I haven’t blogged for quite a long time, but I’m excited to have author Silvia Villalobos with us today to discuss her writing, in particular her new short story collection, Start Again, and the re-release of her novel Stranger or Friend.
LC: Welcome, Silvia! Before we get into Start Again, please tell us a bit about yourself: When did you first start writing, and what drew you to the craft?
SV: I grew up in a large family, a small house, with little space of my own. So, I created my inner path to space through reading, then came the writing. There was a lot of French Revolution crime fiction and tragic romance in our local library. Everything was shrouded in secrecy and mystery and tragedy. Looking back, some of my first story ramblings had a lot of tragedy in them. Maybe over the top. Then again, the idea of tragic has permitted European literature for a long time given the continent’s history.
My first story was a school project on Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu. We were dissecting his poem, Luceafarul (Evening Star). Then, fifteen years ago, I joined a writers’ group and that broadened my writing horizon with prompts and feedback that eventually made my writing publishable. As the saying goes, the journey is the adventure. I loved every step along the way.
LC: And what an interesting journey you’ve had so far!
Do you write full or part time?
SV: I fight to make writing time as life gets in the way. So, I don’t write full time in the sense of number of hours, like at a job, but I push and demand time, even if that means: pizza for dinner, everyone.
LC: Do you have a special place where you like to write?
SV: Anywhere I can sit with my laptop. Most often that’s at home, just me and the words on the computer screen. The sense of familiarity helps. So does the comfort of home.
LC: Music or no music while writing?
SV: I really love the silence. Noise makes creativity go on its own tangent, no easy way to reel it back. I recently read that silence is one of our most underappreciated productivity tools, particularly with all the interruptions and beeps and tech sounds that make concentrating nearly impossible. So, I love my silence.
LC: Do you have writing partners who critique your work before submission? If so, why do you think this is important?
SV: Oh, yes on the critique partners. Not so much today, but I used to belong to a critique group for years. My writing was taken apart, sometimes excessively so. I remember when working with my editor, many things she suggested I add or remove were parts I removed or added as a result of those critiques. That said, having a piece of writing critiqued is immensely important. I was no longer able to judge objectively after writing and reading scenes to the point I had them memorized. It’s impossible to set aside prejudices and interpretations. Having the manuscript evaluated is important. Then comes the time to learn what critique to take and when to politely say no, thank you.
LC: Short stories can be difficult to write, to get across the characters, their emotions, their relationships, in a few pages. And you have succeeded brilliantly. Besides these stories, you’ve published your novel Stranger or Friend. Do you find either genre—short story or novel—easier to write than the other?
SV: Short stories are infinitely harder to write than novels. However, a writer would come out a better crafter, better artist, after writing short stories, I think. As Tobias Wolff said: Everything has to be pulling weight in a short story. There is not much room for exposition, backstory, internal thought. There are fewer words with which to set the scene, describe the characters, weave an engaging plot. As a result, the language must be tighter. Yet details need to be preserved. Can’t have subplots, not many, so important parts must be in the main plot. Description, setting, conflict, they all cross into one another’s territory as a result. Short stories must be concise but also contain a narrative that satisfies the reader.
Novels, on the other hand, give the writer time to ponder to reflect to get to know characters and places. Novels can take years to complete, and take detailed planning or no planning at all, depending on the writer.
LC: I would classify your work in Start Again as literary fiction versus, for instance, chick lit or some other mainstream genre. (And some reviews for Stanger or Friend put that novel in the literary fiction genre as well.) Do you agree that your work is “literary”? Is this a style that comes naturally to you?
SV: Start Again is literary fiction — women literary fiction as the stories focus on women centered issued. But more than that, I would say they are life issues.
Writing short stories comes naturally now, but it took years to get to this point. Anything that doesn’t take years and drive you crazy hardly seems worth doing in writing, right?
The novel, Stranger or Friend, falls under the umbrella of mystery as a literary mystery, rather than police procedural or whodoneit. The difference, I think, is in more character development, a storyline that reaches for broader emotional development — all elements surrounding the murder, and at its heart, the mystery.
The novel’s inspiration was a long-departed family member. Since I am an immigrant, the main concept running through the novel is the idea of leaving home. Then, the question: Can you go home again? Return to a place from the past and expect it to be the same as we remember it? Interesting concept to explore for me, and in Stranger or Friend for the main character, Zoe Sinclair.
After Start Again, I am going to devote my time to writing mystery novels. I need breathing room in writing, and novels offer that in spades. I am forever grateful for having had the inspiration and impetus to write Start Again.
LC: Start Again is filled with such interesting characters, all with their own unique struggles or dilemmas, and all somehow managing to “start again.” For our readers, here are brief synopses of the stories about five different women who go through the unpredictable moments that make life extraordinary.
