Q & A, Mama Fela’s Girls

  1. What authors have influenced your writing?

That’s such a difficult question to answer because there have been so many authors over the years who have influenced me consciously or unconsciously and that list is never-ending.  A writer is formed by reading and every book has some effect. Some who have had more recent influence have been: Julia Cameron, Amy Tan, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Olive Ann Burns, Betty Smith, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherwood Anderson, Alice Walker, Harper Lee, and Anton Chekhov.

2.  What was your inspiration for MAMA FELA’S GIRLS?

Sadly, a great loss precipitated it. My father died very young—he was much too young and I was young—only 21 and a senior in college. It was a very difficult time in my life but what helped me through the grieving process, was my mom, who I discovered to be this wonderful storyteller.  I began asking my mom about her childhood and not only did her vignettes fill me with a sense of history and connection at a time of great loss, but I thought, my goodness, there’s a story to be told here . . . and my imagination took flight where her narrative ended.  Her stories about growing up in a small town in northern New Mexico during the Depression captured my fancy and became the seed for the novel.

3.  What do you think readers will take with them from the book?

I hope the novel is entertaining and that it will resonate with modern day readers of all cultures and backgrounds in addition to helping to preserve a slice of New Mexican life.  I hope that readers will be able to identify with the issues of family ties, loss, coming of age and finding a sense of identity within a complex social structure in which traditional social norms, ethnicity, gender and language tended to mold one’s destiny. Ultimately, I hope that readers will enjoy the characters, identify with them and take away a bit of insight to help them deal with their very own daily human struggles.

I would also love for readers to come away with a hopeful sense that it is possible to seek a future full of possibility without relinquishing their past. In fact, embracing who they were will help them navigate the future and will help propel them forward into a “future filled with color” as my character Cita would say.  At the same time, I hope that readers discover that it is possible to transcend the roles they are born into and that dreams are possible.

4. Which character in the book do you most relate to?

I identify with bits and pieces of each character but I connect most with Cita who is the artist, the dreamer in the novel, who seeks to fill her life with color. She uses her imagination to paint her future. She doesn’t give up on her dream no matter how impractical or impossible it may seem to others. I respect and admire her determination, her commitment and her hopefulness.

5. What do you see as the importance to women in their relationships with other women?
One of the main reasons I write and why I wrote this novel was to give voice to individuals who haven’t had a voice or who may never have a voice: people like my grandmother and great aunt and great grandmother who encountered prejudice and poverty and very limited choices.  They lived during a time when there was no room for dreams, only room for survival.  And anyone who dared to dream could and probably would be disappointed. These were strong women who toiled day after day, leaning on one another in difficult times but always with the same quest to ensure that future generations like mine would have greater choices and a better life.

6. How does novel writing differ from writing children’s books?

In a novel, the writer has the time and space to develop and explore character which is my favorite aspect of writing or reading. However, the drawback is that it takes so much more time to do that.

7. How did you research the time period for Mama Fela’s Girls?

At first, my mom and I took several trips to the small town where she had grown up. We traveled to the adjacent small villages where my grandmother had taught and, in some cases, visited the one room school houses if they were still in existence.  I listened intently to my mom, took copious notes in two journals and asked my mom questions until she was sick of me. For some reason, she had to explain the “mechanics” of the oil lamp several times to me—I just couldn’t seem to get it right!  At the beginning, I also squinted for hours in front of microfiche to read local newspapers and magazines of the 1930s.  That led me to reading about the Lindbergh kidnapping and from there, I became very interested in Anne Morrow Lindbergh and began reading her work.  Later, my sister helped me research everything from herbal remedies to the history of bottled soft drinks; from the introduction of Clorox into the marketplace to the uses of P&G soap; from the the content of news reels during the Depression to the specifics of WPA projects in New Mexico. The most difficult piece of research was tracking down train timetables and fares for the Atchinson Topeka & Santa Fe and sometimes extrapolating the information I needed.  The most enjoyable was getting to watch stacks of Shirley Temple movies like I had when I was a child.  Ultimately, choosing the time frame so that it coincided with the Lindbergh kidnapping case, the WPA in New Mexico and Shirley Temple movies coming to a small town theater was a challenge.

8. How does your writing routine look?

Because I have a full time job, I only have so many hours to devote to my writing so I have to be very committed during that time.  It’s a constant juggling act—working and writing and I don’t always have a life but they complement one another and ultimately, I usually love both.

When I was finishing this novel, I took two weeks vacation from work, ended up having to go back after one and a half weeks but for those twelve days, weekends included, I did nothing but write for seventeen hours straight with a few minutes for meals, exercise and getting ready for the day. It felt like I was running a marathon!

9. Do you have any advice for first-time novelists?

Perseverance.  Don’t give up. Be gentle on yourself even though your first impulse may be self flagellation.  Know you’re constantly growing, you’re constantly going to make mistakes.  But that’s okay.   Writing is a sense of discovery. It’s an evolution. Just finish it, polish it so that it’s professional and get it out there. Then be open-minded about revision.

10. What is the most difficult thing about being a writer?

What you go through emotionally when your work gets out there.  It’s scary. It’s tough. It’s letting go and making yourself vulnerable.  But ultimately you have to believe in yourself and your story.


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