Until Celeste León began writing what would eventually become her recently published novel “Luck is Just the Beginning” she had never been a writer. Raised in Massachusetts, she’s been a physical therapist in Truckee since 1996.
While Celeste’s focus has been on her husband, her daughter, her job and exercise, deep inside her soul, there was the incredible story of her Puerto Rican father and his family waiting to be told.
Her father, Ramon León, grew up in a small village in Puerto Rico. Based on a premonition, at the age of 19, Ramon took his meager savings and bought a sheet of lottery tickets. He won and could now pursue his dream: To fulfill the desire of his mentor to become a dentist and help his community.
Celeste would tell friends the incredible family story, and they all told her she needed to write it. But Celeste was not a writer. Then she read “The Color of Water” by James McBridge, a biography of the author’s mother who had 12 children. The story reminded Celeste of her father, and helped her to realize that perhaps her father and grandmother’s story needed to be told.
Celeste began taking creative writing classes. Then, she found herself in a memoir class through Silver College, a part of Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. Here she connected with a group of writers who were also trying to tell their family stories, and together they formed Writers Unanimous, which provided her with invaluable critique partners over the next seven years as she crafted the story.
Before she could take on the enormous challenge of a novel, she began telling the story in bits and pieces with essays and articles. She traveled to Puerto Rico in search of her family roots and wrote an essay, “Finding Home” that was awarded a First Prize by High Sierra Writers in Reno. She wrote essays that were published in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Celebrating people who make a difference.” And, in 2013 she attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
Most important of all to bringing the story to fruition were the hours of special time she spent talking to her father about his past.
Once she began to write in earnest her struggle was to find the time to write. She would sit in the car going over the suggested revisions of her writers group while waiting for her daughter to finish a dance class. She would spend her exercise time contemplating the story, then write every chance she could steal a few free moments. She carried a notepad so any time a thought popped into her head, she was ready to write it down.
Celeste gives part of the credit for finishing the book to her grandmother Dona Chepa, “I think she was watching over me the whole time. She was such a force. She lived to be nearly 100 after birthing 15 children.”
One key suggestion that helped her finish the project came from professor David Sundstrand at University of Nevada, Reno, who after reviewing a draft said, “this begs to be fiction.” While all of the basics of the story are true, turning it into an historical novel gave Celeste the opportunity to give the characters more personality and to fill in the blanks in her father’s recollection.
When the book was published in November 2015, Celeste turned her focus to promotion. As Karen Terrey said, while introducing Celeste at the May installment of the Literary Arts and Wine Reading series in Truckee, “she is the poster child for how to release your book out into the world.”
Without benefit of a publicist, Celeste has been traveling around Northern California doing book signings, meeting with book clubs, and even appearing on Capital Public Radio with Beth Ruyak. She is most proud of her trip to Ocala, Fla., where her father now lives. An article about the book was published there on the morning of her book signing. That evening “Every Puerto Rican in central Florida came to the book signing. To meet me and my Dad. They were so proud of a fellow Puerto Rican story,” said Celeste.
Surely, her 90-year-old father is beaming with pride that his daughter has brought his amazing story to the world.
Upcoming book readings
June 4 | 1-4 p.m.
The Avid Reader | Sacramento
June 5 | 5 p.m.
The Lodge at Tahoe Donner
June 11 | 10 a.m.
High Sierra Writers Group | Reno, Nev.
For more information, visit celesteleon.com.