Julia Alvarez has to go on tour again, and she isn't looking forward to it. For one thing, it means that she'll have to leave her husband, ophthalmologist Bill Eichner, and her beautiful post-and-beam house in Weybridge, Vt. where the tractor shed looks like a pretty little barn and the kitchen window opens on a blanket of fields. For another, the experience of visiting 20 cities in 45 days to promote her new novel, Saving the World (Algonquin, April), will play havoc with her writing schedule. "What I find frustrating [about book tours] is that you're constantly talking about writing, but you're not doing any writing," Alvarez sighs. "It's like tying a dancer to a chair and then playing her favorite music."
At 55, Alvarez is the author of five children's books, three collections of poetry, a collection of essays and four bestselling novels—How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, ¡Yo! and In the Name of Salomé—she is also one of a handful of writers who proved that fiction by Latinas, about Latinas, could really sell. These days, her life has all the marks of affluence. Her short black hair is fashionably cut; her clothes look tailored; she drives a red Audi. Her position as a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College is just a way for her to keep in contact with the students she admires and the research libraries she needs for her historical novels.
Alvarez's journey to success took time. Before she published How the García Girls Lost Their Accents at 41, she spent 25 years publishing fiction in small journals and magazines, and more than a decade as a "migrant writer" traveling from adjunct position to adjunct position.
"There were times when I thought, how can I write?" she recalls over coffee in her home. "Summers were always spent searching for the next job, and moving myself there and starting a new job. And a year after being the 'Visiting This,' I had to move on."
Not until Middlebury hired her for a tenure track post in 1988, did she escape the wayfaring life. The college gave her professional incentive as well: Alvarez's chairman told her that if she didn't publish a book, she wouldn't earn tenure. And thus García Girls was born.
Now that she's achieved success, Alvarez has mixed feelings about its side effects. She raves about her editor Shannon Ravenel and about Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, which has published all of her adult fiction. (Her children's books are with Knopf's Young Readers.) But in Saving the World, one of the novel's two heroines, a novelist named Alma Rodríguez, expresses a disenchantment with the "book biz world" that mirrors Alvarez's own. "[T]he marketing strategies; the glamour shots, the prepub creation of buzz… the clubbiness of the blurbing… the panels in which one of every flavor minority is asked to respond to some questionable theme" all make Alma depressed.
Though Alvarez herself seems cheerful enough, she didn't spend all those years hunched over her writing to submit to the machinations of celebrity. What she wanted, she says, was to find readers, to be part of the literary conversation and to be able to support herself doing the work that she loves. García Girls forced her to recognize that, in today's book world, celebrity is what makes all those things possible.
The Knock on the Door
Saving the World is Alvarez's third historical novel, and it reflects her ongoing fascination with women who quietly work to improve the world. Set alternately in the 19th and 20th centuries, the novel sprang from a footnote Alvarez spotted while researching In the Name of Salomé: because Santo Domingo was occupied by the French, it was skipped by Spain's 1804 smallpox expedition, which was carrying a new vaccine around world. A little more research uncovered that the expedition included one woman, the rectoress of an orphanage in La Coruña, Spain, whose job was to care for the orphans who served as live carriers for the vaccine.
"It always amazes me when I find in history these little anonymous people that were doing amazing things and on the backs of whom our civilization rode forward," Alvarez says. Since historical records weren't consistent about the rectoress's last name, Alvarez christened her Isabel Sendales y Gómez. Saving the World juxtaposes Isabel's activism against Alma's depression, and the small pox plagues against AIDS, but the novel also reveals how activism can happen to people unexpectedly, when they're confronted with a situation that electrifies their morals.
That's what happened to Alvarez and Eichner when they traveled to the Dominican Republic in 1996. They went so Alvarez, who was born in New York City but lived in the D.R. until she was 10, could write a short story for the Nature Conservancy, which was assembling an anthology of pieces written at their sites. While they were there, however, they were aghast at the poverty of the region's coffee farmers.
"In the Dominican Republic, we've seen people paid as little as 33 cents a pound of coffee," Alvarez says. "They have to sell their plots because they can't make a living out of them. They sell them to these big agribusiness concerns which are just acres and acres of whatever is the first-world commodity that is needed, and the farmers go off to the urban centers where they can't get jobs, or they try to get illegally into the United States. It just starts a whole spiral."
Eichner, who grew up in Nebraska, found the situation especially upsetting—it reminded him of what had happened to the family farms of his childhood. So when a group of farmers determined to hold onto their land asked Alvarez and Eichner to buy some nearby plots and join their group, the couple obliged.
The land buy spurred the creation of Alvarez and Eichner's organic, fair-trade coffee company, Café Alta Gracia, which pays farmers a living wage for their beans. The company, in turn, spurred the creation of an on-site school, Fundación Alta Gracia, to fight illiteracy in the region.
"One thing leads to another basically because you feel so helpless and not to do something feels unconscionable," Alvarez says. "It's the knock on your door in the middle of the night. I didn't go looking for it."
But the values that led Alvarez to shoulder such an enormous and unprofitable project were in place long before she and Eichner made their trip. Hard work, community service and sacrifice are refrains of her biography, ideals modeled for her early on by her father, who had to remake his life at 45 after fleeing the Trujillo dictatorship in 1960. A surgeon in the D.R., Alvarez's father set up a community clinic for Spanish-speakers in Brooklyn.
"Papi would get up at four in the morning to be at his oficina at six so that the people who were going to la factoría and had to be there at seven-thirty could see el doctor when they were sick," Alvarez recalls. "He would go do house calls when he was done. He'd get home about eight-thirty, nine at night."
In turn, Alvarez worked hard to make her father proud, earning scholarships to a boarding school when she was 14 and to Middlebury College, where she graduated Phi Beta Kapa. These days she still likes to think of herself as a "worker" whose job is to tell stories. And she's happy to be far away from New York. "One of my neighbors is a sheep farmer. Another neighbor, the biggest compliment he gave me is: I've seen your books in the bookstore," Alvarez laughs. When her book tour is over, she'll be glad to return to Weybridge, where people see a writer's work as, well, just work.