Interview with Cecilia Velastegui
Gathering the Indigo Maidens
Libros Publishing LLC (2011)
Reviewed by Paige Lovitt for Reader Views (8/11)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Cecilia Velástegui, who is here to talk about her new book “Gathering the Indigo Maidens.”
Cecilia Velástegui was born in Quito, Ecuador where she spent her childhood. She was raised in California and France, and has traveled extensively to over fifty countries. She received her graduate degree from the University of Southern California, and speaks four languages. She serves on the board of directors of several cultural and educational organizations, and was nominated for the Arts Orange County Award. She lives with her family in Dana Point, California.
Tyler: Welcome, Cecilia. I’m really interested to talk to you about your new book, “Gathering the Indigo Maidens.” To begin, will you tell us about your main character, Paloma Zubiondo? Who is she or who has she been up to the point when the novel opens?
Cecilia: Thank you, Tyler. Paloma Zuibiondo is a fifty-four-year-old wealthy widow who is totally dedicated to her Colonial Spanish art collection and to her rare books. She lives a luxurious, yet cloistered life, in her beachfront, Laguna Beach, California home. Paloma truly believes that she is in total control of her life. On the one hand, she has the determination and financial means to accomplish her goal of donating her art collection to her alma mater. On the other hand, she guards her privacy to the extent that she has ensconced herself from any meaningful, human interaction.
Tyler: I understand the plot really begins when Paloma gets a phone call. Who is on the other end of the phone and how does that phone call change everything for Paloma?
Cecilia: Paloma refuses to answer the incessantly ringing phone because it’s her private line, and no one should be calling her on that line. Again, by not answering the phone, she wants to assert control on every aspect of her life. This unreasonable sense of control over one’s destiny is the reason why I started the novel with the line, “We are all slightly delusional under the Southern California sun.” In Paloma’s case, by answering the phone call, she is swept into an unfathomable scenario that she cannot control. The caller is a hysterical young woman who claims she is held captive as a sex-slave, and that she will be released by her captors in exchange for a seventeenth century painting of the Immaculate Conception. The caller claims to be the rightful owner of the painting since she is the descendant of its painter, Ecuadorian artist Isabel Santiago.
Tyler: Does Paloma have a reason why she is so intent on controlling everything? What caused her to become a “control freak” if that’s an appropriate way to describe her?
Cecilia: Paloma would assess her behavior as being very disciplined. In many ways, her systematic approach to art collecting and rare books has been a benefit to her because she’s learned so much from her collections. However, in terms of her interaction with others, she prefers to stay aloof. She tells herself that it’s for the best because she knows that opening up to others would only be a burden to her. The only person with whom she has a genuine relationship is with her lifelong friend, Jen. Again, Paloma would say that one authentic friend is better than shallow ones.
Tyler: Where does the title’s reference to “Indigo Maidens” fit into the story?
Cecilia: There are several levels of the meaning “indigo maiden” in my novel. On a literal level, I am referring to the indigo plant and its connection to three characters in the novel. First, Cholita, the seventeenth century fictitious servant to the artist, Isabel Santiago. This maiden was gathering the indigo plants needed for pigment production when a tragedy occurred. The second indigo maiden is eighteenth century Mexican publisher, María de Rivera Calderón y Benavides, whose life was dedicated to the printed word and its use of ink in the printing process. The third indigo maiden is a nineteenth century early California activist, Modesta Ávila, whose protest sign against the railroad was written in blue ink. She was sentenced to San Quentin State Prison, where she perished.
Since we know so little about the contributions of these women, I am illustrating that although many facets of their lives have faded through the centuries, their indelible indigo properties remain.
The other reference to the indigo maiden refers to the stolen painting of the Immaculate Conception since in this iconography the Virgin Mary is usually wearing blue.
The figurative meaning of indigo maidens alludes to a sense of sadness (blue funk) of some of the characters, but more importantly, to their perseverance despite adversity. These enduring indigo-like qualities led them to a place of wholeness and hope.
Tyler: Cecilia, are you a big art collector yourself? What made you decide to write a novel about stolen art?
Cecilia: Although my academic background is in languages and psychology, I’ve studied art history throughout my adult life. I do have a nice art collection, which includes Spanish Colonial art. The more I study about the indigenous artists and their societies, the more I cherish my paintings.
Apparently, these works of art are coveted by many, many people throughout the world, so much so that art theft of Latin American art is a growing crime. I’m originally from high up in the Andes, and I grew up among this genre of art; and therefore, have a deep appreciation of it. It made sense to include facts about their history, their uniqueness, and their plight.
Tyler: You mentioned how everyone is “slightly delusional under the Southern California sun.” What is the significance of California in the novel, other than it being where Paloma lives? Is it a key place for art collectors or has it shaped who Paloma is in some way?
Cecilia: Southern California is a magnificent and vibrant region, but it can also be described as a state of mind where any dream appears achievable. Perhaps it’s due to the confluence of so many glamour industries such as film, television, luxury goods, athletics, and our outdoor lifestyle, that create a general feeling that anyone can make the big time—whatever that means to each dreamer. Consequently, one witnesses large samples of people with misguided judgment as to what is really occurring in their lives. There are those who have been waitressing for years, but actually consider themselves actors, or they’ve been teaching for dozens of years, but silently waiting for their screenplay or book to make a hit, or they own a small failing restaurant, but in their minds, they can already see dozens of franchises and millions in profits. Therefore, the expression, “slightly delusional,” means that we mislead our own minds to hold onto an unfulfilled dream, singularly and collectively.
