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New York-born, Santa Barbara-based Willard Thompson is the award-winning author of the Chronicles of California series, three historical novels set during Spanish colonization (Dream Helper), Mexican ownership (Delfina’s Gold), and the Gold Rush (Their Golden Dreams). He’s written more than 10 historical fiction novels. His latest, La Paloma, tells the story of a college student whose father is arrested by ICE and deported to Mexico, and the subsequent family fallout.
What inspired you to write La Paloma? I have been concerned about the ambiguous and unfortunate plight of undocumented aliens — the Dreamers — in our country. When a Santa Barbara wife and mother was unreasonably separated from her family and deported in an ICE raid to Mexico, the way Teresa Diaz’s father is in La Paloma, I felt compelled to write the story.
What did you think about the controversy about Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, another book about undocumented immigrants, also written by a white author. Cummins took a lot of heat from writers of color for telling a story that, some argued, wasn’t hers to tell. What it’s like to write from the point of view of a Latina when you are a white man? This isn’t a trick question, by the way. I’m just curious about the literary problem of how you try and get into the head of someone with a completely different life experience than your own. I have not read American Dirt and my opinions of it are only hearsay. But I would ask you to ponder how Tolstoy or Zola, Flaubert or even John Steinbeck would answer your question about female characters. They would look at you in wonder. If writers only wrote about their own gender and their own milieu and sensibilities how drab our literary history world be. As writers, we have the right to use our imaginations to produce characters we believe are representative of real people — not replicas but representative.
And if we fail? Our readers will let us know in no uncertain terms and shun us if we continue to repeat our inadequate representations. I have written five novels, each to some level including female points of view and interior monologues. The last two books have both been first-person, present tense, with female characters as protagonists. Readers compliment me on my depictions of females — both men and women, mostly women. The answer to your question is this: A writer must bring a high level of honesty to the creation of any character.
Obviously, La Paloma was written long before the coronavirus pandemic, but I wonder if there are any lessons in the book that might apply to our situation now? All life is a mystery. That’s why in the introduction to La Paloma I quoted the great writer Ocatvio Paz who set the theme for the story. He wrote: “To live is to be separated from what we were in order to approach what we are going to be in the mysterious future.”
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