Fresh Ink is a monthly series of interviews with debut novelists that focuses on the journey to publication. Please welcome this month’s guest, Mario Alberto Zambrano, author of Lotería, a beautiful novel about the cards we’re dealt in life, told from the point of view of a young but wise narrator caught in the middle of unspeakable tragedy.
# of agents you queried before signing: When I was getting my MFA I saw four agents, and after about six months of emailing back and forth, I chose my literary angel, Chris Parris-Lamb. He’s great.
# of books written before this one: I never wrote a book before, and to be honest, wasn’t entirely sure I was writing one during the process of putting Lotería together. It started out as a way to prompt myself to get into a character’s mind, and little by little, the more I worked on it, the book unfolded.
# of revisions you went through: Revisions! The nightmare yet saving grace of writing a book. Because Lotería is built with a deck of cards, and there are a total of 53 (really there are 54 but Luz loses a card), I rearranged the chapters at least fifty times. Once I had the sequence set, I went through at least 3-4 full draft revisions.
We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?
You know, for so long you have this intimate and private affair with your book. Only you read it, every paragraph, every chapter, over and over again, for so long that sometimes you can’t even see it anymore. You put so much thought into whether or not a metaphor is working that you lose sight of what’s happening in the scene. But once you get an agent and an editor, you suddenly have these literary angels on your side that are seeing your work the way you intended it to be. They’re helping you make it as great as possible. And in some way I knew this was going to happen, but until it did I didn’t know how rewarding it was going to be to have people on your team.
In what ways do you feel your dance background informed your transition into writing? In what ways was it challenging?
The shift from dancing to writing was challenging simply because it felt like I was entering a foreign territory. Literally, a foreign country where I didn’t know the language. I had devoted fifteen years of my life to expressing myself with my body, and I’ll admit, I hardly read when I was younger. I couldn’t sit still long enough because I was too busy making up dance moves in my head or working on my ballet technique in front of a full-length mirror in my bedroom.
Having to take care of the language that I’m putting on the page is something I’ve had to learn over the years. But like the body, you can sculpt and manipulate language to make it do what you want it to do. It’s fascinating. And so I guess I look at prose, as well as the narrative shape of the books I write (Lotería and the one I’m working on), in a similar way that I look at a dancer’s body, its possibilities and potential of how to move and express itself.
I love how the cards of the Lotería deck frame Luz’s story. Did you always set out to tell the story this way?
I knew I always wanted to used the cards. I played Lotería with my family when I was growing up. The images are so beautiful, so striking and evocative, that I wanted to use them, highlight them in a way that would represent my background. I didn’t know how I was going to use them necessarily when I started, but they were definitely the centerpiece of the initial idea.
Can you tell me a bit about how Lotería came to be published? (How you met your agent, the submission process, etc.)
I finished my first manuscript of Lotería during my first semester in graduate school. That same year I met with some agents, handed them the manuscript, then started hearing back from them a few months later. Chris in particular understood what I was trying to do, and so I went with him. That was in May of last year. Over the summer we worked on the book, then in September he sent it out to editors. In a matter of one week, seven houses
You know how people take pictures of their food before they eat it? I had to take a picture of Loteria before I started reading it.
wanted it—which of course, shocked the hell out of me—and after a few days we held an auction. In exactly two weeks from the date of sending it out, we sold the book to HarperCollins.
Even physically, your novel is beautiful–the texture and illustrations give the experience of shuffling through the Lotería deck. Did you always visualize it this way or was this something that came about as a result of the publisher’s design team and their interpretation?
I always wanted the cards to be included in the book—for me, they tell half the story. But I never thought in a million years that it would be published in color! This was the biggest surprise, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for how wonderful Harper has treated me and the book. My editor, Claire Wachtel, has been so supportive; I owe her the world. During the entire process of designing the book, I was included in every step.
With her older sister Estrella in the ICU and her father in jail, eleven-year-old Luz Castillo has been taken into the custody of the state. Alone in her room, the young girl retreats behind a wall of silence, writing in her journal and shuffling through a deck of Lotería cards—a Mexican version of bingo featuring bright, colorful images. Neither the social worker assigned to her case nor her Aunt Tencha, who desperately pleads for her niece’s release, can cajole Luz to speak. The young girl’s only confidant is her journal. Within its pages, Luz addresses an invisible higher power, sharing her secrets. Using the Lotería cards as her muse, Luz picks one card from the deck with each shuffle. Each of the cards’ colorful images— mermaids, bottles, spiders, death, and stars—sparks a random memory. Pieced together, these snapshots bring into focus the joy and pain of the young girl’s life, and the events that led to her present situation. But just as the story becomes clear, a breathtaking twist changes everything. A surprising, spellbinding tale richly imaginative and atmospheric, Lotería is an exquisite debut novel from an outstanding new voice in fiction.
Congratulations, Mario, and thank you so much for being a part of Fresh Ink!
Readers, if you had to pick a childhood board/card game to help tell your story, which would it be?
*In other debut book news, my first post at The Debutante Ball went up this week, in which I share the events that inspired Chasing the Sun, and why I had to abandon the story for 5 years before coming back to it. I hope you’ll stop by!