Gonzalez’s debut 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 elites, and her brother, Pedro, a popular congressman who represents their gentrifying Latinx neighborhood in Brooklyn. Such apparently successful lives cover a painful family history: their mother, Blanca, had abandoned them to follow her militant political cause in support of Puerto Rico’s independence; their father — also a political activist — became addicted to heroin and died of AIDS. Raised by their grandmother, Blanca eventually comes blowing back into her children’s lives as hurricane season also rolls in. Gonzalez explores questions of ethnic and gender identity of the siblings as their respective American Dreams begin to crumble under the weight of self-realization, historical injustice, and federal indifference.
To say that her first book has made a literary splash would be quite an understatement. It was dubbed a most anticipated book of 2022 by TIME, HipLatina, The Rumpus, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Book Riot, among others. Kirkus called it “[a]tmospheric, intelligent, and well informed: an impressive debut.” And TIME proclaimed: “Xochitl Gonzalez delivers a healthy dose of tough love with her buzzy debut Olga Dies Dreaming.” “Vibrant and raw,” was BookPage’s verdict. Despite a hectic schedule of appearances and interviews, Gonzalez kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her first book.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: One of the elements about your path to becoming a published writer that interested me is that you came to this decision rather late in life — similar to my path where I started writing at age 39. But I knew at a young age that I wanted to become a writer and delayed it for various reasons. Did you dream of becoming a writer long before you took the plunge, and what was the spark that made you actually start writing?
XOCHITL GONZALEZ: I had always enjoyed writing and had always written — I remember writing stories in high school for no reason or purpose other than the desire to write them. I had entertained studying that in college but honestly never entertained it as a career path — the other people I knew who wanted to write wanted to be journalists, and that wasn’t something I wanted to do … and outside of that? I just couldn’t wrap my head around a career path as abstract as “novelist.” And then I think when I turned 40 — I’d had some losses in my personal life in the couple of years leading up to that birthday — and I was single and didn’t have kids and rather than see that as a disadvantage, I saw how that could give me freedom to do whatever I wanted with my time. I was very influenced by Sandra Cisneros’s old bio: “Sandra Cisneros is nobody’s wife and nobody’s mother.” And so I decided to use the flexibility my life offered and submerge 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 will get it wrong. As you wrote Olga Dies Dreaming, did you find that you wanted to address — in some way — the inaccurate depictions of your culture?
From a Nuyorican and Puerto Rican perspective, I don’t know that I wrote it to correct anything more than I wrote it to have my community feel seen on the page without the burden of the prose explaining itself for the White Gaze. Ironically, if anything felt “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 I needed to, in my art form, assert the version of the place that I knew and loved. The one that had been erased in some ways from the cultural thoughts about what “Brooklyn” is. I wanted to assert and correct the depiction of what I would consider my other culture, which is Old Brooklyn.
Could you describe the nuts and bolts of the process in writing your novel, and were there particularly difficult points along the way to completing it?
In the beginning — probably the first hundred pages of drafting — I would read from the top every time I opened the document and would make tweaks, and then, when I knew the shape of the story, I started plotting it in more detail, bit by bit, until I more or less knew where and how it was going to get there. I had the hardest time working through — for emotional reasons — the hurricane and making sure that it was respectful to that experience and to a later section with Olga and finally, what was probably my greatest challenge — which was how to end it. But, honestly, most of the really difficult work was in revision and being sure that I was looking at hard emotional truths that these characters were being honest about their feelings and journeys.
You are now 44. If you could go back in time and give one bit of advice to your younger, college-student self, what would you say?
I would tell her never to play small and to never shrink herself.
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 Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press, 2017), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press, 2017). Twitter: @olivasdan.