Do your characters ever want to take over the story? They don’t take over the story, but I get out of the way and let them act and talk and get into trouble. What this means to me is that the “author” has to disappear. It’s their story, so let them tell it.
What is your favourite food? It has to be what the Peruvians call “pachamanca.” In Quechua that means earth pot. You dig a hole, heat rocks, layer in pork, beef, chicken wrapped in banana leaves, lay in whole ears of Indian corn (choclo), cover it all and let it steam. A couple hours later, you unwrap this feast, spread it out on a table and you have one magnificent dining experience. Lots of beer is required.
Are you a morning person or a night owl? I’m up at 5 or 6 each morning, but I stay up late. I like the quiet of both morning and late night. I do my best work then and there’s an added dimension—I’m working while everyone else is wasting their time in dreams. My books are my dreams so the sooner I can return to them, the happier I am.
Where do you dream of travelling to and why? I travelled a lot early on, but now I’m content to mine my experiences to turn them into novels. I’m a note taker so I filled notebooks about my travels. Those notebooks now are good source material.
Do distant places feature in your books? Yes. I lived in Latin America for years. I studied foreign languages and music in Quito, Ecuador. I have written three books with settings either in South America or France. I don’t do that to be “exotic” but the stories needed those locations. For example, my novel Blood, which deals with colonialism and natural resources, had to be set in South America. My book One Year in the Time of Violence finds a young American traveling in Colombia during a brief civil war. Gabriela and The Widow opens in Mexico then moves north.
Do you listen to music while writing? It depends on what stage of development a novel is in. Early on I write longhand in cafes and coffee shops. I write on yellow lined paper and I use a timer (this is Natalie Goldberg’s “writing practice” as set out in Writing Down the Bones.) Later, while I’m typing up the writing, I listen to Bach. Bach is pure structure. I find that his music informs writing in the sense that in the fugues you hear patterns and transformations in much the same way that objects, characters, and action are introduced then developed in fiction. In the final stages of a novel, I need the quiet once again so that I can hear the words. I read everything aloud and I record or video myself reading. The is perfect feedback because I know this: if the words don’t fit in your mouth, they won’t fit in your reader’s brain.
Could you tell us a bit about your latest release? Gabriela and The Widow is a novel about two women—a Widow and the young Mexican woman who comes to take care of her. It’s story about mothers and daughters and it’s a story about the past being transmitted into the future. There’s a lot of pain and anguish, love and betrayal in this novel. It’s also a novel about story telling and the need to write down our histories.
What have you learned about writing and publishing since you first started? The publishing world changed with the e-book, amazon.com, and create space. Writing and writing techniques have remained constant—Stories are told with action and image. Dialogue reveals character. I’ve learned more about the approach to a novel since I first started in that now I understand that Story is first. Then you look at Structure. Then Style. If I had known this earlier, I wouldn’t have stumbled around in the wilderness for so long. Now, I know to spend more time “writing about the writing” in the sense of discovering character, backstory, time, place, and setting before ever writing a scene. I think now that you don’t write a novel, you write scenes and in the scenes you find hooks that build into stories. I gave up thinking chapters when I discovered that the chapter is an arbitrary structure, just as a paragraph is an arbitrary structure in fiction. The basic unit of fiction is the scene. The basic unit of the scene is the sentence. Every sentence has to do double duty—reveal character and tell story. If I’d known all of that earlier…well, who knows?
The Widow (La Viuda) is ninety-two years old. She lives in a house filled with photos and coins, jewels and a sable coat. Aware that her memory is failing but burning with desire to record the story of her life on paper, she hires Gabriela, a nineteen-year-old Mixteca from Mexico. Gabriela is one of the few survivors of a massacre and treacherous journey to El Norte. Gabriela and the Widow is a story of chaos, revenge, and change: death and love, love and sex, and sex and death. Gabriela seeks revenge for the destruction of her village. The Widow craves balance for the betrayals in her life. In the end, the Widow gives Gabriela the secret of immortality.
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Genre – Women’s Fiction
Rating – PG
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