What inspired you to tell this story?
There is a long story and short version answer. In short, coming up in the Bronx I was taught to feel a lot of ways about myself, my mother and women who did not perform motherhood, female sexuality, and Latina identity in very specific ways deemed respectable. I felt compelled to tell the story of mothers and daughters who appear to fail to be good and right, but who love, protect and fight for each other in every way imaginable. What if we found a Holy Mother like that? A divine image of ourselves as right just how we are. The long version is about a whole vision I had walking down the Grand Concourse when I was 23 years old and had my first son in a baby carrier on my chest. It came after seeing a group of girls who looked to be getting into a fight with a young man.
What did you edit out of this book?
Dreams and scenes of chaos. The dreams came out as a result of final rounds of editing, and the general feeling in publishing about the use of dreams. The scenes of chaos were scenes I needed to write for myself, but they did not feel at all needed for the book. The dreams were released against my will, more or less, but the chaos fell away with each edit in my own hands. Only the vital chaos remained. Nothing gratuitous remained which was important to me, especially as pertained to mothers and how they are perceived and what we project onto them as flaws and failings.
How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?
These questions bring so much emotion.
First, I want to say that I thought I was finished many, many, many times. With each discovery that there was more to do, came feelings of weariness and fear. Can I finish? Will I ever finish? What the hell is finished anyway? But in the summer of 2020, when we were all locked inside, I was also grieving the loss of both of my parents. They died three months apart in early 2020. My mother’s death was at the height of Covid in NYC in April, I was still reeling from the loss of my father with whom I was very close. But the fact that my mother died alone, and in isolation, and we could not get her ashes till June really mirrored a lot of the ways she had been /felt isolated/abandoned in her life. It was a very difficult thing to accept, and it was after releasing her ashes, and accepting that I had to move forward, that I decided to simply spend the summer in the book and make a way out as a sort of pilgrimage to a different future for me, the memory of my parents and the book. I had to really get in and give it everything I had, and many things I had never had before. So I reached out to a wonderful writer/editor I knew and loved and asked her to keep me company on the journey. We arranged a contract and I basically asked her to be my book doula, as in I needed to make sure someone was watching out for me as I was entering and exiting this book at such an intense emotional moment for me.
After thirty years in my heart, including my ten summers of active writing to a finished manuscript that included five with my agent, the book was finished in five weeks in 2020 and I had a book deal by January 2021.
It was a long road and I learned many things about myself. The spiritual path the book took me on changed me fundamentally, and helped me to heal many aspects of my life and myself. On the personality level I learned two things I sort of new, but were deeply affirmed: One, I am mad dog persistent, and two, I have the patience of a rock. I can really and truly wait a thing out, ride its waves, and follow its snaky, twisted, trail. Once I commit, I am very difficult to dissuade.
What was your agenting process like?
I, like so many published authors, had another “first novel” that never got published. I had lots of interest and compliments about the writing, but it never materialized into an actual agent representing the work. I must have submitted to at least thirty agents, maybe more, and several in person pitches at conferences received invitations to submit. This process taught me not to take the rejection personally. It really is about a match, and these things can be very mysterious. I met an agent who told all of us she had rejected the Da Vinci Code and would do it again based on the fact that it just wasn’t her kind of book. Essentially the message was you have to believe in your book long enough to see it find the right match. So in my second round of looking for an agent, I was a little more experienced. I still acquired several rejections, but I sent it out less as I worked out how finished I really was, which as it turns out was not even close. I met Soumeya Roberts at a conference in the desert under the auspices of AROHO (A Room of Her Own). Circumstances created a very special encounter that allowed me to talk to her at length and she requested fifty pages. That was in 2015. We then shared a long journey of me finishing a PhD and her changing agencies, becoming a senior agent, having two babies, and yet, she kept supporting the manuscript while I kept working on it. It was in the fall of 2020 that she felt it was finally ready to go out to the houses. Overall, my experience is that there are many good agents, and a growing number of them are looking to represent authors from non-traditional backgrounds, but the match is really about the way your work resonates with them in a way they can then get behind and sell it. You don’t want an agent that can’t passionately represent your book. So this is another place where my “patience of a rock” came in handy.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Conferences, retreats and writer gatherings. My favorites are the IWWG summer conference and online offerings, (International Women’s Writing Guild) AROHO (A Room of Her Own) no longer has in person but has lot’s of online activity) VONA, (Voices of Our Nation has both in person and online). I also think any and all money spent on getting more time support like child care, or cleaning services ( even if only for a summer) can make a huge difference.
How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.
