Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed…..
We’re marking Halloween and día de Los Muertos with Isabel Caňas—she is the author of “The Hacienda” a haunted house mystery set in Mexico soon after its War of Independence and “Vampires of El Norte” which takes place in northern Mexico (now south Texas) during the Mexican American war. Both novels explore the racial and ethnic disparities, the rigid class structures, and the gender dynamics at work during both of these eras. But they do so within the framework of gothic and horror fiction —There are no shortage of truly terrifying moments even as Isabel immerses us in very specific places and historical eras. And how she does this is one of the topics we discuss during the podcast. Here’s my conversation with Isabel Caňas
Jo Reed: Isabel Cañas, it is truly a pleasure to have you with me today, so thank you.
Isabel Cañas: I am so excited to get invited. Thank you so much for having me.
Jo Reed: Not at all. You have written two terrific books, both of them kind of genre-bending and I want to begin with your first one, “The Hacienda” and I would like you to just tell me a little bit about the plot of the book.
Isabel Cañas: Sure thing. So “The Hacienda” is a Gothic novel in the veins of Rebecca and Mexican Gothic and it is about a young woman named Beatriz, who's really down on her luck at the end of Mexico's War for independence in the 1820s. She, in order to get out of a difficult family situation, she accepts a proposal of marriage from a handsome young widower, who, of course, has way too many secrets to count, and she travels with him to his family's ancestral home in the countryside and stays there alone while he returns to the capital to work. And while she's there, she discovers that the house, the hacienda of the title, is profoundly haunted, and nobody seems to believe her. So, she seeks help and finds it in some unexpected places and hijinks ensue.
Jo Reed: What inspired you to write this novel?
Isabel Cañas: When it comes to my novels, inspiration comes from myriad sources that I can't always pinpoint at the time. But when I look up like mid-draft and I'm gasping for air, I look back and I think, oh, well, of course. I love a good haunted house novel, I think, because creaky old houses scare me an enormous amount. I grew up in a number of houses, specifically one that I lived in between the ages of about six and ten that my aunt insists was haunted. So there's something about dark corridors, creaky floorboards, especially basements. I was often sent to the timeout corner at the bottom of the basement stairs when I was like six, seven years old, and had a lot of time to think about what exactly it was about old houses that gave me the heebie jeebies. I've also loved Gothic literature from the time I was a teenager. Honestly, it was required reading in high school. We had to read like the “House of Seven Gables,” and a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, and I read Dracula when I was 17 under the table in a different class where I definitely should not have been reading. I read Wuthering Heights. I absolutely adored that stuff. Like the drama, like the sheets of rain on the moors, like that was absolutely my bread and butter as a teenager. I loved it and when I went to university in my first year, I took an English course where we read Toni Morrison's “Beloved”, which inspired me deeply, and so I was on my honeymoon in the fall of 2019, and I was in Argentina and Mexico for about three weeks, and I hadn't been in Mexico. I lived in Mexico as a kid, but I hadn't been back in about 20 years, and it was the first time that I'd spent such a long stretch of time speaking only Spanish to everybody but my spouse, and I think it unlocked little boxes in my brain that had been asleep for a very long time. So in addition to all the reading that I did as a young person and this particular trip, you know, walking around old churches, like using parts of my brain that I hadn't used in so long, like unlocking so much stuff that had been closed for a long time. And honestly, receiving a rejection on a manuscript that my agent and I had on submission that kind of inspired me to shift gears, and try something new, and so I took a stab at gothic horror and “The Hacienda” is what resulted. I think it draws on so many different parts of my life that it is very special to me because of that.
Jo Reed: Well, it has been praised for a rich atmospheric setting. In short, it is terrifying. It scared the crap out of me.
Isabel Cañas: Oh, that delights me, Jo. That delights me.
Jo Reed: Well, both your books, you've hit my two spots. I am truly still terrified of the dark and I am deeply, deeply terrified of vampires.
Isabel Cañas: You are my ideal reader. You are my ideal reader.
Jo Reed: I will tell you, when I read ”Dracula” , I was about over three quarters of the way done and I just put the book down and I stopped reading, because I was just too scared, and my husband at the time said,” listen, Jo, the vampire does die,” and I looked at him and I said, “but suppose in my copy of the book he doesn't, then where will I be?” You never know.
Isabel Cañas: You never know. Exactly.
