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PALABRAS: Brooklyn-Born Author Theresa Varela Allows Her Character to Tell Their Own Stories

First Posted: Oct 22, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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Theresa Varela

Photo : Theresa Varela

This article is part of "Palabras," the Latin Post Latino Author Series.  

Brooklyn-born author Theresa Varela ("Nights of Indigo Blue" and "Covering the Sun with My Hand") took the scenic route to finding her identity as an author. A psychiatric nurse practitioner by day and an engrossed novelist by night, Varela's characters whisper to her and inspire their own making.

Varela was raised in a traditional Puerto Rican home, where her earliest memories are of her mother telling stories on summer evenings while sitting on the front steps, and her mother reading to her at the kitchen table after dinner. Her mother thumbed through the classics, and when the books would get interesting, she would close it, knowing that Varela would be compelled to pick up the book and read on herself.

The notion of being an author wasn't visited until Varela was in school, receiving a doctorate in nursing and doing extensive qualitative research. An instructor who encouraged creative writing in order to stimulate well-written research, noticed Varela's poetry and playlets, and said it was inspired.

"I kept at the qualitative research for a while and got my doctorate," Varela told Latin Post. "Then, I did a qualitative study on persons with HIV/AIDS who practiced Santeria. I became interested in how their spirituality affected their illnesses and their lives. That's when I became more interested in writing poetry and prose. A few years after finishing the program, I decided to take a creative writing course. Writing has been a total gift, and it has changed my perspective." 

When writing, being true to her characters is what's most important. Varela believes her characters give her their stories.

The author's first book, "Covering the Sun with My Hand," began as a story about gentrification in Park Slope, Brooklyn. After she began writing, she wasn't able to move forward with it. Then, one of the characters stepped up one morning, and said to her, 'oh, this is my story.' She took her manuscript out of the drawer and started writing. The story grew, and became a tale about a family dealing with mental health and problems regarding sexuality and cultural areas that are very important to Varela and the character. The author and the protagonist were able to work hand-in-hand to tell that story.

Her second publication, "Nights of Indigo Blue," was slightly different. Varela grew up reading Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich and other mysteries, but she noticed Latina characters never appeared in mystery book series as heroines. Yes, they were frequently in the background or a romantic interest, but Latina heroines didn't exist, and that's why she was motivated to create to create Daisy, the heroine of "Nights of Indigo Blue." Her most recent novel, "Coney Island Siren," tells the story of a nurse in a domestic violence situation. Because the subject matter is challenging for her, she didn't want to write that story, but she felt that she had to listen to her character.

"I think what's most important is listening to the character," said Varela. "Basically, I stepped out of my shoes and allowed myself to be the storyteller, and told the story that I felt. I don't sit down beforehand and I say, 'I want to write a story about this particular topic.' I listened to the characters, even the minor characters, so that their stories come through."

The act of writing feels as natural as reading when it comes to creating images and characters on the page. An energy takes hold of the author, helping her to access information and a sense of poetry. She's able to explore unchartered territories, utilizing her research degree to do so accurately.

According to Varela, perseverance and discipline are two of the most important elements when looking to become a published writer. She continues to hone her skills by attending workshops, and persistently stays dedicated to her truth even when no one else believes her story. Being a published author is glorious, but it takes hard work, devotion and being ready to tell important stories shared by persistent characters. 

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