Julia Alvarez Isn't Done Telling Stories, but She Might Stop Writing Them Down Soon (Exclusive)

The author of 'The Cemetery of Untold Stories' is looking back at her 30-year publishing career and what it means to be an elder

<p>Algonquin Books; Todd Balfour for Middlebury College</p> Julia Alvarez and her book

Algonquin Books; Todd Balfour for Middlebury College

Julia Alvarez and her book 'The Cemetery of Untold Stories'

Julia Alvarez — the celebrated author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, among others — admits The Cemetery of Untold Stories might be her last published book. But even if her health forces her to follow in the footsteps of the oral storytellers of her childhood, she’ll never stop telling stories.

“It's how I process reality,” she tells PEOPLE. "It's how I breathe. It's how I stay awake in my life.” 

Alvarez, whose new book is out April 2, has long written about the women history has overlooked — and The Cemetery of Untold Stories is no exception.

The author, 74, was born in New York City in 1950, but her parents returned to the Dominican Republic shortly after she arrived. Ten years later, they had to return to the United States because her father was involved in a plot to overthrow the dictator, Trujillo.

Related: PEOPLE’s Best Books to Read in March 2024: Pope Francis, Christine Blasey Ford Share Life Lessons in New Memoirs

<p>Todd Balfour for Middlebury College</p> Julia Alvarez

Todd Balfour for Middlebury College

Julia Alvarez

In the Dominican Republic, Alvarez saw the effects of censorship on history firsthand, and has spent her career filling in the gaps where female history-makers belong.

“I wanted to write the stories that my sisters and I wished we had to read. To address that emptiness on the shelf,” she explains. “In 1991, when Garcia Girls came out, I was 41 already, and had been writing for 25 years. Back then, there was not not just  a glass ceiling. It was a glass basement we were in, writers of other cultures and other voices.”

In the 30 years since, Alvarez has dedicated herself to honoring the history, the storytellers and the people that came before her, as well as lifting up other BIPOC writers along the way.

“There are many storytellers, and I grew up with some of the best of them, that never published. Some of them didn't even know how to read or write," she says. "But everything I later learned in my MFA program about character and dialogue and pacing and humor, I learned in childhood from [those] storytellers.”

Related: PEOPLE Picks Our Favorite Books by and About Powerful Women

“Many of them couldn't read or write, but they gave me a sense of possibility and a sense of the wonder and how you know stories can take you somewhere else, and they never would have made it to the shelf of literature or to the canon or to any curriculum,” she continues.

“[Growing up] nobody was a reader. There were not really books around at all, and in a dictatorship everything was censored. I didn't grow up with that literary culture, the way we think of literature," she adds, noting that "I did grow up in a culture of stories and the idea that we're all part of a community, and we tell stories that connect us, nourish us and expand us.”

Her work pays off, Alvarez says, when readers come to her looking to learn more about the history she’s interwoven with more fantastical elements in her fiction. “People arrive with [one of my] novels in one hand wanting to meet me and hear more of the story,” she says. “There is that connection that happens to other stories and to history because of what you write.”

<p>Algonquin Books</p> 'The Cemetery of Untold Stories' by Julia Alvarez

Algonquin Books

'The Cemetery of Untold Stories' by Julia Alvarez

In The Cemetery of Untold Stories, she’s hoping readers find a connection not only to some long-forgotten historical figures, but to a segment of the population that doesn’t always get its due: Elders. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Alvarez says she was freshly struck by her own status as one of “the vulnerables” in society, which led her to consider her own mortality at a time when the world was unusually focused on the same.

“I began to get really involved in this idea of an older writer,” she explains. “Because you always have these ideas or drafts or novels begun that dead-end, and you think, ‘Someday I'll get back to it.’ But as you get older and older, there isn't that time, and you realize, ‘Wait a minute. I'm not gonna write all those books. Well, what will happen to all those characters that have been roaming around in my head?’ So that was the seed of the story.”

At the same time, Alvarez suffered some health challenges that required eye surgery and left her with no vision in one eye and compromised vision in the other. The physical challenge of getting the book finished gave it a new urgency, she says.

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer , from celebrity news to compelling human interest stories. 

“In a way, the novel was my cemetery of the untold stories,” she says. “And all of a sudden, there's this heightened sense of everything is precious. And that was happening with the writing, too. And so the stories just came flooding in and out.”

As readers come to this book, she hopes they’re inspired to feel curious about the latter phases of life, just as she has been in writing it. “I've noticed an ageism in a lot of fictions where the old character is the grandmother, the wise auntie, the mother who's on her death bed or something, but not enough about the granular, cellular experience of growing old,” she explains.

In The Cemetery of Untold Stories, the author is exploring the question of settling down, settling in and ceding the floor to younger writers coming up behind her. “Growing old in a profession, a craft that you've given your all to, when do you release it? When do you shut up, or do you ever?” Alvarez asks. “I didn't have answers. I just wanted to explore it.”

The Cemetery of Untold Stories is available April 2, wherever books are sold. 

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People.