Jo Reed: You never know. So it really scared me and I wonder how you approach creating such a vivid and immersive world that just enveloped me as a reader.
Isabel Cañas: When I sit down to write, one thing that I do is I envision the scene almost as like a film set, where I'm adjusting the lighting. I feel very blessed and also a bit tortured by the fact that I have a very vivid imagination. So in terms of writing, I immerse myself in it. I close my eyes and I just try and walk through the scene that I have planned, looking to see, you know, where the light is coming from. What sounds would the character hear? What does it feel like to be in this space? And also when it comes to the spooky stuff, I scare myself silly. When I was writing the first draft of “The Hacienda,” my husband was on a business trip for a few nights, and I slept with the lights on because I just, I scared myself silly while working on it. But primarily, what I do at the very start to create an immersive atmosphere, is to put myself in it as much as I can. When I start, when my hands hit the keyboard, what I'm doing is writing down everything I can see. Yes, but also everything I can smell. What does the air feel like on my skin? Is it dry? Is it humid? I think about sounds. I think about sensations. I think about like in terms of an old creaky house, vibrations and floorboards. How does the sound travel? How can I make that eerie? Easily is the answer. All of us have been raised in a culture where visual media dominates, and so when we start to think about an imaginary scenario, we immediately jump to sight as our primary sense, and sound as our secondary sense. So a lot of my first drafts rely on those senses, but when I want to create a richer, more immersive atmosphere, that's when I reach for smell and sensations, and that, for me, it contributes to an immersive reading experience to me as a reader, and so I try and put that on the page as much as possible.
Jo Reed: Well, you certainly succeeded. The characters in “The Hacienda” really are complex and they're nuanced, most particularly our protagonist, which is Beatriz and Andres. Tell me who they are.
Isabel Cañas: So Beatriz is a young woman who does not want to take no for an answer, and does not want to compromise when it comes to her personal agency. Like many a heroine in a historical novel, she's found herself, I mean, she is in a world where agency is not easily given to her. She's a woman. She lives in a patriarchal society. She comes from a family that has hit upon hard times economically, and finds herself with very few tools to seize her autonomy and hang on to it for dear life, and so she's a fighter. When I wrote her, I was writing in conversation with “Rebecca,” because when I read “Rebecca,” the unnamed new Mrs. Max de Winter drove me absolutely bananas, just up the wall. I loved the book. It has such atmosphere and I think there is so much to be learned from du Maurier's work. And I know that the fact that the unnamed narrator not having a name contributes to so much of the books, what the book is trying to say and what it's trying to do in terms of claustrophobic atmosphere, and the specter of Rebecca that hangs over the entire novel. But it still drove me bananas. I was like, “girl, get up and walk out. Leave.” And it drove me crazy because what I wanted from this book, and when I also read and was very influenced by Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House,” a classic of Gothic literature, an absolute classic of haunted house novels. Again, the main character in that suffers from a slight lack of agency, that to one degree one can argue is necessary for a horror novel. But on the other hand, for me as a reader, I was like, “fight. I want you to fight.” So I wrote a woman who would fight, who would, you know, she's a Gothic heroine. There is a scene where she runs through the night in a white nightgown through sheets of falling rain. I draw on some classic tropes because they're fun and delicious and I write from my id, you know. I absolutely lean into the stuff that brings me joy like that. But I also wanted to write somebody who would fight back, who would face down a ghost and say, “I'm not going, you're going.”
Jo Reed: You also created Andres, who is so complicated and complex and just this marvelous character. Tell us who he is.
