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A Steel Magnolia

With hard-core determination and a blossoming writing style, Ivonne Lamazares has launched into her first novel--under contract. And she's already created a stir in literary circles.

January 15, 1998|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Five years ago, at the age of 30, Ivonne Lamazares decided to learn how to ride a bicycle. As a girl growing up in Cuba, she didn't have a bike, and besides, she says, "I felt inadequate about physical things all my life."

As an adult, Lamazares thought about bicycles again after friends would suggest that she and her husband, Steve Kronen, join them for a spin around their neighborhood. She was embarrassed. So on a kid-size bicycle on the sidewalk, Lamazares gripped the handlebars in a death lock, and Kronen grabbed the back of the seat and ran along beside, holding her upright. After three days and several miles of practice, she had it.

"She would just concentrate and do it," recalls Kronen, gritting his teeth in imitation of his wife's resolve. "That's her modus operandi in life. Once she gets something in her head, she just goes for it all out.

"She does that with writing, too. She says, 'This is terrible, I have no talent.' But she will do it. And her writing is beautiful, subtle, rich. But she bitches about it the whole time."

As a writer of fiction, Lamazares is also a beginner. She has completed only two pieces, both short stories, both published in obscure university reviews.

Nonetheless, in literary circles there is already a buzz about Lamazares. Last year, after looking at just 40 pages of manuscript, Houghton Mifflin Co. got into a bidding war with Simon & Schuster over the rights to publish her first novel, and finally signed Lamazares to a contract that includes an advance of $30,000.

She has written a little more than 150 pages of her book, a coming-of-age story of a girl in 1950s and 1960s Cuba, during and after the revolution. She has a working title, "Storm Captains," a reference to a popular, late-'60s Cuban television show. And she has a deadline: March 1.

She has taken a leave of absence from her job as associate professor of English at Miami-Dade Community College, where she has taught for 12 years. She and Kronen--a poet who makes a living as a massage therapist--are using the first installment of the advance to pay a baby sitter to watch the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Sophie, several hours each day so Lamazares can work in the bedroom-turned-study where she writes first drafts in longhand on a lined tablet.

"Publishing is not a science," says Houghton Mifflin Editorial Director Janet Silver from her Boston office. "You pick your shots, and acquire books for which you have a passion. I'm very excited about Ivonne. She has a wonderfully strong and unique voice that is at once childlike and unsentimental."

Talk about Lamazares began more than three years ago, when Kronen persuaded her to accompany him to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, a literary summer camp for wannabe novelists and poets at Tennessee's University of the South. There Lamazares was paired with best-selling novelist Russell Banks ("Continental Drift," "The Sweet Hereafter"), a professor at Princeton University who is so taken with her work that he offered to mentor her.

"What I saw was an intimacy, almost a physical intimacy with language," says Banks. "I think you can spot that in a writer before anything else. That's the part you can't teach."

Lamazares' submission that year was a short story that she has since abandoned. But when Banks read those few pages he recognized that Lamazares had a tale to tell--and a gift.

"Very rare," says Banks of Lamazares' talent. "I teach one semester a year at Princeton, and you almost never see it there--maybe once every two or three years. And students, being younger, usually don't have stories to tell. Ivonne does; that was clear, too."

Also impressed by what she saw at Sewanee was Mary Morris, a novelist ("House Arrest") and professor of fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. "I saw a voice that seemed to me absolutely clear and sure of itself in a way that transcended almost any student manuscript I've ever read," says Morris, who has been teaching for 25 years. "There was a clarity of language, a compassion for her characters that was so unusual. She is perhaps a new voice in Latina American literature."

All of this attention has turned up the pressure on a woman who has yet to complete her first book, which she is writing in a language, English, that she didn't even begin to speak until she was 14 and new to America.

"I still can't explain this," says Lamazares. "It's like being in a car that's out of control, going somewhere you never expected to go. It's disconcerting."

Gail Hochman, Lamazares' agent, says her client has been swept up "in a fairy tale, really. Books are not selling, publishers are cutting back on writers and advances, so in the context of a terrible market, she's having a nice, smooth ride.

"Of course," Hochman adds, "the book is not finished."

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