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Sunday, February 10, 2013

An Interview with Author Heidi Ayarbe by Julie Dillard

Back in grad school at the University of Nevada, Reno, I met Heidi Ayarbe. I lucked into being her roommate--I think there may have been enchiladas verdes involved in some kind of bribe, but the details grow fuzzy. What I'm sure of is that Heidi is through and through one of the kindest, funniest, most thoughtful people you'll meet on campus, in the writing world, or anywhere. It's surprising I didn't go all Single White Female, come to think of it... And Heidi's life grows ever more amazing to me--full of travel adventures, a growing family, more books...

Pick up any one of her novels--Wanted, Compulsion, Compromised, or Freeze Frame, and you'll see that (besides being a particularly nifty human being) she's got imagination and talent to spare.

So, let's pick her brain, shall we?

How did a girl from Carson City, Nevada end up in Colombia?
It was a bit of a crap shoot, really. One weekend, I borrowed YOUR book (if you remember) called WORKING AROUND THE WORLD. And I sent out random resumes to places all over the world. Six months later, I got a call from a bi-national institute in Pereira, Colombia, asking me if I’d like to come work. I looked at a map. I saw mountains and said, “Okay. I’ll be there in January.”

I was only supposed to stay two years (now sixteen years ago), but I met my husband, we now have two beautiful girls, and fifteen years of traveling, backpacking, and crazy stories in us. Hey!  I’m not one to miss out on a great love story! Especially if I get to be part of it.

What do you miss most about your hometown? 
My family!! And the history of growing up in a place where you get all the jokes and nuances. History with people who've known me since I was born. 

What do you appreciate most about Colombia? 
How open the people are – family isn't just a blood-tie. I am grateful for how gracious Colombians are. I've learned a lot about tolerance living down here.

How did you come to be a published author? A lot of work and a smidgen of luck. (I know I’m not supposed to say the second part, but I do believe there’s an element of timing. Never fear … some people’s timing takes years to “happen” … others months. It WILL happen.) Anyway, I suppose you want the nitty gritty.
When I was 27, I was working at a local sporting goods store. The local arts center posted a sign, inviting people to come listen to a children’s author speak. That author was Ellen Hopkins.
I always read. Constantly. From the time I was little. But I never wanted to be a writer because I thought it was impossible. I went to see Ellen. At the time she was writing non fiction novels for the school market. It sounded so possible. She invited me to join a writer’s group called “Writers of the Purple Sage.” I did.
I began writing for local family magazines, subbing articles for Highlights for Children Magazine and wrote ANYTHING anybody asked me. I even wrote “how to” manuals for an Argentinian publishing house: one about how to get kids to sleep (ha! I have two now and just have to say, Ha! That was probably bad karma.) and one on natural hormone replacement therapy for menopause (not there yet, not looking forward to it). In the meantime I was working on my novels. Freeze Frame, my first published, was my third novel. (The other two are too dreadful to even name.) I took about a year and a half to write the first draft, researched the agent market like crazy, and was so fortunate to get an offer from Stephen Barbara to rep me! That was in 2006. It’s been almost seven years, and he’s sold five of my books. I’m so fortunate!

What has surprised you most about being a professional writer?
Well, it never gets any easier. Ever … I have a real tough time with first drafts and I thought that would change. Ha! Doesn't. And the pressure is still there – just different.  
Also, I don’t feel any more “professional” than the “to be published” authors. I know such talented people with ideas that crack your brain. Publishing is in a hard place right now – big houses, medium houses … are up against a “commercial” wall. But great books get published every year. Risks are taken on projects that many turn down. So … it’s surprising what becomes big. It’s always something unexpected!

What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of the writing life?
I love the writing (most of the time … J ). I get excited about revisions. LOVE LOVE revisions. Truly and totally. And I so rarely get to be with readers, that I love doing school visits and launch parties etc. Living in Colombia limits my access to readers. Also, having two kids limits my availability.
I don’t usually tell people I’m a writer because we live in a world where people are valued by numbers (numbers sold, numbers made etc.) and not the actual act of sitting and writing. I hate having to “explain” what I do to people. And I hate the question: What is your book about? That sounds weird, but I feel lame whenever I talk about my books. 
What have you found to be most useful in developing as a writer—I mean, what has helped you make progress with craft?
Working with GREAT editors always helps! J I've worked with Jill Santopolo, Ruta Rimas, Sara Sargent, a touch with Tamra Tuller … it’s like an all-star lineup of great minds. I LOVE when editors push me to my limits.
Outside of the editor realm: reading great books. But not just reading. Paying attention to craft. Even while watching movies and TV shows, it’s super important to watch how the plot unravels, characters reveal themselves. I LOVE that. And, since I've “become” a writer, I rarely am surprised. This last year I read a novel by Ann Patchett, State of Wonder, and the ending just completely blew me away. Totally. I loved that!
Most of all, time. Dedication. BIC (Butt In Chair) inspiration. I have learned I have to give myself the space to write badly. There’s ALWAYS revision, but pushing through and getting a project done is incredibly important.