Isabel Cañas: Thank you. Andres is a priest. He is also somebody who occupies a role in his community that requires a different set of skills. His grandmother was, I guess you could say, the community's witch and curandera or healer, and ever since he was a young boy, he has been her, he was her apprentice. There was an understanding that he had to conceal his abilities, for fear of the Inquisition, and so his grandmother, in all her cleverness, said, “I know the best place to hide you from the Inquisition. Right under their noses. You're going to the seminary” So, he went and has returned to the village in the wake of his grandmother's death, as a priest, and realizing that he has to fill a pair of very large shoes that his grandmother left in her absence. So he feels very conflicted about how to do this because, yes, he's a man of God, but also he has a different skill set, and when Beatriz comes to him asking for help, it puts these two worldviews that he has in conflict with one another. Because he knows what he needs to do to help her, help exorcise the house. But how can he do that when he is a priest? So he is also mestizo. He was born of a Spanish father and an indigenous mother, and this puts him in an interesting social position. In 19th century Mexico and the Spanish colonies writ large over the Spanish colonial period, there was a system called the casta system or the caste system, where one's social status, economic status, one's given station in life, if you will, was very much determined by your racial makeup. That being either white European, white European born in the Americas of mixed, or of mixed descent, whether that is indigenous or black, and so there were many laws that governed one's existence in the colonial period, in the Spanish Americas based on one's casta status. In 1821, the new independent Mexico said that they were getting rid of the casta system, because all men were equal. But of course, you know, a law can be written and of course it's going to change like 200, 300 years of practice overnight. Absolutely. So in 1823 when this novel takes place, Andres as a mestizo still occupies this, I guess, uneven ground. Because he, like me, actually comes from families with different cultural backgrounds, with different religious beliefs. He, for me, is the character of my heart because he lives the conflict that I have lived, which is one where he seeks belonging. He seeks understanding about who he is and where he fits in the world, and there are never any clean easy answers for that for someone of his background.
Jo Reed: Well, let's turn to your latest book, “Vampires of El Norte”, because it very much explores similar issues at a different time in a different place, and this novel, I think it's such a fascinating intersection of history, romance and horror. So again, a brief sketch of “Vampires of El Norte.”
Isabel Cañas: Absolutely. “Vampires of El Norte” is what I would pitch as a supernatural Western. It's 1846. We're in South Texas on what later becomes the Texas-Mexico border and it is about two young people, Nena and Nestor, who grow up on a ranch together and at the age of 13 experience a tragedy that separates them for nine years, and nine years later, they're thrown together again on the road to war because the Mexican-American War has broken out. Nena is going to the front as a healer, as a curandera, and as a daughter of the ranch owner, she is fighting to show her father that she has worth, and does not want to be married off in a political marriage to another rancher's son. Nestor has joined the cavalry as a vaquero. So he's a member of the auxiliary cavalry because he's a cowboy They have to work through their past together, their present, because there's plenty of romantic tension between them, in order to safeguard their future and the future of their home from threats, both the supernatural and human, and the supernatural threat is, of course, the vampires of the title.
Jo Reed: Okay. Now, what drew you to explore the vampire myth within the context of the U.S. invasion of Mexico and the war that followed?
Isabel Cañas: I was led there through conversations with my editor. I don't think many readers realize or get to realize, that a lot of their favorite books come out of collaborative creative conversations between a writer and their agent or their editor. Because some of the most important creative relationships in my life are with my agent and my editor. So I had pitched this one particular vampire novel to my editor and she was like, “yeah, let's workshop this.” She pointed to one particular character who had, for me, walked onto the page fully formed or swaggered, if you will, fully formed with a very strong voice and a very strong and vivid family background, of having come from South Texas, which is where my mother's family is from, and has hailed from for generations, and this character was called Nestor, and so my editor said, “this guy, this is it. That and his family background. Start with this.” And it occurred to me like, oh, well, duh. It was one of those moments that I look back on now and I realize I have been yearning. As a Mexican-American writer, coming up in a world, especially as a young reader, where the protagonists of my books were white, and I did not look around and see many other writers apart from like Sandra Cisneros, who writes in a very particular mode. I'm a speculative fiction writer. I look around. I looked around at my bookshelves, and I didn't see anyone like me. So I wasn't sure. In fact, I was sure I wasn't allowed to do that. I never articulated that in as many words, especially as a young writer and a young novelist. But implicitly, that understanding was there and it was very deep, and suddenly my editor said, “no, this, write this”. And it almost broke my heart a little bit because I realized I had been denying myself that for so long, because I thought my family story and people like me weren't worthy of being on the page, so to speak. But once I started writing, my hands flew, like the first draft just poured out of me. The setting was so vivid, like I have goosebumps thinking about it now. The setting was so vivid. The characters and their family relationships were so vivid and real, because I drew on life. I drew on my family, and what that meant was the first draft was incredibly sprawling and had way too many characters, because I have many cousins and many aunts who have lots of opinions and things to say, and I needed to definitely pare it down for later drafts. But that's where the genesis of the book came from. So the vampires were just kind of along for the ride. I had sold a vampire novel, and so a vampire novel I would write, and they hopped in the wagon and got taken down to South Texas, which is where my family is from. So I am immensely grateful to my editor for pointing out, “of course, you should write about this,” and for giving a platform to a writer like me and a story like this.
