Note to readers: Writers need all kinds of help when they are trying to write a novel. They particularly need help -- and inspiration -- as they are finishing writing a book.
With my first novel, I would write poetry to get me writing a new chapter. I wrote dozens and dozens of poems.
With my second novel, I would put on headphones every single day and listen to my guitar teacher's extraordinary flamenco music in order to get inspired. (The book was about a woman who becomes a flamenco dancer.)
With this book, Sister Mysteries, and its companion novel, Castenata, I've gotten inspiration from a variety of sources. But lately, as I've been trying to zero in on the books' ending, I've gotten stuck. My imagination has iced up just like the weather outside. So today I decided to write one of the characters a letter, asking for help. I chose Señora Ramos, who plays a key role in the novel. Over the many years I've spent writing this book, I've grown very very fond of Señora. She is very kind and loving, and she nurtures Sister Renata like a mother would. Oh, and she also cooks up a terrific tortilla soup.
Dear Señora Ramos,
You have always held the key to the mystery. In my mind, you were the one who came forward in time to knock at my door, saying "Por favor, Claudia, escribe la historia real de la monja Renata." Please, Claudia, write the true story of the nun, Renata.
Way back when I started writing this book, and I kept wondering why it should be written, you (along with Sister Teresa) kept telling me the reason: "Porque es necessario limpiar su nombre." It is necessary to clear her name.
All those years ago now, when the first visions of the novel came to me, when I first saw Renata garbed in the red flamenco dress, tying the black laces on her shoes, smearing her mouth with lipstick, it never occurred to me to ask you another question. An even more important question.
That question is this, "Why ME?" Why was I chosen to clear Renata's name? Why should I be the one to write a book proving that the nun didn't slit her cousin's throat, that she wasn't guilty of murdering Antonie.
I've never asked you that question before, Señora, but now I am asking. I am asking because I must. I am asking you because I am anxious to finish the novel and my imagination is frozen solid, it's as iced up as the kitchen water pipe was this morning when I got up and looked out the window and saw the thermometer holding at six degrees.
Please tell me how I fit into this whole picture? All those years ago (January, 1995) when Renata and Antonie and you too Señora came alive in my mind, I never needed to know. In those days, I didn't question my role. I was a writer who had just completed her first novel, and so I thought, here was the second one. I chalked it up to my writerly inspiration.
How the heck was I supposed to know then that this novel wasn't any ordinary book? That this novel blurred the line between fact and fantasy. That this novel, as much as I've loved it, would haunt me for almost two decades? How could I have known that this novel would take me by the throat and hold on, threatening time and again to strangle me? How could I know then that this was the book straight from hell (or heaven perhaps), the book that would if I let it, drive me completely nuts. (It's come close on numerous occasions.)
Señora, I see you here before me today, standing at the stove. Threads of steel grey hair flutter loose on your temples, hair that has escaped from the bun at the back of your head. I see your white blouse, decorated at the neckline with embroidered flowers. I see your long blue skirt, drawn into gathers at the waist. I see you preparing my favorite meal, tortilla soup, with lots of fresh cilantro.
You stand there stirring the soup while I am sitting in a chair in Antonie's kitchen, waiting for a bowl. And more importantly, waiting for you to answer my question.
But you continue to face the stove. You won't look at me. Even when you ladle up the soup into a wide blue crockery bowl and set it and a spoon and a steaming warm roll at my place at the table, you don't speak. So I ask again.
"Please tell me Señora. I need to know. I am pleading with you because if I don't know why I'm writing this book, then I am afraid I might not be able to finish it. Even though I've written 35 chapters of Castenata, and 57 chapters of the outer story, Sister Mysteries, I've still got to write the ending to both of these stories and my imagination is a dry well."
I can tell she isn't listening to me. Or maybe it's that she isn't understanding me. She has very little grasp of English. So now I repeat what I just said, but this time in Spanish.
Instead of answering, you lift your beautiful ivory shawl, it too embroidered with flowers, off the peg on the wall and you wrap the shawl tightly around your shoulders. Then you settle yourself in the rocking chair across from the table. You just sit there rocking, smoothing the embroidered flowers and the long strings of silky fringe. After a while you fold your hands together and bring them to your heart. It almost looks like you are about to say a prayer. But no. You inhale and press your hands to your heart and then you surprise me by asking your own question.
"Chica, tu estás sentado aquí, sí?" Girl, you are sitting here, yes?
You shrug. "Así hay su explicación. Nunca te selecionamos, seleccionó tu mismo. Vino a nosotros, y quisimos tenerle."
Translation: "So there's your explanation. We didn't select you. You selected yourself. You came to us and we were willing to have you."
I am stunned. She is saying is that it was my idea to come to Renata's aid. It was my choice to tell Renata's tale, and to clear her name.
I sit staring into my bowl of soup. Señora's explanation has thrown me for a bit of a loop. Señora may think I volunteered for this responsibility, but in my mind, it was thrust upon me. I never said to myself, "Gee I think I'd like to write a murder mystery that involves a nun who lived back in 1883. I never said I think I'd like to tell the true story." No. it all started simply enough. I happened to hear some flamenco music playing on the radio one winter day while I was lying on the floor doing my leg exercises. The next thing I knew I had a starkly vivid image of a nun disrobing, changing into a red flamenco dress. Instantly I was pulled in. Immediately, I was intrigued to follow this nun, Renata, and her crazy cousin, Antonie.
My tortilla soup is getting cold. But now that I have ahold of Señora's attention, I want to ask her another question that I've never asked before. "Desde que tu vives a través de estos eventos, Señora me puede decir lo que le sucede a Renata en 1883. Por favor, digame, ella colgar de Antonie de asesinato?"
Translation: Since you lived through these events, Señora, you can tell me what happened to Renata in 1883. Please tell me, did she hang for Antonie's murder?
Señora cocks her head to one side, almost as if she is readying herself for a nap. She looks exceedingly sad, but she closes her eyes and refuses to speak. I repeat my question, but she just shakes her head back and forth very slowly, and raises her hands and presses them together. This time she sets them over her lips, again looking as though she might be ready to say a prayer. But she says nothing.
I don't want to give up. I'm having such a hard time figuring out how to write the ending of the story that I absolutely want and need her help. "Por favor Señora, digame, porque es muy importante."
She stops rocking. She stares into her hands, which have now dropped back into her lap. Her words are crisp and sharp and to the point. "Lo que pasó, pasó. El pasado es el pasado. Todos nos preocupamos por ahora es que ella se borra del crimen." She pauses. "Y ahora, estory cansado, así que tomo mi siesta, espero que les guste la sopa."
Señora shuffles out of the kitchen leaving me with my questions. What had she said? "Whatever happened, happened. The past is the past. All we care about now is that she is cleared of the crime. I'm tired now, so I will take my siesta, I hope you enjoy the soup."
I eat the soup slowly, savoring the taste, and wondering how I will ever figure out the ending to this book.