal. You just didn’t do that. Now it’s so normal that we’re always in two places. When you can get away from that, it’s kind of nice. It’s great.

Zibby: I agree. Now that this is your full-time job and you’re working on your Hulu series and everything, are you going to do another novel? What’s your plan?

Xochitl: I’m in the midst of the second novel. I’m really excited about it, actually. I’m really excited about it. It’s definitely a different process. I think I romanticize now, the writing of Olga because I had this unbridled time where you’re not pulled out of other things. I’m very excited about it. It’s sort of a braided narrative that takes place — part of it’s a campus novel in the nineties. Part of it takes place in the New York art world in the eighties. Time jumps a bit. Really, it’s about lineage and creative power and whose stories are taught and whose stories aren’t taught. How are dynamics amongst creative couples? It’s just something I’m really interested in now. It’s going to be a cool one. I’m excited about it. It will be super different from Olga, but in a good way. I just was telling my friend last night, I was like, the one thing when you’re — I am proud of this first book, but you have to really work hard to not psyche yourself out.

Zibby: It’s a lot.

Xochitl: It’s a lot. I remember years ago, Emma Straub’s third novel came out. I remember it being in my mind. She’s somebody that I admire so much. I remember being like, that’s a real novelist. One book, it’s life experience. Two books, there was some more life experience. Three books, you’re like, all right, you’re a real novelist. At a certain point, you can’t keep mining the same stuff. I’m excited that Flatiron’s giving the second book a home. That’ll be great. It’s important to me to preserve that art form. What I learned in doing television in any capacity was that the beautiful part about it is my version is the one that’s between the covers. It’s like, okay, that would be better for story. Yeah, let’s make that guy his son instead of his brother. That’ll look good for age diversity. You can make, I don’t even want to call them compromises, but different creative choices because your pure version is the version between the book binding. That’s kind of nice.

Zibby: I am so excited. If I were to put my money on a book that’s going to be successful in 2022, I’m choosing yours.

Xochitl: Oh, my gosh, thank you so much.

Zibby: I would be shocked if it’s not a book club pick by one of these big people. I’m sure you couldn’t even say if it was. That’s my prediction. I’m putting it out here. It’s December 2nd. I’m just saying it to the universe.

Xochitl: Thank you so much for being so supportive and enthusiastic about it. It’s really lovely.

Zibby: I’m really excited about it. I can’t wait to see where it all goes and follow your success. That’s it.

Xochitl: Thank you so much. That was really lovely to chat with you.

Zibby: You too.

Xochitl: I love that you do this. I think it’s so cool.

Zibby: I have this publishing company. If you ever want to get more involved or anything, I feel like you would bring such amazing energy to — I don’t know. Anyway, we should talk later.

Xochitl: We should talk. We should totally talk. It’s so good to meet you.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Xochitl: Thank you so much, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Xochitl Gonzalez, OLGA DIES DREAMING

OLGA DIES DREAMING by Xochitl Gonzalez

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