The uber-talented Olga Acevedo, the titular heroine of Olga Dies Dreaming, grew up in a working-class Nuyorican family (New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent) full of strivers and revolutionaries. But as an adult, she makes her living as a wedding planner, catering to New York City’s elite and fiercely chasing the American dream. Through Olga’s story, first-time novelist Xochitl Gonzalez brilliantly calls into question what that dream really means.
Gonzalez is the Brooklynite daughter of militant activists from the 1970s Chicano Power movement: her mother Nuyorican, her father Mexican American. After many years as an event planner and entrepreneur, Gonzalez’s journey to transform her own story into Olga’s fictional tale led her to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was honored as an Iowa Arts Fellow and won the Michener-Copernicus Prize in Fiction. She was also the winner of the 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize in Nonfiction. We reached out to Gonzalez to unpack the ideas behind her striking debut.
This is a complex book with many intriguing layers. What are its origins?
When I first started writing—writing creatively as art, versus commerce like marketing materials—I was intimidated by fiction. So I went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference with an essay about being abandoned by my activist mother as a kid so she could go out and “save the world.” People really responded to the themes but basically told me it was a book.
I had no interest in writing a memoir. But in time, I found the courage to write some fiction and had scratched out some stories about upwardly mobile Latinas—mainly Puerto Rican—living in a very different Brooklyn than the one they had grown up in.
I had for years been extremely frustrated by the situation in Puerto Rico, that the U.S. has a colony in contemporary times. It was just a news story that never could break through, not even after Hurricane Maria. One day while commuting, I was reading the book The Battle for Paradise by Naomi Klein, which is about disaster capitalism, and listening to Alynda Segarra’s album Navigator. I realized that if I borrowed just enough biography from myself, I could weave a pretty entertaining, hopefully beautiful story that would personalize both one version of a contemporary Latinx experience as well as the real-world emotions and experiences of gentrification, colonialism and resilience. I ran out of the train to get a napkin to scratch the ideas out.
You sold the manuscript for Olga Dies Dreaming to Flatiron in a 10-way auction and made a TV deal with Hulu before its release. First of all, congratulations! That can look like overnight success, but I understand that the real story is more complex. Can you tell us about your journey as a writer and path to publication?
I will try to be concise! The long story is that I went to college—Brown University, after having attended a big Brooklyn public school that I adored and thrived in—thinking that I would do creative writing. But when I got there, my freshman roommate was such a rock star in this arena. I was so intimidated that I thought it was a sign to find my own lane. (I was 18 and didn’t drive, what did I know of multilane highways?) But I always wanted to write, and so later as a wedding planner, I started a blog that became kind of popular and led to freelance writing opportunities around etiquette and weddings and the like.
Eventually, though, someone thought I should try a memoir about my life and back then—this was probably 10 years ago or more—I was more open to that. So I put together a proposal and it—ironically—landed with the agent who is now my agent today (Mollie Glick). She loved the writing but ultimately passed because “it was a very dark book about a wedding planner.”
I put writing to the side completely for another five or six years while I was hustling to get my business back together after the Great Recession and pivot to more than weddings, and just managing life and family more generally. Then I turned 40 and the last of my grandparents who had raised me passed away, and I suddenly just felt like life was short. Writing was the one constant, nagging thing I felt I’d always needed to try and do. The thing is, owning a small business, especially one that focuses on customer service like my event-planning business, well, it’s a hustle. It doesn’t leave a lot of creative space.
So the first thing I did was sell my part of the business and get a nine-to-five job. Then I applied and went to Bread Loaf—for nonfiction—which really immersed me in community and craft, which was so important. It was so helpful to refine who I could be as a writer that I decided to pursue my MFA. I applied to only NYC programs except for—encouraged by my Bread Loaf friends—Iowa. I never thought I would get in, but I started Olga Dies Dreaming almost the same day that I found out that I did.
I was terrified to leave my whole life and my rent-stabilized apartment and pretty great job, to be honest. But I believed in this book and understood the rarity of this opportunity and the blessing, in that moment, that being single was. It was emotionally hard, but not logistically hard. I was able to literally put every waking hour that I wasn’t at work into the novel. Eventually I gave up exercising because I was so obsessed, but before that happened, I ended up reconnecting with Mollie at an exercise class. We had a mutual friend there, and she told Mollie about me and Iowa and the Disquiet Prize, and I shared the first 100 pages of Olga with her. So I was fortunate in that by the time I arrived at Iowa, I had drafted about half the novel and had an amazing agent who saw the possibility of what this was going to become—but who also stayed out of it until it was done.
And honestly, at 42—which is the age I turned when I started the program—two academic years doesn’t feel long. I had the fortune of Sam Chang offering a novel workshop, so I just put my nose down and worked around the clock. I was barely eating or sleeping, to be honest. I don’t know what made it feel so urgent. It was more than just the time at grad school, it was like I had to get this story out before Brooklyn changed even more, somehow.
