Monday, July 29, 2019

From ESL classes at the YMCA to publishing a novel—one exophonic writer’s journey

Daniela Petrova's debut novel, Her Daughter's Mother, hit the stores on 18 June 2019. The intriguing part for me is that Daniela learned English and took writing seriously after arriving in the United States. I am thrilled to speak with her about her journey and share her experience with ESL writers everywhere.

IG: Hello Daniela. First of all, congratulations on your book!

DP: Hello, thank you.

IG: Tell me a bit about yourself and when did you first start writing?

DP: I first started writing as a kid in Bulgaria. I believe I was in 3rd grade. I wrote my first poem by chance. We had an assignment in school [to learn a poem by heart] and I forgot all about it until the night before. Lying in bed, wondering what to do, I made up a short poem, four stanzas. When I recited it the next day, I was shocked that nobody noticed that it wasn’t an actual poem. I had a great time so I continued to write poems. As a teenager, I wrote some short stories. When I moved to the US in 1995, I had to give up on my dream of becoming a writer because I barely spoke any English. Going back to school seemed impossible. Having the opportunity to write one day seemed inconceivable.

IG. What came first, improving your English just to speak better, or the motivation to be able to write? 

DP: Writing was not the first thing on my mind, but the two—improving my English and writing—kind of went hand in hand. I kept writing poems even back when I barely spoke English. I look at them now and it’s embarrassing. I couldn’t even string words together into a proper sentence. The audacity of youth, you know. I wasn’t thinking much. I was putting down on paper thoughts and impressions in the form of poems. Writing wasn’t quite on my mind, but writing poetry just happened, especially as it didn’t require that much time.

IG. How did you go about improving your language skills and your writing skills. I am asking this on behalf of a writing group with ESL adult students I lead. I often hear that my students would like to share their stories, but that they are intimidated by writing.

DP: When I was finally able to go back to school, I went to Columbia University, where I decided to major in Philosophy. In my last year, I was finally brave enough to take creative writing classes. It was very humbling. Surrounded by writers who were native speakers and also beautiful writers, I felt very intimidated at first, but I kept taking classes over the years and wrote on the side. Eventually, in 2006, I published my first essay in the Cristian Science Monitor, that was huge for me. And then, a short story here and there, little by little over the years, it took a lot of time. I first came to the States more than 24 years ago.

IG: How were you accepted in your writing classes, the ones outside of college, where most students are native English speakers? Any judgment on having an accent?

DP: I never felt that. Everyone was supportive, even too nice. I was very self-aware of my limited English at the time, but people were very supportive throughout the years. Maybe I have been lucky. I definitely notice that, because I have an accent (I came to the USA at the age of 22), some people outside of the writing world sometimes assume I’m less intelligent because of the way I speak.

IG: What was most instrumental, most propelling for you in the process of making it as a writer? Who gave you the most encouragement - a teacher, a fellow-writer, agent, editor a friend? How did you choose your publisher? For beginners who are not confident and are more cautious, where should they look for support, nurturing environment to write and go on?

DP. Again, I was very lucky. I had wonderful teachers who have been very supporting. Leslie Sharpe, whom I met at Columbia, invited me (after I graduated) to join a writing group she taught. It was very very helpful, very early in my career as a writer. Everyone in the group was so encouraging, it helped build my self-esteem. My writing teachers since then have been also very supportive. For example, I took a class at the Iowa Summer Writing festival with Curtis Sittenfeld, who was very encouraging of my writing. Years later, when I interviewed her about her latest book, Eligible, she asked me if I had an agent and recommended Lisa Grupka, who eventually became my agent. The last class I took was last year with Taylor Larsen at Catapult. She was very supportive and instrumental in helping me fine-tune the latest version of Her Daughter’s Mother, before I submitted it to my agent. I also took a class on writing essays with Susan Shapiro who is also extremely supportive of her students and their work. I’ve been very lucky to have the support of so many wonderful teachers.

IG: Now that you are a published author, would you go on with classes and continue developing your writing skills?

DP: One can always learn, right? I don’t think you suddenly stop learning. Just like Olympic athletes don’t stop practicing after a gold medal. It’s a constant learning process and we continue to develop as writers. I still read books on craft and hope to join a writing group again. Writing is such a solitary experience; it’s good to have feedback from other writers and readers. In fact, having feedback from readers early in the process is very helpful.

IG: What does it feel like to be published, especially in English, and making your dream comes true?

DP: It feels wonderful. It’s amazing if still a bit surreal. It’s three weeks today since the publication of Her Daughter’s Mother, and I'm still in the clouds. Busy with promoting the book. It’s incredibly exciting.

IG: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome in the process of writing your book?

DP: Her Daughter’s Mother is told from the point of view of three narrators in two shifting timelines. My greatest challenge was arranging the chapters in a way that didn’t compromise the suspense but on the contrary—it strengthened it.

IG: Why suspense and crime as a genre?

DP: For this particular book, the suspense story line was perfectly suited. Because when trying to get pregnant, month after month for years, you never know what’s going happen. It’s a mystery. Will you get pregnant? If you get pregnant, will the pregnancy stick? Or will you miscarry? I thought this process parallels suspense stories. I also happened to love suspense novels, psychological thrillers and mystery novels. I like solving a puzzle.

IG. Is there any writer alive who you would be thrilled to meet and talk with about their writing process?

DP: So many! I’d love to meet Joan Didion; she is a beautiful writer and I adore her writing. I’d love to meet Tana French, whose books I love. And Lisa Jewell, one of my favorite suspense writers. I was lucky to meet Megan Abbott at an event in NYC but it was very brief. I would love to learn about her writing process. But there are a lot more authors I’d love to meet.

IG: What would you tell other ESL aspiring writers? Any word of advice?

DP: I very much recommend taking classes or joining writers groups. But most importantly, read a lot, online and books. We learn so much from those before us, it’s very helpful. Just work on the craft and read as much as you can.

IG: What do you work on these days? Are you already working on your next book or are you still enjoying the energy of the moment, the marketing, the fame, this is your moment, right?

DP: You are right! I’ve started working on my next novel and am looking forward to getting back to it after I finish promoting this book.

IG: Daniela, it is really exciting for me to have met you and spoken with you. You are such an inspiration for ESL aspiring writers. Thank you for your time and again congratulations on your first book! 

DP: Thank you!

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