11 MINUTE READ
AUTHOR ELEANOR PARKER SAPIA – WRITER OF CARIBBEAN FICTION AND WOMEN’S FICTION, POET, AND ARTIST
By Marsha Casper Cook
Please talk about your roots and how you found out who you wanted to be in your new life. Your story is very inspirational.
I was born in Puerto Rico into a family of exceptional oral storytellers: my grandmother—the matriarch of our family—my mother, and my aunt. Their magical stories included lives of struggle, spirits, herbal recipes, ancestral rituals, good food, and a fierce love of family. I was the child at my grandmother’s knee, always begging for one more tale.
I doubt it surprised anyone in my family when I turned to storytelling through painting and later with writing. A simple trip to the corner store can yield ideas for new stories or poems, and a cast of characters for future novels. However, my journey to publishing novels set in Puerto Rico with a good dose of history and magical realism took a circuitous route. Publishing my first collection of poetry took even longer. Each stage of my journey was as important as the last—steppingstones to where I am today—living and thriving in a creative world.
Following in my parent’s footsteps, I married a US Army officer, and we raised our children in Belgium, Austria, and France. To date, I have lived in Europe longer than I’ve lived in the US and Puerto Rico.
For 25 years, I painted and exhibited portraits and still lifes in the most unforgiving medium—watercolor— which speaks of perseverance and keen observation. I stashed drafts of poems in an old cookie tin and volunteered with refugee organizations and counseling centers in Brussels, Belgium.
In 2000, two life-changing events coincided: my maternal grandmother’s 90th birthday and receiving a copy of Julia Cameron’s seminal book on creativity called The Artist’s Way. The following year, I invited five girlfriends to experience the course with me. I learned just as much as my friends, who encouraged me to keep writing. Around that time, the paintbrush no longer told the stories of my soul—I was hooked on writing. I would go on to facilitate four more creative clusters with participants who felt blocked creatively or were interested in discovering their artistic passion.
In honor of my grandmother’s 90th birthday, I wrote a tribute to her that included many of her life stories. After reading the tribute, my then-husband encouraged me to write an outline. That outline turned into the first draft manuscript of A Decent Woman, set in turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, my hometown.
In 2005, life changed dramatically. Before I knew it, I was a single woman in her 50s. I left one life and started a new one in the U.S. when my children headed to American universities. I was forced to face the unknown, dig deep, and tackle many challenges, much like a baptism of fire.
How has writing novels changed you as a person? If yes, please feel free to elaborate.
I believe my creative journey had more to do with my personal growth than the actual writing of my books. Before my divorce, I volunteered as a Spanish language refugee case worker and as a volunteer counselor in the only English-speaking counseling center, both in Brussels, Belgium. After my divorce, I moved back to the U.S., where I graduated from a massage therapy institute, I worked full-time as a bilingual (Spanish) social worker with the immigrant/refugee population and became a Reiki Master.
During that same time, I honed my writing skills, but the draft manuscript of A
Decent Woman wouldn’t see the light of day for five years until a shoulder injury precluded me from continuing a career in massage therapy—I was at a fork in the road. I made a life-altering decision to leave my job and to move from the Washington, D.C. area to West Virginia, where I could afford to write full-time.
Through writing novels and poetry, I found my voice quite organically. My previous career choices bolstered and inspired me to write novels of courageous women living simple lives in extraordinary times. The characters in my book said what I needed to share with the world—stories of misogyny, domestic violence, racism, and early feminism. Sterilization of women against their will or without their knowledge. Hate crimes against women and prostitutes. Class struggles. I use it all in my stories.
I believe life helped me grow into the role I was destined to fulfill—that of a storyteller. My hope is to continue to honor my maternal line and my Puerto Rican roots with my writing.
In your new book, a debut collection of poems titled, Tight Knots. Loose Threads, you expose a side of you that no one knew. Was that decision difficult for you?
Just before my first poetry collection was published in April 2021, a good friend, a therapist, read my collection. She wondered if readers would view me in a new way, and wondered if my raw, emotional poems of love desired, love denied, and heartbreak would confuse friends and readers who’d loved A Decent Woman.
While readers and friends on social media know me as a writer, a divorced mother of two awesome adult children, a feminist, an activist, who loves to garden and travel, my reply to my friend was, “How well do we know anyone?” My close friends and family weren’t surprised, at all.
I understand it’s human nature to often put people in boxes to better understand them, but I don’t enjoy limits, literary or otherwise. I was ready to unpeel more layers of my emotional onion. To stretch out and take up more room as a mature woman and as a writer.
I didn’t shy away from writing about controversial, delicate, taboo themes in A Decent Woman and there were many. Writing poems about controversial and delicate situations and exposing raw emotions wasn’t difficult either.
Now, although every poem isn’t about me, I admit to feeling a bit vulnerable about the intimate nature of some of the poems. What helped me move forward with publication was the Coronavirus pandemic and turning 63. We were and are still living in a world of unimaginable loss, grief, and fear. The year 2020 moved me enough to retrieve the poems I’d stashed in the old coffee tin for over twenty years and to write new poems for my first collection.
In my opinion, it was the perfect time to release Tight Knots. Loose Threads. I hope readers will relate to the poems and not feel alone as we’ve all experienced heartache in love and relationships. I thought, if not now, when? I’m glad I listened to my gut.
What do you think the Publishing Industry could improve on?
