For Lucha Corpi, art has always meant activism. As a woman, a Hispanic, an immigrant and a mother, she has always found herself breaking down barriers in both life and literature. Her initial writing forays led to the exploration of poetry in Spanish as an outlet for her creativity. In 1970, she received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship for poems later included in several collections and anthologies.
After her first collection of poetry appeared, Corpi experienced a long and personally worrisome poetic silence. To ease the tension, she turned to prose, penning several award-winning short stories. In 1984, she wrote her first story in English and her first English-language novel, Delia's Song, was published by Arte Público Press in 1989.
The publication of Eulogy for a Brown Angel: A Mystery Novel (Arte Público Press, 1992) was the culmination of a life-long dream. The novel won the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and the Multicultural Publishers Exchange Best Book of Fiction. Corpi’s second mystery novel featuring Chicana detective Gloria Damasco is Cactus Blood (Arte Público Press, 1995), which was reissued in paperback in 2009. Black Widow’s Wardrobe (Arte Público Press, 1999) and Death at Solstice (Arte Público Press, 2009) are the two most recent editions to The Gloria Damasco Series. In between the publication of these works of fiction, she compiled and edited Máscaras (Third Woman Press, 1997), a collection of essays on writing by prominent Chicana and Latina authors. In addition to poetry and mystery novels, Lucha Corpi also writes for children. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from UC-Berkley and an M.A. in World and Comparative Literature from San Francisco State University. A tenured teacher in the Oakland Public Schools Neighborhood Centers Program for 30 years, she retired in 2005.
Thanks for this interview, Lucha. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I was born in a small tropical town in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. There, people fostered both the creation and the performance of poetry and music, together with the art of storytelling. I was also fortunate to be a daughter of parents who believed in educating the two girls in the family equally well as their six sons. My father used to tell my sister and me that “When you educate a man, you educate an individual. But when you educate a woman, you educate the whole family.” My parents expected my sister and me to excel in school. We did.
I, however, did not start writing poetry or stories until I was twenty-four, already living in Berkeley, California, where I had moved after getting married. By then, I was going through a divorce, had a young child, no family in California, and very few friends. But when I started writing, I felt that I had found my destiny. As my grandmother used to tell us, your destiny is what you were born to do in this world. Except for teaching and motherhood to various degrees, nothing else makes me feel whole and content as writing does, whether poetry or narrative.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
I became “an author” when I published, that is, made my literary work public, beginning with my first collection of poetry in 1979, followed by six novels, a second poetry collection and two children’s books.
In a way, the author is a writer’s public persona. The writer, however, is a private person. Anyone who expresses life’s experiences—their own or someone else’s—in writing is a creative writer, and for him or her, the most important concern, the passion, is the writing itself.
Writing is a vocation and a trade as well. I was born already with an above-average affinity for the spoken and written word, with the voice-vision of the poet and writer, and a strong urgency to express what I perceive and experience using as medium the written word. These three elements, combined, amount to what we call “talent for writing.” But talent alone is never enough if the poet or writer is not willing to apprentice, to learn the craft, to fine-tune the engine that carries the poem or the story from beginning to end. And, the most difficult task of all: to keep one’s butt on a chair long enough to get the writing done.
Writers and poets learn and develop their craft from other writers and poets, either by reading the works of others or by taking writing workshops. In my case, I read, and my reading interests are varied. I like the sciences, especially the biological and physical sciences, but I also love history, philosophy, mythology, poetry, and literature in general.
Do you have another job besides writing?
My avocation, my second passion, was teaching. I was an ESL teacher in the Oakland Public Schools Neighborhood Centers for thirty-one years. I was a single mother, too, and I had to work to support myself and my son. I consider myself blessed to have been as passionate about teaching as about writing and motherhood, all creative endeavors. Creativity, however, does not spring eternal, and its well is not bottomless. Teaching and parenthood took most of my time and energy. And I had to do my writing for two hours a day only, from five to seven in the morning. But I wrote every day.
My son is a professor now, with children of his own. Most of all, he is a good man and a sensitive caring father and husband. And although I loved teaching, I knew it was time to leave and let the next generation of energetic, creative, enduring young teachers take over. But only I can do my writing. I did not want to die saying, “I could have written.” So I retired in 2005 to devote entirely to writing.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
Death at Solstice comes to light as I celebrate forty years as a writer. It is the fourth of the Gloria Damasco mystery novels. Eulogy for a Brown Angel, Cactus Blood and Black Widow’s Wardrobe—each of the mystery novels in the series deals with aspects of the history and culture of Mexicans in the U.S., in California in particular.
