Natalia Sylvester: Fiction as truthtelling

In three novels, Sylvester employs the mundane alongside the wounds of personal history to push the boundaries of readers' perspective


Natalia Sylvester lives in Austin and grew up in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas after she and her family emigrated from Peru when she was four. Sylvester’s third novel, “Running,” will be published by Clarion Books/HMH in May 2020. A novel for young adults, “Running” follows 15-year-old Cuban-American Mariana Ruiz as her U.S. senator father runs for president. As Mariana sees her father’s political positions with greater clarity and the family is dragged through tabloids, she faces the discrepancy between what she believes and what her father stands for.

Sylvester’s debut book, “Chasing the Sun” (2017), is set in Lima, Peru, and tells the story of a husband dealing with the kidnapping of his wife. And in her second novel, “Everyone Knows You Go Home,” (2018) Sylvester unfolds an intricate narrative of immigration and family past. Her books provide much-needed and varied windows into Latin American experiences. Sylvester beautifully employs the mundane alongside the wounds of personal history to push the boundaries of readers’ perspectives.

As she ramps up promotion for “Running,” Sylvester graciously agreed to answer questions about her process and experience over email.

THAO VOTANG: You mentioned once that “Chasing the Sun” wasn’t the first book you wrote. What made it different? Do you plan to revisit any of the previous projects, or how do you see them now that you have had distance and are publishing your third(!) book?

NATALIA SYLVESTER: The first novel I wrote (and finished…I’d attempted others!) is one that’s still very close to my heart. It helped me get an agent but after months of being shopped to publishers, it didn’t land a home, so I had to shelve it and move on to a new project, which ended up becoming my first published novel, “Chasing the Sun.” Honestly, when I look back on that first book, it’s painful because it was clear from editors’ responses that publishers weren’t ready to take a “chance” on a book that they repeatedly said they loved but couldn’t find a market for. At the same time, it’s been almost ten years, and while I’m hopeful that the landscape has changed and grown, I’m positive that I’ve changed and grown as a writer. I know that when the day comes that I go back to this story, I’ll shape it into a stronger book, and do so unapologetically.


TV: Aside from novels, do you ever write in any other form? If not, why does the novel form call to you? How do you know when you have the idea you’ll run with for the next book?

NS: Poetry was how I first fell in love with language, even before fiction, so I have been slowly finding my way back to it. I’ve also been deeply moved by the act of writing personal essays — it’s some of the most difficult writing I’ve ever done, but I’ve learned so much about myself, why I write, who I write for, and what it means to set boundaries in what you put on the page and to question who and what it’s serving. These are all lessons I take with me into my fiction. I’m very intrigued by the layers of stories that can unfold over and under one narrative, and I love the freedom that a novel allows you to very literally take up space through lengths of pages and chapters. I think that’s when I know I’ll run with it… when I have an idea that feels bigger than what I’m capable of conceiving unless I begin writing to find out what it can become.

TV: In another interview, you mentioned that you switched agents between your first and second book. Do I remember correctly that you also had a new agent for “Running”? How did you know when you needed to change agents, and what advice would you give others when they need to make that decision?

NS: I switched agents between “Chasing the Sun” and “Everyone Knows You Go Home,” but my second agent is still my agent, and she is the same person who sold “Running”! In the case of switching for “Everyone Knows You Go Home,” it really just came down to me and my former agent having different creative visions for this book. For anyone pondering the same decision, I would simply say that your book deserves someone who believes in it and will help you (and yes, challenge you) to create the most truthful manifestation of the story that’s in your heart.

TV: You run Inky Clean, a copywriting studio. How does client work inform your fiction?

NS: That’s such an interesting question! It’s a completely different type of writing; I wouldn’t say it informs my fiction so much that it helps me keep my tools sharp. In copywriting, you are constantly thinking about voice, word choice, intent, and perspective… all tools that are powerful and necessary in fiction.


TV: In your 2018 McSweeny’s essay “One Small Blow Against Encroaching Totalitarianism: Choices and Decisions,” you mention a line of dialog you wrote into “Everyone Knows You Go Home,” which says, “Decisions are not the same as choices.” The quote struck me for many reasons, and I appreciate that you use the platform you’ve built to contribute to dialogs outside fiction writing. Do the essays and political activism ever threaten to take over fiction in your life?

NS: I don’t really see them as separate things. To me, fiction is the act of telling the stories of our lives truthfully. To do so uninhibited by what has happened and venture into what can happen is a political act in and of itself.

TV: How do you keep yourself going when you’re faced with your particular kryptonite, whether it be rejection, writer’s block, malaise, etc.?

NS: I’d love to say I’m always strong, always fighting, and simply push past it, but the truth is I often let myself give into it for a bit. I allow myself to feel what I’m feeling, whether it’s fear or insecurity or even laziness, and usually only after I’ve done that, after it’s served its purpose, do I get up and keep going. And really, its purpose is to remind me that as bad it gets, I’d rather be on the other side of it — creating and writing and growing, hard as that may be — than stay in it.

TV: What has been the most moving thing you’ve read, heard, or watched recently?

NS: Today I read this tweet from Shira Erlichman, author of “Odes to Lithium,” and it helped me exhale.


Thao Votang
Thao Votang
Thao Votang is a writer at work on a novel. Votang previously co-edited the online magazine Conflict of Interest and co-founded the Austin gallery Tiny Park.

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