Ten Questions for Melissa Rivero

by Staff

Today’s installment of Ten Questions features Melissa Rivero, whose new novel, Flores and Miss Paula, is out today from Ecco. Three years after the death of patriarch Martín, his widow, Paula, and their adult daughter, Flores, are living together in a New York City apartment, a cramped space that magnifies their clashing personalities and old resentments. But their disputes are more a function of generational and cultural divides than real animosity: Paula, a Peruvian immigrant, wants her daughter to marry and settle down, while Flores is equally flummoxed by her mother’s approach to the opposite sex. Financial insecurity ratchets up the tension as Paula’s retail job does not offer much opportunity and Flores’s student loans have her working long hours and considering unorthodox methods for paying off her debt. Meanwhile Flores begins to question how well she knew her parents when she comes across a note from Paula to Martín that implies her mother might have been hiding secrets from him. The women must find a way to unite, however, when their landlord kicks them out of their apartment—a shared challenge that will force the duo to come to terms with each another, their shared past, and uncertain futures. Publishers Weekly praises Flores and Miss Paula: “It all hangs together nicely, setting the stage for a surprisingly moving conclusion. This is a treat.” Melissa Rivero is the author of The Affairs of the Falcóns (Ecco, 2019). Winner of the 2019 New American Voices Award and a 2020 International Latino Book Award, she is a graduate of New York University and Brooklyn Law School, where she was an editor of the Brooklyn Law Review. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.       

Melissa Rivero, author of Flores and Miss Paula.   (Credit: Bartosz Potocki)

1. How long did it take you to write Flores and Miss Paula
About four years. It started as a short story when I was in Kweli’s Art of the Short Story Workshop, back in late 2017. I quickly realized it was not a short story. I wrote the bulk of the manuscript during COVID-19 quarantine and finished it in the fall of 2021.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I found it challenging to write about Martín, the father. My dad had cancer, and for years I did my best to avoid revisiting his illness. Then the pandemic hit. I was home, in a small apartment in Brooklyn, helping my kids with school on Zoom while simultaneously working a very intense full-time job. I didn’t see my mother or any of my family for months. Friends here in New York and family in Peru died. A lot of things came up for me. Writing kept me grounded, but it also reopened some wounds, as it often does. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on what’s happening in my life. When I had a full-time job, I wrote on the subway and on the weekends. I edited the day’s work at night, once the kids were asleep. During quarantine, I wrote for thirty minutes a day—between breakfast and the start of the kids’ school day online. Now I write every weekday for about one to two hours. I can’t really go for longer stretches than that. Sometimes I write on weekends, but I try to save those days for reading, spiritual work, and long walks.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I’m reading The Essential June Jordan and listening to the novel Nuestra parte de noche (Our Share of Night) by Mariana Enríquez. I’m also a comic book fan and just finished Dark X-Men, #4.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
So many. But generally Cristina Garcia, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel García Márquez. Hernan Diaz blows my mind too. I love poetry and flip through a collection daily. I usually reach for Ada Limón, Natalie Diaz, or Patricia Smith’s work. And Jane Austen. I revisit her work regularly.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Flores and Miss Paula?
Paula surprised me! When I first started writing this book, I thought Paula would be just one of many characters in a Flores-centered novel, but she had other plans. I kept hearing this woman commenting on Flores and her life. She whispered to me like one of my tías sitting next to me on the sofa at a house party. Always with something to say! I had to give her more space on the page.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My agent, Julia Kardon, reminded me that I can and will write another book, regardless of how this one does. When you publish a book, you inevitably worry about how it will be received, if it will do “well”—whatever that means to you, your publisher, etcetera. I appreciated that kind of support from her because the truth is I still have a bit of imposter syndrome, and publishing in general is a trip.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Flores and Miss Paula, what would you say?
Try to have fun! Even when the world seems like it’s falling apart and you’re feeling down, go back to the work. You’ll find joy there, or find the parts of you that you need to see and acknowledge. Both are important.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I interviewed several people, including folks with similar backgrounds and jobs as the characters in the novel. I also kept my job, even though people were quitting left and right during the pandemic. I’m not sure I could’ve finished the novel if I didn’t have a steady paycheck—so much of the world felt uncertain at the time. In the end, though, I was burnt out. But I promised myself that if I sold this book I would quit the day job, and I did. I might have to go back to a full-time job, but at least now I have a better sense of what kind of setup would work for me at this point in my life.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
“Butt in chair.” It’s what writer M. Evelina Galang told me once. The only way you’re going to write something is by actually writing. I have back issues, so I alternate between my butt in the chair and standing. But the point is that I get to my desk and write.