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Novelist Julia Alvarez starts her day with poetry – then digs into everything else

“I think the first books I bought were poetry books. If you are in love with poems, a library book of poetry just doesn’t do it,” says Julia Alvarez.
“I think the first books I bought were poetry books. If you are in love with poems, a library book of poetry just doesn’t do it,” says Julia Alvarez.

Twenty-five years ago when novelist Julia Alvarez published her first novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” there were few to no well-known American-Latina writers. Now, as she points out, there are writers of all ethnicities publishing books. Algonquin Books recently put out newly jacketed editions of her first novel plus “In the Time of Butterflies” and “Yo!” Alvarez lives in Vermont, where she is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.

BOOKS: How have you changed as a reader? 

ALVAREZ: As you get older you look at a book and think, ‘Did I read that?’ When you’ve been an English teacher for decades a lot of times you feel like you read something because you’ve heard people talk about it so much. I’m not sure I read “Beowulf” but I can tell you what it’s all about. 

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BOOKS: What have you been reading?

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ALVAREZ: The Vermont writer Bill Schubart has written a beautiful little book called “Lila and Theron.” I’m very taken by short, lyrical novels and this one works like a haiku. It gets in your head and expands. The young Latina writer Kali Fajardo-Anstine sent me her story collection “Sabrina and Corina.” I think of her as a kind of Latina Flannery O’Connor. Wendell Berry’s “Fidelity” is another story collection I read. I mostly knew of him as an environmental writer. His stories are amazing.

BOOKS: Is there a Latina writer who you wish were better known?

ALVAREZ: One would be the young Dominican poet Elizabeth Acevedo, whose collection “The Poet X” won the National Book Award. If you Google her you can hear her read. She’s a fabulous reader.

BOOKS: How would you describe your taste?

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ALVAREZ: If it’s good writing I’ll read it, whatever the genre: nonfiction, YA, poetry, and mysteries, even “The Joy of Cooking.” Marion Cunningham is a wonderful writer. I admire writing where the writer has almost disappeared.

BOOKS: Is there a book you were surprised to like?

ALVAREZ: I was just doing a reading in Florida and the writer Les Standiford gave me his book, “Bringing Adam Home,” which is about the first missing child whose face was put on milk cartons. I wouldn’t normally be to drawn to something like that, but as a courteous gesture I read it on the plane. And I couldn’t stop reading it. 

BOOKS: Is there a classic that you think is over-rated?

ALVAREZ: I don’t like to criticize writers because I know how hard it is. Also, I’ll follow a writer I admire through their good and bad novels. I love J.M. Coetzee. I loved his novel “Disgrace.” I’ve read a lot of his other novels and haven’t liked many of them but I’m interested in what he has to say.

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BOOKS: What kind of reader were you like as a child?

‘If it’s good writing I’ll read it, whatever the genre.’

ALVAREZ: I was not a reader at all up through fifth grade. In the Dominican Republic, which was a dictatorship then, the textbooks were propaganda. It was having to learn a language and pay attention to what words meant that did it. A wonderful sixth grade teacher turned me on to Nancy Drew books. As I learned English I fell in love with reading. 

BOOKS: When did you become a book buyer?

ALVAREZ: I think the first books I bought were poetry books. If you are in love with poems, a library book of poetry just doesn’t do it. You want to mark the pages. In my teens I was very taken with E.E. Cummings. And then William Meredith, June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. My poetry books were always the ones I wanted to keep. I could get a novel out of the library. 

BOOKS: What are your reading habits?

ALVAREZ: I like to start the day with poetry. I feel it sets the bar high. As Emily Dickinson says, there are no approximate words in a poem. Fiction is like a reward, so the best time to read that is when I get into bed. But I read all the time. I take a book in my handbag. When I eat alone, a book is my company. When I’m brushing my teeth, I prop something up on the sink to read. Whatever I’m doing, there will be a book.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’’ and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com