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LA ÑAPA

In Dominican Spanish la ñapa refers to "the little extra" added on at the end. Just when you thought you'd gotten all that you would get, along comes your ñapa, like a baker's dozen, with one more kiss, one more pastelito, one more mango at the mercado.

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Here's a little story I wrote about the research that went into writing Saving the World. I call it "Saving the Writer," because without the help and support of so many people, I could never write my novels. In fact, every time I write a book, I feel I am getting a college education on stuff I need to learn in order to write from a totally diffrent point of view or period of time. I've heard it said that writers must be knowledgeable critters, writing down all they know. Not so. We write not because we know a whole lot of things but because we are curious and want to find things out.

Saving the Writer

Saving the World by Julia Alvarez -- click for book summary click for: Book Summary
Book Group Guide
Further Reading

(a piece about writing Saving the World)
by Julia Alvarez

The seed of my new novel, Saving the World, sprouted from a footnote.
Researching the early 19th century history of the Dominican Republic for an earlier novel, I learned that when the island of Hispaniola was in the midst of revolution in 1804, smallpox broke out killing many of those who had not succumbed to the sword.
A footnote mentioned a missed opportunity. In February of 1804, Dr. Francisco Xavier Balmis arrived in nearby Puerto Rico with his Royal Spanish Expedition bound on its mission to save the world with the smallpox vaccine. The carriers were orphan boys -- this was before the days of refrigeration -- twenty-two of them, all under the age of nine. But because the colony of Santo Domingo was embattled and unsafe, Don Francisco's Expedition did not stop there.
Why had I never heard of this attempt to rid the world of a deadly disease? Though the Spanish crown's motives were praised as noble, I could not stop thinking of those twenty-two boys. Must civilization always ride on the backs of those least able to defend themselves? Little boys! Orphans!
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From then on, whenever I found myself in a library or in conversation with people who might know, I tried to find out more about this smallpox expedition.
The most provocative bit of information I collected was that a woman had accompanied the expedition: the "rectoress" of the orphanage, Isabel Gomez y Cendala, went along to take care of the little boys. I knew this was a story I had to tell. What I didn't know was that I was about to embark on my own expedition around the world -- mostly electronically -- to find out all I needed to know to tell it right.
It's amazing how tolerant people are of writers with wacky questions. First, there was my ignorance of all things maritime. Isabel spent months on board ships crossing several oceans. To imagine her journey I needed to experience the feel of a rolling vessel, salt and wind in my hair, that sinking feeling when the land drops out of view.
A local acquaintance has a daughter-in-law who teaches in one of those semesters at sea programs. When they are in the Caribbean, she has her students read my novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. Which is how I made it on board -- courtesy of Dee O'Regan -- The Spirit of Massachusetts, where I experienced seasickness first hand, an ailment I passed on to poor Isabel and her little boys.
The tall-ship sailing world turned out to be a small one. Through Dee, I was put in touch with Joan Druett, author of Hen Frigates, a wonderful book on seafaring women. Joan proceeded to educate me with reading lists and expert answers to my questions. "The best way to go is to track your post and distinguish your problems," she began one e-mail. In another, uncharacteristically stumped, she referred my question to Nick Burningham. "Genuflect when you read that name," she said. "He's currently in the Oman building models of Arab boats for the sultan." In the Oman! It occurred to me to ask. "And where are you, Joan?" "Down Under," came the reply.
I decided to do a bit of actual travel myself. Retracing Isabel's journey, I headed to La Coruña, the port city from which the expedition set sail. I climbed the 234 steps of the Tower of Hercules. The oldest functioning light house anywhere, it had beamed a good-bye to the rectoress and her twenty-two boys. Though the celebration of the expedition's bicentennial (1803-2003) would not open until after my trip, I collected the names of several experts to contact from home.
One of them, Catherine Mark, was this writer's true fairy godmother. An American, she lives in Madrid and works at Centro Nacional de Biotecnología. She seems to have collected everything ever written about the expedition and is the hub of a worldwide assortment of Balmis aficionados informally known as "The Balmaniacs." As my planned novel expanded to include a contemporary story and another scourge (AIDS), Catherine was ready with studies and statistics. Some days half a dozen emails would go back and forth, not all of them full of information. Sometimes it was moral support. Quoting Mark Twain on truth and fiction, Catherine added, "So there's your justification (if you need it) -- now get to work, you've got a story to tell!" Sometimes it was long-time-a'coming advice on how to deal with that censoring presence that can afflict a writer mid-novel and a person mid-life:
So I have to be the one to explain the facts of life to you (sigh). Sit up straight, uncross your knees, and pay attention: at the age of 50-whatever, it is now time to get rid of that little nun who's been sitting on your shoulder and talking into your ear for the last 4 decades. Thank her for keeping you out of trouble in your wild-oats years ('though I bet she didn't), and let her fly away (your back isn't what it was, and she really is too heavy).
Sometimes it was a name and contact. (José Rigau in Puerto Rico "knows everything about that portion of the expedition." Ditto for Tom Colvin, on the Philippine and Mexican portions. There's also Michael Smith in Oklahoma, Susana Ramírez in Madrid. . .) Soon, I was shuttling around the world in cyberspace, coming "home" to the story with information I needed.
So far, I've only touched on the research for the historical part of the novel. Originally, I had intended to write just about the expedition. But the events of September 11, 2001, happened, and like many Americans, I was shaken up. I wanted to bring the story of the expedition forward into my own time. What can stories do for us when we are muddling through difficulties in our own lives? Does it matter that we know the stories of the past before we, too, become history? How do we keep faith with what is grand? And so I created a writer, Alma, going through her own dark night of the soul. Alma discovers the story of Isabel and the smallpox expedition. . .
In order to write the contemporary story, I had to research the epidemic of our times: AIDS. I traveled to the Dominican Republic and met the incomparable Dr. Ellen Koenig. An American married to a Dominican businessman, Dr. Koenig decided to get a medical degree in her fifties in order to help impoverished AIDS victims in her adopted homeland. Dr. Koenig took me to visit several clinics and generously -- busy as she is! -- gave me an education on AIDS and different treatment options available to the impoverished. To learn more about dying in a foreign country, I interviewed a funeral-home director in the interior of the island. An airline carrier in the capital answered my questions about transporting a dead body from one country to another. I'm still surprised I survived the research that went into the contemporary story without getting locked up by the local authorities.
When I finally put the finished manuscript in the mail, I was stricken by the writer's version of empty nest syndrome. I sent Catherine a forlorn e-mail. She was having none of that. No way I was done, she flashed back. I was one of the carriers now. Again, Catherine's right. I'll be telling this story for the rest of my life.
Copyright © Julia Alvarez 2006-2017.
All rights reserved. No further duplication, downloading or
distribution permitted without written agreement of the author
(please contact my agent, Stuart Bernstein).

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