Gloria Damasco is hired by the owners of the Oro Blanco winery in California’s Shenandoah Valley, in the heart of the legendary Gold Country, to investigate the theft of a pair of emerald-diamond earrings rumored to have belonged to Carlota, Empress of Mexico in the 19th century.
Shortly after, Gloria becomes aware that there is so much more than the theft of the family heirloom. A young woman considered by many to be a saint, able to perform miracles, disappears at the same time that the nurse who takes care of the young woman is found murdered. Add to the mix mysterious accidents, threatening anonymous notes, and the sightings of a ghost horse thought to have belonged to the notorious Gold Rush hero-bandit Joaquin Murrieta, and Gloria is soon struggling to fit together all the pieces of this puzzle before someone else is killed.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline? Did your book require a lot of research?
I do not write a chapter by chapter outline and the main premise, that is, a synopsis of the novel, before I sit down to work. But I do begin with a list that includes topics I must read, i.e. about the history or science in the novel, or firearms, etc. This research also involves frequent and extended visits to the sites/locales where the action is to take place. I also do a lot of thinking (the non-physical aspect of the writing process) about the crime(s) that trigger the investigation. My research takes me from six to eight months, and I try to complete it before I sit down to do the actual writing of the novel.
I tend to over-research, but I don’t mind. It is amazing how little we remember even about events and experiences of personal importance. The larger and deeper the well of knowledge, the easier it is for me to feel safe and secure in it, to be sure that I am as accurate and factual as possible, and to develop believable characters, who react in their own unique ways or betray what they’re capable of as they deal with extraordinary situations or unusual experiences. But it isn’t until I do the actual writing that I discover all of these aspects, including how much of the research is integral to the plot.
That said, I suppose my personal style of writing is one of discovery, of being open to surprises, allowing myself to let the characters reveal themselves as they see fit, and let my detective guide me as the investigation develops.
And at this point, I think I can guess what you must be wondering about: If what I say is true, then what is the role of the writer in all this?
My role, as I see it, is to tell the best story I can, with no agenda of my own, without manipulation of content or character. To make sure the characters, even the minor ones, are multi-dimensional, the plot is solid and every detail or question raised is accounted for or answered to my satisfaction at the end.
My first draft is usually from 50 to 80 pages longer, fatter, than it might need to be. So my second draft, my first revision of the work, is intended to pare down, to edit out every bit of material that adds little or nothing at all to characterization, setting or plot. And of course, if need be, I plug holes in the plot. The second revision or third draft has to do with checking the accuracy of facts pertaining to the historical, cultural, and socio-political content of the work. And in the fourth draft, third rewriting, I work on the fluidity and appropriate use of language and form.
I ask then two or three people I trust to read this fourth draft for their feedback. Based on what they tell me, and focusing on the similar issues raised by them, I revise the novel one more time, before I send it to my publisher. Subsequent rewrites of the novel are in conjunction with my editor at the press.
Who is your target audience? What will the reader learn after reading your book?
I write crime fiction. My novels will be of interest to anyone who likes mysteries that are not necessarily conventional, that offer more than the solution of a crime and the restoring of social order as the perpetrators are brought to justice. If I have done my job right, and I believe I have, my novels offer all of that. But they also provide a larger view of the life, culture and history of Mexican Americans and Latinos in the U.S.
It’s been said that Gloria Damasco is the first Chicana private detective in American literature. By that, I believe critics mean that Gloria is the first fictional private investigator to be deeply rooted in Chicano/Mexican culture in the U.S., written by someone—me—who is as deeply anchored and steeped in the culture as she.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
I usually read critical reviews of my novels and my poetry, and consider the issues raised by individual critics, positive or negative. Sometimes my ego is wounded, and I walk around like a bird with a broken wing, or a homeless person with three raggedy blankets on yet chilled to the bone in the sunlight. Then I remind myself of the true reasons I write, because writing is what keeps me breathing, living, and what helps me make sense of myself and the world around me. I need to write; I am addicted to it.
Nonetheless, I re-read the negative comments. And if two or more of those critics agree that my work is lacking in particular ways, I heed.
When Eulogy for a Brown Angel, my first detective novel, came out, critics praised the “dazzingly evocative prose,” the “original and highly charged moments” and the fact that with this work, I “expanded the genre.” They liked the characters, the historical background offered. Yet, more than a few found the novel lacking in terms of the plot. I listened and began to apprentice how to plot not just a novel, but a mystery novel. My apprenticeship was the writing of my second novel, Cactus Blood. Each of my novels is an apprenticeship in terms of the craft so I can tell the best story possible, be the best writer I can be.
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