The idea behind Amor and Summer Secrets developed during a phone conversation with my former agent back in the spring of 2006. My agent had been working on different young adult (YA) projects I had written, and had mentioned seeing a recent increase in interest from editors seeking multi-cultural YA projects. Up to this point, my books had yet to feature a Latina protagonist. And of course my agent asked the infamous question, “Got any ideas?” I didn’t. But by the end of our conversation, I had pitched the story for what became Amor and Summer Secrets.
My goal was to feature a character with a background similar to my own—a girl who was half Puerto Rican and half Polish, a girl who grew up not speaking Spanish, a girl who didn’t look like the Latina stereotype. Many of the feelings Mariana expresses about her cultural identity are similar to the questions I faced growing up. To this day, people are still shocked when I tell them I’m Puerto Rican. And I’m embarrassed to admit that, yes, my friends called me “Spic” in high school.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I began to embrace my ethnicity. I had spent the summer abroad in Madrid to improve Spanish skills. I became the first in my family to travel to Puerto Rico to meet our relatives there (my father hadn’t traveled back in more than 20 years). And I began to get offended when colleagues asked, “How’d you get that last name? Did you marry a Hispanic?”
So I developed Mariana Ruiz. She is not me, but she is based on many of the ethnic experiences that I faced.
I finished the book in late 2006 and it was titled Ay, Americana. But that wasn’t the end of the story. My agent called again. She said an editor was looking for a Latina YA novel, but she wanted it to feature a Quinceanera. Ay Americana did not feature a Quinceanera; in fact, Lilly was 17 years old in the original manuscript and the events of her birthday party occurred at a nightclub.
I spent two weeks revising the manuscript and was shocked when I loved the book so much more afterward. It added an element that I didn’t know was missing. We submitted the manuscript, re-titled as First Class Chica, to Kate Duffy at Kensington on a Thursday and by the following Tuesday, I got THE CALL.
It was Fat Tuesday. I was at Mardi Gras.
My husband, Jordan, and I had spent the morning catching beads from parade floats in New Orleans. We stopped into our hotel room for mere minutes to dump our bounty when my cell phone rang. It was my agent.
I was wearing a sequined mask with feathers and my favorite strings of gold, purple and green beads that I had caught during the trip. I now consider them my “lucky beads” and I have them prominently displayed in my home.
Let me just say that there is no better place on Earth to be when you get good news than Mardi Gras. There was actually a parade going on outside of my hotel room. I hung up the phone giddy and in shock and spent the rest of the day dancing in the French Quarter with hundreds of costumed strangers and drinking hurricanes at Pat O’Briens.
I love Mardi Gras. I love Puerto Rico. And I love this book.