Author Interview: Alexandra Villasante



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The Grief Keeper

by Alexandra Villasante


Seventeen-year-old Marisol has always dreamed of being American, learning what Americans and the US are like from television and Mrs. Rosen, an elderly expat who had employed Marisol's mother as a maid. When she pictured an American life for herself, she dreamed of a life like Aimee and Amber's, the title characters of her favorite American TV show. She never pictured fleeing her home in El Salvador under threat of death and stealing across the US border as "an illegal", but after her brother is murdered and her younger sister, Gabi's, life is also placed in equal jeopardy, she has no choice, especially because she knows everything is her fault. If she had never fallen for the charms of a beautiful girl named Liliana, Pablo might still be alive, her mother wouldn't be in hiding and she and Gabi wouldn't have been caught crossing the border.

But they have been caught and their asylum request will most certainly be denied. With truly no options remaining, Marisol jumps at an unusual opportunity to stay in the United States. She's asked to become a grief keeper, taking the grief of another into her own body to save a life. It's a risky, experimental study, but if it means Marisol can keep her sister safe, she will risk anything. She just never imagined one of the risks would be falling in love, a love that may even be powerful enough to finally help her face her own crushing grief.

June 11th, 2019

Introduce yourself and your debut novel!

My name is Alexandra Villasante and my debut, THE GRIEF KEEPER is the story of Marisol and Gabi Morales, sisters from El Salvador who flee the violence of their homeland and escape to the United States. Once here, they’re caught by ICE where Marisol is given an unusual choice: be immediately deported – which for both sisters would be a death sentence – or participate in a cutting edge clinical trial for a device that treats PTSD by transferring grief from one person to another.

It’s a risky, experimental study, but if it means Marisol can keep her sister safe, she will risk anything. She just never imagined one of the risks would be falling in love, a love that may even be powerful enough to finally help her face her own crushing grief.

The Grief Keeper is a tender tale that explores the heartbreak and consequences of when both love and human beings are branded illegal.


What’s the most surprising part about your debut journey so far?

I’ve been surprised at the pace of publishing. In the beginning everything was S-L-O-W. I signed the publishing contract with Penguin in 2017. Then, proverbial crickets. I worked on another book. I worked my day job and I joined debut groups like the lovely Nove19s. Then I got my edit letter and had a very tight deadline – flop sweat, gnashing of teeth, turn in the edits…then crickets again. It’s a very hurry-up-and-wait kind of business and while it takes some getting used to, I kind of like it! I must be a glutton for punishment (!) but it suits me.


Give a shout-out to a fellow debut!

I’ve had the pleasure of discovering so many amazing debut authors, and reading only a fraction of what I want to read (why is sleep necessary again?) But the book I cannot wait to get my grabby hands on is ZIGGY, STARDUST & ME by James Brandon. It promises to be so moving, have so much heart and LOOK AT THAT COVER. I cannot wait.


Who is your favorite character?

I often say that I based Marisol on my older sister, Anamari because she, like Marisol, was a fiercely protective sister. For that reason, my (secret) favorite character is the younger sister and full time peste (pest) Gabi. I identify with her little-sister yearning to be all the things, experience all the things, and to pull free of Marisol’s protection – even having gone through some harrowing experiences, Gabi’s spirit is unbroken, and I love her for it.


What inspired you to write this book?

People say that this book is ‘topical’ because immigration is such a hot-button issue these days. But as the daughter of immigrants, it’s always been something I’ve thought about. When my parents arrived in America, they struggled with language, culture and employment – like countless immigrants before them. Thinking about them and how they’d take on any burden to give my sister and I a better life, I wondered what would happen if there was a way to transfer intangible burdens—grief, fear, anxiety— from privileged people to immigrants. What would happen if you could be paid to carry someone else’s emotional burdens? Would they overwhelm you? What would it mean for you and your own burdens? These questions were just the starting point of the thought experiment that became THE GRIEF KEEPER. Marisol’s character and her situation came out of this seed, and the research I did looking into current day immigration issues.


Describe your writing space.

I have a desk. It’s full of bills and reminders from my kids’ schools. So I don’t usually write there. I take my laptop to the dining room table where I can look out into nature in our yard (true story: my kids used to call the large dining room windows ‘bunny TV’ because they’d be fascinated by watching the wild bunnies frolic in the back yard.) That’s where I usually write. Having said that, I can and have written everywhere: coffee shops, in my car, on a train, in a bathroom, during a business call (shhhhh), on the beach, on a plane—even once in a movie theater – but I was way in the back and the movie my kids dragged me to was reeeellly terrible!


What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I did a lot of research for THE GRIEF KEEPER including speaking to an immigration lawyer, and an expert in PTSD and neurotransmitters. I dug through research reports from Amnesty International, International Rescue Committee and Immigration Equality. But I did nearly all my research after I started writing the book. The research informed the places the book went (and didn’t go) and affected what I would highlight and what I would let sit in the background. That’s the beauty of fiction – you can cherry pick the research that makes sense, rings true for your story. Also, I’m a quasi-pantser – can you tell?


What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

My agent, Barbara Poelle has the most amazing author clients and I am honored to call many of them my friends. Kerri Maniscalco and I were crit partners back before either of us were published and we continue to cheer each other on. Traci Chee, Renée Ahdieh and James Brandon are also Poelleans and I have the feeling that if we lived closer to each other we might start a very fashionable street gang. Anna-Marie Mclemore was my mentor at Highlights Foundation last year and though I still get a little star struck when she texts me—because she’s a beautiful writer and her words have been known to seize my heart—I’m happy to call her hermana.


And the debut groups I’ve joined – Novel Nineteens, Class2k19 and Las Musas – full of incredible writers, who know that writing is never done in a vacuum, but in community with others. I scoff (scoff, I tell you) at people who say they’ve written a book all by themselves. No. You. Didn’t. You had friends who listened to you, told you to keep going, warned you when something was dumb and boosted you up when you thought you would sink. I am more grateful for my author friends than I can say.


Share your favorite song!

This is the song that’s in an early scene when Rey and Marisol are out alone together and Rey clearly wants to show Marisol a little of her world. In my head, Perfume Genius is one of Rey’s favorite artists. And, though Marisol doesn’t know it, Rey is trying to tell Marisol something by playing this song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EVhFTw4igw

Thanks for interviewing, Alexandra! Reader, make sure you pick up this book on 6/11/19!

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Sofiya Pasternack | sofiya@sofiyapasternack.com

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