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Jan 30, 2020

Author Interview Series: Irene Perali

A writer's journey; a conversation with fellow writer Irene Perali about writing, technology, and expat life.

CritiqueMatch: You and I share the same passions: tech and writing. Tell us about your story.

Irene Perali: I remember the first time somebody asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was four years old, and my answer was: "I want to become a writer." I wanted to be a writer before I learned how to write. I wanted to be a writer because I liked to tell stories. I had a vivid imagination, and, as soon as I discovered the power of the written language, I began to write all the stories that popped up in my mind. It felt natural and effortless to me.

School was my best source of writing prompts. School instantiated all my passions. I never met a person who enjoyed doing homework more than I did.
At school, I also discovered that I was good at math, a subject I loved as much as I loved writing. However, being good at math is a curse. When this happens, it becomes almost a moral duty to pursue a career in STEM. The attitude at math is so measurable that an insecure person like me chose a life in which I would be judged objectively. It was certainly a safer choice than undertaking the path of making a living as a writer.
I studied Electrical Engineering and abandoned any writing efforts for eight years. When I moved from Italy to California, I became more self-aware. On one hand, being part of the innovation process strengthened my passion for technology. On the other hand, my writing voice came back. I realized that it wasn’t too late to follow my first love for writing, and I didn’t have to give up tech to be a writer. Since I believe in the value of education more than in anything else, I attended several creating writing classes. After years of engineering, the lessons were so refreshing that they gave me the energies to work on my first novel.

CritiqueMatch: Tell us more about the book you have been writing.

Irene Perali: My book, The Followives, tells five intertwined stories of wives following their husbands who moved from Italy to California to pursue a compelling job opportunity. “Followhusbands” exist too, but, in my experience, I met only women in this situation.
I wanted to tell their perspectives on the contemporary Gold Rush happening in Silicon Valley over the last decade. These women gave up their friendships and careers and accepted to be unemployed - not all visas allow immigrants' spouses to work in the US - to support their loved ones. Their acts of love are often under-appreciated because people usually think of life in California as a dream of sunshine and positivity. It’s instead a place full of contradictions that become more evident for people who didn’t choose to move there and don’t work in tech.
The book touches different themes such as the struggle of deciding to leave your country, immigration misadventures, homesickness, and the search of the perfect career. Everything is glued by five romantic love stories.
I decided to tell five stories with five different endings to show that everybody's life is the combination of personal choices and unexpected events. Some women find great opportunities in the new country; others gain more awareness in their relationships; others realize that Californian good life cannot replace the love of your friends and family. 

CritiqueMatch: The story in your book is inspired by events very close to your personal experience. What triggered you to write it?

Irene Perali: As you might have figured from my previous answers, I am an Italian engineer who immigrated to California. I deliberately moved alone, but I could have just as well been a followife.
In my first year, during a creative writing class, my teacher said: "In our books, we don't want to tell about our lives. Our lives are boring because we tend to avoid conflicts, and no good books come without conflicts."
While she was saying these words, I thought that my life was, on the other hand, a mess—immigration is tough—and I had a lot of material for a book, but I wasn't ready to share my story yet. So, inspired by other people's experiences, I created five versions of myself as the wife of a male engineer, translating into fiction some episodes of my life.
I feel very attached to the theme of personal satisfaction in a couple. As a wife, I would support my husband's career even when it comes to making difficult decisions, and I expect him to do the same for me. But I think it's important that each individual doesn’t take for granted that the partner will blindly do it. We live in a world where we are not constrained in a ten-mile circle around our hometown and we often have the opportunity to choose the best place for our personal growth. However, this freedom can come at the expense of our loved ones' freedom. It's one of the biggest challenges of modern couples.

CritiqueMatch: The characters in your story are fictional, but you developed a close attachment to them. How do you balance your "feelings" toward them versus the need to develop a character that fits the story? What are your recommendations to other writers?

Irene Perali: My characters are fictional, but they are different versions of myself. Therefore, I have a hard time not being attached to them. Sometimes I feel I really lived those five lives. When I review the chapters of the book, I share their emotions and struggles.
To craft an engaging story, I always keep in mind my teacher's advice: create conflicts and show your characters' weaknesses. I allowed my characters to fail multiple times, behave irrationally, and run into problems they could have avoided. I allowed them to be selfish, jealous, and unfaithful. Writing fiction gave me this privilege, and I tried to put the plot before my tendency to protect the characters. The fact that my characters can be unreasonable or apolitical doesn’t mean that I would do the same, or I agree with their decisions.
My practical advice to other writers is to list your characters’ strengths and make sure that equal or more flaws counterbalance them. Perfect characters are not credible, and readers can’t identify themselves with them.

CritiqueMatch: You wrote your story during Nanowrimo. That is incredible. Tell us about your experience.

