Julia Alvarez's inspiration for her book Return To Sender arose from the increasing requests for her to translate Spanish in her local Vermont faming community. As the population of Mexican immigrant workers increased there, she saw the impact that immigration had on children and decided: "We need a story about this."
Surrounded by a huge family who loved to tell stories, Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic during the time of a harsh dictatorship. Her father joined an underground movement to overthrow the dictator. At age 10, her family was forced to flee overnight when someone discovered the plot. Feeling homesick and bullied as a foreigner in the United States, young Julia loved it when her teacher suggested that she write stories about herself and the place she still called home. When the children learned about her, the bullying stopped. Through the next few years, she fell more in love with the world of literature. By age 15, she was hooked on writing.
Over decades of returning to the Dominican Republic to visit family, she noticed that many children there could not read. She founded Alta Gracia to teach the uneducated and eager children on those farms. There, she encourages her young pupils to "read, read, read and write, write, write." Great advice for TFK readers, too! Read on to hear more of TFK's interview with Julia Alvarez.
Return to Sender presents a new way of looking at immigration laws that relates especially to kids. Do you view it as a protest to immigration laws?
I don't think novels are about trying to give messages, or having a view that you hit your reader over the head with. I think that the best way to protest or to talk about issues is to humanize them, in other words, to tell the reader about the characters in the situation and to let the reader make up her mind. You know that old saying, "If you walk in a man's shoes, you understand how he feels about things." I feel that if you understand what it's like to be Tyler and Maria, whatever your point of view is going to be on the immigration law issue, it's going to come from the heart, and from understanding. So I would say it's not a protest, but it's a way of getting people to understand the complexity of the issue.
Did you know what Mari's character would be like at the beginning, or did she develop over time?
I was surprised by Mari. This is the thing I love about Mari. People think you write because you have answers and you know a lot, but you write things because you're curious and you want to find out. So when Tyler had these three Mexican workers move in, I didn't know that one of them would surprise his family and me by coming with three daughters! Sometimes you're surprised at what happens as you're writing. Maybe over here there's a discovery that means making a revision over there. So part of revision is that you'll have to go back and prepare for the new discovery because you didn't know it was going to happen at the beginning.
Part of what I do when I research is read a lot about characters like my character. I read a lot of children's diaries from the Holocaust, and a lot of documentaries about kids in a similar situation to my characters so that I could understand what these characters would be like.
What was your process for coming up with the plot? Did you make it up as you went?
Every writer's different. My process is more trial and error. I'm not a plotter that way. I think in part it's because I would get bored if I knew everything that was going to happen. There's a wonderful poet named Robert Frost, who said in terms of writing, "No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader."
When you are not reading and writing, what do you do in your spare time?
My husband loves to farm. In Vermont we have three cows, three calves, fifty-two chickens and a dozen rabbits. He needs a helper, and I help him. Then, we have a coffee farm in the Dominican Republic. You can go on my website and read about it; it's called Alta Gracia. We started a school on the farm for kids in the community to learn how to read and write. So that keeps me busy.
Plus, when I finish a book I am thinking of what to write next. So, I have to learn new things. That's the fun about writing books.