Jo Reed: Well, Nestor is a wonderful character. Honestly, I fell in love with him reading the book. He's just so fully formed.
Isabel Cañas: I have the biggest grin stretching across my face. That brings me so much joy, Jo.
Jo Reed: Thank you. Wonderful character. But you also created wholly original vampires. There's nothing romantic about these vampires. They are just monstrous creatures. So I'm curious about this, and where they came from. Did they come out of whole cloth, or are they based on any Mexican folklore characters? Where? How?
Isabel Cañas: So like you, I read “Dracula”. I read it at 17 and I was terrified. I think vampires have been used in literature over the course of my lifetime and long before, as avatars for different parts of human experience that we want to explore as writers and as readers. And when I was coming of age in the early aughts, of course, “Twilight” dominated, and I enjoyed it immensely. But when it came to creating my own vampires, I knew from very early on that I wanted to explore something monstrous. I just had this itch because my editor was like, are you sure you don't want like Nena to change into a vampire? And I was like, no, that I just knew in my guts that monstrous was the way I wanted to go and so monstrous I went. I read a lot of folklore from South Texas and northern Mexico about different creatures that lurk in the night, different ghost stories, different kinds of witches and one thing I found were a lot of bloodsuckers, a lot of creatures who drank blood, that weren't necessarily called vampires. But I drew from some of those to help build my vampires. I kind of had like a running list of all the characteristics that I would attribute to them. You know, I had like three columns, like European vampire traits. Like, do I want them to turn into bats? Do I want the vampirism to spread via bite, etc.? Then I had a column of stuff that I was finding in my research, and just things that I liked personally. I wanted them to have bat-like ears, but I didn't want them and I wanted them to be creatures that lurked in the night that felt like a part of the landscape. Texas is so big, and when the sun sets at night, it can be so loud and full of like crickets and cicadas. But there are times when it is very quiet, and you know that there is so much space out there under the sky in the hills, that you don't know what could be out there. I did many a family car trip with my family driving from Southern California to Austin, which is a 24-hour drive. It was very long and the longest part of the drive was going through West Texas, to get to Austin to my grandparents, and I just remember staring out the window, looking at the stars, looking at the hills and wondering what was out there. And, you know, if it was going to come and get me, because I, like you, am very afraid of a dark house. And I'm also very afraid of being out and exposed. I think it's a very primal fear. It's a very universal fear. The fear of being out in the wilderness, knowing there's nothing at your back and there are critters out there that could get you. So that's what I drew on to create these vampires. they're a patchwork of things that scare me and things that delight me.
Jo Reed: Well, both books, “The Hacienda” and “Vampires of El Norte,” delve into very complex issues of class and race and we discussed a little bit of this in “The Hacienda.” But, you know, Beatriz in “The Hacienda” also has issues around race. She constantly being referred by her darker complexion. That's a real thread that runs through the book. And in “Vampires of El Norte,” talk about how the characters of Nena and Nestor navigate and are stymied by these social structures and we can throw gender in, too and how those elements sort of impact the journey they take on this book.
