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Nuyoricans, Love Letters and Fairytale Endings: Five Questions for Xochitl Gonzalez, Author of Olga Dies Dreaming — Our January Discover Pick

Olga Dies Dreaming

Olga Dies Dreaming

Hardcover $20.99 $27.99

Olga Dies Dreaming

Xochitl Gonzalez

In Stock Online

Hardcover $20.99 $27.99

Family drama, politics, long-buried secrets, and romance are all present and accounted for in this must-read debut that follows wedding planner Olga and her search for her own fairytale ending. Set in the months surrounding the most destructive hurricane in Puerto Rico’s history, Olga Dies Dreaming — our January Discover Pick — explores the reality (and the struggle) of the American dream. We were thrilled to ask author Xochitl Gonzalez five questions on everything from the inspiration behind her novel, saving love letters, to what she’s reading and recommending right now.   

Family drama, politics, long-buried secrets, and romance are all present and accounted for in this must-read debut that follows wedding planner Olga and her search for her own fairytale ending. Set in the months surrounding the most destructive hurricane in Puerto Rico’s history, Olga Dies Dreaming — our January Discover Pick — explores the reality (and the struggle) of the American dream. We were thrilled to ask author Xochitl Gonzalez five questions on everything from the inspiration behind her novel, saving love letters, to what she’s reading and recommending right now.   

Family drama, politics, long-buried secrets, and romance are all present and accounted for in this blazing debut. Where did this story start for you? What was the spark? 

Well, I had been scratching out some stories that all seemed to have the same character, more or less – a 40ish-year-old Nuyorican living in her gentrifying hometown of Brooklyn trying to understand which world she belonged to – New Brooklyn or Old Brooklyn.  Originally, she worked in an auction house, I remember, but she was definitely the person who turned out to be Olga, in terms of her insecurities and ambitions.  But I knew I wanted a bigger, more expansive novel, whenever I found that thread, and one day I was reading The Battle for Paradise by Naomi Klein – which is all about disaster Capitalism on Puerto Rico – and listening to Navigator, by Hurray for the Riff Raff – which is largely about gentrification in New York and Nuyoricans – and it came to me. Not completely, but the main gist. I got off the train to get something to write on and I more or less scratched out “A wedding planner robs from the rich to support her radical mother’s PR Liberation activities.”   It obviously evolved from there, but that was the spark. I already knew the character and I, from personal experiences, knew weddings and thought it would be a great way to offer a weird twist on a Robin Hood tale. The novel, when you write it, ends up finding you a bit as well, and so it wasn’t quite that neat, but I also feel in awe of how relatively whole the thing emerged at that moment.  

At one point Olga makes a big career change. Have you ever made a change like that in your life and can you speak to how it inspired this character’s experience? 

Did I ever! Actually, I feel like I’ve always been a bit of a career chameleon, but the bulk of my career was spent as a luxury wedding planner, which, quite literally might be one of the most stressful jobs in the world – and I have an intensely high threshold for stress. There were aspects of it that were a lot of fun, but eventually, I just didn’t feel “stretched” the right way – intellectually speaking. We – my business partner and I – had gotten very good at planning very elaborate events and building our company and I wasn’t challenged in new ways but wasn’t sure what to do. We moved into corporate events but I still felt I wasn’t spreading my wings enough, and that sort of sense of “I’m successful, but I want more and I’m not sure what?” is definitely something that I wanted Olga and I to share because I think a lot of the time, as we get older and established in our careers and achieve expertise and mastery, we feel bound by that. We think “Oh, but this is the thing I’m good at, so I guess I have to keep doing this.” Instead of thinking, “Well, if I was good at this but it isn’t making me happy, I can probably be good at something else.” Anyway, this is all to say that when I turned 40, after trying to evolve out of my event production business, I decided to sell my stake and get a day job so that I could work on what I thought I could be good at: writing. I didn’t get to sort of have a before and after moment the way that Olga did – but that moment is quite cathartic. In real life, these transitions are usually a bit more gradual. 

Olga’s mother communicates with her for years only by letter writing. A lost art in modern times, but one that is so personal. Do you enjoy writing in this medium? Are you a person who saves letters? 

Because I am very much a Gen-Xer, I have a box full of letters that I’d gotten in my younger years, especially – during High School, we’d write each other letters at night sometimes. Love letters, but even just between friends. Then in college, during study abroad we definitely still sent letters. Even we got email addresses, but we didn’t use emails then like now. We would write these long, long missives. My roommate and I used to measure the emails by the KG’s. I would print them and save them and still have so many of them. So, yes, I love a good old-fashioned letter. I write love letters all the time. To my friends, but also real love letters. I don’t know that – as a writer – I can think of a more intimate form of correspondence.  

As a Wedding Planner, Olga’s whole career is built around tailoring fairytale endings — one that she’s chasing herself. How do you balance giving readers the happy ending that they may expect versus the ending that’s right for the character? 

I lost sleep over how to end this book. I remember dreaming about being at the Olympics and having an amazing gymnastic performance (I have never taken gymnastics in my life, for what it’s worth) and then, at the very end, not sticking the landing. It was totally an anxiety dream. I don’t think it’s a saccharine story and so I couldn’t just give it a sweet ending. It’s not just about the characters, but it’s about characters ground in the real world. So, I really decided to think about who these characters were and imagine an ending that felt true to them and their growth, but also their limitations, as well as an ending that felt grounded in the world – which can be harsh – around them.  

We love to ask: What are you reading and recommending right now? 

I am reading My Government Means to Kill Me by Rasheed Newman which comes out later in 2022 and really enjoying it. Also, a New York story, also, like Olga, a meeting of personal and political. And I am just starting, and really eager to dive into The Women I Love by Francesco Pacifico.