Friday, December 8, 2017

Author Interview: Mayra Calvani, Author of Mamá Graciela’s Secret

About the Book

Mamá Graciela’s TENDER, CRUNCHY, SPICY bacalaítosfritos are the best in town... 

Local customers (including stray cats!) come from all over the island to enjoy her secret recipe. But when the Inspector discovers that Mamá secretly caters to so many cats and he threatens to close her tiny restaurant, Mamá must come up with a plan to save it—and all of the animals she loves. 

About the Author

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her children's picture book, Frederico the Mouse Violinist was a finalist in the 2011 International Book Awards; her anthology Latina Authors and Their Muses was a First Place winner at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards; her nonfiction book, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, was a Foreword Best Book of the Year winner. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications like The Writer, Writer's Journal, Multicultural Review, Bloomsbury Review, and others. 

She lives in Belgium with her husband of 30+ years, two wonderful kids, and her three beloved pets. When she's not writing, editing, reading or reviewing, she enjoys walking with her dog, traveling, and spending time with her family.

About the Illustrator

Born in Queens, New York and living in Los Angeles since 1987, Sheila Fein has always been inspired by the changing world around her. Earning her BA in Design from Buffalo State College of New York, her concentration was on drawing, painting, printmaking, and photography. Sheila's education as an artist has taken her everywhere from Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia to Bath University in England. Today, Sheila Fein runs two figurative workshops, Imaginings Sketch in LA and People Sketchers in Thousand Oaks. She has been featured in numerous collections, magazines, books, solo and group exhibitions. Her paintings and drawings reside in public and private collections. Sheila loves to make the imagination of others a reality and has done so through her commissioned Fein Fantasy Portraits and Interactive Paintings. In addition to being a fine artist Sheila works as an illustrator. She just completed the book "Mama Graciela's Secret" for Maclaren-Cochrane Publishing.

Buy Link

Author Interview

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer/ a storyteller?

I started writing stories when I was about 12 years old and have never stopped since then. Writing is such a part of me that it isn’t what I do, it’s who I am. At that time, I was voraciously reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries, so I think that was definitely an influence. I was also a quiet and very introspective child. I could role play for hours at a time, so writing stories became a natural, organic extension of that. 

What motivates you to write and where does your inspiration come from?

I get ideas while writing. As I work on a novel, there are always wonderful surprises. I also get my ideas while doing routine, automatic activities such as walking, driving, washing the dishes, vacuuming, taking a shower, etc. Also, while listening to classical music and movie soundtracks. The music of James Newton Howard inspires me. I often write while listening to his movie scores.

Another thing that inspires me is reading the works of authors I admire: Anne Rice, Donna Tartt, Joyce Carol Oates, especially when I listen to the audiobooks. There’s something about audiobooks that make me want to rush to the computer and write.

How did you come up with the idea for your current story?

Mama Graciela’s Secret is based on my grandmother! She was an avid dog lover and at one time had close to 30 dogs she had saved from the streets of Ponce, Puerto Rico. She was a deeply compassionate and giving person. I dedicated the book to her. Initially the story was about dogs but I later changed it to cats after an editor suggested it. 

What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine or do you have any weird, funny, or unusual habits while writing and what are they?

It may start with an image, a character, a name, a title. There are no rules, and it’s never the same with every book. Sometimes a single image simmers in my mind for years before it becomes the spark for a story.

Then I mentally play with ideas and the thing that was just an image begins to expand into a web. Simple at first. Then more intricate as I spend more time thinking about it. And I think about it. A lot. While driving, walking, taking a shower, doing housework, etc–routine, monotone activities, which are great for creativity. Once I can’t stop thinking about it, once I become obsessed, that’s when I know I’m ready to start jotting down words and sketching a rough plot.

Often I begin ‘discovering’ the story using Alan Watt’s “Unlock the Story Within” techniques. Once I have a more solid idea of the characters and where I want to go with them, my plotting gets tighter and more detailed, but never at the expense of staying flexible and open to change. In fact, what I love most about the writing process are those surprises that I never saw coming. For plotting, I like Alexandra Sokoloff’s method and Carol Hughes’ Deep Story method, though I don’t always use them for every book. 

