What made you want to tell this story?
Nora was originally a character in one of my very long (unpublished) picture books. She came alive in my mind. One day, I saw a girl standing by the side of the road and this entirely other story bloomed.
Did you do any research on the Quitman area?
I worked for Fiesta Mart (an auditor out of the main headquarters). Fiesta #1 is on Quitman Street – and it was one of my favorite stores because the people are so nice. I also did some reading on the race riots in Moody Park (named Quitman Park in Illegal) during the seventies in which two people disappeared – that became my basis for Tessa.
Did you talk with people who have lived in a similar situation?
Yes. Many people have told me their personal stories on immigration – and why they risked coming to America illegally. Each story was unique and compelling.
The main story line is about Nora and her mother coming to America illegally in hopes of being reunited with her father, but you also have some really interesting characters.
Can you tell me a little about Flora, Tessa, or Mr. Mann and how their stories will become a part of Nora’s life?
For many years, Flora was only a girl at the pool wearing lipstick. But, when I realized how young Keisha was – she didn’t know enough to help Nora. That’s when I picked Flora out of the lineup of my fringe characters, and she bloomed right before my eyes. While Nora’s story is complete – if there were a sequel (and so far, there isn’t one) – I would want to tell Flora’s story.
Mr. Mann. The Salvation Army is located in the Quitman area. I often saw characters pushing shopping carts. I like the idea of “the unseen society” – people who others discount. While I’m sure that Mr. Mann is mentally ill – probably schizophrenic – he seems to speak a truth louder than words.
In Illegal you write about some pretty gritty things like racial slurs and gang violence. What was it like putting that in print and what are your thoughts on how readers will respond to it?
I wanted to tell the truth – as nasty as it is – that racial slurs go in every direction. White to Black to Brown. I wanted people to see and feel the abrasiveness that exists in all sectors of life. Believe me when I say, I feel for my characters. I cried while writing the chapter inside the truck because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen at the end or if they would survive.
As to the gang’s – I morphed several gang identities into one. The violence in the Quitman area is real, but it also seems like a natural progression of the story. I am always appalled how humans can prey upon each other.
What message do you hope readers take from your story?
I never intended to send a message, but one appeared. I wanted to tell a story of finding your own voice – even in a desperate situation.
But, I want Americans to understand that immigrants who cross over illegally do so at great peril to their own lives. They do so out of desperation. While they might be doing an illegal act, they are humans first.
I know it sounds corny, but I hope that maybe the book influences the world to do good.
5 Things about teen you:
Favorite outfit: I once bought a man’s tailored shirt and a grey pinstriped vest – very Annie Hall.
Best summer memory: Summer of 1988. I spent the summer attending my old school in Bogota, Colombia and met a lovely boy who became my first love.
What was your favorite song: I remember singing loudly to INXS or Def Leopard, but I don’t remember a song really speaking to me.
First Job: McDonald’s. I worked there for 3 years on Kemp Ave in Wichita Falls making 3.35 an hour.
First Crush/Love: See above. While we only spent one summer together, we wrote to each other for over eight years. Our lives moved in different directions and being a continent apart didn’t help things either. But, he was a lovely boy and treated me like a queen. I’m really fortunate to have had such a nice 1st boyfriend… because I had my fair share of not-so-nice-boys.
Bettina can you tell us a little about you and what are your next projects?
I’m a mommy to a 6 ½ year old kindergarten boy. I’m a wife. I walk the dog twice a day. I’m the type of girl who talks too much because she gets nervous, tells bawdy jokes, and works really hard.
I also have ADHD which sometimes makes it challenging to concentrate or shut my brain down. Through exercise and medication, I manage to live a really good and healthy life. I say this, because I spent a lot of time in my youth running myself in circles and feeling bad about why I couldn’t do as well as others.
My next book, Telenovela, is completed but I don’t have a publication date yet. It’s a Latina soap opera with a complete script interspersed throughout the book. Compared it to High School Musical with foreign exchange students in a Dallas High school with a good amount of Telemundo to spice it up. It’s a comedy and was so much fun to write.
I’m playing with two ideas for book three and four and just trying to see which characters want to speak the loudest. Tough subjects.
For more on Bettina visit: http://www.bettinarestrepo.com