Interview with Natalie Caña, Author of A Dish Best Served Hot

Natalie Caña writes contemporary romances that allow her to incorporate her witty sense of humor and her love for her culture (Puertominican whoop whoop!) for heroines and heroes like her. A PROPOSAL THEY CAN’T REFUSE is her debut novel.

I had the opportunity to interview Natalie, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself? 

Hi all, I’m Natalie Caña (pronounced K-ah-n-ya). I’m a Domini-Rican author of saucy Latiné romances with shenanigans and sabor. I’ve been writing for many years, but my 2022 novel A Proposal They Can’t Refuse was my first published work. I’ve had multiple careers throughout my adulthood, but being an author is the most authentic and personal.

 What can you tell us about your latest book,  A Dish Best Served Hot? What was the inspiration for this story?  

The original inspiration for A Dish Best Served Hot was my personal experience teaching in an urban school district with not many resources. As I dug deeper into the characters and the world became chaos thanks to the pandemic, the story evolved into something much deeper. It became about the essence of community and the ways we, not only, affect it as individuals, but how it affects us in return. The story became about how we have the tendency to base our value off our communities (whether a neighborhood or a family) and how we serve them. 

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically romance? 

I have always been a storyteller. From the moment I could talk I was telling stories. I used to spend hours creating elaborate tales with my Barbies to the point where none of my cousins wanted to play with me because I was doing too much. (I stand by my stance that every single story needed an ending!)  

I honestly believe that my love for romance in general began with the telenovelas I used to watch daily with my grandmother. I loved that in the end good overcame evil and everyone who deserved it received their happy ending. That balance after all of the chaos, spoke to me on a deeper level even as a kid. When I discovered that same feeling in romance novels…it was a wrap. I knew that’s what I wanted to create. I set out to do so. 

As a queer and Latinx author, what does it mean for you featuring queer and Latinx representation in your books?

Man, it means everything to me. I grew up going to schools where BIPOC people were the minority. I felt an immense pressure to assimilate even though I knew it would never truly work. One look at me was enough to prove that I didn’t belong there regardless of whether I wore the same name-brand clothes, spoke the same way, or straightened my hair to match those around me. It took me a long time to accept and appreciate that my “otherness” was a gift not a curse. 

It took even longer for me to acknowledge my queerness. Even as I supported and did my best to uplift the queer people around me, something held me back from looking more closely at myself. I honestly don’t know if I would’ve taken that deep dive into myself if it weren’t for Lola, the heroine of book 2. Researching and writing Lola, made me come face to face with aspects of myself that I’d been ignoring for over 30 years. It made me finally acknowledge and accept that I’m a bisexual woman and that’s a valid existence no matter who I am or am not in a relationship with. 

At the end of the day I want readers to take that away from my books: It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are attracted to, we are all deserving of a love that nurtures and accepts us wholly. To be able to spread that message is priceless to me. 

How would you describe your writing process?

The only way to describe my process is “contained chaos”. I try so hard to be one of those organized plotters who has every chapter planned out and just sits down and cranks out words. Unfortunately, I am not that person. If I plan my scenes too much, my brain tells me “Ugh, we already did this. Let’s do something else” and I struggle to get any words out. I’ve learned that I just need to tell myself what is the main thing the scene needs to accomplish and then let myself go from there. I do end up all over the place, but I fix all of that in editing. That’s where I really dig in and shape the story into what it needs to be. I end up doing more work because I inevitably have to rewrite scenes and chapters, but it’s honestly the only thing that works for me. 

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

I was not a reader growing up at all. I mostly watched Disney and/or Shirley Temple movies. However, when I was sixteen I heard that J.Lo (my idol at the time) had started her own production company and was going to be making a movie based on the book The Dirty Girls Social Club by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. Of course, I went and bought it immediately so I could see what it was all about, because I’m nosey like that. It was a revelation. Here was this book that was being sold in the big named bookstores that was 100% about Latinas and their lives. They weren’t the sassy sidekicks dishing out advice to some basic white woman. They were the main characters and they all had very different personalities. It blew my mind. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that and for a long time it was the only instance. 