From the start, the reader gets to see, in a kind of humorous way, the fighting spirit and rage brewing in Olga. This makes her such a complex and original character, especially because she’s a woman. At one point she even calls herself a “terrible person.” Do you think of Olga that way, or is she judging herself too harshly?
First, thank you for saying that about her. I don’t think of Olga as a terrible person, but I think there are massive moments when she feels this way—when she feels that she isn’t succeeding with her family because her time is so devoted to her economic pursuits, but her ambitions in that arena leave her feeling emotionally empty. She has some peccadilloes, but really, she is not terrible; she is lonely. Her upward mobility has left her, as the saying goes in Spanish, “Ni de aquí, ni de allá.” [Neither from here nor from there.] I felt this was an experience I personally had, and one that I think is reflective of many Latinx women, women of color and any person who has tried to “excel.”
Something else that sets Olga apart is that she seems to live by her own rules. When she cuts corners in her business, she sees it as equalizing: the little guy scoring one over the exploitative uber-wealthy. But she’s also loyal and can be generous. She has high expectations of her congressman brother, Prieto, and she struggles when he is not as compassionate as she’d like. How would you describe Olga’s moral compass?
I would say she is very Old Brooklyn. Loyalty, spreading love—that’s more than a Biggie lyric. (There’s a reason he’s our borough representative, even posthumously.) It’s really how people who are from here so often are. Do you need money to eat? Is there something that’s not that hard for me to do that will make a huge impact on your day? Tell me, and I’ll try and do it. She grew up with that value system.
I also think, despite the place that it is now, the Brooklyn she was raised in was a place of underdogs. Taxis wouldn’t even come here. So it’s ingrained in her to always help the underdog.
There’s some bits of her that maybe are spiteful. Tiny acts of revenge. But the Robin Hood gestures that we see, that’s her strange way of reconciling her parents’ values with her own perceived discarding of them. When she “levels the field” in these tiny ways, it’s her version of not being completely disconnected from her parents’ values about money and class.
Growing up, rules were suggestions, to be honest. The most important thing was not that you live by any black-and-white code but that you were doing the “right thing,” and I think what we see is that “right” for Olga depends on evening out the balance of power.
Because of what Olga and Prieto do for a living and the circles in which they operate, there are lots of fun details about luxury weddings and the lifestyles and excesses of New York’s elite. As a former wedding planner yourself, did you approach these parts as an insider writing a comedy of manners, or did you step back to unpack it all, more in the tradition of true crime?
Ha. Probably more a comedy of manners, though it’s truly a bit of a mix. I know a lot of people in politics, and while I took a number of liberties, that area was a bit more tactical in my thinking. But the weddings were definitely in the spirit of a comedy of manners. Mainly, it was so important for me to show how these two characters have to have vast fields of knowledge and cultural fluency to move throughout the world, and also the toll and exhaustion of slipping in and out.
Olga’s mother, Blanca, is a fascinating, destabilizing character. Her absence from her children’s lives (in combination with her husband’s addiction) was devastating for Olga and Prieto. But Blanca’s mission is righteous, and some of the difficult, harsh things she tells her children are important and true. What did you want people to take away from Blanca and the choices she makes?
Sort of, exactly that. None of us are purely bad or purely good, and that is the most starkly true with Blanca. She made choices, and they are the extreme choices of a woman who thinks in absolutes. In many ways this is how truly revolutionary thinkers need to be; we just don’t see them in intimate settings too much, such as in letters to their children.
But the main point I wanted to make with Blanca is that even when she’s wrong, she’s always also a little bit right. Motherhood is so, so fascinating. That bond, that knowing. Her actions beyond her insights are what’s problematic, but her ability to know—that felt very real to me and also important to show.
This is beyond your question, but this is a mirror of how Olga and Prieto feel about Puerto Rico itself: It’s a place they only sort of know, and yet it cuts through to something bigger than familiarity.
Puerto Rico’s plight, both past and neocolonial present, plays a big role in the story. Tell us about your approach to this element. Did you undertake additional research?
I did. My day job when I started this book was at Hunter College, so I would jet uptown from the main campus to CENTRO, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, and research Maria data, the Young Lords, eco-pollution in Latinx communities and waves of activism. Some stuff was ingrained in me; my parents were activists, and I don’t remember not knowing about sterilization on the island or the Nuyorican poets, to be honest. Fania and that era of salsa and the cultural history of freestyle are things I dork out on anyway.
But generally speaking, I spent lots of time on colonial history and the history of activism in the diaspora. I spent tons of time watching Maria footage, researching HIV and AIDS in the 1990s—another era I lived through but wanted to refresh. I talked to Puerto Ricans who had been on the island and were displaced because of Maria—that was important. But I tried not to get bogged down in it, writ large. I tried to absorb it, forget it and then go back and write, because it all needed to come from character and story, not messaging. I just wanted to be sure I got it all correct, because I haven’t seen this larger history in fiction in a minute and felt it important to my community that it was correct.
The title, Olga Dies Dreaming, is particularly striking. Can you tell us about how it came to you and its significance?
