Growing up, Liza Monroy traveled the globe with her diplomat mother, yet the author of the gripping coming-of-age story “Mexican High” now revels in the suburban feel of Prospect Heights.
“It’s a great neighborhood, like New England — quiet, with trees,” said the debut novelist, who, like her heroine, Mila Marquez, is the daughter of a US Foreign Service officer and did attend an exclusive secondary school in Mexico’s teeming capital when her mom was stationed there in the early ’90s.
While the book grew out of Monroy’s experiences at a prep school for the over-indulged, hard-partying children of Mexican capitalists and politicos, and her mother really did dispense near-fatal advice about wearing tropical colors to a school where rich, popular kids, called “fresas,” favored Prada, Gucci and Armani, the freelance journalist and Columbia grad student emphasizes the book is a work of fiction.
“I originally set out to write a memoir, but I’d get 75 pages in and it would fall apart, and I couldn’t figure out why,” Monroy, 28, explained while sipping iced coffee in a Flatbush Avenue cafe. “Then I realized I was stifled by my own story because the most interesting things about Mexico City — its people and conflicts — hadn’t really happened to me. With a novel, I felt I could play with different timelines and, for emotional impact, bring the story a lot closer in to the protagonist.”
Inventively, Monroy inserts herself — as “a pixieish brown-haired girl” — into an early party scene. Describing this Hitchcock-like cameo, Monroy said, “I put myself in because that made it even more distant from me — if I was in the book, then I was definitely not Mila.”
If plot elements like assassination, sexual assault and Mexican jail are not enough to mesmerize readers, Monroy heightens the tension by adding another twist to Mila’s journey: her quest for the powerful politician whose one-night tryst with Mila’s hippie-ish mom, Maggie, led to her birth. It’s a good thing Mila is a student reporter, because Maggie won’t reveal his identity.
Monroy’s own accelerated career began in 2005 after she left her job as assistant to hot shot William Morris literary agent Jay Mandel to focus on freelance journalism. That April, her first published essay ran in the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times, and clips in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine and the Village Voice — among other publications — soon followed. She parlayed her travel experience into essays for anthologies on Mexico and Greece. And the novel she began in 2005 was sold by the end of 2006.
Although Monroy had to wait 18 tense months till publication, her engaging take on timeless teen dramas like psychic (and, in Mila’s case, physical) dislocation, first love, identity crises and peer pressure has clearly struck a chord: since its June release, it’s been named a top summer read by the Chicago Tribune, Time Out and METRO.
Monroy is thrilled her book has resonated with readers.
“When I was writing this, I was trying to get into my head who it was for, and I decided I’d write something I’d like to read — something with a lot of adventure, a window into a different world.”
Writing the book was cathartic for her.
“I also did it to get my obsession with Mexico City out. It worked, because now I’m no longer obsessed with it, and I’m on to writing about the next phase of my life.”
That next phase will unfold in a memoir Monroy is completing in Columbia University’s creative nonfiction MFA program. Based on her much-discussed New York Times “Modern Love” piece on how she married her gay best friend after 9-11 to avert his deportation, the book addresses hot-button issues like gay marriage and immigration.
These are issues Monroy feels passionate about, and the author — who teaches essay writing at Mediabistro and freshman composition at Columbia — has good advice for aspiring writers.
“What I learned was, if there’s something that keeps popping up and you can’t get away without writing about it, then it’s something you should go with.”
As Monroy aims to complete the memoir by next spring, her move from the East Village to Brooklyn in January seems well-timed.
“I really wanted to be somewhere quiet and calm at night.”
And since the memoir will run right up to the present, Monroy’s new borough should play a role.
After all, as Mila shrewdly observes in “Mexican High”: “Maybe it was a side effect of moving around so much, but I always knew that nothing influences a person more than the place she calls home.”
Liza Monroy will read from her novel “Mexican High” (Spiegel & Grau, $21.95) at the 440 Gallery [440 Sixth Avenue between Ninth and Tenth streets in Park Slope, (718) 499-3844, www.440gallery.com] on Sept. 25. “Mexican High” is available at Barnes & Noble (267 Seventh Avenue at Sixth Street in Park Slope). For information, visit www.lizamonroy.com.