An Interview with Lorraine M. López, Author of ‘The Darling’

Author Lorraine M. López

Author Lorraine M. López

The Darling, a new and engaging novel by Lorraine M. López, was published by University of Arizona Press (Camino Del Sol series) in September 2015. The story, which takes place in the seventies and eighties, is as much about Caridad’s journey as it is about life before Internet and cell phones — love in the time of books!

Caridad breathes through the novels that she devours and, thanks to the author’s vivid descriptions, she is also able to leap from the pages of her own book and become the reader’s best friend. She is the comadrita you would like to comfort, cheer up and share with some of your own tales of romantic woe.

I’ve had the honor and pleasure of knowing Lorraine Lopez for several years, so this interview is also a virtual chat entre amigas, with two mugs of hot coffee on top of a table with muchos books.

The Darling was included in a recent NBC News article, “10 New Books by Established Latino Authors” by Rigoberto Gonzalez. How do you feel about the reception that the novel has had?

I am, of course, grateful to Rigoberto Gonzalez for listing my book in this list, among work by authors I deeply admire, including Sandra Cisneros, Joy Castro and my mentor and dear friend Judith Ortiz Cofer. To be in the company of such writers is a tremendous honor. Rigoberto, a brilliant author himself, is a tireless advocate of Latina/o literature and a tremendous supporter of my work. He, in fact, wrote a blurb for The Darling, which I am very proud to have.

Apart from this and a few reviews, the novel has received little notice. But this is typically the case for books released by independent/university presses. The novel’s handful of reviews have been thoughtful and insightful. Even one piece, claiming the novel did not conform to the reviewer’s expectations for Latino/a literature, was written with care. However much I would like to argue that writers of any ethnicity should be free to write the kind of literature they choose, without performing culture to satisfy the mainstream reader’s preconceptions, I nevertheless appreciate the time and attention this reviewer spent on my work. What’s worse than an ambivalent or even negative review is no review at all. Since the novel was released this fall, reviews are still coming in, and I’m eager to read these.

On a personal level, I have been surprised and thrilled by the reception of this novel by my colleagues, literature professors. When my books come out, they usually congratulate me but have little to say about the writing. This time, several have approached me to talk to me about the novel and tell me how much they have enjoyed it.

There is a lot to enjoy, more so when the reader can make a connection with writers from the past and “decode” some secret literary messages you have left there for them. Do you, as a writer, also feel a personal connection to Chekhov, Nabokov, Flaubert, Dreiser, D. H. Lawrence and the other writers who influenced Caridad’s life journey?

The novel itself was basically an excuse to return to the books I love, to reread them and consider the ways in which novels about women by men inform and misinform readers, especially readers who are young women. The Darling is also a contemplation of cross-dressing. The dead white men, the authors that Caridad idolizes, assume female identities through writing the perspectives of women in their novels. Apart from Nabokov, these authors are “dressing up” as women, much the way that Gray costumes himself in a wig, skirt, blouse and pantyhose, and freeing themselves from maleness to inhabit the female psyche, imaginatively.

As to personal connection, I should be ashamed of how infatuated I am with Chekhov. If he were alive today, I would be the kind of fan that would make him consider a restraining order. And I don’t think I’ve ever sought an autograph or written a fan letter in my life. I read once that Mozart provides evidence of reincarnation as his music reveals the experience of many lifetimes. I feel this is true of Chekhov. His work must be informed by more than just one life.

Reading books by Nabokov, Flaubert, and Chopin — the sole woman writer in the group — were transformative experiences for me. These novels shaped my identity as a writer and as a woman, expanding my perspective and increasing my store of knowledge and experience of the world. To this day, I feel strongly connected to these authors and their books.

And it shows in The Darling. Who would you consider your greatest literary influences?

Apart from the authors I’ve mentioned, two of my strongest literary influences passed away just this year — Ruth Rendell and P. D. James — so I feel I should memorialize these women by mentioning them here. They are mystery writers, but their books, for me, constitute pure literary art. Barbara Pym and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala also inform my process and influence my aesthetic as a writer. I read and reread novels by these women like an avid student, learning how to develop characters and setting, how to advance the plot, how to create metaphoric resonances through detail, and most of all, how to create an experience of drama for readers.

Judith Ortiz Cofer is another powerful influence. Apart from being a canonical Latina author, she was my major professor when I was in graduate school, and she has remained a great friend and steadfast supporter of my work. Though I’m not always successful at this, I try to model my professional life on the sterling example she has set. Also Sandra Cisneros, who chose my first book for publication, is my literary fairy godmother. Instead of the iconic prince on a white horse, she appeared to grant my wish, lifting me out of the ashes and onto to the printed page.

Un saludo cariñoso a Judith Ortiz Cofer y Sandra Cisneros, escritoras grandes! I am always curious about the creative process, how it goes from spark to fire. How did The Darling begin for you? What was the genesis?

The spark for this book came from a nonfiction book I read about marriage, about how unnatural a state it is for humans and what a struggle it is to sustain. The book deconstructed the idea of marriage as “work.” After reading this, I thought, well, I’ve been married a time or two, and I can certainly agree with the author’s viewpoint. Around the same time, I noticed how many novels about women are written by men and the shortcomings in these, such as the way in which male authors shy away from female sexuality and motherhood. I determined, then, to write a book about a woman who seeks to find herself through such literature and through serial relationships, including a few marriages. Also, I wanted to begin with a wedding because marriage is where many stories end, as you’ve noticed, and readers are left to assume that happily ever after ensues. I hoped to complicate that notion some.

