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Vermont's Julia Alvarez honors unfinished characters in 'The Cemetery of Untold Stories'

Julia Alvarez is the author of more than 20 works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children's books.
Todd Balfour for Middlebury College
Julia Alvarez is the author of more than 20 works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children's books.

What happens to stories that go unwritten, characters undeveloped? This is one of the central questions at the heart of Vermont author Julia Alvarez’s magical and mesmerizing new novel, The Cemetery of Untold Stories.

The novel revolves around the character Alma Cruz, a celebrated Dominican writer living in Vermont. It's no coincidence that Alma shares many characteristics with the writer who created her.

"Stories have the DNA of their authors," said Alvarez.

Like her character, Alvarez, 74, lives a writerly life in Vermont. She is a former Middlebury College writer-in-residence, the author of more than 20 books, and the winner of the 2014 National Medal of Arts.

Many of her novels, including her latest, are polyphonic. They feature a diversity of voices woven together, using a mix of English and Spanish. Alvarez traces the roots of her writing style back to her upbringing in the Dominican Republican.

"I wasn't from a reading family, but we had a rich oral tradition," Alvarez said. "And in the oral tradition, [storytelling] is a communal and performative experience. And so I've really been interested in that sort of decentralized, non-hierarchical way of moving through story."

While writing The Cemetery of Untold Stories, Alvarez suffered a health crisis. One of her retina detached from her eye, leading to two major surgeries. She struggled to write, to the point that she worried the novel would end up in its own cemetery of untold stories.

"When I finally was able to work, it was such a blessing," she said. "When you can't take something for granted, there's a new juice and appreciation for however much you can still have back. And I think that gets in the writing. Because there's a long, long life in the craft."

She continued: "There's a certain kind of staleness that can come in — tediousness, exhaustion, careerism, all that stuff that gets between you and your characters. And this swept it all away. What did it matter, facing the ultimate? What did it matter? Just give yourself over."

Broadcast live on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.