Today a very special treat: an essay from Lucha Corpi that explains some of her writing process; more specifically, how she was "inspired" to write her memorable, award-winning novel Eulogy for a Brown Angel (one of my all-time favorite novels) and how Gloria Damasco, Chicana private eye, first made an appearance. This essay originally was posted, in a slightly different version, as a response to blog host Book-lover Carol's question during Lucha's virtual Latino Book Tour (www.latinobooktours.com) for Death at Solstice: Who is your main character and how do you plot your mystery novels? Thank you, Lucha, for sharing. Readers - enjoy and learn.
Gloria Damasco, Private Investigator and Clairvoyant
I first saw and heard Gloria Damasco, Chicana P.I., when I was in the Sierra Nevada in
I had taken with me some CDs, among them a recording of the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly. I am not an opera buff, but for some unknown reason, I was obsessed with that opera, especially the aria Un Bel Di. I had also started a list of books I wanted to read about the architecture and the wine industry in
Looking for books on research topics to read during my sojourn in the mountains, I paid a fruitless visit to a local bookstore in
I turned on my CD player and began to listen to Puccini’s opera then lay down on the sofabed to read the mystery novel. About an hour later, I slipped into a deep sleep only to be awakened later by a loud noise and to total darkness around me. I was sure someone was in the sleeping area downstairs. My thoughts immediately raced down the spiral staircase to the sliding doors. Had I locked them after all? Was someone down there, lurking, waiting? How long before the intruder made his way up the spiral staircase?
I listened intently. I was hyperventilating, trembling; my heart raced. But I forced myself to sit up while I weighed the risks of going downstairs and confronting the intruder. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and as quietly as could be done, I walked to the fireplace and got hold of the poker, then began my descent, barefoot, taking one step and deep breath at a time. I stood at the foot of the stairs and surveyed the area then walked to the sliding doors and checked them. They were locked. I looked behind each closet and room door and under each bed till I was satisfied no one was there.
As I got to the top of the stairs, my heart did a Mexican hat dance in my chest. Something or someone, a white raggedy gown on, its arms flailing wildly, swayed and gestured just outside the sliding doors to the dark balcony.
“My God!” I said, sucking in breath. “It’s not of this world.”
The phantasm went on with its macabre dancing. I put down the poker still in my hand and looked around for a cross but saw none. So I made the sign of the cross and walked closer. The specter turned out to be a large white windsock, dancing in the night wind. I had no idea who had hung it from a branch of the pine next to the balcony during my long nap. I dropped to the floor, laughing and crying alternately.
I was scared out my wits, still shaking and breathing hard when I made myself a cup of coffee and sat in an easy chair, cloaked in a cotton blanket and darkness, unable to close my eyes, except for quick blinks. Closer to dawn, I turned on the CD player, hoping that Madame Butterfly would lull me to sleep. It took at least a half hour for the soprano to reach the first heart-wrenching phrases of the aria Un Bel Di, and for my eyes to finally close for what seemed only seconds. As if on a red screen inside my lids, I saw a pair of dark hands and arms and nestled between them a toddler, a little boy, who appeared to be asleep.
“I am Gloria. And this child is for you,” a woman’s voice said as she handed me the little boy. I extended my arms to receive her gift. They were still outstretched when I opened my eyes.
I heard the crack of thunder in the distance, the same noise that had wakened me up the night before. It was noon and the thunderstorm was moving in. It would soon be raging right above
In time, I learned that Gloria possessed some sort of psychic power. Was she a kind of fortuneteller? Palm reader, perhaps? Did she delve in Black or White Magic? Maybe she was a healer, then again maybe a sorceress. Was she a New Age or Old Age psychic? There was so much to research. And I dove into the psychic pool without hesitation.
