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Big Thumbs Up for Agents: An Interview with Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
by Christina Kiplinger-Johns

When Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez sat in a coffee shop writing her heart out for 10 hours a day, six days in February, she had no idea what would follow. She just wanted to tell a story that she had been thinking about for a while. The story tells of six Latina college mates who continue their friendship after school. Dirty Girls Social Club was born.

At auction, Dirty Girls Social Club grabbed a $500,000 bid from St. Martins (an almost unheard of amount for a first novel, according to news reports). The incident left reporters, publishing houses and fans wondering how this could happen and what kind of writer it takes to make this happen.

WFD: How long did you think about this story before actually sitting down and writing it?

Alisa: The general ideas had been with me for years. I outlined the characters and plot on a yellow legal pad about two weeks before diving into the writing.

WFD: This manuscript was completed in February, how did you decide to "auction" it?

Alisa: I didn't do much. My agent arranged everything. An auction takes place when more than one publisher wants to buy a book. In this case it was 5 publishers. On a given day, the publishers fax their bids in "rounds" to the agent. The agent then tells the lowest bidder what the highest bid was, and another round begins.

WFD: You wrote this book in six days. Would you ever want to write a book in six days again?

Alisa: I tend to let ideas percolate for months before finally sitting down and hammering the words out. Like now, I guess I'm working on my second book, even though I just sort of recite parts of it to myself in my head. I live with the characters for a while before writing them down. In daily life, I sort of try to think of how my characters would react to situations, stuff like that. Plus, I've always been regarded as a fast writer, even in newspapers. So I'm pretty sure future books will come out quickly. I don't believe in writer's block.

WFD: Has having a father who is a professor had any relevance to your career of choice, do you think?

Alisa: Both my parents are writers. My mom was crucial in making me a writer in the word games she used to play with me when I was a kid. For instance, if it was hot out (and in New Mexico the summers are very hot) she's start a game as we approached the car; "Get ready to fry like an egg," she'd say. I'd be expected to answer something like "Get ready to bake like a potato." We'd go on like that until we ran out of ideas. I was 4 or 5. Both my parents always read and wrote--that's just what we did in my house. There were lots of intellectual conversations, academic guests for dinner, and lots of ideas floating around and a general love of words. My mom works as a legal secretary but has fabulous poems and stories hidden away. She's quite shy, but phenomenally talented. My dad is a skilled speaker and brilliant man, and can write beautifully in both Spanish (his native tongue) and English, a language he learned at 15. How many people can say that? Anyway, both mom and dad always encouraged my writing, nurtured it.

WFD: Most writers find it hard to obtain an agent before they have sold a novel, could you tell us how you managed to secure Leslie Daniels? Did she represent you before or after the sale?

Alisa: I found her the hard way. I sent out mass mailings to agents all over the place with book proposals. Leslie liked my ideas and my writing. I think it really helped that I had a large body of published work from newspapers and magazines and a couple of national writing prizes. She was one of a few who called me, and after interviewing them, I chose her. She seemed to be the best fit for me. We clicked. Writers need to remember that they chose the agent, not the other way around; make sure when you find one that they understand you. I had a bad experience with an agent who used to represent me who wanted me to change a lot of things about my voice and ideas. Leslie "got" me, and that was key. I just used the usual list of agents that everyone has access to. Make sure your agent is legit. If any agent asks you for money up front, they are no good. Agents only make money if they sell your work.

WFD: You are currently an editor at a major southwestern newspaper; you have also been a reporter at the LA Times. What are your future aspirations as far as newspaper work is concerned?

Alisa: I also worked 5 years at the Boston Globe, by the way. Not sure where I'll go with newspapers. I love newspapers. I love working in newsrooms. There's no greater collection of curious, quirky people than newsrooms. I just have to see where life takes me from here.

WFD: What do you think is the biggest obstacle for a woman in the traditionally male dominated role of news reporter? How can female writers get over this obstacle?

Alisa: Where to begin... I really do believe that talent speaks for itself. Humor doesn't hurt, either. And persistence. Oh, and a tough skin. You have to learn to shake off a lot of silly stuff, like the time the editor of the Globe walked by a group of us reporters (all happened to be women) and said "what is this, a knitting circle?" What do you do at a time like that? You laugh it off and keep plugging away. You know who you are, why you're there. Just be good at what you do.

Dirty Girls Social Club will be published this spring by St. Martins (USA).

© Copyright 2002, Christina Kiplinger-Johns

Ohio-based freelance writer, photographer and poet, Christina Kiplinger-Johns has seen over 500 pieces of her work published worldwide. A regional rep for NAWW (http://www.naww.org), she is currently a correspondent for European Press Network and produces her own web site (http://www.angelfire.com/oh3/christinakiplinger).

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