Monday, February 09, 2009

Oh Maria!

The Mexican-born American author writes spell-binding novels which has an emotional resonance. She was in Kerala recently

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Maria Escandon was seven years old her grandmother said, “You say many lies and that is not good. But I can tell you what you can do. A lie and a story are the same thing. The only difference is that everybody enjoys listening to a story while when you tell a lie you can get a thrashing.”

Maria followed her grandmother’s advice and began writing stories. She grew up in Mexico City but in 1983, as a young woman of 23, Maria moved to the United States with her husband to better her career prospects and settled in Los Angeles.

She decided to become a writer but initially found it difficult to write a novel in a new language.

“Every now and then I had to call my friends and say, ‘How do you say this in English?’” she says. “And I had to check the dictionary often. The good thing is that I learnt a lot of new English words. As a result, my vocabulary improved and my first novel, ‘Esperanza’s Box of Saints’ was much easier to write.”

‘Esperanza’, published by Simon and Schuster in 1999, was her breakthrough novel. It reached the No. 1 spot in the Los Angeles Times Bestsellers’ list and has been translated into 21 languages, including Malayalam.

A review in Library Journal states: ‘The novel, which sends Esperanza north across Mexico to Los Angeles, takes the reader along on a delightful journey into the soul of a humble woman filled with love for her daughter and faith in her saints’.

Was Maria surprised the book did so well? “All of us have the experience of maternal love,” she says. “It is so strong it can move mountains. The novel did well because I wrote about universal emotions.”

Marias next book, ‘Gonzalez & Daughter Trucking Co.’ was something she wrote for her father Julio. “In Mexico, when I was growing up, the boys got all the opportunities and the girls none at all,” she says. “Over the years I tried hard to show my father that I could do the same things as a man. And I could be as successful.”

To Maria’s great disappointment when ‘Esperanza’ came out Julio did not read it. “I decided that my next book would be on a subject he would want to read about,” she says. “Since my father owned a truck, I wrote about the trucker’s life and the relationship between a father and a daughter.”

Maria finished the novel on December 21, 2003. Then she took the manuscript and flew to Mexico city to show it to her dad. However, tragically, on December 24, he died of a heart attack at the age of 71. “So he was unable to read the manuscript,” she says. “But I have dedicated the book to him.”

To earn a living, Maria has also been a writing instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Asked about the qualities needed to become a good writer, she says, “There is a mixing pot in Mexico which is used to make sauce, and grind the chillies. It has three legs. If one leg is missing the pot will fall down.”

Similarly, to be a writer you need three legs: discipline, motivation and talent. “I know of many talented people who could have been fabulous writers but they lacked the motivation or the discipline,” she says. “Or maybe they were not confident they could do it. Or there are people who sit and write every day but sadly whatever they write is not interesting. You need all three things, and, don’t forget, a sprinkling of luck.”

Maria was in Kochi recently to inaugurate the DC International Book Fair. She finds Kerala a magical place. “I love the colours of the clothes, the signs on the streets, the pungent smells and the friendly people,” she says. “The best way to approach the state is through the senses.”

Which is how she writes. A Maria Escandon book is a soaring emotional experience. You feel as if you have seen an edge-of-the-seat movie after reading her novels.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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