Nelsa is the kind of person who has the ability to make you feel right at home, even when you’re sitting in a pub full of strangers in the middle of downtown Toronto. And you know, over the course of the last couple of weeks while preparing for this interview (and for one she’s doing with me soon), I think I’ve kind of figured out why she’s got this gift: because home, family, and a sense of community are very important to her and what she holds dear just spills out wherever she is.
Meet Nelsa Roberto.
Please introduce yourself to us.
Hi, my name is Nelsa Roberto and I’m thrilled to be asked by Claudia to be interviewed on her fabulous blog! Thank you, Claudia! So, here’s the scoop on me:
I was born to Portuguese immigrant parents in a remote logging community in northern Ontario, Canada. My earliest memories involve staring out a window into a sea of white, chest high snow waving to my mom as she made her way to the one store/post office/community gathering place. That and sitting on the roof of our house with my best friend while my mother tried to talk us down (we just wanted to be bigger than other people for once!). Those are the two most vivid memories from my short stint in our Great White North.
Despite being born in the cold and snow (my mother went into labour during a blizzard three days before Christmas) I never learned to skate. Which is probably why I love watching skating now (didn’t you adore Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue in the Olympics? Sigh). We moved to a small, rural farming community in southern Ontario when I was five. I spent the next 15 years picking, sorting and packing a variety of vegetables and, while it didn’t turn me off enjoying tomatoes and peppers in my dinners, I do not now nor will I ever have a vegetable patch in my back yard. But all those years toiling away on a hot humid patch of farmland did make me appreciate the joys of air conditioning and city living. I finally found my spiritual and adult home in the largest city in Canada – Toronto – where I’m currently quite happy if I manage to remember to water a pot of geraniums on my front porch.
I earned my degree in English Literature and Communication Studies from the University of Windsor. Surprisingly, studying literature doesn’t guarantee you a job in a Fortune 500 company. It does, however, prepare you for a career in the civil service – my day job. Go figure. But, more importantly, it provided me with a love and passion for the written word that has lasted all my life.
I write contemporary young adult novels with a sassy, irreverent humour as well as paranormal/urban fantasy for teens. I’m married, the mother of three amazing children (all of whom have inherited my unfortunate genetic tendency to avoid household chores) I am also the exhausted owner of a very cute, very hyper Golden Retriever named Hudson.
Was reading a big part of your childhood?
Reading? Was it a big part of my childhood??? Is Johnny Depp hot??
Oh, my goodness, YES!
So reading was to Nelsa as hot is to Johnny Depp. Who encouraged you to read? What were your favorite books?
Now, my parents were too busy trying to eke out a living to worry about encouraging me to read. Fed and clothed yes. Having enough books to keep me entertained? Um, not so high on the necessity radar for them. But, luckily, I had an older brother (almost seven years older) who loved reading – still does. I credit him with being my inspiration. I wanted my brother to think I was cool so if I read he’d be impressed with me. He devoured comic books and anything from the library he could bring home from school. When we moved to our old farmhouse the previous owners left tons of books behind. I read the classics like Dickens, Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath is still one of my favourite books) and all of the thriller/horror Stephen King my brother brought home. Then I discovered the Bronte’s and Jane Austen. Oh my. My parents never objected to my reading – just that I never stopped reading!
Do you think you were born to write or is writing something you discovered along your life’s journey? Either way, when did you decide to do it in earnest?
I’ve thought about this question many times since I first picked up a pen to begin writing over seven years ago and, yes, I do think that my love and passion for reading led me to start writing. It wasn’t planned, however. I never, once, when I was a child, teen or young woman ever thought it would be possible for me to actually write a book. I always invented stories (before I could write I would draw pictures that actually had stories in my mind behind them). But it was as I was approaching a certain SIGNIFICANT birthday (and it’s totally irrelevant to know which one, thank you very much) when I realized I was doing everything in my life for someone else. Working for someone else, raising my children, being a wife – a lot of that was in service to others. No matter how willing and thankful I was to do that I needed to have something that I owned, that I created. Something that I could point to and say “I alone did that”. I began by writing a story for my daughters. It turned into a novel. A very bad novel (historical middle grade set in medieval England is so not my voice!) but I’d never before been so passionate and interested and COMMITTED to finishing something. And when that was done I knew, KNEW, I needed to keep writing.
What is your writing process?
I had the great opportunity to be part of a group of bloggers that talked about this very thing. Here’s a link to my blog post about it (and where you can link to the other writers as well).
Basically, I think I’m a hybrid type of writer. I do a rough one page blurb kind of outline, know my beginning, know my end but have a fuzzy middle. I’ve stopped in the middle of my books many times only to pick it up a few months later after I’ve mentally or physically written down what needs to happen during that murky middle. You’d think, knowing that, I’d plan that middle out right from the beginning before I set pen to paper. But if I write too much about my characters or plot right at the outset it’s like I’ve already written the novel and I don’t have the fun of discovering the story.
The main thing to remember is your process is yours and no one else’s will work for you. Try out a few different ways and see what fits. Probably the weirdest thing people think about my process is that I write the first draft by hand then transcribe it (either chapter by chapter or huge chunk by huge chunk) into the computer. The reason I do this is I don’t self edit if I’m writing in long-hand. It looks crappy so I can let it be crappy. But once it’s up on that screen, I revise, revise, revise (I LOVE revision).