Have you used the same process for writing and revising your novels, or …?
Writing has changed from the lofty marathon pace I had with Freeze Frame to the wind sprints I've done with my subsequent novels. Why? I’m now a Mom. Wow. When I sit to write, it’s like fire coming out of my keyboard.

Revisions never change. When I get my revision letter, the first thing I do is hit my head against anything really hard until I’m ready to actually get to work. Then I read the revision letter again, and I start to write notes – mad writing, brain storming, stream of consciousness thoughts. I clean that up and after a few days of that, I send the letter back to my editor and wait for the thumbs up. Then … sprints to revise.

Do you have any least favorite writing advice? Any “writing tips” that irk you?
I don’t write every day. I don’t have characters that wake me up and talk to me at night. I don’t have a notebook by my bedside to write down good ideas (Are you KIDDING me? I wake up and TRY to get back to sleep before the baby wakes up). I don’t have files of ideas. I've never kept a diary. I was never broody and never wrote dark poetry while growing up. I had a great childhood. Yeah: I’m a writer!
How? I. Love. Words. I love stories. I love characters.
I think writers have stories to tell. That’s the drive behind what we do. The stories have to come out sometime, so we make time to get them on the page. Everybody’s process is different. Every process is valid. If you’re a new writer, though, remember it’s hard … bloody hard. Just push through and finish a project however you can. If that means setting word count goals. Do it. Time goals. Do it. Just do it.

Speaking of craft, can you give a hint about what you are working on now? 
Yes. I’m invoking Dan Brown inspiration! I’m working on my first thriller with, hopefully, lots of creepy elements. It’s about Cate, whose family’s home burned down in a house fire during a summer when four other homes burned down, too. She’s been badly hurt and can’t dance anymore. She suffers from insomnia. To pass the nights, she begins to go night caching (geocaching is like treasure hunting for adults, using GPS instruments, clues etc.) While caching, somebody starts leaving her clues about the fires from the year before. So she begins her own investigation. Things escalate and … And I have to finish it in the next ten days, so we’ll see what happens!

What is your writing space like? Your schedule?
Pretty cluttered. I’m a bit of a clutter person. I often find interesting things on my desks months after having lost them!
And my schedule depends on how close I am to deadline. Kind of. Three days/week we have a babysitter come in, and I work those days from 9:30ish until 4:00ish (when my oldest gets home from Kindergarten). I sometimes sneak in a Sunday here and there. This last month, we've invoked the help of our babysitter to come a fourth day and I’m sneaking in Sundays. Luckily, my husband works from home, so he’s a pretty great help when things get down to the wire.
I don’t write at night, though. Almost never. I’m just too tired. I’m in bed pretty early, anyway.
What writers/books do you most admire/enjoy?
So many! I’m just going to list my favorite books, though: Going Bovine, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Five Flavors of Dumb, The Book Thief, Feed, Speak and Winter Girls, Burned, Bull Rider, As I Lay Dying, Cannery Row, The Road
So many to choose from!

Advice to writers on their own journeys?
Follow the stories in your heart and finish them! Then learn about the market (don’t WRITE to the market), but learn everything you can. Stay away from negativity and surround yourself with supportive people. (You’ll go through the ringer enough with critiques and bad reviews later on.) Read. Read. Read. And write. It’s what you've said you want to do, said you’re going to do-- stop saying it, just write it!

Thank you so much, Heidi! Keep those stories coming!


  1. Thanks for having me, Julie!! :-) I LOVE your enchiladas. Dang. When I'm home next time, let's have enchilada night!!

    1. Yes! Thank you so much for kindly answering all those questions, Heidi. I always feel more hopeful and happy after a Heidi visit! ;)

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  4. Ack! I feel ungracious. I also have a pretty rocking critique group that kicks me into shape. This works for some. Not for others. Honestly, though, I'd NEVER show anybody any of my work without going through THE CUDAS! (Barracudas) ... Baring teeth and making sure I don't come off as a total moron!

  5. Heidi, I want to know more about the Enchiladas Verde incident and how it became fuzzy. It's a pleasure to read about your journey Heidi. If you are friends with Julie Bear then I expect there's a lot of shenanigans in your past...possibly even at present. ;) Nice to know that one CAN indeed write from anywhere and still get an agent and published etc. I bet the Cudas are a great group. I know the Turbo Monkeys are invaluable to me too. Thanks for revealing so much.

    Cheers to you both.

  6. Heidi . . . I really enjoyed meeting you! Julie's interview was great. I especially liked your answer to "least favorite writing tips"! Writer's have lives, too, like taking care of the kids, doing laundry, cooking dinner, and wanting to sleep in! Hope to meet you in person someday!