1. An Affair of the Heart.
Tess, a young wife, is thrown a curveball when her well-constructed plan goes awry. As she unravels a host of secrets, a new and different life opens up before her.
2. Survivor, flash fiction.
Paige, a young professional who is only happy when she is unhappy, discovers a few important things about friendship when she needs it the most.
Ioana, and indirectly Wayde, learn to deal with different heartaches while on a beach in a foreign country for Wayde and home for Ioana.
4. The Friend
Eve had put her trust in the wrong ‘friend’ and must do everything in her power to save her family.
Mia fights back an abusive partner in the game of her life.
Where did you find inspiration for these characters and their stories?
SV: Every story in Start Again is inspired by someone I know closely or distantly (Survivor, Ioana), a story that was relayed to me (Friend, Games) or mixtures of stories told around me (An Affair of the Heart). There was a great deal of attachment to the stories. In Survivor – for example – Paige (based on a friend) can be viewed as only happy when she is unhappy. She is hardly approachable, yet her friend finds a way to the real Paige in her most vulnerable time. By the end, Paige is viewed in a surprisingly different light.
Each story goes through that transformation to some extent. They are short stories full of surprises and unexpected character development. Short stories of the human kind.
LC: For me, the stories’ topics and themes seem to build from ones that most readers will relate to, to ones that are sure to surprise, if not shock, the reader. And I mean this in a good way, with each story grabbing your attention from the beginning. Did you consciously arrange the stories in the order as they’re presented in the book?
SV: Each story was originally published by literary magazines – on their own, not together. This is the first time they appear as a collection. So, there were several things to keep in mind: order of publication, how they build on one another, and also the power each story has.
An Affair of the Heart comes with a certain immediacy, then takes half a step back to tell the story before boom, we see a transformation. Survivor is short – a flash. The Friend, while on the longer side compared to other stories, has a sense of immediacy – first person point of view—while it takes the time to quickly look at the past in order to make sense of the present. A balancing combination. Ioana is the only story to start and finish in a man’s point of view. It is also the only story set in Romania, my native country, and as a bonus by the Black Sea. A whole different vibe to shake things up right before The Games, a story of surprises to conclude the series.
LC: When you wrote the stories, did you have a target audience in mind? Do you think these are stories for women readers, or do you see men enjoying them as well?
SV: They are stories about women, but all have male characters either present or implied. They are stories dissecting important aspects of life: marriage, illness, family, relationships. They are stories that touch on some of the most difficult parts of life and show that no matter what we can Start Again. In that respect, they are stories for women and men.
LC: I love many of your descriptions. A couple examples:
“His new friends cleansed their souls of stress hard, like one might scrape off dirt. They brandished worries aside, but only for the night. A volcano very much alive.”
“The place conjures up memories as fuzzy as an old TV.”
When we write, there’s always a first draft (at least) that will need editing. But do you take the time to find the right words and phrases as you write, or do you “pound out” the first draft then fill in the details?
SV: Good question. I pound out the first draft. The story takes many forms until it reaches the final product. I definitely don’t plan it out much. The deeper narrative you point out comes out at times immediately – the expression just there for me to grab — other times I write and rewrite until it sounds like beautiful music. My favorite mysteries are more than questions surrounding a murder. They bring the characters and the places close to the reader through depth of narrative.
LC: You are re-releasing Stranger or Friend December 15, 2021. Please tell us about that, and if you have any other works in progress.
SV: Stranger or Friend was originally published by Solstice Publishing in 2015 and the contract renewed. The novel did very well. Now, we are coming up on another contract renewal. There is no substitute to working with a publisher, to being accepted in an industry where it’s so hard to get past the first query letter. To then go through the editing process, pre-release and release, marketing. Through it all, my publisher set the course and led the way. An invaluable lesson and a great relationship. Now, we’ve reached past that point with Stranger or Friend. I don’t know what the future holds with other novels, but we’ve agreed I can take it from here with this one. So, I am re-releasing Stranger or Friend under new cover and with addition (not major to the storyline) in October or November.
Next year, I will be releasing another Zoe Sinclair mystery novel. Since it’s been in the works for some time, I’m looking forward to sharing all the details, and looking forward to bringing the reader to California, where this story is set. Hope to see you soon.
Thank you for having me, Linda. Solitary figures behind a keyboard that we are, it’s nice to talk to another writer. Here is to reading and writing.
LC: And thank you, Silvia. Such an interesting discussion! Best of luck with your writing.
Silvia Villalobos is a native of Romania who lives immersed in the laid-back vibe of Southern California. She writes mystery novels and short stories. Her debut novel, Stranger or Friend, was published by Solstice Publishing in 2015. Her short stories have appeared in The Riding Light Review and Red Fez, among other publications.
Start Again, a short-story collection, is her newest publication.
Visit Silvia here:
Blog Silvia Writes: https://wordpress.com/view/silviatomasvillalobos.wordpress.com