A Conversation with Lulu Delacre about her new book Alicia Afterimage
Q: What was your inspiration for creating this book?
A: On the evening of September 24, 2004, my younger daughter, Alicia María Betancourt, was killed in a car crash. Alicia was one of seventeen teenagers who died in car accidents in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that fall. After the funeral mass I stood next to my husband and older daughter, Verónica, by the door of the church, hugging and greeting what seemed to be a never-ending line of people. I was struck by the hundreds of teens who were so touched by Alicia's passing and the fact that these teens were from a broad spectrum of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds. I began to ask myself who was Alicia to her friends? How were they dealing with the loss? Why did this happen?
Q: What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
A: Sometime in November 2004 I started calling some of Alicia's friends to talk about her. I had a vague idea of wanting to write some sort of memoir of Alicia as seen through her friends' eyes. I bought a small tape recorder and, with permission, recorded the conversations I had with these young people. At the time of my interviews I had no idea of how I would weave the many memories and anecdotes told to me into a cohesive manuscript. Nor did I know if any publisher would be interested in my account. Along the way I showed the manuscript to two executive editors from different houses, a seasoned children's literature specialist and a well-known writer of young adult literature, among others. Everyone that read the manuscript encouraged me to pursue its publication.
Q: How did you select the people to interview? How did you set up the interview process?
A: Alicia kept records of her friends and their telephone numbers. I started by calling those I knew well, then moved on to contacting those I was referred to. To exhaust all possibilities I placed an ad in Alicia's high school newspaper enticing anyone that wanted to share any kind of story about Alicia to come forward. The interviews with twenty-two of Alicia's friends took place over a year and a half. I spoke with many of the teens more than once. I asked the expected questions, such as: What kind of friend was Alicia for you? How did you find out about the crash? And I asked more unusual questions: Have you ever felt her presence after she died? Do you think there was a reason for her death?
Q: What are the events that spurred you to continue and complete the book?
A: As the interviews progressed, I learned how isolated teens feel in their grief. I discovered how individualized their reactions are to the death of a loved one and that teens have very few models for dealing with their pain. I also learned that healing takes patience and time. Eventually I realized that the stories I had heard from Alicia's friends might bring some comfort to others.
Q: What were the challenges in bringing it to life?
A: It was very difficult to revise the first two chapters that set up the book and describe the crash and immediate aftermath, as that meant revisiting a nightmare over and over again. As the interviews progressed I came to the conclusion that I had to converse with the driver of the car. This was such an emotional meeting that if I had not recorded it, I would have never been able to reconstruct Alicia's last few hours.
Q: There's a lot of talk these days about the "emerging crossover market" (YA/adult). Where do you think your book belongs and why?
A: I have anecdotal evidence that Alicia Afterimage is reaching both adults and young people and in that sense it has crossover potential. The mother of one of Alicia's friends told me that the book helped her to accept "the loss in a way I never had completely done before". A young woman told me "The book really made me want to stay in touch with all of the people that I love. It really made me want to be a better friend and a better person". In the end time will be the judge of where it should be shelved.
Q: Why isn't this book a straight memoir? Why did you have to fictionalize at all?
A: Before I started to write each of Alicia's friends' chapters I listened to that person's interviews over and over in an effort to capture his or her voice and the nuances of the feelings expressed. Although all the chapters in the book are based on my interviews, at times I had to place these young people in situations and settings that led them to have their many memories of Alicia. For that to happen I either created some of the dialogue that gave way to a particular recollection or I imagined the interior monologue that triggered the memory. In some cases I combined the memories of several young people to give richness and depth to specific recollections.
Q: Some might say that teens would have a hard time identifying with Alicia. Since you were fictionalizing you could have chosen to make her a more average teen, why didn't you?
A: I considered making Alicia into a more flawed character. However, in doing so I would have veered away from the memories related to me. In the end I decided to respect the stories I recorded. The goal of bringing solace to other grieving teens is achieved by an accurate portrayal of the young people's feelings in regards toward the death of a friend. I always thought that teen readers would identify with Alicia's friends more than with Alicia herself.
Q: In the book Alicia is seen through the eyes of her friends and her parents. Her only sister is mentioned, however she does not have a chapter. Why?
A: Alicia's sister chose to remain private in her grief.
Q: By the last Mamá chapter we see a transformation in Mamá, how did it come about?
A: I have become a firm believer that healing comes when you work through grief. Mamá's transformation comes about with the acceptance of the death of her daughter, by allowing the tragedy to become a catalyst for change within her, and by redefining her relationship with Alicia.
Q: Was the writing of this book any different to the other collections of stories you have done?
A: Yes, this is my first book for young adults and I had to learn to write for teens. Also this is the first book I pen that does not carry my artwork.
Q: So, who is the artist of the soft grey images throughout?
A: All of the collages, drawings, and most of the photographs are Alicia's. I took great care in the selection of the images to appear in the book and worked very closely with the book's designer in our goal of echoing feelings portrayed in the chapters.
Q: Where do the proceeds from the sale of the book go?
A: Royalties from the sale of the book will be split between the Alicia Betancourt Prize for Excellence in the Arts, a scholarship awarded yearly to a female Blake High School student with a strong interest in the visual arts/or dance, and a charitable fund that awards grants to people and causes that my husband and I believe our daughter would support.
Q: Will you be signing Alicia Afterimage in the near future?
A: I will be signing books on the evening of December 5 at Greenwich Literary Lights in Connecticut. In addition, there will be a short reading of her book at 5:30, and from 6 to 7, a book signing at Strathmore Mansion in Rockville MD on Saturday November 29, 2008.
In 2004 an event occurred that forever changed the lives of Lulu Delacre and her family. Delacre's 16-year-old daughter, Alicia Maria Betancourt, was killed in an automobile accident. There had been no drugs or alcohol involved, but speeding and inexperience at the wheel were listed as causes of the accident. Delacre, who is the author and illustrator of many fine books for young readers, chronicles this painful time along with memories of her daughter and the meaning of it all in the lives she touched. Her courageous and moving account is drawn from many different views of Alicia's life. Each brief chapter is written in third person. The accounts are derived from the author's own journey of facing unbearable pain while attending to the story buried within remembrance. In the process, she interviewed 22 of Alicia's friends, who shared their memories of her as well as their own feelings of loss. Thirteen of those voices have found a place in this book. Delacre writes with courage and compassion, sometimes grieving, at other times unflinching. The penultimate chapter has as its viewpoint character the boy who was driving the car, and who survived. He remains unnamed throughout this book, referred to only as The Driver. In finding the transcendent quality of healing, the final Mama chapter almost seems to tap some mystical universal wellspring. It is about the endurance of hope when there seems to be none, the deeply human connections we make when we least expect them, and the ability to "allow grief to rise and be released whenever it had to be." Memoir touched with the lightest strokes of fiction, Alicia Afterimage is an unusual, heartrending tribute to a lost child. But more than that, it's a road map to healing and an appeal to young people who may be at risk for just such needless tragedies. 2008, Lee and Low, Ages 12 up, $19.95. Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami (Children's Literature).
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