An Interview with Author Karen Mann
How did you get the idea for the book?
In early 1998, I wrote an email to a childhood friend Terry Lester about reading Sena Jeter Naslund’s manuscript for Ahab’s Wife, and in the same email I wrote that I had recently seen a production of The Man of La Mancha. Terry suggested that perhaps Don Quixote needed a companion book, the woman’s story, like Ahab’s Wife was for Moby Dick. The idea scared me. I didn’t feel as if I were up to it. I knew I was not unless I did a lot of research. After researching the time period for about six months, I started the manuscript.
How did you do the research for the book?
I spent a weekend in Bloomington at the Indiana University library. I had been there as an undergraduate, and it was familiar and easy to spend time there. I copied hundreds of pages from books about that time period and about Spain in that time period, the sixteenth century. I also spent some time in the University of Louisville library. I had two banker’s boxes full of pages, plus several books. Then I spent hours and hours reading the material I found.
What kinds of things did you learn from the research?
The action of the book takes place in the late 1500s. I first read a wonderful book about the King Philip II of Spain. After that I found books about what people wore, how they treated children, what family life was like, how their homes were furnished; anything I could find about Spain in the 1500s, I looked over. This time in Spain is contemporary with Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. While Shakespeare was writing his timeless plays, Cervantes was credited with writing the first modern novel, Don Quixote.
It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Catholic church had a lot of power, while Jews and Muslims were considered heretics and could be burned alive, rather like the Salem witch trials in America, but on a much larger scale.
My overall impression of my research is that it was a very difficult time for children and women. They were treated like property. Little consideration was given to what they thought or wanted, and they were often taken advantage of and treated poorly, if not reprehensibly. It occurred to me that, in some cases, the situation for women or children hasn’t changed all that much in 400 years. Children are still abused; women still suffer from domestic violence. One theme I wanted in the book and was how a child could grow into a woman who overcomes bad situations, a woman who comes to understand who she is and why she acts the way she does, a woman who could learn to make her own choices about who she is.
This time was the time (or was the end of the time) of chivalry and knights, who placed their woman on pedestals. The knights tried to perform wonderful deeds and tried to earn the women’s recognition or love. Women were adored, like Dante’s Beatrice, and worshipped in literature—platonic love—but in real life their plight often was difficult.
The idea of Honor had become corrupted, and it was believed that any way in which a nobleman acted was honorable even if the actions were not rooted in charity or kindness. Don Quixote parodies chivalry and shows a man, who was on the lowest rung of nobility, who misunderstands chivalry and focuses on all the wrong things in his life. Don Quixote acts in a way that he thinks is the very best way to act, yet he merely makes a mess of things because he is not operating within the real world. He elevates a mere farm girl to the status of his perfect woman and calls her Dulcinea.
In this time, Spain was the dominate power in the world, though with defeat of the Spanish Armada, England is beginning to emerge as the foremost power.
What influences did Don Quixote and Cervantes have on The Woman of La Mancha?
While there were novels written before Don Quixote, Cervantes is credited with writing the first modern novel. The word picaresque is often used to describe his novel. This means it is written as little story after little story or episode after episode (also known as episodic). Cervantes’s novel is often repetitive in the nature of the stories, for example, a wedding might appear at the core of a story more than once. I think this comes from the fact that he had to handwrite his novel and he forgot himself what he had written before. He didn’t have the luxury of a word processor, where it is simple to look back and see what you’ve written or simple to change what you have written.
However, because having books in one’s home was a fairly new thing and people were eager to read about adventure and love, the audience at the time was forgiving and excited about this new form that transported them to situations they could not experience themselves.
But Don Quixote is not a great read for modern audiences. It is repetitive; it does not have much character development, or much by way of overall plot. Through the years, the audience for the novel has become more sophisticated and will no longer stand for novels that do not have character development or a plot that makes sense or more forward. Readers today do not stand for inconsistencies and repetition. So while my novel could be called and intends to be picaresque, it does develop the characters throughout the novel and has a through plot, which has a beginning, middle, and end.
Don Quixote also employs metafiction where Cervantes directly addresses his audience and talks about the writing of the novel or how to write a story. His premise is that he found the manuscript at a market and that he had it translated. He presents the story as secondhand.
My novel initially had the same premise—that it was a found manuscript and that there was a narrator that translated it. My novel also had many instances of the narrator talking directly to the reader. However, these techniques did not fly with my readers and I cut them (although there are a few places where the female narrator does speak to the audience). I believe this is an indication of the change in the audience for the novel. What Cervantes did was experimental for his time, but some of his techniques are now old-fashioned and through each age, the novel has developed into what it is today because readers became bored with the norm and new ways of handling fictive techniques or elements of craft have moved on to something new. Today we have graphic novels and other experimental forms.
On what parts of Don Quixote in your book based?
