Interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia

When I sit down with a new novel, questions pop into my head. Questions such as:

Who is the author? How did their story come to be? Why did they choose those particular characters? Are the characters based on real people, and if so, who were they?

I would like to introduce you to my historical novel, A Decent Woman, the story of two women living, loving and surviving in turn of the century Puerto Rico.

Your novel is about Puerto Rico at the turn of the century. What is your connection to the island?

I was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico. My mother, now deceased, was from Ponce and my father is from Peabody, Massachusetts. The banker’s daughter met the crazy, handsome American GI at a party at the Hotel Meliá in Ponce during his tour of duty. My parents lived in Ponce until I was a year old and we returned to the island for two more Army tours when I was five and again, at 17 years of age. I graduated from the Liceo Ponceño where three of my cousins, my mother and her sister also graduated. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English and I’ve lived in five European countries and have traveled extensively, but my heart is Puerto Rican. I am Boricua. I’ve worked as a Spanish language case worker for a refugee center in Brussels, Belgium and as a Spanish language Family Support Worker with a non-profit in Falls Church, Virginia which helped keep my language skills sharp.

How did your historical novel, A Decent Woman, come about?

A Decent Woman, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico is very close to my heart and my family as it is based on my grandparents and their midwife Ana. The birth of my novel began as a five-page tribute to my Puerto Rican grandmother, Meme, on her 90th birthday. I was living in Belgium at the time with my husband and two children and couldn’t attend her birthday party, so the tribute was  my gift to her. When I called Meme later, she said, “Me oistes, nena.” You heard me, my girl.” I could see her big grin in my mind’s eye as we spoke. I had no intention of turning the tribute into a novel until my husband, now ex, read the tribute and asked me to write an outline. When he finished reading the outline, he said, “You have a story to write.”

Meme was a master storyteller with a wicked sense of humor and a great laugh. Her energy was sublime. You were warmly invited to sit as close as you could and your mind was opened to a world of love, betrayal and the cast of characters in her life have never left me. My sister, cousins and I sat at Meme’s feet, urging her and my mother (another great storyteller!) for one more story. We knew all her stories by heart and always caught and redirected her when she left out juicy details or forgot a piece of the story. I video taped an interview with Meme several years before she died. I still have that video.

Tell us about your main protagonist, Doña Ana, and the characters of Isabel and Serafina.

My mother, Mercedes, her siblings Josefina and Guillermo, and my aunt Elena were delivered into the world with the help of a local midwife, comadrona, from la Playa de Ponce named Doña Ana. No one remembers exactly where Doña Ana was from, but my aunt and grandmother remembered she had an accent, wore a white turban and smoked a cigar. Meme thought she was Cuban and my aunt Elena thinks she was from Martinique.The elder women of my family spoke of Dona Ana with respect and reverence and we have very strong women in my family, so I knew she was a special woman! Ana was always a fascinating mystery to me and I had to add her as a secondary character in my story.

Just before the birth of my first child, Meme proudly presented me with a rag doll she had made. I immediately knew who it was–it was Doña Ana. Meme fashioned the doll’s body out of black cotton fabric, used white fabric for a turban and a white peasant blouse and a bright floral print for the doll’s billowing skirt. My grandmother added white buttons for eyes and even added tiny gold hoop earrings, argollas. I still have that doll and used to wonder if Meme, who was very spiritual and had healing powers, had given me an enchanted doll.

The characters of Isabél and Serafina are based on my grandmother, Meme, who grew up poor in the Playa de Ponce, a small coastal town near Ponce. Meme lost her mother at nine years of age and raised her three younger siblings in the house of a strict Aunt. I always thought of my grandmother as Cinderella. Her life could have been viewed as a Puerto Rican fairy tale as she married a wealthy banker and while it is true that she married well, her life was also laced with pain, loss and sadness. It came as no surprise that two of my two protagonists were based on my grandmother. She was an awesome woman.

So,  the midwife Ana Belen, was a secondary character who became the main protagonist. How did that happen?

As I wrote the first draft of my manuscript, Ana became more interesting as a character until finally I gave in. I began researching the lives of women in Puerto Rico in the 1900′s and discovered the mistreatment of women, especially trigueñas, on the island at that time. Through my research, I came across a book, Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 by Eileen J. Suarez Findlay. Mrs. Suarez and I corresponded before I left Belgium with my children and finally met in Washington, DC in 2005. We cried when we saw each other and I thank her very much for opening my eyes to the reality of the lives of women in Puerto Rico in the same time period of my novel. I owe a lot to Ms. Suarez.

So you see, Ana had to be the main protagonist. I kept the first draft and wrote a second draft of the story to include more of Ana and my imagination of her past as a slave in Cuba. At times, I felt as if Ana was whispering the story in my ear. I wrote the second draft in six months and wrote dialogue as if I were being dictated to. Although I never met Ana nor are there any known photographs of her, I feel a strong connection to her and the image I hope to use as my book cover. I gave Ana life on a page and she in turn, gave me life as a writer and author.

The commonalities Ana, Isabél and Serafina shared made them comadres, in the literal sense of the word, and in turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, their unlikely friendship posed many challenges, obstacles and hurdles.

When will your book be published?

A Decent Woman is scheduled to debut Fall 2014 with Booktrope. I am honored and blessed to be working with a talented group of Booktrope members, many of whom are authors. I’m very excited to hold my book for the first time!

What are you working on now?

I’ve written four chapters of my second historical fiction novel, Finding Gracia on El Camino and I’m putting my thoughts together for the sequel to A Decent Woman. I’m always writing and have so many story ideas that it makes me dizzy sometimes! At this time, however, my main focus is working with my awesome Booktrope publication team and seeing my book in print this fall! Social media also takes quite a lot of my time and I love writing my daily blog.

Thank you for visiting me and for all your lovely follows and likes! This way, I meet you, as well!

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