One frustration I share with many writers is the push by some publishers and agents for writers to garner as many reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads before and after a book is published, as if that guarantees literary success. Honestly, writing and marketing our books are hard enough. Of course, I absolutely adore hearing from my readers and am incredibly grateful when a reader takes the time to review my books, so the last thing I want is to annoy them with constant requests for reviews. So, there’s a delicate balance.
Then, there’s paying for literary reviews—a gray zone. Most writers I know don’t have extra money to pay for reviews. I don’t know the answer to the dilemma of literary reviews. I write stories I’d like to read, and if I connect with a reader, that’s wonderful.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
I’m a slow writer. On occasion, as I watch writers publish a book or two each year, I can fall into doubting my process. But that is short-lived. My process works for me. I believe in allowing a story to come together in an organic way. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about my story 24/7. I don’t begin with a firm outline or a firm ending. I always have a rough idea of where I’m going and what I want to highlight in the story, such as domestic violence, misogyny, racism, growth, or battling personal demons. Being locked into a particular storyline or ending without deviation disrupts my creativity. What I want for myself as a writer is to reach others. As a reader, I want to be moved.
Life has taught me to be open to change, discovery, and that starting over can be golden. I am a big fan of rewriting as much as necessary and to listening to my characters. It’s not uncommon for my story to change and evolve. That can only come from knowing your characters inside and out. With time and patience, the dividends pay off.
What keeps you up at night as you near the end of finishing one of your books?
Great question. What I struggle with is knowing whether a story is finished, which is easier to discern with painting.
I ask myself if I’ve done my best with what I know today to rewrite a sentence, a page, a chapter for clarity, rhythm, and lyrical meaning and weight. Ultimately, I listen to my gut—I trust I will know when I’ve reached the end. Readers may, of course, feel differently about our story!
What does Literary Success look like to you?
While receiving literary awards and accolades were a thrill, success of any kind can be a short-lived, slippery slope. I remind myself to not rest on past laurels. After each published book, I’m back at the beginning—learning more about the craft of writing, honing my skills, working hard, and doing research for the next novel.
If readers love, remember, and recommend my book(s) to other readers over years and years, that is literary success to me. I want to move my readers as much as I need to be moved to continue to write good literature. It’s never been about making money.
Because of your new book, a collection of poems called Tight Knots. Loose Threads, you have increased your readership into a different market. Will you continue that path?
I wrote poetry long before I considered writing a novel. So yes, I will continue to write poetry, which feels as natural as painting, writing novels, and keeping a journal, where many poems are birthed. Painting for over 25 years helped me write A Decent Woman and The Laments. Writing poetry helps me access emotion and continue to write poetic prose in fiction, and writing fiction helps me write deep poetry. It’s all connected.
Writing poetry is also cathartic and healing. It’s a great way to peel away, examine, and discover old or new layers of my personality and life experiences in an intimate way. While poems of a more sensual nature may bring up feelings of vulnerability or of feeling a bit exposed, I tell myself that by being “naked” and unafraid, I’m connecting with readers who I hope will realize they’re not alone—we’ve all experienced love and heartache and pain. It’s universal.
In the future, I also hope to write a poetry collection and a novel in Spanish, a beautiful, lyrical language.
Are you pleased with the way readers have admired the courage it took to compose such a wonderful collection of poems? And did you expect readers to find themselves understanding your journey in a way that many poets never achieve?
Thank you for your kind words, Marsha. The readers who reviewed Tight Knots. Loose Threads before and after publication were gracious and generous with their praise. I am grateful for the gift of their precious time as many are busy writers. It is always heartwarming and validating when others understand our journey and resonate with what we’re trying to convey.
I had hoped readers would find themselves in the collection. It reads like the journey of a love affair from flirtation, passion, and love to confusion and sadness, followed by anger and grief. The death of love. There are many voices in this collection. It’s real life. Love is universal.
While I don’t consider it an act of courage to put out a poetry book of this type, it did require me to reach deep into myself and to push the boundaries of my comfort zone. I grew as a woman and as a poet.
What advice would you give to new aspiring authors?
Sounds cliché but learn to write by reading. I encourage aspiring authors to read books in their chosen genre, books by their favorite authors, and books recommended by favorite writers. I also encourage folks to write through the scary bits of the story as that’s usually where the meat and essence of the story are found. If you’re not passionate about your story or if you rush the creative process, it will show.
Lastly, your story matters. The saddest thing to me are unwritten stories.
What are you working on now?
Since 2016, I’ve been working on a second novel called The Laments. The story begins in 1926 in a Roman Catholic convent in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and a Spanish-built leprosarium on Isla de Cabras, an islet located five miles off the coast of San Juan.
The Laments is the story of an idealistic novice nun whose monastic life is shattered by crimes at her Convent. As a means of escape, the conflicted novice volunteers to serve the patients at Lazareto Isla de Cabras. A colorful cast of characters and chaotic events will clash with the nun’s mission to save souls for God. She will be challenged to take a hard look at making her final vows and to take an even harder look at truth.
The Laments will be in reader’s hands in early 2022. I hope readers connect with this story.
My thanks to eYs Magazine and to you for the wonderful opportunity to connect with the eYs audience.
You can find out more about Eleanor at linktr.ee/ EleanorParkerSapia
Special note to Eleanor: It has been my pleasure to interview you and I would also like to thank you for the wonderful friendship we have developed over the years. Marsha