DANIEL OLIVAS: Your new book, Have You Seen Marie? (Knopf), is ostensibly about two women who search a San Antonio neighborhood for a lost cat named Marie. In truth, the story concerns loss and how one woman is processing the death of her mother. In the Afterword to the book, you explain that the story grew from your own experience of losing your mother. Why did you transform this very personal journey into a book?
SANDRA CISNEROS: My stories are often based on a true framework, just the way a piñata is based on a wire skeleton, but I have to add layers and layers of details to shape and bring them to life. True stories rarely have the symmetry of a beginning, middle, and end. During the time I was mourning my mother’s death, I tried to busy myself writing about other things, but nothing took flight. It wasn’t until I gave up wishing I was anywhere but where I was, that the idea for this story came about, and even then it had to thunk me on the head before I could actually see it. I often get in the way of my intuition.
Ironically, I had to retreat from my closest neighbors before I could include them in the story. Like Giacometti, I could only see my subjects from a distance. So though the idea came about from an actual search for a lost cat, a lot of the details were developed once I was alone at my desk, and later when I spoke the story aloud.
Much of my writing is based on the spoken word. Friends heard early versions of the Marie story as we swung from my porch swing. And then I took it on the road, and the story changed again.
I’m reminded of a favorite quote by Fellini, “The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” Each time I told the story of my mother’s death I was an oyster adding another layer of nacre to the invading sand grain. Each telling shaped the story and allowed me to gradually transform a wound into a pearl. And survive.
DO: You collaborated with internationally acclaimed visual artist Ester Hernandez to create what you call an adult picture book. To place the story in your own neighborhood, you both visited the community and Ester took photographs of the neighbors who became models for the characters in the book. How would you describe working with another artist in such a personal and cooperative manner?
CS: Ester says working on this project was like working on a documentary. I have to agree. I knew what I wanted and could see it all in my head before we even took a photo, which must’ve been terrible for Ester; I’m a control freak. But she was a trooper. She asked me to point out what elements I wanted to include, and, of course, some things were left to chance, but my writing is all about the small details. She had hundreds and hundreds of photos by the time she returned to her studio. I had the idea all along that this story should shatter stereotypes about my neighborhood and city. I wanted it to reflect the neighborhood the way I know it, with its diverse plants, people, and animals. So my instructions to Ester specifically were to illustrate the story in an unexpected way, to surprise the reader by working against the official story. I had a lot of fun working with Ester on the field trips. It was often hot, and we were exhausted and overworked, but it was exciting work. We drove or walked around the neighborhood, often asking neighbors if they’d pose for us, the story inspiring the models, and the folks we met by chance inspiring and shaping the story.
DO: In writing this book, did you develop a deeper or perhaps clearer understanding of the meaning of death and how we might approach the loss of loved ones in a more positive and creative manner?
CS: Look, I’m not an expert on anything, not even me. That’s why I write. All I know is this: contemplating my mother after her death in both fiction and essays, and creating an altar for my mother (currently up at the Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque), was like doing a five-year sitting meditation. I came to understand my mother in a way I didn’t understand her when she was alive. It allowed me to finally communicate with her, to make peace, and in turn, to understand and make peace with myself.