Now there is a growing list of Latinx women writing romance that feature many ethnicities and sexualities and everytime I read one I feel seen in the same way I did back then. It’s a beautiful and inspirational experience every single time. 

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

I know I mentioned them already, but I have to bring up telenovelas again. The fact that these are relatively short stories (only a new months) that feature all the drama one can think up, but still end with a happily ever after for the main characters is what really influences me as a writer and as a person. It gives me hope that no matter what happens, everything will be good in the end. That message is exactly what drew me to the romance genre and what makes me continue reading and writing it. I want my stories to give someone that hope.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging? 

I think my favorite aspect of writing is building the characters. If y’all could only see how much work I put into developing each and every person who shows up on the page, it would look like that GIF of the guy standing in front of his crime wall with the pictures and the red string all over the place. You know the one I’m talking about. That’s me creating a rich backstory for every character whether they are in every chapter or they show up one time. I know I go overboard, but I can’t tell you how many times it has saved my butt. The heroine of book 2, Lola, is the perfect example. She was originally just a blimp in the hero’s past, but when it became clear that the heroine I’d chosen was not the right one for him, I had to go back and look at his backstory. That’s where I found Lola, the girl who gave Saint his nickname, changed his life, and disappeared. And boom, just like that, book 2 had a new heroine and a way better plot. 

As for challenges: setting has always been the most challenging for me to write. I see things so clearly in my mind that I struggle to get it on the page the way I see it. I either end up going into not enough detail (because I forget that the reader can’t see into my brain) or way too much (because I remember they can’t see into my brain, so I add tons of description so they can see what I see). It’s hard for me to find the right balance, which is why I’m eternally grateful for my editor. 

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

In a virtual panel I heard the great Beverly Jenkins say, “Stop just talking about your story. Sit down in the chair and write the damn book. You are not a talker, you are a writer.” Boy did that light a fire under my butt, because that is exactly what I was doing. I was talking about my story and daydreaming about it instead of writing it. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t enough to have it all playing out in my head like a movie I was watching. I needed to get it from my head to the paper in order for it to be of value to anyone but me.

Around the same time, Hamilton the musical was making a splash. I remember listening to “Wait For It” and bawling my eyes out, because it resonated so much with me. I was waiting for my time to come, but what was I really doing to make it happen? I needed to “write like I was running out of time”. So I did exactly that. I sat down and wrote the damn book. It was a mess, but it was there. I finally had something to work with besides the visions in my head. 

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

Oh God, this is the worst question to ask me. As the most introverted of introverts I don’t want ANYONE to know ANYTHING  about me EVER. But as a Gemini with both a Leo Moon and Leo Rising, I have the tendency to overshare once I get started. There is no middle. Honestly, I feel like I’m relatively basic AF. I like to be in my house with my dogs watching the same shows over and over. I’m basically your run of the mill anxiety ridden Millennial with tons of student debt and an unhealthy obsession with anything nostalgic (Disney, Nickelodeon, 90s music, and childhood snacks like Lunchables and Dunkaroos). AND YOU WILL HAVE TO YANK MY SKINNY JEANS AND SIDE PART  OUT OF MY COLD DEAD HANDS!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

Okay, I thought about this for a while and I still have NO clue. I’ve been asked some great questions since beginning my author journey. Most of which I’ve given super random and rambling answers to, because that’s just how I am. It’s basically my brand at this point: random, rambling, nonsense with crumbs of intellect sprinkled in. Therefore, I could come up with a really good question for this, but the answer would still be absolute trash, so yeah. Sorry I’m not better at this. *wince

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring writers?

Find yourself an author community by joining a writer’s group in person or finding people online. As much as your friends and family want to support you, they don’t get it like other writers will. Having like minded people to talk to, vent to, or bounce ideas off of is immeasurably valuable. Also, work on your craft. There is always something to learn or improve upon. 