I sought a politically relevant name for the protagonist, and I settled on Olga Viscal Garriga, who was an activist for Puerto Rican independence who was born in Brooklyn. That felt right. Very, very right. In the earliest phase of the book, which would have been a million pages long, I wanted to write more of Blanca and Johnny’s story, and so I did lots of deep dives into the Young Lords and the Nuyorican poets. As I was writing, I was inspired by Alynda Segarra’s album and kept listening to it on repeat. In her song “Pa’lante,” she samples audio of the Pedro Pietri poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” where he chronicles the dangers of assimilation and losing culture through the lives of four Puerto Ricans in New York: Juan, Miguel, Olga, Manuel. They lose their way by getting caught up in a mainland American notion of success. The characters repeatedly die, dreaming. Olga dies dreaming of a five-dollar raise, of real jewelry, of hitting the lottery. And that felt very right, too. But more than anything, it felt like the right title because it connected this moment—and Puerto Ricans and diasporic people—to our intensely long lineage of using art to speak truth to power.
Was it hard to find a balance between the personal and the political in telling this story? How did you approach that challenge?
Yes and no. I wanted to write a book for my people. I mean that in a few contexts, but to direct it back to the question, when I saw Donald Trump throw paper towels at people in Puerto Rico after Maria, that was not political. That was personal. When I see the city council vote on an 80-story high-rise of multimillion-dollar apartments that only creates 150 school seats and blocks out a community garden, that doesn’t feel like a political story to me. It hurts me in my soul. As an artist, one goal was to try and put that on a page: that for many populations, the political is personal. But technically, my approach was to make these characters feel so real so that their pains are your pains.
There are many complex characters in this book with different perspectives on progress, power and effective strategies for change. But Dick, the libertarian capitalist paramour, is more obviously flawed than most. What was the inspiration for him?
My strange life and professional experiences have given me the opportunity to have access to a wide variety of people—many of them people of power who are well-intentioned, in their own ways of thinking. Not stereotypical “bad people.” With Dick, I wanted to show how someone relatively self-centered, with theoretical justification for their self-interest, can cause great harm by simply existing, even if they never overtly seek to cause great harm. He can be seen, in many ways, as the U.S.’s stance and effect on Puerto Rico itself.
Olga’s family has an ancestral history of enslavement, and they and the people in their Brooklyn neighborhood are specifically referred to as Black and Brown. The text pays attention to color as well as culture, social class and ethnicity, and getting those details right is vital to the story. Olga is “pretty and fair,” her and Prieto’s father is “brown-skinned,” Reggie is Black, and Matteo is a biracial Black Jewish man with “lightly freckled café-con-leche skin.” Does the casting of the Hulu series adaptation reflect the vision you had when you were writing? Hollywood has a tendency to whitewash or flatten those layers in the movement to screen. How do you mitigate that?
This is such a thoughtful question. Everyone, from my co-executive producer Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to our partners at 20th Television and Hulu, understood the importance of reflecting our community and illustrating the dynamics of colorism—and the intersectional ripples—that exist in Caribbean Latinx families and communities. And I never felt pressure to flatten roles at all. Olga’s privilege as a white-passable Latina is part of her experience and what has shaped her character itself and in relation to, say, her cousin Mabel. Both characters are successful and beautiful, but the messaging that they get about it—in school, at home—is different. It was exciting to see Aubrey Plaza and Jessica Pimentel in those roles.
There is a line of dialogue in the pilot where a DJ interviewing Reggie says, “I forget you’re Puerto Rican.” And that needed to feel plausible. That is a giant part of Reggie, too, that he gets boxed into one identity for so long, when in reality it’s much more complex, his Afro-Latinidad. On set, I spoke with Laz Alonso, who plays the role, about how moving and exciting it was for him to get to be his full self—a Puerto Rican version (he is Cubano)—but how rarely he gets roles where he can be who he is, an Afro-Latino.
And with Matteo, yes, it was important that he be plausibly racially ambiguous. We were very fortunate in that Jesse Williams, who plays him, is biracial (though not Jewish) with a lot of lived experience around Puerto Ricans and being mistaken for one. So that was a fortunate coincidence that he got to bring that to the role. But mainly we were extremely pointed in this, using this chance to see our spectrum of bodies and complexions and hair types that make Puerto Rican people so beautiful and that reflect our full history and story.
Can you talk about your creative influences? Were there specific authors or literary forebears you looked to as you developed the story?
Yes! I spent a lot of time rereading books before I started. I was very taken with Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem and The Sellout by Paul Beatty. These books have a love of community, and Lethem that heart, and Beatty that razor wit, and I took a lot from both of these novels. I reread The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because of history and diaspora and language. I reread One Hundred Years of Solitude, because it’s a religion to me, but also for scale and scope and to not be afraid of being big, and The World According to Garp for how to talk about complicated, flawed people. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and The Bonfire of the Vanities for inspiration on capturing New York and its multitudes. And finally, The House on Mango Street because I wanted to remember who the girl was that Olga would have been when she gets the letter from her mother that changes the trajectory of her life.
Author photo © Mayra Castillo