Readers love complications, que no? Plus “happily ever after” can be bien boring. Bueno, in general, when you write, do you plan the entire book in advance and have outlines?

This depends upon the book. Usually, I have some notion of where I hope the narrative will go, though I’m open to the characters whims. The Darling, more or less, stayed on the trajectory I had in mind, but The Realm of Hungry Spirits surprised me, just as the novel I am drafting now is surprising me. Still, it is heading (like Realm) in the general direction I intended. An analogy would be that of taking an actual journey. Say I plan to get to Milwaukee. I set out without GPS and without a map. All I know for sure is that I will reach this destination, but I have no idea how or when. For my young adult novel, Call Me Henri, I used checklists to remind myself what I wanted to achieve in each chapter, but that’s as close as I’ve ever come to outlining.

There is one particular scene that I just can’t forget: when Caridad is approaching a glass door and she sees her own reflection, she confuses it with the reflection of an older woman. It is one of the most powerful in the novel! Did this image just come to you?

Thank you for asking about this. That was an important moment in the book for me, too. I didn’t want to hit it too hard or emphasize the symbolism too much, but to my thinking, the novel is about discovering the self. Caridad, the protagonist, embarks on a journey of self-discovery. The guides she has chosen are dead white men, and the help they give her is mixed at best. Though she questions them from time to time, she trusts their male authority, as if they know more about becoming a woman than she does. For most of the novel, she does not perceive her own authority, and as a consequence, she fails to recognize herself. That moment when she misidentifies her own reflected image — takes it to be a timid customer approaching — is a physical embodiment of this idea, just the way Gray’s literal crossdressing represents the way in which male authors assume female identities in their novels. Not only does Caridad fail to recognize herself in the darkened glass, she resents the hesitancy and fearfulness that she perceives in this approaching “customer.” I return to that moment later in the chapter, when Caridad is falling for a man who is hazardous. The second time she sees her reflection, she recognizes it at once, and she’s proud of the energy in her step and admires the way her face glows like a flame. This is her second mistake — failure to recognize the self in jeopardy.

Caridad’s evolution, the way she grows up page after page, makes her so human, so real. After a while she became like a friend and of course I was rooting for her. Now, para terminar, do you have any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?

Just three things: 1) Write, 2) Read, and 3) Write more. The only way to improve at anything is to practice, and writing every day is the best practice for people who want to become writers. Recently, I attended a wonderful play about Jack London, The House That Jack Built, by my colleague Cecelia Tichi. In it, Jack London is depicted as a paradoxically complicated man — a serious and dedicated proponent of workers’ rights with clear socialist leanings, and at the same time, he was the first American author to become a millionaire. He was intoxicated by having and spending money. As most know, he was also a hyper-masculinized figure, a domineering fellow who set high standards for himself and others. My main takeaway from the play was his determination to write 1,000 words a day, no matter what. This is such a wonderfully macho challenge that I cannot resist it. Immediately after I saw the play, I committed to composing 1,000 words a day. I thought it would be hard, but it wasn’t too difficult at all. I normally write five pages or more per day. Granted, these are not all great pages, and much un-writing is required, but it is practice, which I need, which every writer needs. Later I learned from my colleague that scholars tabulated London’s actual output, concluding that he could not have possibly written 1,000 words per day. Still, I channel the boastful and prevaricating Jack London here in issuing his challenge to emerging writers: Set your own word count and strive to write that number of words each day. No matter what.

Also, beginning writers must read, voraciously, even gluttonously. Writing professionally means stepping up to join a conversation that has been going on for centuries. In order to partake of this intelligently, one must know what has been said. Reading contemporary literature, to me, is just as important as reading canonical works — if not more so — because what is being published right now forms the context into which new writers will emerge.

Muchas gracias, Lorraine, for this interview and your valuable advice. 1,000 words a day, orale! A escribir, for many years, for many books!

Lorraine M. López, a Creative Writing professor at Vanderbilt University, is the author of six books of fiction and editor or coeditor of two essay collections. Her short story collection, Soy la Avon Lady and Other Stories (Curbstone, 2002) won the inaugural Miguel Marmól prize for fiction. Her second book, Call Me Henri was awarded the Paterson Prize for Young Adult Literature in 2007, and her novels, The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters (Grand Central Press, 2007) and The Realm of Hungry Spirits (Grand Central Press, 2011) were a Borders/Las Comadres Selections. López’s short story collection, Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories was a Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction in 2010 and winner of the Texas League of Writers Award for Outstanding Book of Fiction. She has also edited or coedited three collections of essays titled An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor or Working-Class Roots (University of Michigan Press, 2009), The Other Latin@: Writing against a Singular Identity (University of Arizona Press, 2011), and Rituals of Movement in the Writing of Judith Ortiz Cofer (Caribbean Studies Press, 2012). Her most recent novel, The Darling (University of Arizona Press, 2015) was named one of the “10 New Books by Established Latino Authors” by Rigoberto Gonzalez.

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Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana and now lives in Taos, New Mexico. She has a Ph.D. in literature and has published eight novels and several collections of short stories. You can follower her @Dovalpage.

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