Celeste León is an award winning author. Her passion for the past ten years has been writing Luck is Just the Beginning, the novel inspired by her father’s life, released by Floricanto Press on November 23, 2015. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Celebrating People Who Make a Difference, and The Preservation Foundation. She is a 2013 Alumna of The Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her personal essay, Finding Home, about her travels to Puerto Rico, won first prize in the Annual Contest for High Sierra Writers of Reno, Nevada. She is a physical therapist and lives in Truckee, CA, with her family. Luck is Just the Beginning is Ms. León’s first novel.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Luck is Just the Beginning. When did you start writing and what got you into multicultural and historical fiction?
I read The Color of Water by James McBride over ten years ago. The book is an autobiography, interwoven with the story of McBride’s mother, who emigrated from Poland. The style of combining two stories was unique and colorful, and both reminded me of my dad’s story, who came to the mainland U.S. amidst tremendous hardship from Puerto Rico. James McBride was one of 12 children and my father was the last of 15! (Sadly, the first eight died in infancy in early 1900s Puerto Rico). So I thought, “I want to write Dad’s story…” It made perfect sense since I’ve loved his story and history since I was a child. I started writing in earnest. I took a creative writing class online with a lively critique group and enrolled in writers conferences, writing classes, and workshops at my nearby community college and university (University of Nevada, Reno). I attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference in summer, 2013. Eight years ago, I joined an amazing critique group of seven women, and thus began a project that unbeknownst to me, would take ten years to complete and publish. It’s been life changing!
What is your book about?
My book is inspired the true story of my father, a man who changes his life after an incredible stroke of good luck, almost too good to be true—at first. Ramón León buys his first lottery ticket in 1944 based on a premonition and wins the jackpot. Rather than squander the money on himself or let it ruin his life, he uses his new found fortune to accomplish his dream from childhood, to become a dentist like the man who helped his village, the man everyone lovingly called “humanitario”. Not everyone is happy, however, about Ramón’s good fortune, and he has to overcome obstacles, some catastrophic. He faces love, loss, and betrayal, and above all, makes sure his community and his family are safe. Steadfast in his goal to attend college and return to open a clinic for the people in his village, he struggles to stay true to himself and becomes stronger as a result. The novel is very close to the true story: my dad really did win the lottery in Puerto Rico with his very first ticket and become a family dentist whom his patients loved. The story is very meaningful to me; it depicts the joys and sorrows of a family and their tightly-knit village.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
I hope the book with take readers on a journey, and inspire and entertain them. I believe that is the obligation of authors: to transport readers to another place, another time. In Luck is Just the Beginning, I aimed for my readers to find themselves in another person’s world, to experience a culture and a piece of history, in this case, the lives of Puerto Ricans in the 1940s and the events of World War II and how they affected Americans, particularly Puerto Rican Americans.
I wanted to deliver a message that anything is possible if you persevere and believe, and live a life of integrity. People have approached me and said, “I love your book, it’s such a fabulous story, I love your character, I really rooted for him!” and I’ve received similar email messages. A reader from Chicago told me she was reading and translating the book to her 80 year old Puerto Rican mother and claimed, “My mother feels like she’s home!” One message said, “I loved your book, and when I finished it, I felt so good!” One woman in particular stands out, a Puerto Rican lady who came to my book signing and later sent me this message: “I purchased your book as a Christmas gift to myself. I didn’t realize at that time what a comfort & blessing it would be to me, as I go through my first holiday and birthday without my father. I somehow feel closer to him through your story and I was transported to my father’s ‘Borinquen Querida’. Thanks so much. You are a great writer & I look forward to reading more from you!”
Our job as authors is to affect our audience. It’s been gratifying to hear how the book inspired and helped readers, which was my goal all along, to write a beautiful book, to share this story. It’s a dream come true.
Did your book require a lot of research?
I interviewed my father for hours, mainly over the phone as he lives in Florida. Ironically, when I first approached him ten years ago with the idea of interviewing him for a book, he said, “Why do you want to write about me?” It shows the humble man he is and his patience and honesty were unwavering in sharing the intimate details of his life, and when I read my acknowledgements where I thank my dad being so honest with me, I still get teary eyed.
I also read many books and articles about Puerto Rico and its history and other Latino writers, such as Rudolfo Anaya, Gabriel García Márquez, Esmeralda Santiago, Rosario Ferré, Isabel Allende and Alex Espinoza. My husband and I visited Puerto Rico several years ago and spent time absorbing the setting and meeting and interviewing cousins in Maunabo and Yabucoa, where the novel takes place.
Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?
I’ve always been pretty disciplined and it still amazes me how long completing and publishing the book took. When I started, I was a voracious reader, but knew almost nothing about writing fiction. I did and still do most of my writing on my days off from my physical therapy job, mainly working in the mornings when I was fresh with a midday break to walk or exercise, to contemplate anything I was struggling with. When I returned, I often found a solution, or at least a partial one.
On the days I work in the physical therapy clinic, I sneak in writing or editing during my lunch break as my mind is already engaged in being creative by helping people. Evenings are reserved for family time, but I fit in writing on weekends. For seven years, I attended a critique group twice monthly, and we kept each other motivated!
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
I love how being a writer has helped me to be more creative, a much better reader and in helping my daughter who’s fourteen and blossoming as a new writer! We may collaborate on a YA or young adult novel together. I also have fallen into a role in my job as a physical therapist I didn’t anticipate but thoroughly enjoy; I edit work for my colleagues, such as essays for coworkers who are applying to colleges in the allied health fields, including physical therapy, medical or nursing school.
In writing about my characters’ hardships, I’ve become more empathetic and a better therapist. And I love that I’ve met other writers, whom I might not have without seeing this book through. I find most writers are empathetic and tolerant, and really care about humanity in the world. I become part of the Latino writing community and have established relationships with writers whom I admire, Désirée Zamorano, Alex Espinoza, Theresa Varela, Daniel Cubias and Teresa Dovalpage. I was delighted to receive a wonderful review from Rudolfo Anaya.
Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?
I have a website, a blog, and author pages on Facebook, Goodreads and Amazon. My website iswww.celesteleon.com, my blog is www.celestejleon.blogspot.com and my FB page iswww.facebook.com/AuthorCelesteLeon. One of the best things about getting the book out is that I’ve been a guest at several book clubs—I enjoyed them thoroughly! I invite book clubs to contact me through my website, facebook page or blog to arrange a personal or Skype visit. My website lists reviews, press and links to radio and TV interviews. I’m delighted to have been named one of “Ten Latina Authors to Watch and Read” by the Latina Book Club in New York, and they just posted an interview on 3/24/16 in honor of Women’s History Month, which can be found on my website. My book is available on the website, from Amazon or the publisher and from bookstores in my communities in Northern California and Nevada. I will sign and send books and welcome readers’ comments and questions. Thank you in advance for visiting!
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
Surround yourself with good people who support you. Join a critique group with writers who are kind, yet constructive with their criticism. One of my teachers, author David Sundstrand told me, “It’s not enough to say that’s not good or that doesn’t work, or I don’t like that sentence or that scene, but one must point out the why.” As part of a critique group, be participatory, because you’ll learn more about improving your own work by analyzing others. Attend conferences and network with other writers and agents, especially fellow writers, who can get you through if you’re at a standstill.
Take workshops and/or classes and form relationships with people you trust. If you can travel to the Lake Tahoe area, apply to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which meets for one week in July. Last but not least, READ, don’t stay with a book that doesn’t help you with your own work, but read authors whom you admire and inspire you. And if you want to share your work, never give up!