I attended countless psychic fairs, séances, mid-summer and mid-winter solstice celebrations, Sabbaths, had my fortune read many times, my aura cleansed at least twice, had regressions to at least four past lives, visited with a clairvoyant, and attempted astral projection, but my reptilian brain refused to let my spirit soar freely. I learned the techniques for channeling and regression to past lives and used them on my most trusted poet friends, with some fascinating results.
At every séance, Sabbath, solstice celebration and psychic encounter, I asked for receipts. I mostly got them from well-established psychic institutes; none from the mediums at séances or spiritualistic sessions, who always eyed me with suspicion. At home, I put the receipts in a Mexican basket together with the rest of my tax receipts and documents. I had to justify my research expenses. And they were legitimate research tax deductions for a writer, or so I thought until the IRS decided to audit my tax return two years after the facts. By that time, Eulogy had been published. And I had the book to prove that indeed my delving into the mantic arts was a legitimate endeavor for a writer who respects her art and wants to be factual. Eventually, I was notified that I owe Uncle Sam nothing.
Long before my dealings with the IRS, as I wrote Eulogy, I found out that Gloria Damasco is a clairvoyant. In each of the novels, she tries to explain to herself and to the rest of us what her dark gift is all about. In Death at Solstice, her latest adventure, published by Arte Público Press in 2009, she says:
“… Prior to the night before, I had never been able to save anyone whose life, in my visions, was fated to end. It bothered me no end to see what fatal blow destiny had in store for someone yet be unable to prevent it. But that was the nature of this dark gift, this extrasensory prescience in me—la otra.
“Most people did not understand what clairvoyance was. My visions weren’t a tidied bunch of related scenes laid out, like a classic story, in a linear narrative. They varied from images to smells and sounds that bombarded my dreams. My subconscious somehow sorted them out and stored them until, if ever, I worked on a related case.
“Talking with some of my poet friends over the years, I realized that poets, without being aware of it, also went through a similar process as mine. All the incongruent elements of a poem were already present at various levels of consciousness or the subconscious. In the poet’s case, the outcome was the poem. In mine, the results were not so easily discernible, not even for me.
“Although at times I still doubted the legitimacy of my dark gift, I seldom allowed myself not to act on a vision. I pushed myself to do the necessary legwork to solve its cryptic warnings, regardless of its outcome. It was the only way to keep my twin psyches in check, my split spirit in harmony.
“What would happen when I entered the darkness of another recurring vision plaguing my dreams more and more often? Two pairs of black eyes watching me in the night; a phantom horse and the horseman on him; the redolence of gardenia and rose and candle wax in the night air; the black curls and sweet face of a boy toddler searching for his mother; an animal’s growl; a place of worship by the water’s edge, steeped in the suffering of people; the voice of a woman saying, ‘Find this place and you’ll find me.’ Would I survive being trapped in a body of water unable to free myself before my breath bubbled totally out of me?”
Gloria’s reason is forever running interference. She is always trying to prove to herself that she indeed possesses a dark gift. She is compelled by her visions to take a case, but she solves it by following and analyzing clues, using her powers of deduction, as any normal P.I. would, to bring the criminal to justice.
In some way, Gloria’s visions form and inform the plot of Death at Solstice as is also the case in any of the novels in the series. Her visions become my obsessions and concerns and I follow them. But like Gloria, I also do my share of legwork, by doing my research thoroughly, experiencing to the extent safely possible what I must write about, including the handling of firearms, so Gloria has everything she needs to solve the case at a moment’s notice. That's my job. I am Lucha Corpi, Gloria Damasco’s ghost writer.
Lucha Corpi is a poet, novelist and children's book author. In addition to Death at Solstice (Arte Público Press, 2009) she has written three other mystery novels featuring Gloria Damasco, all published by Arte Público Press: Black Widow's Wardrobe (1999), Cactus Blood (1995) and Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992). Corpi was a tenured teacher in the Oakland Public Schools Neighborhood Centers Program for over 30 years. She is now retired and lives in Oakland, California.