But honestly, everyone will give you advice on what to do or not do, how to do it or tell you something is wrong. At the end of the day, you have to learn for yourself what works for you and what doesn’t. Remember first and foremost that this is your story and no one else will or can tell it like you. 

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I’m currently in the process of editing book 3 of the Vega Love Stories series, titled Sleeping With The Frenemy. It was the story I was looking forward to writing the most out of the three and I’m incredibly excited for people to read it. I am obsessed with this hero and heroine. I’d love to write more stories about the Vega family, but if  I don’t get that opportunity I know that this book will be a good place to end. 

As for other projects: I have some other ideas percolating in my mind, but nothing set in stone yet. 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

There are so many fantastic queer authors out there telling amazing stories just waiting to be found and devoured. I personally look to one of my favorite BookTokers @Orlandoreads, for recommendations whenever I need some TBR inspo. 

However, off the top of my head here’s what I have to share:

If you haven’t read Adriana Herrera’s Dreamers series yet, then what are you even doing with your life? Same with her latest release An Island Princess Starts A Scandal. And really anything she writes. 

My good friend, Liz Lincoln has a sapphic soccer book called Loving A Keeper which is AMAZING. 

Speaking of sapphic soccer, Meryl Wilsner’s Cleat Cute is great along with their debut, Mistakes Were Made (not about soccer, but still sapphic). 

J.J. Arias is a surefire winner for those wanting hot sapphic romance. 

Cat Giraldo’s Wild Pitch was fantastic and I’m super pumped for Outfield Assist which comes out in October as well. 

If you are wanting some Queer wedding vibes there’s I’m So (Not) Over You by Kosoko Jackson and D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C Higgins

Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I know that YA is really doing the damn thing when it comes to LGBTQ+ rep in books, so make sure to check them out too!

Interview with Author Alex Temblador

Alex Temblador is the Mixed Latine award-winning author of Half Outlaw and Secrets of the Casa Rosada, which received numerous industry accolades including Kirkus Reviews’ Best of YA Books 2018 and the 2019 NACCS Tejas Foco Young Adult Fiction Award. She is a contributor to Living Beyond Borders: Growing Up Mexican in America and Speculative Fiction for Dreamers: A Latinx Anthology, and a travel, arts, and culture writer with pieces appearing in Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and National Geographic, among many other publications. She lives near Dallas, Texas.

I had the opportunity to interview Alex, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you – I’m so glad to chat with Geeks Out. My name is Alex and I’m the award-winning author of Secrets of the Casa Rosada and a brand-new novel called Half Outlaw. I grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, but after moving between three other states, I made my way back to the Lone Star state and currently live and write in a 102-year-old haunted house that I bought in Dallas in 2020. Other fun fact: I’m half Mexican, half white, but I identify as Mixed or Mixed Latine. 

What can you tell us about your book, Half Outlaw? Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

Back in 2013, I was sitting between my uncle and my grandfather on the couch at a Thanksgiving celebration. My uncle turned to me and said, “You know I’m an outlaw, right?” I said, “Sure.” He then replied, “That makes you half outlaw.” It was the coolest phrase I’d ever heard, even if it didn’t really make much sense as to why he was saying it or what he meant. But it reminded me of how people always ask, “What are you?” when they’re trying to inquire about my ethnicity. Growing up, I used to say, “half Mexican” or “half Mexican, half white.” The phrase “half outlaw” reminded me of that and I thought – what makes someone a half outlaw? A story about a Mixed woman and her outlaw family unfolded from there. 

In terms of what Half Outlaw is about… it’s a road trip novel with magical realism elements and a structure that jumps between the 1970s and 1990. It follows Raqi (pronounced like ‘Rocky’), a half-Mexican, half white lawyer who must go on a cross-country motorcycle ride in honor of the white uncle, Dodge, who raised her after her parents died. Dodge had a substance abuse problem and raised Raqi within the community of his one-percenter motorcycle club called the Lawless. (Only one-percent of motorcycle clubs are involved in illegal activities, according to the FBI. Hence the term, ‘one-percenter.’ The fictional club in the novel, the Lawless, sell drugs and guns.) Raqi hadn’t talked to Dodge in 10 years, but she agrees to go on the motorcycle ride in exchange for the contact information of her Mexican grandfather, whom she didn’t know existed. 

