Natalia Sylvester is the author of the new young adult novel Running. She also has written the novels Chasing the Sun and Everyone Knows You Go Home, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Bustle. She lives in Texas.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Running, and for your character Mari?
A: During the 2016 election cycle, I remember watching many different candidates' speeches, and I was fascinated by them not because of the candidates themselves, but by the family members—usually spouses and children—who stood in quiet support in the background.
I thought, what would it look like if that quiet support turned into vocal opposition? What would that do to a family, to a teenager finding her voice, to her sense of loyalty to her father and her sense of conviction for her beliefs? And more importantly, what would it take for someone to have such a spark lit inside of them?
Like with so many of my book ideas, I kind of sat with this one for a while.
One morning, while I was still half asleep in bed, I thought of a line, and then another, and another. And I knew that that was Mari's voice. She loves her father but she's also slowly piecing together the fact that all the things she's accepted as truth and all the things she's learning are real don't add up.
Mari doesn't start out as the most daring, outspoken or even heroic character, and I think that's what spoke to me the most about her. Because I remember being her age, and being so afraid to use my voice.
I wanted to write about the process of overcoming that fear, and how it has the potential to not only change her, but change the world around her.
Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything surprising?
A: The novel is set in Miami, which is where I grew up, and in a lot of ways this book is a celebration of this very specific place and the communities that are close to my heart.
At the same time...my father never ran for president! So a lot of my research involved learning about campaigns from not only candidates' points of view, but from family members. I read a lot of politicians' memoirs, and politicians' children's memoirs, in addition to going down endless rabbit holes of campaign YouTube videos, articles, and documentaries.
It was also important for me to follow Miami and Florida politics more closely, because while the book is fiction I wanted it to be firmly rooted in the real laws and policies that are shaping lives.
One of the things I learned that most surprised me was a bill that came close to passing in Florida in 2018 that would have had incredibly lasting and damaging effects on South Florida's drinking water supply. That bill ended up being central to my plot in Running.
Q: The book is coming out in the middle of a presidential election campaign--what do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: I hope they'll be immersed and entertained and moved and inspired. I think all great literature has the power to do that, but beyond that, I try not to impose my hopes for a story upon readers, because a huge part of the joy of reading is that our experience of every book is so personal. I hope it will be deeply personal to each individual.
Q: This is your first YA novel--was your experience writing it similar to or different from writing your novels for adults?
A: It was a little bit of both. On the one hand, each story I write is completely different. Each story asks different things of me, and the process is never the same for each one.
But there are things that by this point, I recognize as patterns in my writing process, places in which I tend to come across fear and doubt, and by now I'm familiar enough with those places that I at least feel better equipped to navigate them.
I will say, though—since my first two novels dealt with subjects that were difficult for me to delve into at times—that writing Running was a lot more fun for me.
It was filled with more joy and humor and hope, which is not to say that my previous books don't contain those elements. But my first two books required me to excavate a lot more darkness to get to light.
Running, from the beginning, spoke to me from a place of empowerment, which is something I really needed in the months and years I was writing it.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a couple of new projects that are so new I'm afraid to even speak of them. I'm a little superstitious in that way. You ever worry that a story's like a bottle of soda, and you don't want to open it too soon and let all the fizz out? That's where I'm at right now.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'll be posting [information about] Running on Instagram and Twitter. You can follow me there or find me on my website: nataliasylvester.com. Thank you so much for having me!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb