Lily Prellezo is an alum of the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference: Writers in Paradise. Her first book length publication, SEAGULL ONE: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE, has just been released by the University Press of Florida. Lily was kind enough to answer a few questions about her new book.
What was the driving force behind your wanting to capture the history of the group, Brothers to the Rescue, in this book, SEAGULL ONE: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE?
Two glasses of wine.
Rene and Marta Guerra were friends of Basulto and also acquaintances of ours. I had helped Rene with some letter writing jobs and he liked my style. One day, at the Sony Ericson tennis tournament in Miami, after two glasses of wine, Rene pronounces: “You need to write the story of Brothers to the Rescue.” I over-emphatically replied, “Sure!”
Then he summoned the Basultos to his home for more drinks (I had only water at that time) and we met, hit it off, and started to work.
I had admired this group in the 90s when I was busy raising my little girls, but the extent of my involvement was attending a fundraiser once.
After I met with Basulto and for six months helped him organize the files, the driving force became telling these people’s stories.
Clearly, a great deal of research was done on this project, and it was also done in collaboration with Jose Basulto. How was the research process for you? And, could you explain how it was working with Mr. Basulto?
I really enjoyed the research part. I used to love writing term papers, so you know where I’m coming from. But with Brothers to the Rescue, the more I found out about the people and the organization, the more I wanted to know.
Working with Basulto was difficult at first. I was in awe of him. To me, he was bigger than life, and yet here he was, a grandfatherly-type easy-going guy who would bring me “cortaditos” every morning. My goal was to win his trust, something no one else (and many had approached him about writing the story) had been able to attain.
But I had to be very, very patient with him (not my forte). His wife Rita taught me a lot about patience.
Did you encounter any red-tape in gathering your research?
Yes, there are still tomes of classified files on BTTR. Both Basulto and his friend, WTVJ reporter Hank Tester, have filed numerous claims under the Freedom of Information Act. It takes years for one of these requests to be answered, so every year, more and more information trickles in. I think it will be several DECADES before the whole truth comes out, particularly on the shoot-down.
Interestingly, throughout the book, while a few of the balseros were vocal and active, the majority remained quiet, as you point out, especially after the shoot-down. Why do you think that is?
The balseros were people who had lived their entire lives under a totalitarian regime. Every neighbor could be a spy, so just leaving the country had to be kept secret from everyone. If they managed to survive the trip over, and left family behind, they certainly did not want to align themselves with BTTR. Some were just scared. Others were just too busy trying to survive in a new country. The rest, well, I don’t want to judge. The one thing I’ve learned in interviewing over 100 people is that everyone has a story tell, and tells it somewhat differently.
Forging an engaging narrative out of so many people and so much information is no small task. What was your process when it came time to transform information into a historical retelling of the trials and tribulations (as well as the successes) of Brothers to the Rescue?
First I drew up a timeline of the major events of the story, and I actually scotch-taped them in a line around the walls of the A+ Mini-Storage warehouse where we worked from for over two years. Then I worked with a skeleton of the story. As I interviewed each person, I plugged their story under the timeline of where it belonged.
Then I had to become a master at “transition.”
I know you are part of a writers’ group and have attended some writers’ workshops (including us, here, at Writers in Paradise) while working on SEAGULL ONE. As a writer, what do you find to be the most beneficial aspect(s) from the group and writers’ conferences? Conversely, what do you find the drawbacks to be?
WIP is excellent all around. Its 8 days long and it never seems like it’s long enough. For me, it’s almost like a religious experience going every year.
What I love about WIP is that it really concentrates on craft. While it’s of utmost importance to find an agent and market your book, the most important thing is: write a good book.
The advice I received from Les Standiford and Roland Merullo, who both reviewed my early manuscript, was invaluable. I am forever indebted to them.
The drawbacks of some writers’ conferences is that they devote too much time to how to get an agent and how to market—both extremely important—but I firmly believe it is more important to first write a good book and write it well.
I met my critique group at a writers’ conference here in Miami hosted by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College. Commitment is the most important thing. Knowing you are going to meet with your peers every week keeps you on task. The many times you want to quit, you don’t, because you are accountable not just to your own work, but to the group. We’ve become great friends.
The drawbacks of some critique groups are that they lack commitment or are more interested in criticizing than critiquing. WIP has very firm guidelines established in our workshops on how to peer review and in the four years I’ve attended, I’ve never witnessed anyone deviating from those guidelines. Kudos, WIP!
SEAGULL ONE is published by the wonderful University Press of Florida. In your acknowledgments, you thank Janell Walden Agyeman for recommending a university press. How did SEAGULL ONE come to find a home at UPF?
I had an agent, then lost her. Unfortunately I had not done my homework. Basulto and I had not signed a collaboration agreement, something the agency required, which was the first thing we should have done before I wrote one single word. Without going into details, let me just say it took six months to get the collaboration agreement finalized, so I think my agent was patient enough.
Even the “boiler-plate” agency agreements ask you to give up a lot more than you think, and if it’s difficult for one person, you can imagine how difficult it was for two. Most agencies only want to deal with one person.
After that disappointment, I took a “Paths to publications” workshop at Miami Dade College. Janell suggested I contact a University Press, something I had not considered before. The first one, naturally, was in Florida, so that’s how I came upon UPF. Within one week, they answered my query. My favorite part of that acceptance letter was the sentence: “You are a good writer.” So simple but it meant the world to me!
This is your first book length publication. There are many writers out there who are working toward that very goal. What would be your advice to those writers?
Don’t stop working on craft. Keep making your writing better. And though some people can (I don’t know how) do it on their own, writers’ workshops and critique groups and conferences and seminars help make your writing better. There’s always a golden nugget to take away with you, like when I heeded Janell’s advice. People you meet in the writing world (writers, publishers, agents, media) put you in touch with so many other people in your field. Listen. Get their business cards. Email them the next day and say how nice it was to meet them. Keep their contact info.
Don’t consider your fellow writers competition, but rather, consider that they may make you write better or work harder.
You have a story to tell. Your voice needs to be heard.
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Lily Prellezo’s first book Seagull One: The Amazing True Story of Brothers to the Rescue, has been selected for the Miami Book Fair International 2010. She is currently working on a historical-fiction novel based on the life of a 101 year-old Cuban-American woman.
Prellezo is a freelance writer and sought-after editor for Miami business executives. She contributed to The Catholic Voice from 1987-1997, and is part of the speakers bureau for the Archdiocese of Miami. She has fifteen years public speaking experience and is fluent in English and Spanish.
Prellezo was a volunteer teacher for eighteen years and was the editor of Beyond The Grotto, her alumnae newsletter. Prellezo has participated for the past four years in the Eckerd College Writers Conference-Writers in Paradise directed by Dennis Lehane and Sterling Watson. She has also attended the Writer’s Institute at Miami Dade College and is the member of a writer’s critique group. She graduated from FIU with a major in English.
Lily and her husband Steve, their two daughters, and two grandsons live in Miami, Florida.
For a list of upcoming speaking engagements and further information on Lily Prellezo and SEAGULL ONE, please visit the SEAGULL ONE website.