The Heartbreaker: Chatting With Anjanette Delgado
By Jennifer Maritza McCauley
In Anjanette Delgado's The Heartbreak Pill, scientist Erika Luna tries to develop a cure for heartache after her marriage crumbles. Delgado is a broken heart specialist herself. “Anytime I’ve written anything, I’ve written about somebody’s heartbreak,” The celebrated writer says. “I'm obsessed with it.”
Delgado’s obsession has paid off. During her eighteen years writing and producing for outlets such as CNN, Vogue, NPR, Univision and Telemundo, Delgado has received much acclaim for her stories about women struggling with emotional pain. Delgado’s documentary series “Madres en la Lejania” won an Emmy, her sitcom “Great in Bed” was bought by HBO Latin America, and her latest novels The Heartbreak Pill and the upcoming The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho have been optioned by De Oro Media, of the Jenni Rivera reality shows fame.
The author is just as accessible and vivacious as her work. Even if she barely knows you, she speaks to you like you’re a long lost girlfriend. I conducted a phone interview with Delgado and we talked about self-transformation, sticking to deadlines, and why her work connects so well with readers.
JM: Your first published novel The Heartbreak Pill was originally written in Spanish, and your newest book The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho was written in English as your MFA thesis. What was your process like working on these two novels?
AD: For The Heartbreak Pill I had no process. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote four drafts of it and threw them all out. It took me five years and I was so confused with [writing in the English] language. Ultimately, I felt the voice coming through more clearly in Spanish and I went with it.
For my second novel, I used the model I now use for my class [“Finish Your Novel – the TV Way” at The Center for Arts and Literature at Miami Dade College.] In T.V. writing you have a deadline and can’t go off that deadline. You budget your time and how many scenes or chapters are going to be written in so many days. You have maps, you have pre-pro work. You write out the dialogue of the scenes, but you have a map. You have a route.
For the second novel, I did all this and it worked for me. That’s why I created this class. I think I could have done a better first novel if I had had a process. With the first I was grabbing time when I could and writing on yellow pads. I didn’t even own a home computer when I started. So there wasn’t really a process for the first book. I would have had more fun writing if I did.
JM: In The Heartbreak Pill your protagonist Erika Luna undergoes serious emotional pain. She loses her husband and her sense of self all at once. Heartbreak is both universal and unifying. I'm sure readers connect with the book emotionally. How did you feel about the positive responses to The Heartbreak Pill?
AD: I love The Heartbreak Pill. It was the best book it could be at that time. I wrote it before I finished the MFA. It's what I wrote on my own, by myself. And it was a hard novel to write, with no help and a lot less training. But it was heartfelt. I had insights about it and I really wanted to put those thoughts down. I think that's why readers seem to have such a deep personal connection with the novel. I get e-mails all the time from people saying how the book changed them. That amazes me.
I had a reader write to me via Facebook. She told me she gave my book to her mother-in-law and that it had been the first time she'd seen her laugh in nine years! Others write to me and tell me their stories of heartbreak. Even men.
I have three friends who I’ve met through the book. One of them is the editor of Siempre Mujer, Maria Cristina Marrero. She looked me up and said, “I read your book and had to become your friend.” It’s definitely a novel of connection. Some call it chick lit, but it connects and that is what is important to me.
JM: Do you have any themes that consciously come up in your work?
AD: Heartbreak is my theme. In the end, there are a lot of lessons to learn in life. One of them is that heartbreak isn’t always sad. It can be cleansing. It can teach you lessons. Heartbreak is the thing I keep returning to in my writing. When I talk to my students I ask them, “What are you seeing…what holds you? What comes up again and again in your writing?”
As a T.V. producer, I won an Emmy for a T.V. series called Madres en la Lejania. This was a story about immigrant mothers who left their children behind to become nannies. It’s a series about immigration and it’s about the plight of mothers and children, but it’s really about heartbreak. In that case it was the heartbreak of separation.
I’m working on a story called Gridlock, and it’s about a couple on their way to an abortion clinic. She wants to terminate the pregnancy and he doesn’t. So, another kind of heartbreak. I’m obsessed with the idea of it and how it changes you. Why you love some people and not others.
In the end, anytime I’ve written anything, I’ve written about somebody’s heartbreak. I’m obsessed with it and with self-transformation.
