Podcast

Bringing Voice to Your Stories: 5 Questions for Natalia Sylvester

“If you haven’t yet seen stories like yours out there, it doesn’t mean the world doesn’t need them; it actually means the exact opposite.” –Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the award-winning author of several novels for adults and young adults. CHASING THE SUN was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad and EVERYONE KNOWS YOU GO HOME won an International Latino Book Award and the 2018 Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. Natalia’s debut YA novel, RUNNING, was a 2020 Junior Library Guild Selection, and her second novel for young adults, BREATHE AND COUNT BACK FROM TEN was one of Kirkus’s and NY Public Library’s Best Books of 2022. A MALETA FULL OF TREASURES, Natalia’s first picture book (illustrated by Juana Medina), will be published by Dial Books in 2024. Natalia’s non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, Bustle, Catapult, Electric Literature, Latina magazine, and McSweeney’s Publishing. Her essays have been anthologized in collections such as A MAP IS ONLY ONE STORY and A MEASURE OF BELONGING: WRITERS OF COLOR ON THE NEW AMERICAN SOUTH. Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia came to the US at age four and grew up in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. She received a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami, was a 2021 Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and was formerly a faculty member at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University.

 

On Wednesday, March 22nd, Natalia Sylvester is teaching a class for the WLT called “Giving Your Story a Voice with Dialogue. In this class you’ll learn more about how to create clever and compelling dialogue.

Here’s what Natalia had to share with us:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Natalia Sylvester: I write novels for readers of all ages. My first two novels, Chasing the Sun and Everyone Knows You Go Home, are adult literary novels, and my last two books are YAs: Running and Breathe and Count Back from Ten. Up next is my first picture book, A Maleta Full of Treasures, which will be out in spring 2024 from Dial/Penguin Random House.

I started writing pretty much as soon as I learned to read, but even though I spent all of my childhood writing poems and being a student journalist, I didn’t call myself a writer until I was in college. One day I got lost on campus and wandered into the Humanities building, where I saw a brochure for the creative writing program. I hadn’t ever thought of creative writing as something you could teach. Perhaps I imagined that all the books that ever were and ever will be had just magically appeared out of thin air. But that day was a turning point for me; it was the first time I began imagining that this was something I could actually do. The rest is history.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

NS: I try to be patient and trust not only the process, but myself. I think that writing, because it can come from such deeply personal and meaningful-to-us places, can be incredibly scary, but for that same reason, incredibly rewarding. So it makes sense to me that the process itself would be full of these dualities: fear and longing to tell a story, passion but difficulty sticking to our goals, confidence but doubt. When I’m deep in a draft of something, I’m constantly in conversation with myself, not only about the characters and the story, but also about what I want to say, what it all means. I try to set small goals for myself: even if one day I write one line, that’s one more than yesterday. To me, discipline is less about doing huge things all at once, and more about doing small things, over and over and over.

 Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

NS: Yes! Those are the best and most fleeting moments. Somehow for me they always happen when I’m actually not writing: I was brushing my teeth when a critical revelation came to me about a character in Everyone Knows You Go Home. I was listening to a keynote speaker at a book festival when the voice of Vero in Breathe and Count Back from Ten finally came to me. These moments are short-lived but reassuring, because they’re proof that, even when we’re not literally writing, we’re still writing, in so many meaningful ways that we can later bring to the page. And they remind me that if I want to nurture my craft and myself as a writer, then I have to nurture my whole life and my whole self, as a person. I may not always feel like I know what I’m doing as a writer, but the things that I do outside of writing always manage to inform my craft and my storytelling.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

NS: Read and read and keep going. Understand that if you haven’t yet seen stories like yours out there, it doesn’t mean the world doesn’t need them; it actually means the exact opposite.

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

NS: That there’s a difference between writing dialogue that feels natural in a storytelling sense and writing dialogue that sounds exactly how we actually speak in real life (spoiler alert: that’s never my goal). I don’t think the purpose of writing is to transcribe life as-is. I think the point is to be truthful and shine meaning that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do without storytelling. So the trick is to make dialogue sound like it’s real, but in a way that tells a story.

Thanks, Natalia!

Click here to learn more about Natalia Sylvester’s upcoming class.

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