Many of the themes come from Cervantes. He also questioned the idea of chivalry orcourtly love. He was probably a pessimistic person. Don Quixote is full of ironies. My book has its ironic moments but I think my book is actually more positive about human nature than Cervantes is.
As far as parts of his plot that I use. Very little really. Cervantes tells us that Dulcinea was a farm girl named Aldonza Lorenzo, the daughter of Lorenzo Corchuelo and Aldonza Nogales, that Don Quixote never met in person but he had seen her and he thought she was beautiful. He wanted a more lofty name for her and he called her Dulcinea. Those are the few facts that my book sprang from.
What is the premise of your story?
The action begins in 1583. An eleven-year-old girl awakes in the back of a cart. She has lost her memory and is taken in by a kindly farm family in La Mancha. She adopts the name Aldonza. She doesn’t speak for quite sometime. Once she speaks, we find there is a family member who is jealous of her and causes a good deal of trouble, even causing her to be forced to leave La Mancha in a tragic turn of events.
There is a parallel story of a young man, the betrothed of the girl, who sets off on a quest with a young squire to find the girl.
Both young people have many experiences and grow up before the readers’ eyes and there is the question of when, or if, they will they find each other again.
Is the novel relevant to our time?
Many of the issues are the issues women fight for today. Equality, respect, the ability to lead a life with the freedom to make our own choices, whether the choices are good or bad.
Also the whole idea of living life by a code as the knights did, I think is somewhat replicated in society today in the case of gangs or other groups (even religious groups), who set for certain required rules or tenets.
Sometimes we believe our actions have to be a certain way because someone else tells us so, and so our actions are dictated, not by common sense or compassion, but by a twisted idea of honor. Seeking revenge would be an example of a mistaken idea of honor. Sometimes we seek the respect of the wrong people, and so our actions are misguided.
The book is also about seeking our identity. As my friend Terry used to tell me, an actor must believe that a person is capable of any act that a human is capable of—admirable or not. Actors reach down inside themselves and find ways to access different parts of themselves. In my book, my two main characters face situations that entice or require them to do some bad things. They must make hard decisions and decide what kind of person they want to be.
They have to determine how they are going to define themselves. And they have to decide which circumstances in our lives contribute to who we become. They must decide how to make choices, how to determine their course in life? Sometimes it’s hard to see what is right and what is wrong.
The novel explores child abuse and it consequences. It also explores gender roles.
What do you like best about your main characters?
In the female, Aldonza (or Luscinda—she has several names), I like that she is naturally good at the things she tries to do. I like that she is willing to examine her actions and the way she lives her life. At the core, she is good and honest and compassionate. She has a deep-seated desire to live and is courageous.
For the male, I like that he begins as an awkward teenager but develops into a compassionate man who is very sure of himself. He is a bit more rigid than that woman, yet he has a generous heart and he is able to change his core beliefs about who he is.
What do you learn about writing?
I wrote more than fifteen hundred pages for the manuscript and cut it down to about 440 pages. I learned that if I had to cut out a passage that I thought was really good that it was all right, that another one would come later. So once I knew the passages that were most well received by readers, I was able to cut whole sections.
I learned that revision is critical and not just once or twice, but a dozen or more times. Writing a book is like an oil painting in that you begin with the sketch and then you add a few more details, let that paint dry, and then add more. In time you are down to adding the most minute of details but details that make the book come alive. Like the painting on the cover of my book. The pearls in the woman’s hair, the rosary, the braiding on the man’s jacket, all details added in stages over time. Revision is like that. We could not have the finished book without laying the foundations, layer by layer.
By the time I wrote fifteen hundred pages I knew my characters very well. Those pages I cut also gave me vignettes and important scenes, usually memory or flashbacks, that added to the characters.
Research is important and that often the tiniest pieces of information can make the book come alive in ways you couldn’t have predicted.
When did you start writing and why?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I just didn’t know how to go about it. I wrote a couple of short stories in high school, and one was published in the school journal, but I knew there was something not very good about it. I majored in English Literature for my undergraduate degree at Indiana University, which attests to my love of words and reading, but at that time, I didn’t have the courage to take a creative writing class.
I was in my late thirties before I found that courage. I got a masters with a creative writing concentration, and after writing poetry and a few short stories, I switched to novels. I’ve written six novel manuscripts and one full-length nonfiction narrative and have three other novels started. The Woman of La Mancha and The Saved Man (both out in 2014) are my first books to be published.
I think we write because we cannot not write. Writing is something that is deep within us, and when we engage in it, it takes us to a level within ourselves that is so pleasurable that we want to reach out for it again and again and again. Not that a lot of it isn’t drudgery, it certainly can be about just getting one word down after another, but when you find that place where the writing sings along and just flows out of you, where characters take over and seem to become who they are without you even planning it—that’s what it’s all about. To me, that’s our deep creative spirit where we know we are alive and part of something larger than ourselves. It may be as close to god—a sort of universal oneness—as you can get. It’s a feeling we all want.