JM: Your work is very empathetic. Do you feel, since heartbreak is your “theme”, that you are hyper-aware of your own suffering or the pain of others?
AD: There are ways to experience heartbreak. There are stories that stay with me and there are stories that have broken my heart. Sometimes [pain] is like a bullet. Sometimes the news will say this or that, and I’ll see that somebody’s life is shattered and it feels like a bullet. Like somebody physically hurt me just by reading that headline as if it were just one other thing that happened that day to be brought to you tonight at six.
I remember [working on daily newscasts] and forcing myself not to feel it, though. I do think it’s like being a doctor. When you’re writing the news you’re thinking about doing your job. You can't feel all of it, it's too much. But when I'm on the other side, it's amazing how much it affects me.
JM: So much of your work encourages Latinas and women in general, to positively transform their lives. At the end of The Heartbreak Pill, and even as she gets a green light to research a remedy for heartbreak, Erika realizes that this elusive “pill” is really just her decision to stop suffering. Can you talk a little bit about writing fiction that both empowers and entertains?
AD: So this really goes to the center of why I write. At one point I even considered calling myself a self-help writer. While I was writing The Heartbreak Pill, I was in my thirties and I didn’t have any training or contacts. I had two children and I had a very demanding job as a TV producer. Back then I was addicted to self help books. Addicted! If you went to my bookshelf you’d see all of these self-help books, Why Men Love Bitches… you know. I was just obsessed. I especially wanted to know more about relationships. Because of that obsession, I think all of my novels deal with women teaching themselves something to make themselves happy.
Women are into self-transformation. If we want to be something we’ll go find a book and find out how to be that thing. If we want to be sophisticated, we’ll go and buy a book called “How to Be Sophisticated.” If we want to be better at romance we’ll buy a book called “How To Be Romantic.” For all the things people say about women, we work to make things work. We figure out what it is we need and we get it. Same with immigrants, even though my books are not about Latinos in the traditional way you'd define a book to be about a people.
JM: How so?
AD: When I’m writing I think about the story, not about the narrator being Latina. If you want to promote an idea or rewrite history, that’s all fine. But when you start it’s about the story. You have to think about how the reader connects with your book, who spends time with it. I don’t think about empowerment. I think about what I want to learn.
The Heartbreak Pill is about suffering and how to let go. How we can’t control everything, so of course my protagonist had to be someone who had it all together. She had to be a scientist and she had to go through a divorce, there had to be an arc. This thing had to tear her apart so she could realize she can’t control everything. So I’d love to think I’m empowering women and Latinas but I don’t think about that. I just like a good story. I’m a Latina and I like humor and it’s really hard to not put my sense of humor in my work. [Erika] is a scientist not because I wanted her to be an empowered Latina, but because I wanted her to be dramatic for the story’s sake.
In The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho the protagonist is the opposite. She only has a high school diploma but she learns what she needs to learn for the book. So the story, for me, comes first.
JM: Your narrator in The Heartbreak Pill has a desire for her pain to be understood. Is being understood also a theme of your work?
AD: I really think that [idea] survived in my agenda. Heartbroken people do want to be understood. The other day I was watching an episode of the Mindy Kaling Project on television. I love that show. I'd love for [Mindy Kaling] to play Erika [in a film adaption of The Heartbreak Pill]! Mindy said she needed a Heartbreak Day and when she didn't get it, things went bad. She said to her boss, “If you'd given me a Heartbreak Day, we wouldn’t have had this problem!”
Really, heartbreak is just as awful as a cold. If you have a cold someone will say, “Aw, I’m so sorry you feel sick” and they expect you to get better and they'll wish you “get well.” But if something bad happens to you and you feel heartsick, people think you should suck it up and move on. People don’t really understand and it’s frustrating. So in The Heartbreak Pill Erika is trying to cure heartbreak like it’s an illness because it is an illness.
JM: You capture Erika's denial of her loss beautifully. Erika’s lawyer and friends tell her that she doesn't want a quick remedy for her pain. She really just wants to go back to a happier time with her husband. She wants her marriage back. Why do you think it takes so long for women and men to get over heartbreak?
AD: After all of my research, I didn't get an answer to that one. I don’t think the problem is in the brain. I think the brain could get over [heartbreak] really fast. There are some things in life you can get over in two seconds. You say, “Oh my God, that thing is useless to me!” and then you're done. If you're open to seeing that [it’s useless], it takes a good day or two to get over it. But you are your habits and love is a habit.
