Maximum Shelf author interview: Xochitl Gonzalez

Following Friday’s review of Olga Dies Dreaming, here’s Xochitl Gonzalez: Essential Characteristics.


Xochitl Gonzalez was an entrepreneur and consultant for nearly 15 years before earning her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Prize in Fiction. She won the 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize and her work has been published in Ninth Letter, Joyland magazine, Vogue and The Cut. She serves on the board of the Lower East Side Girls Club. A native Brooklynite and proud public school graduate, Gonzalez received her B.A. in Fine Arts from Brown University, and lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Hectah Lavoe.

You beautifully handle an immense amount of content–personal, family/community and geopolitical. How do you keep all those threads straight?

Xochitl Gonzalez (photo: Mayra Castillo)

From a conceptual standpoint, something that really frustrates me about the political situation in our country and in the world is that, for my friends of color, things feel very personal. The personal is political for lots of us. It’s not just a news story. The genesis of this topic is that I had been planning to go with my friends to Puerto Rico for my 40th birthday, and the whole trip got canceled because my birthday fell between Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

In terms of the technical, the answer is that I was a really good wedding planner. You can’t really lose threads–like, wait, I never called the band back! Gut instinct, we should pick this up again, you forgot about this thing.

To be super technical, part of the divinity of this project: I got to Iowa when I was halfway through the first draft, and Sam Chang was doing a novel workshop. She showed us how she’d outlined points of tension in The Brothers Karamazov. (Her new novel, The Family Chao, is somewhat of an interpretation of that book.) I went back and I did that: wrote every point of tension, and I broke down every chapter and if I felt that I’d dropped a thread, or it had gone on too long since you’d heard a note of it, I went back in revision and cleaned that up.

Olga is certainly at the center of this story, but she’s not the only one. Why switch perspectives?

That was really important to me, and I got a lot of pushback originally. If you really want to be nutty about it, Pink-Floyd-listen-to-the-album-backwards type of thing, every character represents a different political point of view. I don’t want to bog us down, because you don’t have to get that to enjoy the novel. I needed to have Prieto’s point of view because I felt it was important to see the different ways that people can experience their Latinidad and their Puerto Ricanness, and relate to a place that they are extended from. Within a family, I’m always so fascinated by the different ways that a trauma can be experienced by someone four years older, or younger. And of course, [since he’s] a queer man, I wanted his perspective voiced. I think it’s an important perspective in our community.

Dick is representative of America’s role in Puerto Rico, which is passive ambivalence. In his mind he’s just kind of doing what he wants. He’s just moving through the world, looking out for his objective, not actively seeking harm but just not considering the byproduct, right? It’s an exploitative relationship that he has with Olga. I thought it was important to voice that.

What makes Olga so magnetic, do you think?

She is so flawed but keeps trying. She fails but keeps trying. And she’s got humor.

I was thinking about all the characters that kept me company when I was young. Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, Franny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Anne in Anne of Green Gables, all these plucky young women. When I got to be a certain age I had nobody to turn to, and I was like, what happened to Esperanza? I wish I knew. I imagined what qualities that person would have to have. She would have to be ambitious and have a sense of humor to weather the circumstances, the uncharted territory. And strength, because she’s headed places that nobody’s been to and nobody can warn her about, and every step she gets a little further from home, right? That humor, and her resilience–that’s one of the essential characteristics of Puerto Rico. She’s lived so much and just keeps going, with humor. Like a lot of us, a lot of her life, she hasn’t been self-actualized. And this discovery of power is one of the beautiful things about being an American: we actually have some say.

Your various settings share such detail, and such love for these places.

I am a rooted Brooklynite, but I love both places. My Puerto Rico got better on revision. During my winter break my first year of Iowa, I went down and stayed in a one-room Airbnb with a roof deck in San Juan and I wrote out in the sun. I wrote day and night. I walked and I went on trips, and that helped me get it more detailed. I watched a lot of videos of the hurricane and did a lot of visual research.

For Brooklyn, it’s in my soul. I bleed. I had to correct the record. I’ve been reading Brooklyn so much the last couple of decades, and I understood that Brooklyn, because I’ve gentrified myself, right? I know that that exists. But I needed people to see my Brooklyn, the Brooklyn that’s being taken away by gentrification. I wanted to write it tenderly because I feel tender about it. I hadn’t been back home, because of the pandemic, for months, and when I came back I was counting the places that had been torn down. There’s a sense of it fading away, and I felt angry, and I wanted to preserve it with love. I wanted people to see that place that is rooted in working-class families and the rhythms of that kind of life. I wanted to pay homage to that before it changes even more.

Is this a novel with a message to convey, or a novel of individual human stories? Or are those false categories?

I feel polemic writing reverse-engineers a story around a message. It’s the difference between having an agenda versus an organic unfurling of story.

Elizabeth Bowen has an amazing essay on novels, and essentially it says the character is the root. Character makes plot inevitable. I knew who Olga was. I wanted to talk about a Latina woman with some agency and some power but that still is trying to walk in the world with some difficulty, and I knew I wanted to make people give a bit of a sh*t about Puerto Rico. We should care that we have a colony, and because you’re born happenstance one place you have fewer rights than somebody born a three-hour flight away. That should upset us, as people, as Americans. So, character makes plot inevitable. When they hit the circumstance, they can only act in one particular way. This is a book about characters that were specifically chosen to have the background they have because I wanted to discuss what was of interest to me–governance and the experience of Latinx people in the States and in the diaspora. So it’s a bit of both, but it’s designed to be about characters, and they’re engaging around this time, and I picked that point of time to make this all of concern to me. But I didn’t know in the beginning how it would all play out.

I’m so excited about this novel, Xochitl.

It’s very touching that it’s resonated with people who are so different from me and my life experiences, and that’s the beauty of art, right? You take the stuff that happens in life and you turn it into this other stuff that people can appreciate. It’s a powerful thing, really.


This interview originally ran on September 15, 2021 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

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