A LITERARY WORLD: An interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia
A Literary World
Author interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia.
Welcome to A Literary World and the second in our author interviews. Today, I am thrilled to have as my guest, the Puerto Rican born author, Eleanor Parker Sapia, whose feminist, historical debut novel is already garnering international acclaim. A Decent Woman is a wonderfully evocative story set in the lush, tropical landscape of Puerto Rico in the early 1900’s.
At the height of the devastating San Ciciaco hurricane 1899, midwife, Ana Belén, delivers a child to a young woman, Seraphina, and the two form a close bond when Seraphina helps Ana to read and write. During this time, Ana harbours a dark secret from her past as a Cuban slave working in the sugar plantations. Set in a machismo world where women have virtually no rights and are forced to rely on each other, Seraphina also hides a dark secret and the two women’s futures become inextricably linked.
Welcome to A Literary World Eleanor.
Thanks very much for your invitation, Kathryn. It’s a pleasure to visit with you!
1. Where do you live?
I currently live in a 109-year old, Federal-style house I bought in Berkeley County, West Virginia in 2010. The historic home sits on a quiet street in the historic district of my city, next door to a museum and across the street from the Historic Society, which hasn’t said a word about the fact that two years ago, I painted my front door black. There are period features throughout the home, including sash windows, the original maple floors, light fixtures, and doorknobs. An old house also means I have two minuscule ‘closets’, an enormous attic, and only one bathroom with a claw foot tub that only drains after a bath when it’s in the mood.
2. What inspired you to write this story?
A tribute I wrote to my maternal grandmother on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday was the initial inspiration for this story. The tribute was well-received by my relatives and I realized how much I knew about the lives of Puerto Rican women at the turn of the century. My relatives and my then-husband encouraged me to flesh out the tribute into a book.
My research uncovered many injustices and crimes against women of that era, which changed the novel quite a bit. I was inspired to tell their stories—to end their silence
3. How long did it take you to write the book?
I wrote the first, novel-length draft in six months, and the final version took me nearly four years to complete with endless editing, many rewrites, and more research. A labor of love.
4. Puerto Rico has a rich history of Spanish and African descendants, and religion and superstition play an important role in your book. How did this shape your characters?
Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish explorer and conquistador, founded the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico, which remained a Spanish colony until the end of the Spanish-American War, when the island was ceded to the United States. The Spaniards left behind beautiful architecture, Catholicism, and many Spanish traditions, and of course, the Spanish language. My character, Serafina San Patricio, a devout Catholic, had roots in the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory. Although born into a poor family of fishermen in Ponce, Serafina marries into an important, influential family, which means she has societal obligations and must live by an unspoken code of conduct.
The novel begins at the turn of the century, after slavery was abolished in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and African traditions, words, and music remained on the islands. Most African slaves practiced the Yoruba traditions of their ancestors, so it made sense that my character, black, Cuban-born, Ana Belén, who was born into slavery, would pray to and honor the gods and goddesses of the Yoruba religion, alongside her devotion to the Virgin Mary. Slaves were forced by their owners to convert to Catholicism and hide their ancestral beliefs, and they kept their traditions alive by hiding the identities of their gods and goddesses by referring to them with the names of Catholic saints.
5. As a writer of historical fiction, what is it that you look for in a story?
I love introducing readers to Latin American and Caribbean characters, mostly average people who do extraordinary things during an important time in history. I leave the writing of historical stories of royals to other historical writers, who write wonderful books. I prefer focusing on those on the fringes of society—the ignored and marginalized. I enjoy offering history to readers without them realizing it. By that I mean, I strive for a fluid, relevant story which includes historical events, but I don’t add a lot of characters and myriad historical dates to the story. I choose a chunk of time and flesh it out with stories about the rich lives of men and women of the particular era I’m writing about, always keeping to the historical timeline.
6. You have a background in art. How much did this contribute to your writing?
I painted and exhibited for nearly twenty-five years before discovering my passion for writing. I believe my art background contributes greatly to my writing in that I am very visual. I’m attracted to details, the play between light and dark, and the fine nuances of a vignette. I paint portraits, still life, and landscape, but my favorite is selecting a snippet of something interesting within the whole, and focusing on that in a piece. So when I describe an item in writing, a room, or perhaps the way a person is dressed, I ‘see’ it in my painter mind/eye and describe it accordingly with texture, color, and light. In essence, I paint with words.
7. What part of the research process did you enjoy the most?
I love researching for new books, so much so that I must limit my research time as I could go on and on, from one related subject to another. With A Decent Woman, I enjoyed researching the Yoruba traditions, the aftermath in Puerto Rico after Hurricane San Ciriaco, and the earthquake of 1918 in the city of Ponce.
8. What important lessons have you learned whilst writing?
The most important lesson I’ve learned is when you think your story is done and cannot be improved upon, think again! I am hard on myself as a writer. This happened many times during the editing of A Decent Woman—when I thought the manuscript was ready, I waited a few days and reread the story. Invariably there were passages that were improved and tightened at that time. I won’t send the manuscript to print until I’m more than 100% happy with it.
9. What were the whispering voices of advice that helped you? Do you have any tips for us?
Great question, Kathryn. The whispering voices were always from my characters who whispered, loudly at times, to pay attention and allow them to lead me, rather than me leading them and the story. This can only happen when you know your characters inside and out, which takes time and attention, much like building a friendship.
10. Do you write longhand?
No, I write my stories on a laptop. I might write out a difficult paragraph I’m not particularly happy with, and then I return to the laptop. I write in a journal every morning, which helps me empty my mind of minutiae, and then I’m ready to write.
11. Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
I turned one of my upstairs bedrooms into my writing room, but I don’t use it. It’s a beautifully-appointed room with oak bookcases, a leather armchair, and a Belgian banker’s table with writing paraphernalia I collect, such as an old typewriter, fountain pens, and ink wells. But I’m happiest writing at the dining room table with a view of the side garden. Although I must be alone to write, I feel isolated upstairs. I also have a special place by the river where I like to write.
12. Can you share with us some of the things you like to do when you’re not writing?
In good weather, you’ll find me digging in the flower garden, reading under the ancient grape arbor on the patio, and visiting with my children, family, and friends during short road trips and vacations. I love being near water, so I’m often at my river place on the West Virginia side of the Potomac River—another favorite place to write.
13. Who are your favourite authors?
I have many favorites; too many to mention here. Here are a few, Henry James, Gabriel García Marquéz, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Isabel Allende, Chitra Banerjee-Divakaruni, Arundhati Roy, and Milan Kundera. Current favorites are Jack Remick and Marlon James.
14. What are some of your favourite books?
Among my favorite books are, all the Jane Austen books, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquéz; The Red Tent- Anita Diamant; The Pearl Earring –Tracy Chevalier; The Poisonwood Bible -Barbara Kingsolver; The God of Small Things- Arundhati Roy; and Gabriela and the Widow by Jack Remick.
15. What are you working on now?
I’m writing a second historical novel, titled The Island of Goats, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico, on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and in southern France. The story begins in a small leper colony off the coast of Puerto Rico called Isla de Cabras, and ends in the seaside, Provençal village of Saintes Maries de la Mer
16. Do you listen to music when you write?
Yes, before starting a new novel, I create a musical playlist for inspiration (instrumental only), which might change during the stages of writing. My current playlist includes, Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy, Hans Zimmer, Yann Tiersen, Helen Jane Long, Secret Garden, and the films scores from American Beauty, Amelie, and Gladiator. I also love listening to Fado from Portugal, which is moody, tragic, and since I don’t speak Portuguese, it doesn’t interfere with my writing.
17. What kind of child were you?
The words, precocious, talkative, adventurous, intelligent, funny, high-spirited, mostly obedient, and sensitive have been used to describe me as a child. I was a girly girl and a bit of a tomboy, forever climbing trees, as high as I could reach. I loved putting on plays for family and friends, which often featured me dancing and singing songs I would write with my friends. I haven’t changed all that much, but I no longer climb trees. I suppose these days I reach as high as I can with my writing and paintings.
18. Were you an avid reader?
Yes, I was. I especially loved reading Nancy Drew books, and books about pirates on the high seas, witches, and magic—everything my mother wished I wouldn’t be drawn to. I’ve always loved books set in exotic lands and learning about new cultures and different eras—historical novels, much like today.
19. Do you have a philosophy on life?
The tattoo on my left shoulder reads, “regrette rien” which means, regret nothing in French. I chose the words based on our freedom to make choices in life. That philosophy of life, regret nothing, means we should follow our dreams and regret nothing along the path toward that dream: we grow with every experience.
And a few quick questions:
20. Favourite type of music to relax to?
Relaxing doesn’t always mean sitting still in a quiet room, though I love that. I also relax by dancing and by listening to music that moves and inspires me. I am currently relaxing to Fado from Portugal, flamenco, tango, and the music of the Roma people, inspired by my work in progress, “The Island of Goats” which features Puerto Rican, Spanish, and Roma characters.
21. Favourite film?
Oh goodness, I have many favorites in different genres, but I’ll say Ana Karenina, the 1935 black and white film version with the incredible Greta Garbo.
If I can sneak another in, it would be Doctor Zhivago. I have an affinity for tragic love stories and no one writes tragedy like the Russian writers. I’ve never been a fan of happy, tidy endings in books. In fact, the original ending of A Decent Woman was of Ana Belen dying. My editor said Ana had suffered enough in the book, and highly encouraged me to let her live. I thought long and hard, and I’m very happy I listened to my editor and advanced readers of the story as readers have connected deeply with Ana. It will be fun to visit Ana in the sequel, currently titled, Mistress of Coffee.
22. Favourite painting?
My favorite painting is Flaming June painted by British artist, Sir Frederic Leighton in 1895, which hangs in the Museo de Arte de Ponce, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, my hometown. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited the island to find the painting on loan to a museum in another part of the world. In August, when I travel to Puerto Rico, Flaming June will be exhibited at the Frick Collection in New York City! This time I’ll buy a large print of the painting in Ponce to hang in my living room, and hope to see her in New York City when I return to the US.
23. Favourite holiday destination?
Again, I have many favorite destinations. If I have to choose one, I choose France. I could live there for the rest of my life and never tire of exploring all its wonders.
24. Favourite drink.
Most days, I can’t get enough of ice cold water. I drink it by the pitcher, which my grandmother swore by for good health and clear skin. My favorite alcoholic drinks are red wine and Vodka Gimlet on the rocks with extra Rose’s Lime Juice.
And finally, where can we buy the book?
A Decent Woman can be found on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Author Blog: http://www.thewritinglifeeparker.wordpress.com
Thanks very much for the opportunity to visit with you and share with your readers, Kathryn!
Thank you for allowing us a glimpse of your creative life, Eleanor. We look forward to The Island of Goats and to reading more about Ana in Mistress of Coffee and we wish you continued success.
Inscription from the Temple of Apollo, Delphi.