New Voice: Bettina Restrepo on Illegal

Bettina Restrepo is the first-time author of Illegal (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, 2011).

Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—waiting for her father’s return and a better day.

When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas.

After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place.

Now, Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her precious quinceañera.

Bettina Restrepo’s gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl’s unique yet universal immigrant experience.

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

My critique groups are the world to me. Originally when I began, Joyce Harlow invited me to sit at her dining room table on Sunday afternoons to drink tea and eat scones from delicate china plates.

We had several rotating players, but our main writers were Mary Ann Hellinghausen (Houston Community Newspapers) and Jenny Moss, author of Taking Off (Walker, 2011), Shadow (Scholastic, 2010), and Winnie’s War (Walker, 2009).

These women nurtured me through my newbie stories, the birth of my son, corrected my grammar, and helped me survive through the four billion drafts of Illegal. Sadly, we lost Joyce in October, but Jenny and Mary Ann are very much in my life now that I live in Dallas.

Here, I have a new group of writers who are taking care of me in a new way. Sally Lee, a nonfiction writer with about twenty books under her belt; Julie Richie, a freelance writer working on her MFA in creative writing from Lesley College in Boston; and Stephanie Ledyard, a graduate from Vermont College.

These amazing women put up with my antics at Einstein Brother’s Bagels twice a month. We are constantly learning from each other. It’s like I have my own personal cheering section, tissue provider, and laugh sessions all tied into one. It doesn’t matter if we are cheering for new grandchildren, a publishing contract or just telling silly stories, it all feeds into my writing life.

I must give kudos to my husband. He’s an engineer and not into books. But he’s mostly patient with me when I’m in a writing fervor. I forget to make dinner and forget to say things “out loud” (they sounded fine in my head). He pulls me into the real world for a break.

My son is quite the character, too. He thinks I know every story and must recite them upon demand. He keeps me reading all sorts of books, and he also pulls at me on days that I need with a good round of Wii.

As someone working with a publicist, how did you identify that person? Why did you decide to go with professional help? What steps are the two of you taking to raise awareness of your new release?

I knew that as a debut author of literary fiction – I wouldn’t get much attention. I am not Justin Bieber, but I’m thankful for his fast-selling biography that means more money is available for people like me to slip into the market.

But, knowing this, I knew I wanted to invest in myself and my work. And this takes an expert.

I asked my agent, Blair Hewes (Dunham Literary), and my editor, Katherine Tegen, for a short list of people I should work with.

In addition, I belong to an online support group of debut authors called The Elevensies.

A woman named Kirsten Cappy (at Curious City) hosted a chat. She’s actually a marketing person with great contacts in the school-library market. I really tuned into her ideas more than a publicist because I wasn’t just looking for ways to get featured in this magazine or that website. I wanted a way to promote the book over the long term.

Kirsten and I designed a photo contest for teenagers. Using Mitali Perkins’ idea of “multicultural books can be a window or a mirror,” teens can interpret the themes found in Illegal through photography.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

I’ve really been working the book blogging sites. These people are doing such a wonderful job connecting readers and highlighting new books. I think word of mouth, even via the Internet, is the most powerful tool.

But it’s important for me to be real with people. I don’t want to be some annoying salesperson looking for a quick hit like “here, review my book.” I want real connections.

It’s hard to read every blog every week, but I feel it’s important, that if they are doing their work, it must be honored. I try to comment when I have something good to say.

If I’m going to be in an area where the blogger lives or might be attending a conference, I want to meet them and give a hug.

I’m a hugger. I like personal connection, and a face speaks volumes to me.

But I have to tell you it takes a ton of time, and it never feels like enough. When it gets too cumbersome, I stop… but then I feel guilty. But by joining the class of 2k11, I have wonderful authors around me to cheer me on.

The one thing I am now hesitant to do is many bookstore visits. I love book people, and I want to talk with them. But these visits take a lot of time, and when you sit lonely at a table…. I want to interact. So, if I can interact with a small book group, or do a teen night – cool. Saturday afternoon story time, I would rather be playing with my family.

I’m just learning how to balance it all. I decide what I can control – and I do that with gusto.

The rest I will handle one step at a time.

Cynsational Notes

See the Educator’s Guide to Illegal.

Check out the Illegal Photo Contest. Peek: “…readers 13-18 to submit photo(s) that represent their reaction to the book Illegal…(HarperCollins, 2011) to win a chance at monthly prizes and the Grand Prize of a Nook e-reader.”

10 thoughts on “New Voice: Bettina Restrepo on Illegal

  1. Great interview–loved what she had to say about her writing group. I can't wait to read this book. It's on the top of my list.

  2. It is so inspiring and wonderful to see this amazing story finally published in a beautiful book, having been there from "the beginning'' when it was gushing forth from Bettina's creative soul. Wishing you much success, my friend – Mary Ann

  3. What a great interview! Thank you Bettina and Cynthia! I love hearing about the support groups behind an author that cheer them on to the finish line. The fabulous blogger community is an amazing gift to the writing world – so glad to know of them! Bett – your book sounds haunting and hopeful – can't wait to read it.

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