Isabel Cañas: Absolutely. Absolutely. So Nena and Nestor come from different social classes. Nena is the daughter of the ranch owner, and Nestor is the son of a vaquero or a cowboy, and so it's kind of like an upstairs, downstairs situation. I discovered in my research that on the South Texas ranchos, the children of the house and the children of the workers would all grow up together running around at these small frontier communities, and I thought to myself, what would happen if the girl from the right side of the tracks and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks grew up and fell in love? Everybody loves, not everybody, but I think forbidden romance holds a special place in many of our hearts. I wanted to look at Nena's position as the daughter of a man of the landowning class and similar to Beatriz, she's somebody who really wants autonomy. She's somebody who grows up in a very large family, in a very close knit community, in a very patriarchal community, frankly. I think I talk about religion less in “Vampires of El Norte” than I do in “The Hacienda.” But culturally, it's there. Religion and the Mexican patriarchy absolutely permeated my life growing up and continue to. So I think that's something that I absolutely played with when it came to Nena's arc. I remember I went to my grandmother last summer, and I sat with her and my grandpa at their kitchen table and I was like, okay, guys, tell me all the spooky stories you got. Like, what do you know about ghosts or monsters in the dark, you know, lay it on me? And my grandpa was like, yeah, there was like La Llorona and stuff and I said, what about El Cuco? Like, what have you got there? And my grandma said, you know, yeah, we heard stories about El Cuco growing up. But one thing my father said to us when he really wanted to scare us was, and I quote, "your mother will hear about this" and I laughed because my great grandmother was apparently a force to be reckoned with, and I absolutely believe that. But also it drove home for me how not just important, but how all-encompassing family relationships are. In my life, of course, but even more so in the lives of my characters. The big bad scaries in Nena's life are the vampires, of course, and the invading Anglos, of course. But also her parents and their expectations and the responsibilities that she has as their daughter. That's where her journey begins and ends, and with Nestor, as somebody from the working class, somebody who is an itinerant vaquero, I start to play with threads in him that come to play in Mexican history later on. In the early 20th century, the Mexican Revolution happens, and as a part of the ending of the Mexican Revolution, the ranchos and the haciendas are broken up, and people of the middle class are able to own land. It's extremely complicated and it was a very protracted civil conflict and we're not going to get into that. But one thing that I envisioned him as kind of like the beginning spark of that. He is somebody who looks around and says, "Hey, this isn't fair. I work so hard. My uncle works so hard" and I think this is something that will resonate with a lot of readers today. Because we are still living in a system with deep inequalities. Deep economic inequalities. Where one's level of education, one's social class, and even one's racial background can really determine how far you get in life and it was, I think, that was even more apparent in this period in the 1840s in South Texas. But for Nestor, he's somebody who wants more. He believes that because of his hard work, he's worthy of more and he's right.
Jo Reed: Well, the genre of Gothic fiction often explores power dynamics and social hierarchy, and I'd love to know your thoughts about why you think this genre really allows for these explorations.
Isabel Cañas: Absolutely, my Ph.D is in medieval Islamic history. So I'm not an expert. I'm very much a layperson when it comes to the history of Gothic fiction. But as a writer, one thing I really wanted to explore with Gothic as a genre was the idea of the big house and what it meant. Because so often I read historical fiction, I'm a big lover of romance and so I've read historical romances, you know, where people are like running around and there are these big houses and people have a ton of money throwing around in like Regency England, or Victorian England and one thing that just always gets under my skin, as I think as a reader, and it draws me out of the story, unfortunately, is where does the money come from? When you think of “Jane Eyre,” when you think of “Wuthering Heights”, when you think of Manderley in “Rebecca,” where does this money to build these houses come from? And the answer is exploitation and imperialism. So that is what I wanted to uncover with my stab at the Gothic. But you're right, the Gothic does absolutely create an incredibly fertile space for exploring issues of social hierarchy, but also issues of race and issues of where the money comes from.
Jo Reed: And issues of gender inequality as well. Both of these books are so rich and specific in historical detail. But at the same time, you're writing fiction, you have creative license, but you want to present this era, these characters, their backgrounds authentically. So how do you navigate that?