As readers follow Raqi on this road trip where she meets some interesting people, I introduce chapters from Raqi’s past, so you get the full sense of what it was like for her to be raised in a violent, abusive, racist, and neglectful environment and how this trip affects her perspective of her past and person. Half Outlaw is a thrilling ride, but it can get pretty dark at times. Although the idea for Half Outlaw sparked in 2013, I wrote the full draft in 2017 when I was trying to deal with how the white side of my family behaved when Trump was elected and how that impacted me as a Mixed person of color. 

Readers might find themselves uncomfortable at times, or even pulled in different emotional directions while reading the book. This was intentional. I tried to take feelings that I’ve had as a Mixed woman in different situations – whether it’s been among my family, friends, school, or career – and put them in the story. 

What drew you to writing, particularly fiction and travel writing, which seems to be major elements of your writing journey?

I’ve always loved fiction. As a child, I read voraciously, especially books that let me explore different parts of my personality that I wasn’t sure how to express outwardly. I loved going on adventures as a woman warrior, a queen, a witch, or a historical figure who had insurmountable obstacles in their way. 

When I decided to pursue writing, I always had the intention to become a full-time novelist one day. After receiving my MFA in Creative Writing, I lived in Los Angeles writing subtitles and captions for TV and film, and then moved to Dallas a year later to become a freelance writer. One of my first gigs was with a TripAdvisor-owned outlet that doesn’t exist anymore. Within this job, my love for traveling expanded and I discovered that I could specialize in travel writing – so that’s what I did. My travel writing career has taken me to so many beautiful places like Thailand, Japan, Serbia, Bonaire, Mexico, Belize, Switzerland, Germany, and many more. 

I think it’s pretty awesome that I’ve been able to marry my travel and fiction writing into Half Outlaw, which is, in a way, a fictional travel narrative as Raqi travels between California and Arkansas throughout the book. 

How would you describe your general writing process?

When I’m working on a new novel, I typically write for 20 minutes as soon as I wake up. If I want to write more later in the day, then I’ll write more. However, it’s not something I make myself do. Once the first draft is complete, I let it sit for a few weeks and then pick it back up and start editing on the computer. When that’s complete, I edit it by hand, and then again on the computer before sharing it with a beta reader or my literary agent. 

For me, the most important part of the writing process is the editing phase. Writing the first draft is necessary but it’s in the shaping of the story through editing that I find the most joy and excitement.  

What drew you to writing? Were there any books or authors who you believe inspired you and/or influenced your own personal style?

Although I write some non-fiction, I’ve found that writing fiction has allowed me to process my emotions and my experiences in a way that feels safe to me. That’s ultimately what drew me to writing. It was a safe space to ask questions, work through my trauma, and tell stories that I hope will benefit the people who read them.  

I would say that I was influenced by a wide range of women of color writers like Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, Isabel Allende, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Louise Erdrich. However, it was Ana Castillo and her novel, So Far From God, that impacted me in a significant way as a writer. I can recall reading the first page of the book and having this connective moment between my heart and mind that said, “This is it. This is what I’ve been trying to write.” I hadn’t realized that I was looking for a writing language until I recognized it in Ana Castillo’s style of magical realism. If you compare our work, I think our writing styles differ greatly, but her novel was the catalyst to me exploring the magical realism genre and learning about how it’s connected to my Mexican identity. Everything came full circle when Ana Castillo blurbed Half Outlaw. I was beyond honored. 

Half Outlaw is a magical realism novel, and it’s something you’ll notice in the first sentence of the book. It may be a little jarring if you don’t read a lot of magical realism, but you grow used to it very quickly and find that it plays a role in Raqi’s perspective of the world and the trauma she’s endured. 

