We're celebrating the release of Lyn Miller-Lachmann's new YA novel, Surviving Santiago (Running Press)! Lyn is a member of the Summer 2012 Secret Gardeners, and she stopped by for a chat.
Returning to her homeland of Santiago, Chile, is the last thing that Tina wants to do during the summer of her sixteenth birthday. It has taken eight years for her to grow comfortable in the United States, but now she has good friends and even likes her mother’s new husband. And it has been three years since her father left his family to work underground against the dictatorship.
Despite insisting on the visit, Tina’s father spends all his time absorbed in politics and alcohol rather than connecting with her, carrying his betrayal from the past into the present. Tina attracts the interest of a mysterious, heavy-metal-loving stranger, but the hairpin turns he takes her on put her in increasing danger as she comes closer to learning the truth.
The tense final months of the Pinochet regime in 1989 provide the backdrop for author Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s suspenseful tale of the survival of the Aguilar family, first introduced in the critically acclaimed Gringolandia.
Welcome, Lyn! So, tell us . . .
Who was your favorite character to write and why?
I love all my characters in this novel—Tina, her father, her aunt, and Frankie. But in terms of a character to write, Frankie, the mysterious boyfriend, was the most interesting and challenging. He is, of course, unknown to Tina because he’s hiding a huge secret, but in many ways, he’s unknown to himself. He’s grown up under difficult circumstances, and his desire to escape those circumstances has led him to make some bad choices. When he makes those choices, he doesn’t know that he’ll come to regret them. In the end, he changes and discovers himself every bit as much as Tina does.
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process?
Unlike a lot of authors, I tend to underwrite, and because there’s a lot of action in Surviving Santiago, I had to slow down with chapters that immersed the reader in the setting and relationships. I’m particularly proud of a chapter I added during the revision process, which is set in the port city of Valparaíso, Chile. Built on several dozen hills, Valparaíso is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. I had to figure out how to convey this beauty in words, while using the setting as an opportunity for Tina to learn from her aunt about her father’s childhood and how he became the person he is.
Tell us how you sold this book.
I definitely want to talk about this one because it’s a wonderful VCFA story. I got my agent, Ellen Geiger at Frances Goldin Literary Agency, with this manuscript, but she picked up a few quick rejections and we decided to table the project in favor of the one that would become Rogue. All of the rejections pointed to a very weak beginning, so I decided to workshop the first three chapters for my second residency. I got great advice (see next question) from my fellow students, and when I finished the revisions, I gave the manuscript to Cori McCarthy, who had presented an early version of The Color of Rain in the same workshop. Cori had great advice and offered to bring Surviving Santiago to her editor at Running Press, Lisa Cheng. This novel owes its existence to Cori, and I’m forever grateful.
We're big fans of Cori and her work! :) Thanks for sharing that story; the VCFA community is a wonderful resource.
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
Editors of the initial first chapters of Surviving Santiago found Tina unsympathetic, and in my second semester workshop, I learned the elements of what makes a protagonist likable. Most notably for this novel, presenting other characters who like her connects her to the reader, so after the workshop I wrote a new beginning where Tina and her friends from school are at her mother’s wedding. Tina’s interest in restoring old houses—something she shares with her new stepfather—is a cool aspect of her character that also becomes a metaphor for her relationship with her father.
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
An Na, Jane Kurtz (with whom I worked on Surviving Santiago), Sarah Ellis, Coe Booth. I’m currently doing a post-graduate semester with Shelley Tanaka focused on translation, but I’m also working with her on a new project set in Portugal in 1966, during the dictatorship there.
What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?
If I’d known how supportive everyone would be, and what an amazing opportunity I would have to focus on and learn about craft, I wouldn’t have been so anxious in the months before I started. As it was, I almost didn’t show up for my first residency because I was so nervous and also because I’d badly sprained my foot in an accident several weeks before and was still hobbling around with a cane.
Lucky for us that you decided to hobble up to Montpelier after all! Thank you so much for stopping by, Lyn. Bienvenido, Surviving Santiago!