The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy is a coming of age novel about a young girl, Maria — also known as Verdita — in Puerto Rico during the debate about whether or not the nation should become a member of the United States or remain independent.  Part of Maria Ortiz-Santiago’s family lives in the United States and part lives on the island in a little barrio, and readers get a taste of the differences between the two lives when Omar, her cousin, comes back to visit.  As the two grow older and grow apart, Verdita continues to ramp up her competitive spirit when he’s near to retain her hold on her father.  She’s always had a fear that a boy would usurp her father’s affections, especially after her mother becomes pregnant.

“For my eleventh birthday, Papi made piraguas.  He left balloons of water in the freezer until they were solid, then peeled the plastic off like bright banana skins.  On the veranda, he used his machete to shave the globes into ice chips.  Hard bits of cold spit out where the ball and blade met, landing on my arms and legs, cheeks and nose.  Papi said it was a Puerto Rican snowfall, and laughed long and deep.”  (page 1)

Verdita is a willful girl and very curious about everything around her, including the independence debate, the cock fights at the local bar, and the United States.  Readers will find that she’s obsessed with the United States and how different it is from her home in the barrio.  She wants to be blond, listen to Elvis, and learn English.  She wants to remain close with her father, but push her mother away.  All this mixed up emotion and desire in one girl is so vibrant on the page, female readers especially will remember what it was like to become a senorita and leave girlhood behind and all of the mixed and high emotions that brought with it.

“I ate until my stomach pushed into the table ledge.  I didn’t even really like the hamburger, but I liked that it came from America — that I was eating like an American.  It made me feel bigger than my finca on the mountain, bigger than the whole island.  I’d seen the States, even if I hadn’t seen President Kennedy.  My stomach was full of America.”  (page 59)

Even as she sees the goodness in her roots and her family, she still longs for the foreignness of the United States.  She becomes accustom to sharing her life with a sibling, but still longs to break break free.  She’s struggling between the desire to grow beyond her roots, deeply earthed in Puerto Rico, but barely realizing that she can grow taller and broader by taking the leap without having to sever her ties to home.

McCoy’s choice of first person point of view is spot on for a coming of age story, and while filtered through Verdita’s eyes rather than the other characters, readers will not feel as though they have missed anything.  She’s observant, opinionated, curious, and eager to explore.  The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is not only about growing up, but about taking chances and spreading wings to find out who we are, who we want to be, and how we can make the best of everything we are given in terms of familial support and available opportunities.

This was a book I just had to pick up at the Gaithersburg Book Festival when Sarah McCoy was in town.  She’s a lovely writer and woman, and it was great to see her again and get another autograph.  I cannot wait to read her next novel.

About the Author:

SARAH McCOY is author of the novel, The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. The daughter of an Army officer, her family was stationed in Germany during her childhood. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband and dog, Gilbert, in El Paso, Texas. The Baker’s Daughter is her second novel. She is currently working on her next.

Interview with Gaithersburg Book Festival Chair Jud Ashman

As many of you know, I love a good literary and book festival, and living in the Washington, D.C., area has given me a great number of opportunities to meet some great local and best-selling authors.  I’ve only attended the Gaithersburg Book Festival once, last year, and it is now in its third year, which is promising to be bigger and even better than last year’s festival.

This year, there are some great literary and local powerhouse authors and poets, as well as musicians, including beloved Sarah Pekkanen and Sarah McCoy.  As a D.C. Literature Examiner, I’ve been posting reviews, interviewing authors, and generally talking about all the goodies that will be present at the festival this year — including an interview with Stuart O’Nan by Ron Charles (Also check out my review of The Odds).

Today, I want to share with you my interview with Gaithersburg Book Festival Chair and City Council member Jud Ashman.  Please give him a warm welcome.

1. The Washington, D.C./Baltimore area has a multitude of literary festivals from the National Book Festival and Baltimore Book Festival to the lesser know literary festival in Bethesda and the City Lit festival. What makes the Gaithersburg Book Festival a must for all readers and what about it is unique compared to the other events in the area?

I like to think that we combine the best of all of these events into one spectacular day of literary awesomeness! We have the high-caliber authors of the National Book Festival, the up-and-comers you might find at City Lit or Baltimore, and the more local authors you might find at some of the Bethesda venues. It’s a place where you can see and meet your favorite authors and discover some fabulous new ones.

Our Festival is a big scale event, but it feels intimate and the fans tend to get excellent face time with the authors. We try to include a wide array of genres, from literary fiction to history, humor to cooking, current affairs to mystery, sports to children’s books, young adult to women’s lit – there’s something for everyone.

Our other programming sets us apart as well. For aspiring and hobby writers, we have writing workshops. We host what’s called a “Children’s Village” which is full of literary-themed activities for the kids. And you can sit back and relax at our Coffee House while you enjoy a day’s worth of poetry readings and music.

Oh, and by the way, parking and admission are free!

2a. You were one of the primary forces behind creating the festival. What was your motivation?

Two things you need to know about me… 1) I love great books; and 2) I tend to share my passions with everyone within earshot!