Irene Perali: If you have twenty years to write a book, it will take twenty years to write the book.
Nanowrimo was a great motivation. You have thirty days for 50000 words, meaning about 1666 words a day. I allocated two hours a day to writing and tracked my daily progress. It helped me to establish my writing habits.
And I won the challenge! For those who don't know, Nanowrimo is a challenge against yourself and not against others. Everybody wins as long as he writes 50000 words at the end of the month. It's one of the most satisfying things I ever did. I felt I accomplished something concrete that nobody can take away. It was the turning point between "I have this great idea for a book and all these inspirational sentences" and "I have a manuscript that I can share with other people."
Writing a book is 10% great ideas and 90% hard work, and Nanowrimo helped me with the latter. The website is also plenty of precious resources for writers. I knew the key points of the plot, and it was amazing to see the story evolve day after day, word by word. 
When I finished the challenge, I realized that the draft was just the tip of the iceberg.
The hard part is what happens after. I've been editing the book for a year. I wish they did a Nanoedimo! But then I discovered CritiqueMatch.

CritiqueMatch: How important was finding beta readers for your story?

Irene Perali: It was essential. I have three main problems: I am not a native speaker, I am not a professional writer, and I often write without the focus that writing requires. I have a full-time job, which absorbs most of my mental energy. My husband and some of my best friends were my first beta readers—thank you!—but I know they weren’t completely objective with me. After reading my draft three times, I knew it wasn't good, but I didn't know how to make it better. I needed an external opinion.
Thanks to CritiqueMatch, I found four kind and honest beta readers. They highlight the wrong use of words. They give me feedback on the plot or characters, and they tell me when paragraphs require more explanation.
It's also interesting to see when they have different opinions about what I wrote. Some loved sentences that others suggested to delete; some loved characters that others hated. After all, literature is subjective by nature.
An external and unbiased opinion is crucial to improve the quality of a novel, and I recommend everybody to do that. It might be hard at the beginning—nobody likes criticism—but I always remember that beta readers want to help you. Now, the more comments I see, the happier I am.
Moreover, CritiqueMatch’s beta readers are awesome compared to some ruthless beta readers I found on writing forums. They are my primary motivation to continue to edit my draft. If they take the time not only to read but also to review my story, I don't have excuses to procrastinate my work. I am so grateful for what they are doing for me.
I hope they will continue to review my book until the end.

CritiqueMatch: You are an engineer working on a fascinating new technology. How did your engineering world help you become a better writer and vice versa?

Irene Perali: Writing a book and working on a complex engineering problem have more in common than one can imagine. Those activities require method and discipline. I don't see myself as an engineer and amateur writer as two separate entities. There is a sense of continuity between my scientific and humanistic side.
I approached my book the same way I approach an engineering project. At work, I like to do two things: block diagrams and beautiful plots. So I did the same for my book. I created the "datasheets" of my characters and, before beginning to write, I did a block diagram of their interactions in the story. In this way, I had the skeleton of my story, and I could focus on the writing and add more meat to it.
During the editing phase, I found some tools to analyze my project. Some tools convert a novel into a curve and show the turning points. I didn't know that a book could be quantified. Seeing the data analytics of my story was a pleasure. It’s similar to characterizing a prototype.
I also use websites that count the number of times I used certain words or expressions, and I built all the statistics of my use of language. Another great way to turn a story into numbers. During the first revision, I discovered I used the word "happy" 1000 times, and it was probably a good idea to replace it with synonyms. It helped me to make my vocabulary richer.
One thing I learned during my engineering career is that communication is critical. To make the best use of your technical skills, you need to be able to communicate effectively, in particular when you work in a diverse environment. Writing tips like using shorter sentences, fewer adjectives, and avoiding passive voice allowed me to better express complicated concepts at work.

As you said, I work on a new technology, autonomous vehicles, where we are paving our own way every day because it's a problem that hasn't been fully solved yet.  We need to create momentum to make progress. It's like writing a book: when you start, you know where you want to go, but you don't know exactly how you are going to get there. It's only when you do the work, that you discover new exciting turning points, leading you to your final destination.


About the Author: Irene Perali

Born and raised in a small town in Northern Italy, Irene is an engineer with a passion for writing.

She never took writing seriously until, in 2015, she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area for work. Before then, during her doctoral studies, she had experience in writing and peer-reviewing scientific papers, an experience that she decided to extend to fiction.
In California, she studied creative writing at different writing schools around the Bay Area and started to work at her first draft. Irene’s favorite genre is women’s fiction, with immigration as the central theme. Writing is still a hobby for her, and she hasn’t published anything yet. She is targeting 2020 for publishing her first book.
You can follow her immigrant life on Instagram where she will give updates on her progress in the publishing process (username: @ireneperali).