Earlier this week I posted a review of Laura Resau and María Virginia Farinango’s novel The Queen of Water. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Resau about the collaborative process, the key decisions made by the co-authors (whether to write it as fiction rather than memoir and young adult rather than adult), and the novel’s journey to publication.
You co-authored The Queen of Water with María Virginia Farinango, whose experience as a child domestic worker in Ecuador is portrayed in the novel. How did you and Farinango meet and decide to write a book together?
I met María Virginia in 2004, when she was an ESL (English as a Second Language) student at the community college where I taught ESL in Colorado. One snowy day I stopped by the small shop where she sold Ecuadorian crafts and we got into a conversation about her fascinating girlhood. Hours passed, and I found myself completely riveted by her story and her eloquence. Previously, during my graduate studies in anthropology, I’d focused on indigenous women’s issues in Latin America, and dreamed of collaborating with a woman to help tell her story. As a writer, I loved how moving and inspirational María Virginia’s story was, and as an anthropologist, I was struck by how her struggles reflected the realities of many indigenous girls worldwide. I strongly felt it was important for people to hear her story. I was elated when María Virginia told me that for years she’d wanted to write the story of her girlhood… and that she wanted to write it with an experienced author. We agreed to collaborate, and we’re thrilled that seven years later, the book is finally a reality.
The Queen of Water is a novel based on a true story. How closely does the novel follow the actual events?
It follows actual events very closely. When we began this project seven years ago, we intended for it to be a 100% true memoir. During the first few years of working on the book, I approached the project with the same rigor I’d used in my graduate research. When we started getting feedback on early drafts, it became clear we’d produced an academic work that didn’t engage your average reader. Yet María and I both had the goal of reaching a wide audience of teens and adults—not just academics. She agreed to give me liberty to tweak her story, which involved shaping the narrative by cutting out extraneous scenes that didn’t relate to the book’s themes, expanding dialogue and descriptions of people and places, distilling series of events into single scenes, and using my imagination to flesh out certain elements of the story. In our revisions, all of the major scenes in the story are still very close to reality, simply elaborated on.
On a side note, Dave Eggers, author of What is the What, succinctly explains why he and Valentino Achak Deng (former Sudanese lost boy) decided to fictionalize his memoir—reasons similar to María Virginia’s and my own. I’ve met a number of writers doing collaborative memoir projects who have encountered similar problems and recognized the need to fictionalize elements of the story in order to engage readers.
Why did you choose a juvenile, rather than an adult, publisher for The Queen of Water? Did you encounter any obstacles in getting a publisher to take on this unusual collaborative novel, and how did you overcome them?
When we began this project, back in 2004, we weren’t sure whether it would end up targeted at a teen or adult audience. María Virginia agreed that I should write the book to reflect her voice in whatever way felt most natural and organic—which ended up being a story accessible to both teens and adults. Over the next several years, as María Virginia and I were working on her story, I published a number of young adult novels with Delacorte Press (including What the Moon Saw and Red Glass). Interestingly, I discovered that a large percentage of my readers are actually adults. In the end, we went with Delacorte—my juvenile publisher—because it was easiest. I already adored my editor, Stephanie Lane Elliott, and I’d always felt very supported by Delacorte. I consider The Queen of Water a “cross-over” book, straddling the YA and adult market, and I hope that as word spreads, it finds a wide readership among adults.
As far as glitches, we did submit an earlier version to my editor at Delacorte back in 2007. In retrospect, I can see that the manuscript was still too academic at that point, and I don’t think it grabbed her. Stephanie also didn’t think it was the right book to follow so closely behind my first novel, What the Moon Saw, which has a subplot similar to María Virginia’s story. (It’s similar because the bones of María Virginia’s story are experiences common to many indigenous women.) When I asked Stephanie to take a look at a later revision, around 2009, she loved it, and thought the timing was right. (Of course, then we had to wait two more years for the book to actually be published… quite a journey!) I feel very grateful that Delacorte has taken risks publishing some of my books… and I’m grateful that those risks have proved to be worth it in the end.
When Virginia first goes to work for la Doctorita and Niño Carlitos, she idealizes her life before and dreams of her mother rescuing her. Later on, she remembers the time her parents beat her and rejected her. Virginia spends years trying to overcome the self-loathing she feels as an indigenous girl. Can you talk about the relationship of oppression, self-loathing, and domestic violence?
María Virginia’s early childhood in her indigenous Quichua community was full of domestic violence, and she received little affection from her parents. I think it helps to look at this from a historical and societal perspective. In recent history, many poor indigenous men were treated as slaves by mestizo landowners, and often beaten themselves. Given little power and respect in mainstream society, these men might have tried to gain a sense of power in their households by beating their wives and children—a reflection of the way their mestizo bosses beat them.
As an older girl, María Virginia was beaten by her female mestiza boss, which was considered socially acceptable by many. She also pelted María Virginia with daily verbal abuse, calling her variations of “stupid, dirty Indian.” María Virginia soon came to internalize the scorn that mestizo society had for poor indigenous people, and rejected her indigenous identity. One way that her self-loathing played out was in her bout with anorexia. She embraced being thin and pale, believing it set her apart from the societal stereotypes of fat, dark-skinned indigenous maids.
You mention that when you met Farinango, she was 30 years old and had a toddler of her own. How has her experience growing up with her Quichua family and then taking care of other people’s children affected her as a parent?
I’ve always been struck by what a loving and attentive mother María Virginia is. I’ve spent lots of time with her and her son over the years it took to write this book, and I’ve noticed how frequently she hugs him and tells him she loves him, tells him he’s smart and loving and special. Dozens of times throughout every day, she gives him the positive message that he’s capable of anything.
She seems to have consciously cultivated a loving relationship with him that stands in stark contrast to how she was treated as a child. Unlike her own mother, María Virginia has chosen to have a small family, so that she can shower her son with love and attention, and save up money to give him higher educational opportunities.
I find it really inspirational that she’s successfully broken the cycle of abuse and poverty. I admire her parenting style, which is exceptional considering she didn’t experience parental love as a child. Although her bosses were abusive toward her as a young girl, María Virginia did witness them giving love and affection to their own children. I wonder if this modeling later helped her with her own parenting experience in some way. It’s ironic that despite their cruelty, María Virginia’s bosses might have inadvertently given her some important skills.