New Voice: Christina Diaz Gonzalez on The Red Umbrella

Christina Diaz Gonzalez is the first-time author of The Red Umbrella (Knopf, 2010). From the promotional copy:

The Red Umbrella is the moving tale of a 14-year-old girl’s journey from Cuba to America as part of Operation Pedro Pan—an organized exodus of more than 14,000 unaccompanied children, whose parents sent them away to escape Fidel Castro’s revolution.

In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched.

As the revolution’s impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía’s parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own.

Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?

The Red Umbrella is a moving story of country, culture, family, and the true meaning of home.

Could you tell us about your writing community–your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

Let me start by saying that children’s book writers are amazing, wonderful, supportive people. I started writing a few years ago because my kids inspired me to follow the dream I’d had when I was a child, but I had no real training as a writer (other than legal writing in law school, which is most definitely not the same thing as writing novels).

After some encouragement from my husband, I joined my local SCBWI critique group and life was never the same again. Seriously. This group of talented writers are part motivation coaches, part task-masters and part harsh critics. I’ve learned so much from them!

Then my writing base grew to include another local writing group run by the fabulous Joyce Sweeney, and again, I was surrounded by more fabulous writers and inspirations. That’s when the magic started to happen.

I went to an SCBWI conference in June of 2008 (the SCBWI Orlando Workshop) and had the first ten pages of my manuscript critiqued by an editor. I was floored when she told me she loved what I’d written and asked if I was almost finished with the book because it would be something she’d be interested in acquiring.

Well, as soon as my head stopped spinning, I smiled and said I’d be finish by the end of the summer. Did I forget to mention that I’d only written fifteen pages at that point?

Yeah…crazy! Needless to say, I went home, became a writing fiend and, with the wonderful support of my critique group friends, ten weeks later I had a finished book and a contract with Random House/Knopf.

After signing my contract, I continued working on new things with my critique group, but I also joined an online group of debut authors called the Tenners (a play on 2010…the year we all debut, cute, huh?). This group has been key for keeping my sanity because, at the time, I didn’t have an agent (yes, I got a contract with a major publisher without an agent…it can be done), and so they were my sounding board.

Having them there to share all the ups, downs, celebrations and freak-out moments of this fun, but slightly stressful, year has been so rewarding. I hope to one day meet many of them in real life!

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first–character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

I guess the concept is what first drew me to The Red Umbrella, although that isn’t really accurate because the story was always a part of me so I wasn’t truly “drawn” to it.

My book is loosely based on parents’ experience in coming to the U.S. and that of the other 14,000 children who were part of Operation Pedro Pan (a secret program where over 14,000 Cuban children were sent by their parents to the U.S. alone in order to escape Castro’s Communist revolution).

The idea that parents (specifically, my grandparents) would have to make the choice of sending their children away to a foreign country in order to save them was always part of my being. The tough part came when I decided to write about this.

The story behind The Red Umbrella was a big part of my family history, but more importantly, it’s part of American history that had been overlooked. It was one thing for me to know the story, something quite different to be able to share it with the world and still give it the same intensity I felt in my heart. Yet, somehow, it all came together.

I sometimes think there was a little angel (in the form of my grandmother) sitting by me as I wrote, whispering key events into my ear.

It also helped tremendously that I have such a large, extended family where I could ask my grandfather, parents, mother-in-law, aunts and uncles about their experiences in Cuba and in the camps/foster homes in the U.S. They are all an inspiration to me.