Friday, May 18, 2012

Conversation With Sandra Shwayder Sanchez

Sandra Shwayder Sanchez was born in Denver, lived her first decade in Detroit, graduated from George Washington H.S in the sixties and left to travel and go "back to the land" in West Virginia before returning to attend DU law school. She represented indigent clients in the Denver Criminal, Juvenile and Mental Health Courts. She now lives in Nederland, CO with her husband of 20 years Ed Sanchez. Her published books include:

The Nun, a novel first published in 1992 by Plain View Press & a 2nd Ed. just released by PVP in 2012
Stillbird, a novel, The Wessex Collective 2005
Three Novellas, The Wessex Collective 2007
A Mile in These Shoes, a short story collection, TWC 2010
The Secret of A Long Journey, Floricanto Press, 2012

Sandra spent a few minutes with La Bloga to talk about her latest novel, The Secret of a Long Journey, and offer a few insights into her writing life.

For those unfamiliar with the book, here's the publisher's blurb:

"The Secret of a Long Journey is the story of a cherished and dangerous secret, passed along from generation to generation through many lands and many perils: from Spain to Flanders across the ocean to Vera Cruz and up through the desert to what is now New Mexico. In magical realist style, this chronicle takes the characters through the terrors of the Inquisition, shipwrecks and hurricanes, sandstorms and wars, lost loves and illness, all culminating when Lois Gold, a passionate court advocate for the disenfranchised, discovers the legacy of her lost grandfather."

Manuel Ramos The Secret of a Long Journey takes the reader on a trip over several centuries, different countries, and deals with a variety of social issues and problems: racism, persecution, religious intolerance, gender politics, Chicano civil rights - and more. It's got a broad sweep, to say the least. Did writing the book require intense research? Travel? Interviews with people who might help with background? Or did it all come straight from your imagination, maybe with some help from your own personal background?

Sandra Shwayder Sanchez  After  I met Orlando Mondragon (see chapter 4) I read quite a few books about the Inquisition and what happened to Conversos who secretly continued to practice Jewish rituals as well as books about the expeditions to the New World.  Although I didn't go there specifically for research I did enjoy discovering the library at the Alamo when we visited our niece in San Antonio and the librarian there was also very interested in this subject. The historical characters were all from my imagination but as with all my imagined characters in all my books, my work is influenced by the many interesting people I've observed and met over the years. Each single character is a composite, an archetype if you will. To Lois Gold, the primary 20th century character, I gave my professional life and, in a few but not all details, my personal life.

MR Obviously, you are not shy about revealing yourself to your readers through your characters. Have you ever felt the need to censor yourself either for self-protection, or because people you know might see themselves, maybe too clearly?
SSS  Well, this is the reason I would never write a personal memoir, not because I'm shy about my own life (as you rightly observed) but out of respect for the privacy of other people who would come up in my life story, so the personal parts of Lois Gold's life are fictionalized. I try to make sure that my characters are based on composites of many people rather than any single individual.

MR  I'm curious about the spark that created the idea for such a novel. Can you pinpoint when you knew you were going to write this kind of book? Was it something going on with you, as a person, or something happening in the world at large?  

SSS  I had come to San Luis to meet and be assigned a defendant caught  in that large Federal Wildlife Sting in the late 1980s. I stopped to ask directions to the church meeting hall where the lawyers and defendants would be matched up and the man I talked to was himself discovering his Jewish roots. We started a conversation that we continued after I was assigned my client (whom he naturally knew) and we became friends. Our first meeting is in fact part of chapter 4.

MR  So, the book is very much a personal reflection, it appears. Lois Gold, your attorney protagonist in many sections of the book, fights the good fight against injustice. Is it right to assume some of her exploits are based on your own experiences?

SSS  Yes, indeed, and some of the courtroom drama (or comedic relief in some cases) is taken almost verbatim from actual events.

MR  Many lawyers also are creative writers. Why do you think that is? Is there something about the profession, or the job if you will, that drives lawyers to fiction?

SSS  As lawyers we are privy to the most dramatic and sometimes tragic events of our clients' lives and we learn so much about what life can be for many people.  Fiction from its earliest forms in mythology is a way to dig deep into the universal human psyche and learn ways of understanding this interesting and often frightening adventure that is life. I think writing fiction is a way we deal with the overwhelming amount of experience and observation that comes with the profession.

MR  You write about the San Luis Valley, also a place where I've set some of my stories. Do you have a personal connection to the Valley? If so, how would you describe it?  

SSS  When Sandy Karp of the National Lawyer's Guild talked to us about going to San Luis to do pro bono representation of clients, he said it would be like "going home" as he described the hospitality of the people there. That turned out to be absolutely true. After I finished my legal work I continued to visit Orlando and Viola periodically. They have since moved to Santa Fe and we continue to correspond.

MR  There is something special about the Valley, no doubt. So much history, culture, and tradition surrounded by those beautiful mountains. The people reflect that beauty and culture, as well as the harsh reality of living in one of the poorest regions of the United States. Do you plan to write more about the Valley? Actually, what are your current writing projects? What's next for you?

SSS  Interesting question. I have stories in me that I think about but hesitate to write another book because of the shifting paradigm of the literary world. Where once readers sought books to enlighten and challenge them, now I am seeing that a lot of readers, maybe most, are looking for entertainment and escape.  But then just when I feel like giving up,  I am blessed to meet other serious writers (such as yourself)  who are still interested in that deep excavation of the soul that literature has always been for me.  As for the Valley, it is indeed an inspiring and beautiful place and I am always inspired by place. In fact, I set two earlier novels in the Appalachian mountains where I lived on a subsistence farm for several years. If I were to write another book, I'd probably set it here in Nederland surrounded by these beautiful Indian Peaks. I have to admit, for me, mountains feel like family and I am compelled to explore them; and yes, they do speak to me and inspire thoughts, poems and stories.

MR  I've asked other writers this question: why do you write? Is there an easy answer for you? Does it have anything to do with the fact that you are a lawyer who has tried to do "the right thing"?

SSS  I started reading early in life and knew by the time I was ten or eleven I wanted to write. I felt compelled to speak up for kids in school who I thought were being treated unfairly by teachers or bullied by other kids, and even then adults used to tell me I should be a lawyer. Both legal advocacy and fiction writing are a way for me to be a voice for people who are too often ignored and oppressed. In the fight for justice I feel it is important and useful to raise awareness and empathy among as many people as possible.

Thank you, Sandra. It's been a pleasure. Good luck with the book.

Until next time, later. 

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