Then, after some anxious procrastination, I put my ego aside and sit down and face the blank page. That is never easy. In fact, it is terrifying. Every time. But the need and passion to create is greater, I guess, because finally I just do it.

The plot keeps evolving as I write. I adjust and change things as needed.

Rituals and habits work for me. I write best in the mornings. Unless life gets in the way, I’m at my desk Monday-Friday from 9:30 am to noon. I put my timer and go, with breaks in between. There’s something about using the timer that really works for me. Sometimes I put my headphones and listen to a movie soundtrack, other times I need complete silence. Mostly I write at home in my office, but often with a writing partner at a café. 

Slow but steady. This pretty much describes my progress. I would love to be one of those writers who can cough up a whole novel in four months, but I’m not–not yet, anyway! At the moment, my goal is to increase my writing stamina so I can complete books faster. 

Once I finish the first draft, I spend an agonizing amount of time editing and polishing. My SCBWI critique partners are awesome at pointing out things that I can’t see. Also, I always hire at least two professional editors before I send my manuscript to an agent or publisher, or before I self-publish. I think a professional editor is a writer’s best investment. 

Up until now, it has taken me about two years to fully complete a full-length novel (about 90,000 words) that is ready for submission. As I said, I’m currently “training” myself to increase the length of my writing sessions. 

What are your current/future projects?

My agent is shopping around another picture book of mine. I’m also working on book 2 of my YA Egyptian mythological fantasy series that I write under my pen name Zoe Kalo ( and which I hope will be released next spring. Besides these main ones, I always have various projects in different types of development going on, as well as ideas for other books simmering in my mind. People often ask authors how they get their ideas, but the question should be how they handle all the ideas they get. J One of my fears is that I won’t have the time to write them all. 

What do you do if inspiration strikes in an inconvenient place like (car, restaurant, bathroom/shower, etc..) and how do you capture that moment before it gets away from you?

I absolutely must write my ideas down because chances are I’ll forget them. If I have my phone handy, I’ll use the recording app. Otherwise pen and paper or the notes app on my phone. 

What is your biggest fear about having a book published?

That people won’t read it.

What are some events you have attended or participated in that has been a positive experience/influence on/for your writing?

Not events but my travels and upbringing have immensely influenced my writing. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Then I went to college in the States. Then I lived in Istanbul and Ankara for four years, and I’m now settled in Brussels. All these different countries and cultures have colored my writing. My supernatural thriller, Dark Lullaby, is set in Turkey and is based on Turkish folklore. My YA supernatural thriller Chameleon (under my pen name Zoe Kalo) is set in a convent in El Yunque, the Puerto Rican rain forest. My YA fantasy/mystery, The Luthier’s Apprentice, is set in Brussels. And, of course, Mama Graciela’s Secret is set in Puerto Rico. 

Do you read? Who are your favourite authors and how have they influenced your writing style? 

I’m a bookworm! My favorite authors are Anne Rice, Donna Tartt and Joyce Carol Oates. Thanks to Rice I became enamored with the supernatural, from Tartt I learned about deep characterization and language, and from Oates I learned about form and structure. 

What is the best piece of advice you have received, as a writer, till date?

“A writer who waits for the ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.” –E.B. White

I have another favorite: “Beware of advice—even this.” –Carl Sandburg

What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone that wants to get into writing?
Protect your dream/vision and don’t let anybody or anything detract you from it. Do what you have to do to accomplish it. You can’t simply be interested in writing. You have to commit to it. Learn the craft, take courses and/or workshops if you have to, join writer organizations and a critique group. Interact with like souls who actually understand the creative spirit. Above all, read a lot and write a lot, as often as you can. Usually, the longer you stay away from writing, the harder it is to get back to it. And the more you write, the better you get at it.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?
Books make great educational gifts for children during the holidays. Mama Graciela’s Secret is a fun and whimsical story with a beautiful message. The story teaches kids (ages 3-7) about compassion for animals, sacrifice, problem solving, and ethnicity. It is available in dyslexic font and there’s an accompanying reading guide for it which is downloadable from my website at

I’d also like to invite readers to follow me on Facebook,

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