Many members of my family have seen ghosts, but I haven't, and am not sure I want to...so instead I write about them. When I'm not writing about ghosts, I'm writing non-creepy web and promotional copy for businesses, nonprofits, and public agencies or writing non-fiction essays (some of which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Salon.com).
I'm also a near-native of Los Angeles, the setting of the Days of the Dead series. I arrived there from my birthplace in the mysterious east (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) at the age of the 3 and earned two degrees in English from Stanford and a doctorate in linguistics from UCLA. After 10 years as a university professor and researcher (and writing unintentionally terrifying things like my first book, "Remnant Movement and VSO Clausal Architecture: A Case Study of San Lucas Quiavini Zapotec"), I returned to my roots as a writer. I've never looked back.
1. What inspired you to write Days of the Dead?
A couple of things. One, I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts and by stories of people who claim to have actually seen them (like some members of my family). Thus, I wondered what life would be like if that were a normal state of affairs. The second inspiration was my background growing up in Los Angeles—while I’m not Latina myself (I’m Chinese-American), many of my classmates were, and if you live in L.A., it’s impossible to go through the day without hearing someone speaking Spanish, even if you’re just sitting at home flipping through TV or radio stations. Also, in my previous career as a linguistic researcher, I did most of my research on an indigenous language of Mexico (San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec, spoken in central Oaxaca), and luckily for me, many speakers of the language had emigrated to the US and lived in Los Angeles. I got much of my data from them, and learned a lot about what they had experienced personally as new immigrants trying to fit in and build new homes in a sometimes hostile country.
2. What were Elena’s ultimate goals in the story and how did they reflect on her?
While Elena is a journalist by profession, she is primarily interested in social justice – for her, reporting is a way of speaking truth to power and defending the exploited. So when the housekeeper, Graciela, goes missing, Elena’s goal is not just to passively report what happened to her, but to find Graciela herself. As a result, she tends to take her stories very personally, which is not always a responsible or healthy quality in a journalist. So Elena’s passion for doing the right thing is both a strength and a weakness.
3. Can you describe the relationship between Elena and Mona—two women from two different worlds?
Theirs is definitely an “Odd Couple” type of relationship! I guess Mona, being a bit needy, is drawn to Elena because she is so strong and independent and because she is so patient and (mostly) non-judgmental. And while Elena knows that Mona is a bit of an emotional basket case with a flair for bad decisions, she values Mona’s intelligence, kindness, and loyalty, as well as the fact that Mona knows her well enough to fully accept her without judgment, warts and supernatural gift and all.
4. What are some of the main socio-economic issues that you explore in this book and why did you explore them?
In Days of the Dead, Elena’s primary goal is fighting racism, especially against Mexican Americans, and promoting economic justice issues such as a living wage and ensuring the justice system treats rich and poor Americans equally. I chose these issues because they seemed to make sense to me in light of Elena’s character—she’s driven by her passions, and her passions are driven by her personal experience. Given her ethnic and family background, these seemed to be appropriate causes for her. While I do believe these issues should be taken more seriously, my goal wasn’t specifically to promote them, but to give Elena her “why”.
5. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
Above all, I hope they will enjoy themselves! But if readers also come away with an added appreciation of L.A.’s cultural diversity and start to think a bit about what it means to be a member of a minority group (or a white person in a majority-minority city like Los Angeles), all the better. I didn’t write Days of the Dead to teach anyone a lesson—L.A.’s mix of cultures just felt natural to me since that’s what I grew up with, and I was just following the old advice to write what you know. But after workshopping the story with my writing group in rural Florida, where I live now, I realized that for many Americans, this mix seemed terribly exotic and strange, and the story may be an opportunity to show them another part of the “real America”.
6. What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?
What I like best is having a healthy and constructive outlet for my random thoughts, fears, and passions. I write a lot of horror stories (I’m a member of the Horror Writers Association) because I have an unfortunate tendency to fantasize worst-case scenarios, so I write stories about them instead of internalizing them and wrecking my life. I’m also really into birdwatching, so as a favor to my local Audubon society, I submitted an article on a rare local sighting to our local paper. Not only did it get published there, it also got picked up by NPR, The Weather Channel, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. (And I didn’t get one red cent for my efforts. Pfft.)
And this brings me to the downside of writing: It’s generally not taken very seriously as a profession. Writing is also my day job—I do web content writing and ghostwriting and have years of experience writing for Fortune 500 companies and governmental agencies, but my main competition is always some random dude with a spell checker who does half-assed work for pizza money. And alas, the only difference a lot of prospective clients see is the price.
7. Who are some of your favorite authors?
They’re all over the map! I wrote my college honors thesis on Virginia Woolf, whose writing is just breathtaking—I used to cry myself to sleep wondering why I couldn’t write like that. Stephen King is always fun to read and always comes up with interesting premises for his stories. Junot Diaz does neat and original things with language. Carl Hiaasen can weave political and environmental issues into his fiction and educate readers while making them laugh, which is not an easy thing to do…the list goes on.
8. If your book would be turned into a movie, who would you imagine playing the part of the main character? (Actor can be ANYONE, living or dead.)
Good question! I don’t watch very much TV or see a lot of movies, so I don’t have a lot of candidates in my mental inventory. Elena’s definitely not a real sexpot, nor does she care a lot about her appearance, although I imagine her being attractive enough, so not someone like Jennifer Lopez. Maybe someone who’s good at making strong, unconventional characters sympathetic and human – I liked how America Ferrara portrayed her character in Ugly Betty; maybe she’d be a good choice.
9. Are you working on anything right now?
I’ve already completed a draft of the sequel to Days of the Dead, which I’m now revising, and starting to draft the storyline for the third book in the series.
10. And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?
My hope is that in the future, stories with Latina/o protagonists are no longer pigeonholed as just Latino literature, and that people of all backgrounds will be attracted to them and recognize some common ground with them. I also envision seeing more Latinos and other peoples of color playing prominent roles (as writers or characters) in mainstream genre literature (horror, mystery, romance, speculative fiction, etc.) – this is already starting to happen. It will be a great day when a Latino/Latina or other person of color could write about people and themes reflecting their background and be recognized not just as a great Latino/African-America/Asian-American writer, but a great American writer, period.
Up next: A review for Days of the Dead