Liza Monroy‘s first book Mexican High, about an American teenager uprooted to a posh high school in Mexico City when her diplomat mother is reassigned, draws from her own experience. (Monroy’s mother worked in the State Department for 26 years.) Currently at work on two new books — one fiction, one narrative non-fiction — Monroy, who has written for the New York Times, Newsweek, and Bust, shares her process of creating stories that literally begin with her life, and end with the reader.
What are you currently working on?
I’m at work on two book projects that are different genres and in very different stages. The first is my creative non-fiction manuscript about the years I was married to my Middle Eastern gay best friend for his green card while my mother worked for the State Department preventing immigration fraud. It’s called The Marriage Act and is forthcoming from Skyhorse in the fall of 2013.
I wanted to write the book because marriage equality is important to me, and my own experience made highlighting the absurdities of unfair marriage laws easy, so that’s how I got started. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) for instance, defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Well, Emir (not his real name) and I were one man and one woman, so we could get married, though we weren’t intimate physically.
At the same time, gay couples can’t immigrate a foreign spouse because gender-neutral marriage isn’t federally recognized. It’s just so weird and awful, that this is even a subject up for debate, it’s like saying “should there be second class citizenship or should we all have equal rights?” I’m hoping to get the book into as many readers’ hands as possible to raise awareness about the issues. This is a gender-blind, orientation-blind issue. It’s a matter of human rights.
I’m now awaiting notes from my editor, Delia Casa at Skyhorse, to see what I’ll still need to revise in the manuscript, then it will be time to work on publicity…getting the word out.
The second thing I’m working on now is a novel, The Profiler, based on my July 2012 New York Times Modern Love column, about my mother, a professional profiler for the State Department for 26 years, applying her career skills to my boyfriends. I put it in third person so as to have an omniscient view and be able to get inside the mother’s head, too.
The Profiler is a short comic novel about what criteria we should apply when evaluating potential relationship partners. What’s the difference between profiling and stereotyping? Does profiling work? My mother started a blog, theprofilerselects.tumblr.com, which makes it easy for me to base much of the character on her.
How has the process of getting started on this project differed from your previous projects (if at all)?
My process is the same each time. I start with life and experience, with things that matter to me personally. Usually a book starts as a personal essay.
My first novel, Mexican High, came about after an essay I wrote about going to high school in Mexico City, and another I published in Newsweek about working a summer job at the “Visa Barn,” where Mexican applicants apply for US visas. The Marriage Act began as a Modern Love column too, but I didn’t fictionalize that story because I didn’t need to. In that case, the truth was more relevant — the stakes were in the story being true.
It’s personal and issue-driven at the same time. The Profiler also began as an essay and my idea for the novel was to make it go crazy, really blow it up. The mother and daughter end up with a reality show.
In general, what is your process for starting a new project?
Just the essays, mostly. They give me an idea of how the arc will transpire. I never outlined until The Profiler. With Mexican High I had some anecdotes from real life I wanted to hit, then I wove the fiction around that. The Marriage Act is chronological mostly, so I worked from memory. For Profiler, I wrote out character bios and a treatment. It made the drafting process faster, for sure. I also held two back-to-back residencies that allowed me uninterrupted time to work on it.
Does the blank page/screen titillate or terrify you?
Titillate. It’s fun uncharted territory to explore. I don’t take myself too seriously, and see writing and creating as play. It helps the process along so much more than agony does.
When you are getting started, are you already clear about who your reader will be?
I just try to trust that if I am engaged and interested, the reader will be, too. I think your readers find you. If I am bored writing, the reader’s going to be bored reading it. I can’t picture someone specific I’m writing to for…I only hope to tell a good story that will mean something to someone.
How do you stay motivated past the euphoria of getting those first words on the page/screen?
Coffee, sheer determination, and a compulsion to finish.