Isabel Cañas: This is a fantastic question because it's actually very difficult. So I mentioned earlier that my background academically is as a historian, and so I find it very easy to get sucked into the research. I think that is both a blessing and a curse, because what it means is that it brings a lot of detail to my fiction. That immersive detail that I absolutely love as a reader of historical fiction. But sometimes it can be too much, and it can be very limiting. One thing that I encountered writing Vampires of El Norte as opposed to The Hacienda, was I have my characters, Nena and Nestor, walk into an extremely famous, well-documented battle in the middle of the book, and I planned that from the outset. This is the Battle of Palo Alto, which occurred in May of 1846. I didn't think too much of it until I was happily tic-tac-ing along on my keyboard and then I got there, and I realized, “oh my God, I don't know where Nena as a curandera or a healer, where would she be on the battlefield? How would she escape? Where would the auxiliary cavalry of ranchers and vaqueros that Nestor was a part of, where would they be?” And so “The Hacienda” has history almost as stage dressing. Like, of course, it informs the background of the characters, as I talked about in detail earlier. And, of course, it informs the premise of the novel. But once you get to Hacienda San Isidro, that kind of fades into the background, because at center stage is the house and the haunting, and the events of the book mostly take place in the Hacienda. Some little trips to town, but they mostly take place in the Hacienda. Whereas with “Vampires of El Norte”, there's a road trip element. Nena and Nestor leave their ranch and they go to the site of the Battle of Palo Alto and then they travel back, and they encounter real historical figures along the way, and it was so overwhelming. So I definitely did find places where I really needed to buff the edges of historical accuracy a little bit, and as an historian myself, it did take some cajoling to push myself over that line because it truly is necessary. I think there is a time and a place for historical fiction that is incredibly faithful to the historical record and I love those books. I live for those books. I think of “Wolf Hall,” which is one of my favorite novels that does this. But there absolutely is a time and place for creative license. Because if I were to write a novel that was incredibly faithful to the belief system of the people living in South Texas in 1846, the rigid social hierarchy, the patriarchy, the social classes, it would not necessarily be an entertaining read, because I can tell you one thing for free, it would not have vampires. So one thing that does free me up a little bit, that helps take off my historian hat and loosen my laces a bit, is the fact that I have always gravitated towards the speculative. So you know, I can look at the historical record. I can look at my documents. I can look at my primary sources and say, you know what, at the end of the day, this book has vampires. So I can loosen up a little bit and, you know, fudge a little bit when it comes to this historical figure, that historical figure, or the exact timing of this battle. Like, I was looking at moon phases for, like, what phase of the moon did we have on the night of May 6th, 1846, so I could light the path for my characters fleeing the battle scene in the night. I went a little overboard and I reigned it in. The speculative helps with that a lot.
Jo Reed: Well, both of your novels contribute to this growing genre of Mexican gothic, not to be confused with the wonderful novel, “Mexican Gothic.” I wonder how you would define Mexican gothic and what do you think sets it apart from other Gothic traditions?
Isabel Cañas: I love this question because even before Silvia Moreno-Garcia's incredible “Mexican Gothic” came out, I remember being like 18 years old and thinking the Mexican gothic is a genre that I want to write, and that it took me 10 years to give myself permission to write. But I think that there's so much about Mexican culture specifically that lends itself to the atmosphere of darker, more atmospheric writing or fiction. First and foremost, there's religion. Mexican Catholicism has such pageantry. There's such performance with the incense and the light and the priest's getups and the traditions and the rituals and the beautiful blending of indigenous belief and Catholic practice, that has braided together over the centuries and woven this very specific kind of religious practice, that I think really lends itself to discussions of identity and belief and belonging, that I'm interested in as a writer. Secondly, I think branching off that, there are traditions that are very in your face in terms of incredibly great aesthetics, if you will. Like, Dia de Muertos, which is right around the corner for us when we're recording this, or the Day of the Dead, has incredible iconography. I live for it and I was a goth kid growing up, and I sometimes received some flack because "Being goth is a white kid's thing," you know? And I pushed back on that very hard, saying, "There is nothing more goth than being Mexican." Because look at how we deal with death every day. We think about it quite a lot. We invite the dead into our homes during these feast days to hang out, and to celebrate together and I think there's something very beautiful about that. But also I think Mexican culture specifically really lends itself to the Gothic because, and this I believe applies to the rest of Latin America as well, but Mexican history is fraught with conflicts that continue to this day. Issues of colorism, of race, of class, of economic disparity, and the aftereffects of colonialism and Spanish imperialism that created those, everything, all of the above. That I think when it comes to delving into the Gothic, oh, and of course issues of gender, because we're talking about a very patriarchal kind of world, both in the past and in the present too. There's just so much to play with that I think I could happily paddle around this little deck pond for many a book to come.
Jo Reed: Your first book, “The Hacienda,” you were writing it as you were writing your dissertation. Which, I got to say, does not happen very often that people write a first novel as they're writing their dissertation about a completely different subject matter.