What do you find is the most challenging thing about being a writer?
Oh, this is a hard question. Um, answering questions about what’s hard about being a writer?? No? Okay, well, I think it’s once you’ve been lucky enough to be published and that whole mindset of ‘You Must Market and Sell and Promote and – insert whatever social networking/media/marketing thing is the latest thing to do – here. Before you’re published you’re just caught up in the language of writing. Learning the structure of a novel, getting a handle on pacing, on characterization, on dialogue. These things, because I love writing, I loved to learn about. But I was never a big marketing guru. Having to understand the intricacies of blogging, twittering, attending conferences, connecting with teachers, librarians, booksellers, writing press releases, organizing book launches, signings … it is all so very overwhelming. It’s not to say it doesn’t have its own rewards. I’ve met some amazing people through my tiny, baby steps in marketing. But boy, I’d rather just be writing any day.
The most rewarding thing about being a writer?
My favourite quote about writing is “The best part of writing is having written.” Don’t know who said it but, boy, it’s dead on right for me. Seeing that finished 250 -300 pages of manuscript, knowing you’ve started with a kernel of an idea – a ‘hook’- and created a few dozen characters, a setting, a ‘world’ that did not exist before … that is complete and utter nirvana. And it is the rush of that feeling that keeps me slogging through the morass of messed up plot lines and recalcitrant characters and hooks that seem to fizzle out by page 50.
Tell us about ILLEGALLY BLONDE.
Here’s the two paragraphs that were in my query letter, some of which eventually made it to the back cover blurb. This is why writer’s need to spend a good amount of time crafting that letter. You never know if those words will be the ones that end up on the back cover of your book!
Sometimes discovering your roots is about a lot more than watching your real hair colour grow in …
When seventeen-year-old Lucy do Amaral comes home with newly bleached blonde hair she expects a major lecture and another grounding from her strict Portuguese parents. What she doesn’t expect is the shocking news that her parents are illegal aliens who’ve just been told they’re being deported in less than a week. Lucy’s furious at her parents and has no intention of leaving her boyfriend and missing prom and grad to go live in some backwater village with no cable, no movie theatre and no life in some country she knows nothing about.
But, as Lucy discovers, intentions and reality are sometimes worlds apart – or, in Lucy’s case, at least an ocean away. Lucy’s desperation to return to her ‘real’ home ensnares her in a web of illegal activity that threatens more than her journey home. But it’s when she unexpectedly falls for a guy whose connection to his home is centuries old that she finally realizes you can never run away from your roots – not even if you bleach them.
Can you tell us about your journey to publication for ILLEGALLY BLONDE?
By the time I’d written ILLEGALLY BLONDE, I’d been writing for about five years. I’d started off writing MG books then wrote a YA, decided nobody was buying YA (at the time) realized most of my books (even the MG!) had a thread of romance running through them, decided I loved reading romance so why not write it too? I joined the Toronto Romance Writers and began seriously learning the craft of writing. Took many courses, wrote a few contemporary romance books, came very close to having agent interest with partial and full requests but it was never quite ‘there’ yet. When I read the stories about the immigration crackdown on illegal Portuguese workers here in Toronto in 2006 and given my Portuguese background, the idea and the opportunity hit at the same time. I started writing ILLEGALLY BLONDE in May 2006 and finished it that fall. I began querying agents in December 2006 and was lucky to get immediate interest. I signed with The Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency in February 2007.
ILLEGALLY BLONDE made the rounds of the many publishers in 2007-08, came close through acquisition meetings at a couple of houses but they said no. I was seriously close to chucking it all in by December 2008 when my agent suggested we try some of the independent publishers here in Canada. BLONDE was submitted to Great Plains Teen Fiction in January 2009 and three weeks later we had an offer. I still can’t quite believe it.
Which character from ILLEGALLY BLONDE is most like you? In what ways?
Well, many of my friends who know me well say they hear my voice in Lucy’s character. And, yes, her snarkiness and wry sense of humour is definitely mine. But her actions? Wow, she’s a little braver (or crazier?) than I ever was at 17. The decisions she makes are not ones I would have ever made. I was more of the ‘good girl’ who listened to my parents type of kid. Lucy craves her independence so much she’s willing to do many things that lead her into a whole heap of trouble.
Thank you for the interview, Nelsa. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?
Thank you so much for interviewing me, Claudia. One of the things I wanted to mention was the fabulous opportunity that writing has given me in terms of meeting amazing fellow writers like yourself and the Torkidlit group. I’ve been blessed in so many ways to have discovered my passion and one of the bonuses has been in expanding my circle of friends through such a supportive writing community. I feel very, very lucky and want to encourage anyone who is hesitating about joining a writing group to stop worrying and just jump in. The people you meet will amaze you!
Well, I’m glad I asked! And you’re absolutely right; Torkidlit definitely is a pleasant bonus; one that’s packed full of amazing people.
You can click on the ILLEGALLY BLONDE book cover to buy the book online, or if you are in the Toronto area you can help support the local bookseller who helped Nelsa with her book launch. (A great idea, Nelsa!)
Another Story Bookshop, 315 Roncesvalles Ave., Toronto, Ontario.