Four questions for Xochitl Gonzalez regarding her first novel, “Olga Dies Dreaming”
XOCHITL GONZALEZ earned an MFA from the venerable Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Prize for Fiction. She won the 2019 Disquiet Literary Award and her work has been published in Restlessness, vogueand The cup. Gonzalez is a contributor to Atlantic, where his weekly newsletter, “Brooklyn, Everywhere”, explores the gentrification of people and places. Before starting her MFA, she was an entrepreneur and strategic consultant for almost 15 years. Gonzalez serves on the board of the Lower East Side Girls Club. The Brooklyn native, who proudly proclaims to be an alumnus of the New York public school system, earned her BA in Fine Arts from Brown University. She lives in her hometown of Brooklyn with her dog, Hectah Lavoe.
Gonzalez’s first novel, Olga dies dreaming, was published in January by Flatiron Books. Set in 2017, the story centers on Olga Acevedo, a wedding planner for Manhattan’s elite, and her brother, Pedro, a popular congressman who represents their gentrified Latinx neighborhood in Brooklyn. These seemingly successful lives conceal a painful family history: their mother, Blanca, had abandoned them to follow her militant political cause for the independence of Puerto Rico; their father, also a political activist, became addicted to heroin and died of AIDS. Raised by their grandmother, Blanca finally returns to her children’s lives as hurricane season also approaches. , and federal indifference.
To say that his first book caused a sensation in literature would be an understatement. It was dubbed the most anticipated book of 2022 by TIME, HipLatina, Ruckus, boston globe, Philadelphia plaintiffand riot bookamong others. Kirkus Called him “[a]atmospheric, intelligent and knowledgeable: an impressive start. And TIME proclaimed, “Xochitl Gonzalez delivers a healthy dose of tough love with his buzzing debut Olga dies dreaming.” “Vibrant and raw”, was BookPageThe verdict. Despite a busy schedule of appearances and interviews, Gonzalez kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her first book.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: One of the things about your journey to becoming a published writer that has interested me is that you made this decision quite late in life – similar to my journey where I started writing at age 39. But I knew very young that I wanted to become a writer and delayed it for various reasons. You dreamed of becoming a writer long before you started, and what was the spark that made you start writing?
XOCHITL GONZALEZ: I had always loved to write and I had always written – I remember writing stories in high school for no reason or purpose other than the desire to write them. I had considered studying it in college, but honestly, I had never considered it a career path – the other people I knew who wanted to write wanted to be journalists, and that wasn’t something what I wanted to do… and apart from that? I just couldn’t fathom such an abstract career path as “novelist.” And then I think when I turned 40 – I had had losses in my personal life in the two years leading up to that birthday – and I was single and had no children and rather than seeing that as an inconvenience, I saw how it could give me the freedom to do what I wanted with my time. I was very influenced by the old biography of Sandra Cisneros: “Sandra Cisneros is nobody’s wife and mother. So I decided to use the flexibility offered by my life and immerse myself in writing and reading – as a writer.
I often tell Latinx students that if we don’t write our stories, someone else will – and they’ll be wrong. as you wrote Olga dies dreamingdid you find that you wanted to address – in some way – inaccurate representations of your culture?
From a Nuyorican and Puerto Rican perspective, I don’t know if I wrote this to fix anything more than I wrote it to make my community feel seen on the page without the burden of the prose explaining for the white gaze. Ironically, if anything seemed “corrective,” it was the Brooklyn of it all. Brooklyn in contemporary literary fiction has become as gentrified as Brooklyn the place, and so I felt the need in my art form to affirm the version of the place I knew and loved. One that had been erased in some ways from cultural reflections on what “Brooklyn” is. I wanted to affirm and correct the representation of what I would consider my other culture, which is Old Brooklyn.
Could you describe the inner workings of the process of writing your novel, and were there any particularly difficult times in completing it?
In the beginning – probably the first hundred pages of writing – I was reading from the top each time I opened the document and made changes, then when I knew the shape of the story I started to plot it more in detail, bit by bit, until I more or less figured out where and how he was going to get there. I had the hardest time getting through – for emotional reasons – the hurricane and making sure he was respectful of this experience and a later section with Olga and finally what was probably my biggest challenge – how to end it. But, honestly, most of the really hard work was in review and making sure I was looking at some hard emotional truths that these characters were being honest about their feelings and their journeys.
You are now 44 years old. If you could go back in time and give your young student one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would tell him to never play small and never shrink.
Daniel A. Olivas is a playwright, critic, author of 10 books and editor of two anthologies. His books include How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2022), The King of Lights: Stories (University of Arizona Press, 2017), and Crossing the border: collection of poems (Press of the Pact, 2017). Twitter: @olivasdan.