Isabel Cañas: I wrote both while writing my dissertation. “The Hacienda” rode hand in hand with the part of my dissertation that was research. So I was translating large portions of a 14th century Turkish manuscript, as one does, and it was my escape. I found that I've tried to write fiction that is deeply rooted in my academic research, and the fact is, I simply know too much. All the stuff that I know totally gets in the way of story. Totally gets in the way of character. I think we've all had that experience, or those of us who enjoy historical fiction, we all have that experience of picking up a historical novel and being like, well, this is extremely thoroughly researched. Where is the story? Where are the characters? And I absolutely did not want to write that book. So I actually found that writing novels that were wholly divorced from my academic research was better for the story, period. But also very freeing. It was a break to do more research in a completely different area. The thing that was difficult was trying to write and revise “Vampires of El Norte” in between chapters of my dissertation and I'm very grateful to my academic advisor for his patience. He was very supportive. I was afraid to tell him that I wrote fiction, because there were some professors in my department who very much poo-pooed the writing of fiction, especially historical fiction. Because why would you do that when you could write real history, you know? But I admitted to him that I'd gotten an agent and that my first novel was going on submission and he was thrilled. He was so excited to hear it, and did you know he had an idea for a screenplay? So I love the man. It was difficult, though, balancing the two. I knew when I received the two-book deal that I was going to leave academia. So I had one foot out the door emotionally. But intellectually, I was in it to win it and I did want to finish. and so finish I did and I defended my Ph.D. dissertation the day before “The Hacienda” came out.
Jo Reed: Oh, God.
Isabel Cañas: I tried to schedule these two events as far apart as possible, but the universe was not having it.
Jo Reed: I know. We plan, God laughs. Isabel, this is just, like, the worst question ever. But do you have a sense of what's next? You've accomplished a lot right now and if you are resting on your laurels, I am there with you.
Isabel Cañas: I'm not resting a lot, thanks to the six-month-old child. But, you know, thank you. I appreciate that. I have more books coming up on the horizon. I am not free to tell you a whole lot about them. But I can tell you a little bit. Let's see, what can I say? My books that are coming out in the future, are, well, these are, I would say, insufferably gothic and I say that tongue-in-cheek and also very seriously. They're extremely gothic. One of them is fantasy and the other one is historical fiction, more in line with “The Hacienda” and “Vampires of El Norte.” It has speculative elements. But all of them have elements of the gothic and horror, other speculative elements and they're deeply rooted in Latin American history, one of them specifically in colonial Mexican history and they all have a bit of romance because I can't write a book without it.
Jo Reed: And then finally, what advice would you have for young authors, particularly young authors from underrepresented backgrounds, who want to make their mark in gothic fiction, or who want to write genre fiction more generally?
Isabel Cañas: The advice I have is to write for yourself first. Write the book you want to read and finish it. I think there is an enormous gulf that lies between people who are working on manuscripts and dabbling, and people who finish books. And I want you to be on the other side of that gulf because that's where the real work begins. That's where you really start to learn how to write books is when you begin to revise them, and you write another one and you write another one. I encourage young writers to be incredibly, enormously, insufferably themselves when they write. I think that's when the writing rings truest, is when you bring your real self to the page and you're not writing for anyone but yourself. You're not writing about anybody but yourself--you know, in different forms, in different clothes, in different faces, in different periods of history, in different fantasy worlds or science fictional worlds. But I strongly, strongly believe that that's where, that's where it really starts to sing. So finish things and write for yourself.
Jo Reed: And a great place to leave it. Isabel, thank you and thank you for, I guess, hours of scaring the hell out of me, which you did and I really also learned a great deal from both your books as I read them. So I really appreciated that as well as the fright.
Isabel Cañas: Thank you so much for picking my books up. That is just music to my ears, Jo.
Jo Reed: That is Isabel Caňas; she is the author of “The Hacienda” and “Vampires of El Norte.” Keep up with Isabel at Isabel Caňas.com. We’ll have a link in our show notes.
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us where ever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple. It helps people who love the arts to find us. From the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
We're marking Halloween and Dia De Los Muertos with a conversation with Mexican American author Isabel Cañas. She employs gothic frameworks and tropes with historical detail in her novels—a combination as terrifying as it is informative. In this podcast, we discuss her books The Hacienda, which is a frightening haunted house mystery set in Mexico soon after its War of Independence, and Vampires of El Norte, set in northern Mexico (now south Texas) during the Mexican-American War. Cañas discusses the racial and ethnic disparities, the rigid class structures, and the gender dynamics at work in both of these eras and how gothic tropes are fertile ground for these explorations. We also discuss the growth of Mexican gothic fiction more generally and the balancing act required to portray actual historical events and authentic experiences in genres that are deeply imaginative. Cañas also talks about her extensive research into the historical periods in which she sets her novels, the family histories she also drew upon, her own academic background in Medieval Islamic history, and what it was like to write two novels and a dissertation simultaneously.