With the economy in a rut, snagging a freelancing gig on Craigslist is enough to be considered a blessing for many creative writers. Author and Mills College alumna Carolina De Robertis, however, is living every English major’s dream with the release of her novel The Invisible Mountain.
Since its publication in 2009, Robertis’ novel has won the acclaim of thousands, including that of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, and has been translated into 12 languages. Her success has left creative writing majors confident by answering the ultimate question — Is it possible to get a book published in these dark days? — with a firm yes.
“I really wasn’t sure what I was doing at first,” Robertis said about starting the novel. “I sort of embarked on my own urge to more deeply understand family stories I’d grown up with.”
Stories of her parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives in Uruguay, the small country in southeastern South America in which Robertis’ novel takes place, inspired her to explore dog-eared volumes of history books, 1960s prison memoirs, and modern-day Uruguay itself to find the “tremendous troves of untold stories there.”
“Because I didn’t grow up there myself, I had a certain amount of fascination that’s also born of distance at the same time of this sense of belonging, and those things can really combine into a hunger that can lead some of us down creative roads,” Robertis said.
But what began as a desire to get in touch with her roots quickly transformed into an extensive narrative of the lives of not one but many central characters.
“I didn’t know when I started out what the exact scope of the book would be. I didn’t imagine that it would be quite as sprawling and epic as it was at first,” Robertis said. “It chronicles 90 years of Uruguayan history and culture through the eyes of three generations of women and explores the way political and personal upheavals affect their lives and their relationships to each other.”
In addition to reading, Robertis traveled to Uruguay and talked to people because, she said, “people don’t have to have been imprisoned under the dictatorship to have been affected by it.”
“There are so many ripple effects that history has on people’s lives, so conversations are bound to yield conversations that you can end up using,” Robertis said.
Through extensive work with little time for writer’s block, Robertis finished her first draft of The Invisible Mountain in 2004 before she came to Mills College for her MFA.
“I had sincerely tried the sage advice — which is absolutely good advice — which is: Get your manuscript as ready as you can before you send it out. Make it really polished. Pull out all the stops, because you only have one shot with each person that reads the manuscript and makes a decision on whether or not to represent you or buy the rights,” Robertis said.
Still, after finding an agent willing to help her get the novel published, Robertis discovered The Invisible Mountain had a long way to go before it would become the novel she envisioned. Robertis said what she learned from the College’s MFA program facilitated the novel’s completion.
“My time at Mills was absolutely instrumental to making this book what it most wanted to be and, ultimately, making this book the success that it is,” Robertis said. “At Mills, I gained irreplaceable skills of craft. I already came in with the vision of what I wanted the book to be, and I came in with a draft; but there was so much mess in there, and I didn’t know where to go next.”
Professor Micheline Marcom said Robertis’ disposition helped her overcome such challenges.
“She was the kind of student who was open to anything that I would give her to read and think about, and that open-mindedness… is why I think her work improved so much,” Marcom said. “She read books with critical acumen but with lots of love, and that kind of enthusiasm for books, I think, then translated into her becoming a better writer.”
Current Mills writers like Flora Winters, president of The Writers of the Universe club, look to Robertis for inspiration.
“She shows that it can be done and answers questions that help us grow,” Winters said.
Of all the answers Robertis provides students, Winters said one of the most important is that creative writers should keep doing what they do best — write.
“To you Mills women who are… aspiring writers and who feel that urge and that desire and that beautiful pull… do it and go for it,” Robertis said. “Milk the time that you have and know that the time you spend on your creative writing classes, on reading books, on writing, on staying up too late writing when you could be doing something else for another class is worth it and precious.”
Robertis is using her own time perfecting her second novel entitled Liquid City, which she began during her time at Mills.
“My thesis was the beginning of my second novel,” Robertis said. “Even though I was heavily revising my first novel while I was here, I didn’t workshop it much and I tried to spend most of the time generating new work.”
Unlike The Invisible Mountain, Liquid City takes place in Argentina and focuses on one woman’s encounter with the ghost of a person kidnapped, tortured and killed during the dictatorship in 1970.
“It’s about a young Argentinian woman who was raised in a military family,” Robertis said. “This young woman encounters a ghost of one of these disappeared and that forces her to confront some secrets about her own family and her hidden past.”
As she writes yet another novel for public eyes to see, Robertis encourages other Mills women to let their voices be heard.
“The world is full of distractions and full of messages that say that our writing is less than important and that our voices are less than important,” Robertis said. “It’s incredibly important for us that we stay rooted in knowing who we are and in trusting that our voices are needed, valuable, and have a place in the world.”