I am a Puerto Rican-born novelist, poet, and artist, raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. My life experiences as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker, inspire my passion for writing and are evident in my novels. My two wonderful, adult children live in Virginia and Holland. When I’m not writing, I facilitate creativity groups using Julia Cameron’s seminal book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, and I always stop for photo opportunities. Set in 1900 Puerto Rico, A Decent Woman is my debut novel, and I am currently writing my second historical novel, Finding Gracia, set on the medieval pilgrimage path of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, also known as The Way of St. James, in Spain.
What is your latest historical fiction piece?
Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in town.
Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children who marries an older wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal, and preserve Serafina’s honor, her new marriage, and her place in the world.
Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.
Why did you choose to write it?
A Decent Woman began as a five-page tribute to my Puerto Rican grandmother, Eloina, on her 90th birthday. I was the kid who sat at her knee, urging for more stories, and she had many fascinating tales of growing up in Barrio Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico. I know my grandmother’s stories by heart and as a kid, I could always tell when she embellished or left out juicy details. It was important for me to record her stories and very quickly, the tribute turned into a novel.
I love introducing readers to Latina(o) and Caribbean characters because it’s in my blood; I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. My mother, her siblings, and my maternal grandparents, all deceased, were born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the setting of A Decent Woman. I love history and my favorite books are those set in exotic places, especially stories about people who are often overlooked or ignored by society, which is how the protagonist of A Decent Woman, the Afro-Cuban midwife born into slavery, Ana Belen, came about. I believe my experiences in social services and working with refugees have influenced my writing in a unique way.
What about that era appeals to you?
Everything about that era appeals to me! I love Puerto Rico and have always been drawn to our history, folklore, African traditions, music, food, and the colonial architecture of Ponce, the setting of my novel. Puerto Ricans are proud, strong and resilient, which they exhibited after the United States invasion of the island, the destruction of the coffee and sugar industries, and after Hurricane San Ciriaco, one of the worst hurricanes in history, devastated the island.
Are your characters real or fictional? If they’re real, how did you fictionalize them?
My mother and her siblings were delivered into the world by a local midwife, comadrona, from Barrio Playa de Ponce named Doña Ana. No one remembers exactly where Afro-Cuban Doña Ana was from, but my mother and grandmother remembered she spoke with a foreign accent, wore a white turban, and smoked a cigar after every birth. The elder women of my family spoke about the midwife with respect and reverence, so I knew she was a special woman. I added Ana as a secondary character in the story and very quickly, I gave in to her whispering the story in my ear–she became my heroine.
I fictionalized Ana’s troubled past as a slave in Cuba, who fled to Puerto Rico under mysterious circumstances, and I wrote dialogue as if I were being dictated to. I still feel a strong connection to her. I gave Ana life on a page and she in turn, gave me life as a writer and author.
What kind of research is involved in writing your novel?
The amount of research for an historical novel is staggering, but I love it! I traveled to Puerto Rico to interview several women born in the early 1900’s, and back in the United States, I interviewed a Professor of Latin American Studies at American University, and corresponded with three wonderful midwives. I also interviewed a psychic in the Dominican Republic, a medium and many healers in Puerto Rico, which I found fascinating. The deeper I delved into the complex lives of women in turn of the century Puerto Rico, the richer and more interesting the story became. I read everything I could get my hands on about Puerto Rico, especially about women’s issues at that time. I love researching for novels as much as I love writing novels, and I now have quite a collection of books written about Puerto Rico.
How do you organize the fictional aspects of your writing vs. the historical facts?
I wrote the first draft of A Decent Woman and then went back to fill in the blanks with historical detail. As I rewrote and edited the second draft, I continued to research and flesh out the story. Last month, I found a fascinating bit of history and added it to the novel. I allowed the novel to evolve and loved that my characters led me to interesting places. I have now found that combining my research with writing makes more sense, as research can contribute to a change in a storyline.
How does the historical timeline move your plot along or influence the actions of your characters?
My novel is about the friendship of Ana and Serafina from 1900 to 1920 in Ponce, Puerto Rico. I stayed true to the historical timeline, which includes major hurricanes, the US invasion of the island, the aftermath of hurricanes, and political unrest. In 1918, an earthquake practically leveled the city of Ponce. The timeline influenced and shaped my characters very much, and drives the novel forward. The creative part was how my characters reacted, were challenged by, and lived through the historical events.
How do you feel about writers taking creative license with historical facts? Or, does it bother you when facts area changed to fit the story in a movie or a book?
I don’t mind reading novels where the author has taken a bit of creative license with historical facts; we’re artists, but I don’t enjoy books that alter history to the point where I no longer recognize the era. I love novels written about an ordinary person with a close relationship to an historical figure, which gives a new, fresh perspective on that figure and the era.
What’s next for you after this present work?
A Decent Woman comes out March 2015 with Booktrope Books. It’s an excting time for me.
I am currently writing my second historical novel, Finding Gracia, set in Spain, on the medieval pilgrimage route of El Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James. I walked El Camino with my children in 2005, and kept a journal on that walk. I am excited as the story unfolds and I see where my characters are leading me. I plan to write the sequel to A Decent Woman called Mistress of Coffee.
Thank you for joining me and my special thanks to Tiffani Burnett-Vélez!
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Next on the Historical Fiction Novel Blog Tour – author, Bonnie Dodge.
I’ve enjoyed reading the blog posts by the authors before me, so please make sure you check them out. If you are looking for something different than what you usually read, this Historical Fiction Novel Blog Tour is for you!
Bonnie Dodge writes from Idaho, where she penned Waiting (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1620155001), and other novels. She’s the winner of Top Ten 2014 Fiction by Idaho Author Awards, and writes frequently about Idaho history at her blog.