What advice would you have to give to any aspiring writers?

Write the story that you want to write, rather than the story you think is going to be sold or something that is ‘highbrow’ with flowery language and winding sentences. Trends in the publishing industry are so fickle and you can’t really predict what will be “hot” next. For instance, books that you read today were bought two years ago, so those trends have already come and gone. Don’t waste your time trying to write to a trend. 

Even more importantly, don’t try to write in a style that doesn’t come to you naturally. I think that’s the biggest mistake that writers make when they first start writing. They try to write like their favorite authors or writers and when it isn’t the same, they get disappointed, spiral out, and quit writing. Write what comes naturally. You’ll find more success and joy in this approach. 

On a last note: put most of your effort toward editing. Half Outlaw has gone through a countless number of edits, thanks to feedback I received from two beta readers, my literary agent, my publishing editor, and an in-house publishing editor. No book is well written in the first draft. Editing is the key. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

Your main character, Raqi Warren, is Mixed, and it’s something that you discuss in the Acknowledgements. How does her identity play into the story and why is it important?

Raqi is half-Mexican, half white, just as I am, and like me, she identifies as “Mixed.” People who are Mixed may identify as biracial, multiracial, or as “half-x and half-x.” It’s entirely up to the Mixed person to choose their personal identifier and this should be respected by others. 

I like to explain what it means to be Mixed, because despite this identity being one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S., we still don’t see a lot of fiction that features main characters who are Mixed. I didn’t grow up reading books where the characters were Mixed like me. It wasn’t until graduate school that I read short stories and books by Mixed authors with Mixed characters – and only because I went searching for it (these stories weren’t assigned to me to read). Today, I’m sorry to say, that Mixed representation in fiction is still considerably low, and most books with Mixed characters aren’t even written by Mixed authors. 

I wrote this book to work through the experiences that I’ve had as a Mixed woman in a world that was designed for monoracial (single race) and monoethnic (single ethnicity) peoples. For Half Outlaw specifically, I wanted to focus on the impact that monoracial family members have on Mixed family members. 

In Half Outlaw, you’ll see how Raqi navigated growing up in an all-white community as a Mixed girl with brown skin. While her “family” loved her, they also caused her harm in a variety of ways from using slurs in reference to people of color to speaking negatively about Mexicans and Mexican Americans. This is something I’ve experienced in my own life and with my own family, and I hoped that by writing this book, more Mixed people feel seen and understood. I also hope that family and friends of Mixed people can gain some insight into their relationships and behavior through Raqi’s story. 

Are there any other projects you are currently working on that you feel free to speak about?

I have two books in the works – another adult fiction novel that examines themes of sexism in mythology, motherhood, and loneliness, and a non-fiction book that I hope will be beneficial to creative writers. I’m trying to conceptualize a new novel idea but it’s in the very beginning stages of the outline and free writing process. I don’t know if it’ll end up being the next novel I write. I tend to write out a few ideas that come to me and then put half of them aside when I discover that the story doesn’t have legs. However, this idea has been brewing for well over a year in my mind and a few things have recently come together that make me think it’s the next story I need to tell. All I’ll say about this new novel idea is that it’ll have a cemetery, a slight love story, and examine the politics of women’s bodies. 

What books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I could suggest book titles or authors, but I’d rather persuade you to read authors who have a different identity than you – whether that differing identity be in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, abilities, religion, culture, class, etc. As readers, I think we get too comfortable reading books where we feel ‘at home’ or ‘seen’ or books that let us escape from our day-to-day life. While those books are necessary and may be good for our mental health, I think the best things we can do for ourselves is to read stories from perspectives that don’t align with our own. 

In reading books by authors who have different identities than us, we may feel uncomfortable at times, however, that’s a small thing in comparison to the benefits we receive. In learning about a different identity, perspective, or life experience, we develop empathy and understanding for people who have different life experiences than us – and that is something that can go a long way in our society and personal lives. 

Header Photo Credit Shelbie Monkres