“It’s News to Me” follows Marissa Cavelo as she awakens from an alcohol-induced fog and has just minutes to get to a meeting at the television station where she works. She’s sure her career is doomed. Olga Campos Benz’s first novel is a work of fiction but takes place in a setting she knows well: the newsroom. She spent thirty years as a broadcast journalist covering the major news stories. I spoke with Olga on the phone after she had just been a featured author at the 2017 Texas Book Festival. After we spoke I got to meet her at a book reading and signing at Sententia Vera Cultural Hub in Dripping Springs, Texas. It was nice getting to hear her speak some more about the process of writing her book at the event. Hearing her passion for writing “It’s News To Me” is inspiring and motivating. She took the self-publishing route, which is no easy feat, and wrote the book over five years.
Can you talk about the inspiration for writing “It’s News to Me” and why you chose to write fiction?
People have asked me, ‘What’s it like to work at a TV station?’ If people had a real idea of what it was like they wouldn’t believe it. I’m not sure that a non-fiction book would have been acceptable. After 30 years of being a journalist you’re tied to the restrictions of accuracy and double-checking facts and needing three sources to back up your story. It’s such a freeing experience to delve into fiction and let my imagination take over. There are no limits. It was really a pleasant experience for me to try my hand at fiction and use the basis of my real -life experience. It was the best of both.
Can you talk about the process of writing “It’s News To Me” and the transition from the newsroom to writing?
The process of writing takes years. It did for me. You do it whenever you can and sometimes you do lose track of where you are with your story and need to get someone else to read it to remind you and say, ‘This took place in November – there wouldn’t be bluebonnets there would be pumpkins.’ That kind of fact-checking is minor compared to a news story. It wasn’t so difficult to make that transition but it was important to have an editing service to copy edit and content edit. I did use some real life news events as the backdrop. I had to be careful with that because my readers in Austin were going to be very familiar. A small plane crashed into the Arboretum years ago and I used what really happened as the basis for ‘it’s a breaking news event’ in my fictional news room. That is when you have to make sure that it’s not too far off base. There’s some other things like the technology my news reporter is using that needs to be up-to-date. She’s using a GoPro camera to capture some undercover work. It has to be factual to a certain degree and takes research but it’s pretty common information. It also brings it to a modern day setting that people can relate to when they pick it up and read it, even though it was written five years ago.
Can you talk about the main character, Marissa Cavelo, and what qualities you wanted her to have when you started writing her character?
As a writer we are often writing in the genre we enjoy reading, and for me my personal preference is modern day fiction with women as the lead characters. It was a huge responsibility to make sure my lead character Marissa was a Latina, smart, bold and determined. She comes from humble beginnings. Her parents were immigrants and became citizens. It’s the stories that we know from East Austin to the barrios in the neighborhood where I grew up in Houston. Those are real life factors and it was very important that she come across as someone that other women can look up to and I have enjoyed the fact that other aspiring journalists and Latina women are seeing some of themselves in her because she is bold and she’s willing to take chances and she is undeterred from her goals. She’s a strong person, and definitely stronger than I am, but I like that I could make her that strong and make her be decisive in her actions and her decisions. It’s been great because the response and feedback has been one where people connect with her. Her mother, who’s deceased in the book, comes to her at different times with little phrases in Spanish that bring her back to her childhood or fragrances from a kitchen will bring her back to her mother’s cooking. It’s everything that I hold dear to myself. I was able to put that in the book and people have responded in kind and they have enjoyed that. What I think has been good is that people from various backgrounds are getting insight to what it is to be a Latino and grow up in that kind of home and that kind of neighborhood and have immigrants as parents. Of course that’s a hot button topic right now that I had no idea when I delved into this beginning five years ago that it would be. Timing is everything and if I can bring a positive perception about being the daughter of immigrants, good for my team.
Can you share some of the experiences you’ve had with people who’ve read your book?
One of my friends, who’s a bold Latina woman who is running for State Representative and I know has taken on challenges like confronting stereotypes, said she could relate so much to it that she broke down in tears reading it and it made her think of her mother and what she wants to share with her daughter growing up and paving the way for other young women who, in her case, will run for office. It brought me to tears what she said about it. If you can impact someone’s life like that and they connect with your writing that’s huge, that’s personally more than I could have ever expected.
What advice would you give to young women who are aspiring journalists?
It has been a huge honor to travel and promote my book and get invited as guest speaker and be a guest mentor for journalist students at The University of Texas and then visit the Mass Communication major students at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. I tell them it is a profession of honor and one is that is so important to our form of democracy and we are the truth bearers. As journalists in the United States what we face in opposition doesn’t begin to compare to what journalists are facing worldwide. So we are strong in the public eye and they have to remember that and that it’s a huge a responsibility and one that they should take great pride in carrying out. If they are bilingual they already have a double bonus going into this field.
What are you going to do next? Sequel?
I would love to do a new book. I have a lot of interest in my main character Marissa and finding out what her next step is. This book right now is absorbing most of my time and so right now I feel like I just to need to make the most of my time to just promote this one and share it with various groups and then I’ll think about a sequel. I’m still riding high on 2017.