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Journalist’s First Novel a Joy Ride

<i>Sweet Mary</i> isn’t the great American novel. Rather, it’s “a funky, Florida-style ride. On a big, fat Harley.”

En español | Don’t call it a midlife crisis. It doesn’t feel like a crisis at all, in fact. It feels less like a red convertible or an imprudent fling and more like an adventure, an escapist’s spree, playing hooky from school.

At age 50, I will become a first-time novelist. Sweet Mary will be published by Atria Books on July 14. I cannot claim it’s the great American novel or even a work of sweeping majesty. It’s a ride, a funky, Florida-style ride. On a big, fat Harley.

And it’s the most fun I’ve had in my life as a writer.

I’m not holding my breath for the Nobel committee to come calling. But I must confess: as I look at the snazzy cover of the Sweet Mary galley on my desk, my heart pops a wheelie. I hear the “road music” I compiled for my ride, the interlaced conga rhythms, the searing guitar solos, the soul-satisfying tunes that paved our journey, Sweet Mary's and mine.

I hear my editor’s voice drumming lightly in my head: this is it. Go for it. Enjoy the process. Really, enjoy the process.

In my 29 years as a journalist, I wouldn’t have reached for the word “enjoyment” to describe a writer’s angst, the stop-and-start of storytelling, the hunt for transitions. Engagement, yes, but nothing more festive than that. Writing, to me, was a sobering task, one laden with great responsibility. As a journalist, I faced my own daily questions about facts, quotes, context, angles, newsworthiness.

But in the land of fiction, the characters do all the asking. And boy, do they have questions. They materialize from ether, it seems, to amuse, cajole, provoke, and sometimes irk you.

There were times when, after several hours lost in some captivating tangent, I’d snap out of it with a jarring feeling that my dalliance was keeping me from some more serious mission. After all, I wasn’t a school kid on spring break.

Come to think of it, I’ve never been on spring break. At 21, during the first week of my newspaper career at The Miami Herald, I covered a refugee boatlift. At 26, as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, I covered a couple of wars. At 38, as a columnist with The Miami Herald, I covered the plight of children languishing in Guantánamo detention camps. At 40, I cowrote a book with a physician who had established a clinic for the homeless. The following year, I worked on an HBO film about the life of a jazz musician who escaped totalitarian rule.

But my first work of fiction was inspired by none of the above. The inspiration came from an unlikely place—the grapevine. It started with a call from my sister back in 2003. “You’ll never believe what happened to Cookie’s neighbor,” she said. “The feds busted down her door and took her away in shackles. They confused her for some drug dealer.”

Turns out the neighbor, a sales rep from the burbs, had to prove she wasn’t this drug queen. Eventually, she was cleared of wrongdoing. But the story intrigued me. What might have happened if she hadn’t been able to convince the feds of her innocence? What if suspicions had lingered after her release? I posed the questions to the woman herself over coffee.

Virginia Garcia-Perez shook her head at the thought. “What would I do? No idea,” she said.

I asked her something that had occurred to me when I heard about her story. “Did you ever want to go after the drug queen?” I said. “Would you leave your life and hunt her down to prove you’re not her?”

“No,” she said. “But I’d read that book.”

A few days later, Sweet Mary, the character, was born. She first emerged in screenplay form, as I was on leave from my newspaper job and working on screen projects. The character that came to life was tough as nails, undaunted, devoted to justice and, of course, sizzling hot. But life and work intervened, forcing me to shelve the story for a while.

A couple of years ago, I picked it up again, this time as a novel. It was a story I wanted to savor and explore. I could have chased another topic, a weightier story, one with no strip club scenes or cocktail references. But early on in my dabblings as a novelist, I made a decision: if I were going to sit with a story for a year, it had to be one that made me laugh, fall in love, and bring my heroine to redemption. No tearjerkers. No war stories. No dismal endings.

There had been many true stories that had made me cry in the previous three decades, stories that had filled the pages of my reporter’s notebook. There were also stories that had infuriated me. There were stories that had brought hate mail and threats, too. That world was real, heartbreaking, and sometimes terrifying.

But in the world of Sweet Mary, there’s no such thing. No matter how dim life gets in her universe, it remains infused with the light of possibility. That’s what I wanted. I wanted it bad. It was my red convertible.

Liz Balmaseda was awarded her first Pulitzer Prize, for Commentary, in 1993, for her columns on the plight of Haitian refugees and Cuban Americans in Miami. In 2001 she and other members The Miami Herald staff shared a Breaking News Reporting Pulitzer for their coverage of the federal raid to seize Elián González.