Interview: Julia Alvarez, Author Of 'Afterlife' Julia Alvarez returns to adult fiction with Afterlife, which she calls her first novel as an "elder." It's about a newly retired woman whose comfortable life is upended when her husband dies.

Julia Alvarez: Literature Tells Us 'We Can Make It Through'

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Julia Alvarez has written what she calls her first novel as an elder. The author of beloved and bestselling novels for adults and children, including "How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" and "In The Time Of The Butterflies," and recipient of the National Medal of Arts has brought out her first novel for adults in a decade and a half. It's called "Afterlife," and it's about widowhood, sisterhood and opening hearts to the others. Julia Alvarez joins us from her home in Weybridge, Vt. Thanks so much for being with us.

JULIA ALVAREZ: Well, thank you so much for having me and for this conversation during a strange time, for sure.

SIMON: Well, and we want to talk about that. First, though, what do you mean your first novel as an elder? How do you mean elder?

ALVAREZ: Well, you know, the thing is that it took a while to sort of process this stage of life that I'm in and, you know, what is - what are the stories that I can tell now from the hindsight and the insights that I've gained that is different? And you have to, you know, learn that.

SIMON: Antonia - your main character's a writer, happens to be an immigrant just about to retire from her teaching position in Vermont, a lot like you. Then real life interrupts her plans. I won't detail in all the ways it does, but it's hard not to read the setup for that in these times and think, well, that's happened about all of us right now, isn't it?

ALVAREZ: It's amazing. And, you know, I've been thinking a lot about that because I've read a few other novels just published. And I think then, also, about "Afterlife" that - I think, in some ways, writers pick up the zeitgeist, that somehow there was already some sense of impending losses and doom, whether it's environmental with what we're seeing with climate change and losing species and, in addition, you know, the divisiveness that we're seeing, the gun violence, what's happening at the borders, you know, the sense that, you know, there was so much that was falling apart, so many losses.

SIMON: Yeah. I thought specifically about that moment when I was reading the novel this weekend. Antonia asked at one point, what is the minimum one owes another? The mantra of the first world, after all, is first, your oxygen mask, then everyone else's. That sounds very timely right now, doesn't it?

ALVAREZ: Well, because, you know, the thing that we are realizing and that was never said is that, you know, we need to share those oxygen masks. We all go down together on this if we don't come together. I think it's - it can be such an opportunity for all of us. You know why? Wordsworth, in a poll he wrote later in his life, says a deep distress has humanized my soul. And it's about the loss of his brother. But it is - you know, I think about that line, that this huge distress, deep distress might humanize us and return us to the good people that we are. And at the same time, I've got to say this, too, Scott. It feels kind of weird to be talking about my novel and somehow promoting it at a time like this. I feel like it just doesn't quite feel right because it's - you know, it's not business as usual.

SIMON: But, you know, your novel - reading your novel this week gave me great pleasure. I think there's no reason for you to, you know, feel that there's something unusual in this. You've created a splendid work of art that can give comfort to people now. And I'm glad you can talk about it. I think people need to hear that, too.

ALVAREZ: Thank you for saying that. And, I mean, it's always been something that reading is about, you know? It's about being together apart. I've thought a lot about - because that phrase has been bandied. And I thought, well, now that's a definition of reading. And I think what I've always felt with books that I've loved. And what I would want my readers to feel is a company.

SIMON: Yeah.

ALVAREZ: That's finally why I turned to writing for that deeper connection and for that deeper sense of belonging.

SIMON: You know, and there's a scene, of course, that I read this week. Antonia, in fact, is listening to NPR on the...

ALVAREZ: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...No, really - in the book, as you know, on the anniversary of Sept. 11.


SIMON: And she thinks, if I might quote Antonia, so many of the words and work she spent a lifetime teaching now seem prescient and apropos of what is coming to pass. You feel that way now, yeah?

ALVAREZ: Oh, yeah, I do, definitely. I returned to those works because in a sense, it says to me this has happened before. We can make it through, you know? This is Robert Frost country, and he has a wonderful poem, "Directive." At the end of the poem, he says, here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion. And he's talking about, you know, searching for this little cup in the woods, this Holy Grail, but he's talking about literature. Literature I use in the broad sense. I don't mean just written stories. I mean oral stories. I mean music. I mean dance, all these things people are seeking solace in. Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

SIMON: That's wonderful. Julia Alvarez - her book "Afterlife." Thank you so much for being with us. Made me feel better.

ALVAREZ: Thank you.


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