Melissa Rivero's debut novel The Affairs of the Falcóns, published April 2 by Ecco, centers on Ana, an undocumented Peruvian immigrant, as she navigates work and motherhood and marriage, intrafamilial classism and colorism, and 1990s New York City, all while managing a growing debt load and avoiding deportation.
Moving along a chronological path interspersed with flashbacks, the novel is written in close third-person. Readers follow Ana as she progresses through her life, just as Rivero followed Ana as she progressed through her writing.
"Ana was completely leading me the entire time," Rivero told Spine. Ana is not based on Rivero, but like Ana, Rivero was born in Peru and lived undocumented for many years in Brooklyn. "I imagined what a person like her would feel like in certain situations. I didn't have any sort of plot in mind. I imagined her in one situation, and then that led to another situation, and then from there came one character, and another character."
A few crucial components of the book, and of Ana's life, Rivero did know from the start: Ana's family — husband Lucho, daughter Victoria, son Pedro — and Ana's two homes, New York City and Santa Clara, "her small town on the edges of the Peruvian rainforest." Once she began writing Ana's journey, Rivero re-immersed herself in these places through her own memories, via visits, and in conversations with family.
"I went to Queens. I would take pictures of places to have a trigger to go back to [when writing] — how I felt, how it smelled when I was there. I do live in Brooklyn, but it's such a different Brooklyn. I relied on memory for that and I talked to my mother, who lives here and has more tangible memories of that time in Brooklyn.
"In terms of Peru, once we had our green cards, my parents and I would go to Peru every few years. I have vivid memories of my mom's hometown in the Peruvian Amazon."
Family and place solidified, Ana moved through various situations and Rivero realized she might have a book. "I had all of these pages, and then I thought, I have to piece this together somehow. This is a novel."
Around the time Rivero realized Ana was more than a collection of character studies, she was chosen as one of the Center for Fiction's 2015 NYC Emerging Writers Fellows, and was assigned an editor, Pat Mulcahy, to workshop with for one year. At the same time, she was working full time as in-house legal counsel for a startup and, alongside her husband, was parenting a two-year-old and an infant.
"I met with this editor, who said, 'You've got me for a year, but I've got to see a manuscript.' That was the impetus. Having my children meant that I had to cut the bullshit, cut the fat from my life. I had to say no to a lot of people, to my social life and my hobbies. I've got this editor, I've got kids, I've got to focus on getting a manuscript together.”
With real deadlines and accountability to her fellowship editor, Rivero pushed forward. The Center for Fiction included a novel excerpt in a fellows’ anthology, and agent Julia Kardon (HSG Agency) read it and liked it. Rivero, who also met other agents, connected with Kardon and the two got to work on a submission-ready draft, ultimately purchased by Ecco and edited by Editorial Director Megan Lynch.
Rivero said each partner, her agent and her editor, helped shift the book towards its final form. Kardon suggested a few structural changes, which helped with pacing. Lynch also understood the emotional truths of each character, and encouraged Rivero to focus on those that best moved the story forward, while letting go of those who didn't.
Rivero celebrated the launch of The Affairs of the Falcóns in conversation with her writing partner Lisa Ko (The Leavers) at Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore. Once she gets through several spring events, she'll return to writing a project she's already started. "I've been dying to get back to it," she said. "After I drop my eldest off at school, I'll write for 30, 45 minutes before heading to work. I really need to write, and sometimes, that’s all the time I get to do it. And that’s okay. It’s better than not writing at all."
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.