For some, heartbreak is always there. Maybe the person you loved is great or she's a sack of shit, but loving her is a habit. It's ingrained in you. Since you loved her yesterday, you can't just stop loving her today. It's going to take you a while. I thinking hanging on is a reflex. If you were able to change your feelings, you would. Lots of people measure things in terms of how long they loved the person. How long they invested themselves. If you loved someone for a long time, it feels more real. And we are always trying to make love more real. To make it stay, to make it true. You think, “I'm going to push that person away, but then you think, “Holy crap, I put so much into that person.”
I think the brain has to do with heartbreak but the hanging on is us. I'm not a scientist or a psychologist or a marriage counselor, but that is my instinct. I'm a woman and we're insightful. We're wise.
JM: Why did you choose Miami as your setting for The Heartbreak Pill and The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho?
AD: I like Miami. I like a lot of other places too, but I think there's something quirky-hazy-magical-romantic about Miami. It doesn’t give itself up. Sure, you can go to South Beach and it's there, but there's an underground. Even if you don't go to the beach, there's still a lot to do. You can go find the Last Shoe bar open in Overtown and you'll catch a person jamming on at 3 a.m on a Tuesday. You can try a vintage shop. It's not what you see in the magazines or what you imagine on Ocean Drive. That's part of why Miami is so unique.
There's cool poetry in Miami too, poetry from all over the world. I also like the immigrant quality. My protagonists are Latina and they do well in Miami. Maybe one day soon I'll place my novels somewhere else, but for now I still have a few stories to tell in Miami.
AD: Who is your first reader?
These days it's anyone I can find. For the first book, it was my husband. When we first met he was my number one fan. The second novel was in English so I didn't have him all the time. I’m dying for him to read it. My ideal reader is my best friend. She's a news director for NBC Six and she's a good friend, but we're different in many ways and smart in ways that help her give me a good read. She's tough, too. Sometimes I'll imagine she's reading my stuff to catch if I'm missing anything.
One of the kindest readers I've ever had is Lynne Barrett. She'll take your stuff and tear it apart, but whatever comes out will always remain your story. She'll never tell you have to change something; she'll just give you the tools. John Dufresne told me, I'd never find a person more respectful of my work, who'll work with what's there, and he was so right. So my husband is my first reader, my ideal reader is my best friend and my kindest reader is Lynne Barrett.
JM: Who are your literary heroes?
AD: That's such a hard question for a writer! My first books were in English. I learned to love books in English and that’s why I connect to stories in English. Even though it's so much easier to write in Spanish. I really love Muriel Sparks and Isabel Allende, Esmeralda Santiago, Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez. Another literary hero, although it's hard to read him, is E.L. Doctorow.
I love Billy Bathgate. F. Scott Fitzgerald, I love The Great Gatsby and all of his stories. And locally, John Dufresne for sure. That man can make you laugh or cry with the just the slightest breeze of words. Then there are new voices. Patricia Engel and I went to school together and she has written a lovely book called It's Not Love, It's Just Paris, and Justin Torres wrote a novel called We The Animals. It’s amazing. Jennifer Bell writes really smart chic lit. I just read Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her, and I loved it and him. I felt like he was writing the male's side of The Heartbreak Pill. I thought, Oh my God, this is what the other person is thinking!
Also, Tony Hoagland and Campbell McGrath. John Dufresne, Lynne Barrett writes really wonderful women stories. Lydia Davis has nothing on her. The teachers from [the graduate program at] FIU aren't my heroes because I feel they are so close to me. They're mine.
JM: Why do you write?
I love stories. I love being God, creating a world that’s a little cooler than mine. I had so much fun decorating Erika's apartment. I love to create that world. I love writing characters who can say that cool thing that you never get to say in real life. There's definitely a control freak in me. When you write a book you can control everyone in it. I don’t have a noble purpose, I just love creating people and making my readers smile.
Anjanette Delgado will join Isabel Allende on Saturday, February 1st at the Miami-Dade College Wolfson Campus.
For tickets and more information please visit the website: http://www.booksandbooks.com/event/isabel-allende-ripper-miami-dade-college-wolfson-campus-chapman-conference-center/
To learn more about Anjanette Delgado visit her website at: http://www.anjanettedelgado.com