Teen Spirit, in Two Cultures
Diana Rodriguez Wallach (COM’00) finds a niche — and an ethnic identity — in young-adult novels
By Jessica Leving
Diana Rodriguez Wallach had never dreamed of being a novelist — until one night in 2004. After working first as a reporter in Manhattan, then as a public relations specialist for an educational nonprofit in Philadelphia, Wallach (COM’00) woke up one morning and remembered dreaming that she was the author of a series of young adult novels based on her middle school days. Unable to get the idea out of her head, she sat down and started writing.
Although her first book didn’t sell, it wasn’t long before she tried another, this time successfully: Amor and Summer Secrets hit bookstores in September. True to her dream, it’s the first in a three-part Latina-themed series being put out by Kensington Publishing. The second book, Amigas and School Scandals, came out in November, and the third, Adios to All the Drama, will appear in January. BU Today spoke with Wallach about writing, ethnic identity, and what it feels like to celebrate a book deal in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
BU Today: Tell us about Amor and Summer Secrets.
Wallach: My protagonist, Mariana, is half Polish and half Puerto Rican, and she doesn’t feel strongly connected to either of her parents’ cultures. It isn’t until she’s forced to spend the summer in Puerto Rico that she embraces her Latina roots.
Her experience is similar to my own. For much of my life, I had a hard time connecting to my Puerto Rican roots because I don’t fit the physical stereotype. I have auburn hair and freckles, and I didn’t learn Spanish in my home. But as I grew older, I chose to seek out those connections. I wanted to give Mariana a similar experience.
Coming from a mixed ethnic background, did you have trouble when you were growing up relating to characters in books for teenagers? Do you feel your books are filling a void?
Truthfully, I didn’t grow up feeling culturally Puerto Rican any more than I grew up feeling culturally Polish, which is why it became one of the central themes of my novel. So I can’t say that I had any trouble relating to the novels available to me when I was younger. But I am happy to see an increase in young adult novels featuring multicultural characters. I think it represents the reality of American society. I think a lot of people, and a lot of teens, can relate to being torn between two very different ethnic groups.
How did you feel when you first heard your book was going to be published?
This is one of my favorite stories. I got the call on a Tuesday. Well, it just happened to be Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, and I just happened to be in New Orleans.
Let me just say that there is no better place on Earth to be when you get good news than New Orleans at Mardi Gras. There was a parade going on outside of my hotel. I hung up the phone and spent the rest of the day dancing in the French Quarter with hundreds of costumed strangers and drinking hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s.
Did your Boston University experience play a role in your becoming a writer? How has your journalism training influenced you as a writer of fiction?
My journalism training has greatly affected my writing style. The young adult genre is known for “cutting out the fluff,” so to speak. We’re trying to maintain the attention of teenagers, so you won’t find a lot of long-winded prose. In a way, this is similar to journalistic writing.
Also, there’s a lot more to this profession than the art form. Right now, I’m working on promoting Amor and Summer Secrets full-time, and those years I spent in public relations are greatly assisting me. From writing press releases to contacting bookstores to doing interviews, everything I learned at COM has come in handy. I even created a book trailer using the editing skills I learned as a broadcast journalism major. Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine approaching this career without a background in communications.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new young adult project. It’s a complete departure from what I’ve done in the past — lots of spies, suspense, fight scenes, and of course, a love triangle. Part of my research included reaching out to the BU community. Professor Nick Mills, a COM associate professor of journalism, put me in touch with former BU Professor Lawrence Martin-Bittman, who spent part of his life working as an intelligence officer in Czechoslovakia. His experiences very much contributed to the background research for my new novel. Hopefully, it will be ready for the publishing world soon.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
Learn to take constructive criticism. When I first started out, I took feedback too personally. I couldn’t seem to separate myself from the work. But as I’ve grown through this process, I welcome editorial suggestions. It’s the only way to improve your writing.
Also, learn the fine art of patience. This business moves at the speed of a turtle. And trust me, after a few years even the most impatient people, like me, can learn to sit back and wait. The faster you learn this virtue, the saner you’ll be.
Visit Diana Rodriguez Wallach’s Web site to learn more.
This story originally ran in Bostonia online.
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