I loved “When the de la Cruz Family Danced”. There, I’ve erased any semblance of objectivity. Donna Miscolta’s first novel is set in San Diego, but it could be Seattle — or Chicago (where I grew up). It’s a page turner with a strong story line that grows and surprises. I know Johnny de la Cruz’s family or folks an awful lot like them: unpredictable, many-layered and as intriguing in their own way as anybody in our celebrity cult culture.
Reading it was a relief and a reminder of how mundane and bizarre we all are; I didn’t want to put it down and I didn’t want it to end. Immigrant parents, American-born children — all the cross-cultural mishaps of trying to fit in, to keep up with the Cordovas, the class fissures, the “moving up.” Part grit and part sharp, witty commentary, Miscolta tells the story of three intertwining families, with different immigration and intermarriage histories. It’s about the familiar and fascinating ways we survive.
I talked with Donna Miscolta in lobby chairs at Seattle City Hall; she works for the County and I work for the City and we’ve been in meetings together over the years. I asked her lots of questions about how autobiographical the novel was, how she wrote it while being a full-time government worker, wife and mother, who her favorite writers were and what her writer’s life was like.
The book is only very slightly autobiographical; the idea came to her in 1993 as she waited at SeaTac for a flight to San Diego to attend her father’s funeral. She was thinking about all the things she did and did not know about her father and his experience leaving the Philippines and starting a new chapter of life here. She completed a first version of the novel in 1997, but eventually discarded it and started over. She did more revisions after a writers’ conference in Gig Harbor, where a friend, upon hearing a synopsis of the novel, said about the main character, “Oh, and then he has an affair?” Which provoked another rewrite!
It was not just the memory of the abortion that prompted his next action, but some larger sense of desire and regret and loss that seemed to coalesce in him since his return. He put his hand on Bunny’s knee and slide it up her dress. There on the narrow sofa, they made awkward, indecorous love, careful not to upset the sake glasses on the table. He kept his eyes closed and breathed in the reckless scent of orchids and the tropics that came from Bunny’s skin.
Listening to her, I was aware of how much passion and persistence this writing takes. Needing a creative outlet outside of work and family, she started writing when her daughters were three and seven years-old. (They’re now 21 and 25.) She wrote in the evenings after her daughters were in bed, sometimes managing only a few sentences at a time. But the sentences started to add up. In 2007 she found an agent who was excited about her book and started submitting it to editors; over the course of two years, the book was submitted to thirty editors and rejected, for one reason or another, by them all. It was only after the first chapter was published online in Cha: an Asian Literary Journal, that the publisher at Signal8Press contacted her wanting to read the whole book. A week after receiving the manuscript, he offered to publish it.
Working with the editor was another step in creativity — going over line by line to make sure the edits they agreed upon and the revisions she made retained the core of what she wanted to convey.
“You can’t get too attached to your words! You have to be open to suggestions to change and rearrange. You have to see the process as fun — as a puzzle to be solved.”
She’s not sure how they’ve influenced her writing — perhaps tone, language, humor — but some of her favorite writers are Jessica Hagedorn, Gish Jen, Marianne Villanueva, Sandra Cisneros, and a poet, Fatima Lim-Wilson.
Since I didn’t want When the de la Cruz Family Danced to end, I asked Miscolta if there was a sequel in the works. There isn’t, but there is a second novel, this time focusing on the other half of her ethnic-cultural background: the Latino community. Some issues are similar to those in her first novel, but are set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the 60’s and the rise of feminism in the 70’s. The main character, this time female, tries to find where she fits in the world.
After you read this first novel, Donna Miscolta would love to hear your responses to it. She can be reached through her website at DonnaMiscolta.com or at [email protected]. I hope to see you at her reading at Elliott Bay Bookstore!
Donna Miscolta reads from her novel on August 11 at 7 p.m. with Western University professor and poet Oliver de la Paz who reads from his latest book, “Requiem for the Orchard.” Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 Tenth Ave. Call (206) 624-6600 or visit www.elliottbaybook.com.