Tyler: Did the sex slave plot just seem to fit as a way to make the story interesting, or have you always been interested in or concerned about sex slavery?
Cecilia: On a 2007 trip to Spain, I was astounded to witness young, Latin-American women, most just teenage girls, working as bedraggled street prostitutes in daylight on an ordinary street in Madrid. Their body language spoke volumes, and their glazed eyes communicated even more. Their plight gnawed at me for many months, and similarly to my awareness of the high incidence of art theft, I was compelled to write about both subjects.
Tyler: Art theft and sex slavery seem like a natural fit for a great mystery. Without giving away too much of the plot, can you tell us how Paloma reacts and what she does once she gets the phone call from the hysterical girl claiming to be a sex-slave?
Cecilia: Paloma refuses to believe what she just heard on the phone. She shows her selfish side by initially being more concerned about the status of her paintings than in the well-being of the caller.
Tyler: What leads to her eventually getting involved then? What convinces her?
Cecilia: Paloma gradually understands that she can selflessly help a young woman she doesn’t even know, but who needs her desperately. Her best friend, Jen, plays a pivotal role in facilitating Paloma’s awareness of her role in the young victim’s life. Paloma realizes that despite her many mistakes in life, she can change the course of a young woman’s life by opening up her own heart.
Tyler: Cecilia, your main character, Paloma, lives in California, but you are yourself from Ecuador. The girls being sexually exploited in the novel are also Ecuadorian. Why did you choose to make them Ecuadorian rather than some other nationality, and how do you see your Ecuadorian heritage as influencing the novel?
Cecilia: Certainly, I could have elected to represent the victims of sex trafficking as having originated from many other countries. I have lived and traveled in dozens of countries, but I wanted to pay homage, albeit heartbreaking, to my native land. As I write in the book, the girls trafficked today follow certain patterns that correlate with the economic decline in their respective, native countries. I chose Ecuador because it is a country with a rich history of art, majestic natural beauty, and resilient people who have been exploited. I wanted to connect a cycle of beauty and art to one of despair and exploitation, and hopefully, to a place of hope.
Tyler: What did you find most difficult about writing “Gathering the Indigo Maidens”?
Cecilia: Obviously, I spent too long writing the novel. It took me over a dozen years, many false starts, and long idle periods. I was trying to include four novels into one. Finally, I extracted volumes of narratives, and it concluded in this work of fiction.
Tyler: Beyond your novel being a thriller/mystery that entertains, do you hope readers will come away with anything else after reading your book, such as insight into other cultures or being a little more knowledgeable about art?
Cecilia: Ultimately, I hope my readers gather whatever they wish from this novel. For some, it may be an understanding of the deep friendship between two unlikely people, such as Paloma and Jen. For others, it may be a call to action to help victims of human trafficking. I’m proud of the research I did for so many years, so I would hope that my readers enjoy all the allusions to literature, the ebb and flow of languages, and the descriptions of the Spanish Colonial paintings. Lastly, I hope that my love for Southern California and its diverse population is evident to all.
Tyler: Cecilia, I’m struck by how Paloma really values art and not just the monetary value it is estimated as having. Is stolen art really that common, and do you think a lot of people buy and even overvalue art based on seeing it as an investment rather than for its value as the expression of an artist?
Cecilia: Paloma has the luxury of buying works of art that have been vetted professionally, so she knows the worth of her paintings in today’s art market. I think many people also fall into her category of knowledgeable art collector. On the other hand, many people purchase works of art impulsively and with unrealistic notions of the works as good investment. All I can say is: caveat emptor.
Tyler: Cecilia, since you’re initially from Ecuador and speak four languages, would you say that you have literary influences, and would they be American or Spanish-speaking authors, other mystery writers, or is art a big influence on your writing?
Cecilia: Reading has been my favorite pastime since the age of five, so naturally at every age, I’ve been influenced by different writers. Starting with the fairy tale collector, Giambattista Basile, to Pearl S. Buck, Steinbeck, Colette, Baroja, Fitzgerald, Gracián, Proust, García Marquez, Mahfouz, Sarah Dunant, Geraldine Brooks, David Liss, Amy Tan, Perez Reverte, Jhumpa Lahiri, and my all time favorite: Edith Wharton. My list of fiction authors is too long to enumerate further. I have equal admiration for all the scholars of non-fiction subjects ranging from social history to art history. They have all collectively been a great influence on me.
Tyler: That’s quite a diverse list, Cecilia. You mentioned earlier that you had enough written for four books and you had to cut it down to make “Gathering the Indigo Maidens.” Will you return to that material to write a second book, or do you have plans for a second book about something else?
Cecilia: It is a long and diverse list of authors, but it makes sense to me since I am a “more is better” type of person. As for my plans for a second book, I am in the midst of writing it now.
Tyler: Thank you again, Cecilia, for the opportunity to interview you today. Before we go, would you tell us about your website and what additional information we may find there about “Gathering the Indigo Maidens”?
Cecilia: The website is: www.GatheringTheIndigoMaidens.com. Please take a look at the book video trailer; it’s quite impressive. I hope to hear from Book Clubs!
Tyler: Thank you again for the interview, Cecilia. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. I wish you much luck with “Gathering the Indigo Maidens.”