Since I’ve always been a big reader, when Laura Bush and the Library of Congress founded the National Book Festival back in 2001, it immediately became my favorite area event. Every year, I’d go and just lose myself in the rapture and inspiration of great stories, great storytellers, and the wit, wisdom, and joy that pervades the atmosphere there.

Flash forward to 2008 when we all knew that this would be the last year of the Bush Administration (including festival co-founder Laura Bush), but we didn’t know who would be taking their place, nor whether the new folks would opt to continue the National Book Festival. I distinctly remember Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, coming to the stage and urging the attendees to contact the new administration and ask that they continue this wonderful event.

I was in that audience that day. At the time, I’d been in office (Gaithersburg City Council) for about a year, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why leave it up to chance? We can do our own book event. I’m in this public position, maybe I can help make it happen.’ An idea began to gestate, and it made sense on a number of levels:

– There are a ton of nationally known authors and journalists in the DC area. Most are within an hour’s drive of Gaithersburg.

– There are a ton of readers in the DC area. In fact, it’s the most literate metro area in the country, as measured in an annual study.

– The City of Gaithersburg has long supported the arts and produced and hosted some outstanding performances and events. But it could still benefit from an enhanced cultural identity.

So, I pitched it, informally, to the Mayor and my colleagues on the City Council. They probably didn’t fully understand the scale of what I was proposing, but they all liked the idea and encouraged me to run with it.

2b. How did you get started wooing authors and publishers to the event?

It started with ‘friends of friends.’ One of the advantages of being in a public position is that I come into contact with a lot of people – and those people come into contact with a lot of people, and so on.

When I started asking around, it turned out that a good friend of mine works with Alice McDermott’s husband, who was willing to pass along an invite to his great author/wife, which she (thank goodness!) accepted. Likewise, another friend knew sportswriter and best-selling author John Feinstein and was able to help get him on board. We worked our contacts very hard in that first year, and were able to put together an excellent lineup that included 56 authors, a Pulitzer winner, a National Book Award winner, a Newbery Medal winner, and about a dozen best-sellers. Last year, we had more of everything.

Over time, we’ve developed effective working relationships with a number of publicists at some of the big publishing houses, who assist us with all sorts of high-profile authors. This year, for example, we have authors coming in from San Francisco, El Paso, Martha’s Vineyard, San Diego, New York City and all sorts of other places.

3. In 2011, there were a great many fiction and nonfiction authors present, but not too many, if any poets. How will the festival be improved or expanded in 2012? Will poetry be included in this year’s festival? If so, how?

Actually, we had some terrific poets! They included current Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly, former laureate Linda Pastan, Richard Peabody, Michele Wolf, and a few others who are of more local renown.

We dedicate about half of our programming at the Coffee House to poetry readings and it’s an aspect of the Festival we’re really proud of. Any interested poets should fill out and submit and application to present, which can be found on our Website.

4. One of the most eye-catching moments of the 2011 festival was the activities for children, including magicians, a unicyclist, and Dr. Seuss reading tent. What are some of the activities parents can look forward to this year? Will there be some specific children’s authors that parents should consider seeing?

We put all of our children’s programming into an area we call the “Children’s Village.” There will be authors and readings and arts & crafts activities, writing workshops, musical performances, and, I should mention, that one of our authors, Leah Taylor, will be bringing a pony!

We will have some fantastic authors this year – and we’re still recruiting others. The ones we have so far include:

Picture Book Authors – Kate Feiffer, Katy Kelly, Leah Taylor

Chapter Book Authors – Andrew Clements, Fred Bowen (from Kid’s Post), Sheela Chari (Edgar Award finalist), Michael Buckley (The Sisters Grimm)

We also have a couple superb authors in the Teen/Young Adult category: Laura McNeal (finalist for the National Book Award), and Matthew Quick, whose book “Boy21” to be released this Spring, is going to be big!

5. The festival hosts a short story contest for high school students. Are there plans in the works to expand the contest to other genres, such as poetry and essay? And to include an adult category?

Thanks for bringing up our High School Short Story Contest. This is just our second year doing it, and we’ve been blown away by the results, both in the number of participants and in the quality of the work.

We’d certainly like to expand the contest and hope to see it blossom into a multi-category, multi-genre endeavor, but the challenge, for now, is manpower, including people qualified to read and judge the entries. Much of the current contest is run by volunteers. They promote it, administer it, they help find sponsorships for the winners, read the initial entries and narrow down to finalists, and plan the awards ceremony. It’s a big undertaking.

So, our capacity to expand the contest will depend on the manpower we’re able to drum up.

6. Also, are there future plans to include additional publishing industry topics among the panels, such as the influence of book bloggers and other online reviewers outside of the mainstream media?

Absolutely. Last year, we had a “State of the Book” panel, which featured a publisher, an editor, an agent, and a bookseller. It was a terrific conversation about the evolution of the industry. Actually, you can still see the video on C-SPAN online here.

Thanks, Jud, for answering my questions.  If you haven’t come to the DC area yet, here’s just another incentive.

If you haven’t checked out my latest articles on D.C. Literature Examiner, you’ll want to check out my interview with Sarah Pekkanen, Eric Goodman, and my reviews of their books, plus a review of Richard Peabody’s poetry book and more information about the upcoming panelists, workshops, and activities at the festival on Saturday, May 19.