No such thing. I have never had it, Most likely never will. I can do 1 hour one day and 4 another and 12 on a day when I am on fire and the stars align. I go with the flow and always prioritize my actual life, but from time to time I pack a bag and leave home and say I must write and it can’t wait. So a variety of structures is what works for me. That said, editing periods or getting to the finish line often demand a period of weeks or months that I decide I will follow a routine of sorts just to meet the guidelines and requirements, but also to get into that editing, cutting away/ finishing strictness of mind. It is good practice to exert discipline at several stages of the process of getting to a finished manuscript. I just think too many writers are too tied up in the idea that if they can’t keep a schedule it means they aren’t “writers”. If you’re a mother that can be deadly. I wrote on park benches and often let my kids nap in the stroller so I could keep writing. They were thrilled to discover we were still in the park when they woke up, and it gave me extra time as long as I packed lunch and snacks. They are grown men now, and I think it is also is worth noting that I did not write as much when they were little and that was ok. That worked for me. But I did start going to writing things like conferences by the time they were both in school.
What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?
Like the go to the gym muscle you must use it or lose it. I have tons of journals! I am constantly writing to make sense of the world. I write like I breathe literally. It is kind of automatic at this point, but most of it is not for publication. It is like many tributaries of a single river. It makes me agile and relaxed in front of the page. I say I never get writer’s block because when I feel like I “can’t” work on my work in progress, I just go complain about it in my journals or copy entire passages from books I love, or do a tarot reading for one of my characters and write the whole thing down. Writing is a practice and an exercise and I think people get too caught up in thinking about it as a performance. But usually the performance is many years away. So write!
To say read is too simple. I read to receive content, to lose myself in story and to think about style and sound and language. Sometimes I will read a book twice to let myself travel freely.
I like to think about the way method actors work to stay in character as a kind of source practice for when I am deep into character development. I don’t become my characters, but I make a lot of space for them in my actual life. If I am writing about a specific setting or experience I will often try to go there and do some free writing there, even if it is a place I know well. I go to see it or feel it as my character does. It may never show up in the final draft, but it creates a mood. I will also create dense spaces of color and imagery where I write that feed the project and I don’t always know why or how, but I am very sensory. So pictures, art, smells, set ups in my writing space all help me build the muscle because I take all of my senses seriously and feed them constantly.
What does literary success look like to you?
Writing and finishing work and giving myself permission to roam freely through my imagination makes me feel successful. Once published, obviously there is a new level of validation but it can be very slippery, strange and unstable, not to mention short lived. So I feel it, but I understand it to be a long game ( see “patience of a rock” above). It is about the long life of a book and you can never really know what that will be. Reader interaction is my favorite! When readers share how the work has made them feel, think or see it feels like the work is complete. Like it landed. Also, I have been thrilled to see pictures of my book in a library. I have not yet gone to see it myself, but I think it will be very emotional because libraries were a kind of church for me as a child.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
For a long time I didn’t know many other writers, or only knew them in superficial ways. My life long friends are my friends for twenty, thirty, forty years, and we were not anything other than friends. Although I do think they make me a better writer and listen carefully to what I say as I work on a project, as well as often read my work and give feedback. But from about 2015 to now I began to meet and bond with writers in different conferences and retreats that have become friends, and most recently I have had the pleasure of forming bonds with a writer I loved as child, Brenda Wilkinson, who I went out in search of, and found in Georgia. Our emails, and our mutual interview at Charis Books in Atlanta, have brought me great joy. Finally, I have found myself surrounded by a group of Latina writers in pre and post publication that really feel like family regardless of how long we have known each other. I get so happy when I see their success or their books somewhere, or their posts on social media. It is a very distinct experience of feeling somehow less alone and understood in ways it is hard to explain.
Who are you writing for?
I used to think I was writing for a certain group, namely Puerto Ricans from the Bronx, but the reception to Carmen and Grace in the UK has made a big impact on me. It made me realize that I write from that group and from the Bronx, but I never really know who I am writing for. I think I have always been writing for the reader who enters books with hope and faith and desire to be both entertained and enriched, touched somehow in that book magic way. Reading was vital to me for far longer than writing has been, and I think now that readers, deep readers, committed readers or curious new readers are who I write for. I hope to find readers who need/want what my writing offers. That said, I was really shaped by African American Women writers and then later discovered Latina writers, but my earliest books were traditional and all of them fed me. I want stories from everywhere about everyone and everything and I hope that my very specific books about Puerto Ricans from the Bronx can be that for others. Also, I think I write for myself. It is a very powerful instinct. A deep pull to extract something from within and look at it “out here.” It only becomes about readers way far down the line.
Melissa Coss Aquino (She/her) is a Puerto Rican writer from the Bronx. Her novel Carmen and Grace was published by William Morrow Harper Collins in 2023. She received her MFA from the City College of New York, CUNY, and her Ph.D. from the Graduate Center, CUNY in English. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Bronx Community College, CUNY. She is a proud IWWG, VONA, AROHO, and Hedgebrook alumna. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and journals including Centro, Caminos Reales, We’moon 2022, MomEgg Review, Callaloo, The Fairy Tale Review and others.
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