Interview with Claudia Ricci, Writer and HuffPo Trailblazer

Monday, April 11, 2011

seeing-redIf you haven’t already heard about or become a fan of the first serialized novel to be presented on the Huffington Post, you better get on the ball, Nancy! It’s called Seeing Red by Claudia Ricci and you can find all weekly updates here. Readers, if you’ve gleaned anything at all over these past years, you know I don’t have the patience to wait for these updates (you also know that although I run a blog, I am a luddite who got my first cell phone just a year ago so you can probably guess I’d rather read a book by turning the paper pages than by scrolling down the page with a mouse or touchpad). So, of course, I ordered the book from Claudia and finished it within days of its arrival. Instead of giving you a big review like I’ve done with other books, since many fans are using the weekly HuffPo installments and I don’t want to be a spoiler, I’ll just say I really enjoyed this book. It spoke to me on many different levels and while not a travel book per se, the main character’s journey does include travel and culture, and in a big way. I challenge you not to like this book!

Now, for the best part of this post: Hurray! to Claudia for agreeing to answer some questions by email. Here’s the part where I brag that I actually know this wonderful writer but not well enough that she couldn’t have easily and nicely declined my request. So, thank you, Claudia! To everyone else, enjoy and buy this book!

Mindful Tourist: As you know, I really liked your book for many reasons. Because I enjoy traveling and learning about other cultures, I found the parts of the story that took place in Spain to be quite compelling. Spain was almost another character in the book. Did you set out to write it this way?

Claudia Ricci: It’s always hard to know how a book takes hold. I know though that Ronda – the place – was very much a part of what set the story in motion. I cannot fully express how beautiful that Andalucían city is, perched up hundreds of feet on a cliff over a Disney-like river valley. Maybe it was just that geography – it feels kind of precarious when you are up there, that gave me a proper setting for Ronda, a woman who was in a series of precarious predicaments during the story. I would say that Ronda, the city, and Spain, were both characters in the book!

MT: Could this book have been written without Ronda experiencing another country? Why or why not?

CR: That is a great question and one I have not thought about. I think because Seeing Red is a book that features flamenco, and because flamenco is so much a part of Spain, it feels somehow necessary for Ronda to be in Spain. Also, it felt to me as though this character needed a complete removal from her life in New England, and all of its influences, to make the passage into her new identity as an artist. Naturally that transformation could happen anywhere and yes, it could certainly happen in the U.S. – I could imagine someone from New England going off to live in say, New Mexico, the way Georgia O’Keeffe did (she had left Lake George and New York City behind and she said the landscape in New Mexico spoke to her!)  The landscape in Spain, particularly Ronda, spoke to me!

[Minor Spoiler Alert:] Curiously Ronda never actually gets to Ronda in this book (something that I hadn’t really thought about until the late stages of editing the book!) In a late edit, I added the mention of Ronda on the last page, suggesting a promise that she might be going there! Does that mean there is a part two? Not that I know of!

MT: The focus on flamenco dancing is unique and I understand this comes in part from your own experience with the dance. Can you tell my readers a bit about how and why you came to flamenco dancing?

CR: First, I must emphasize that it isn’t dancing that I do – I took ONE flamenco dance class before I realized I have six left feet! But I have been studying flamenco guitar with guitarist Maria Zemantauski since 1999. (I’ve been on hiatus since January.) I wrote in the acknowledgements that I cannot explain my fascination with flamenco. I heard a shred of the music in January 1995 and it set in motion my love affair with this very passionate music. But it really kind of came out of the blue. I do think that the notion of “duende,” a deep passionate embrace of life, and an encounter head on with the inevitability of death, are what attracts me to the music. I copy here an excerpt from wikipedia, regarding duende:

“El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to music. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. Folk music in general, especially flamenco, tends to embody an authenticity that comes from a people whose culture is enriched by diaspora and hardship; vox populi, the human condition of joys and sorrows.”

According to Christopher Maurer, editor of “In Search of Duende,” at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.”

MT: While she never went to Spain as a tourist, Ronda did go thinking it would be a quick trip but eventually she sheds that “tourist skin” and comes to think of Spain almost as her home in only a few weeks.  What do you think is key for travelers to experience in order for them to truly understand a country or culture?

CR: My only experience living abroad for more than just a tourist visit is when I lived and worked in Norway as a young woman. I worked in a “magarin fabrik” (a margarine factory) in Oslo, packaging huge slabs of margarine. I wore white clogs, a white outfit complete with a little white cap. The factory also packaged peanut butter and caviar (strange). I lived in an apartment near the Edvard Grieg museum, and the apartment had an OUTHOUSE (this was modern day Oslo!). I learned to eat all the Norwegian foods (and gained 20 pounds in the process!).

All of this is to say that it is difficult or impossible to have an immersion experience if you remain a tourist. You have to live in a culture to understand it; you have to work (or study) there, living with people, interacting with their daily lives. When I was in Norway, I was living with a young woman who had been an AFS student in my high school. I spent the entire summer living in an apartment with her, traveling to her family’s homes, getting to know all of her friends. I think Ronda is able to shed the tourist “skin” when she meets Leely (who is in my mind based a bit on my guitar teacher, Maria.) Leely feels very, very real to me, and she leads Ronda not only into a deeper and more authentic encounter with Spain, but also, into a very deep encounter with flamenco and her identity as an artist and dancer.

MT: To capture Spain the way you did, with the intricate descriptions of places and people, you must have traveled there multiple times. Can you tell us about those travels?

CR: You know, I am flattered that you find my descriptions so real. And I have traveled there multiple times, but the truth of the matter is, I am trained as a reporter. That plus my imagination helped me create the sense of reality that you feel. The honest story behind the novel: I had been to Spain in 1998 visiting Sevilla and Granada. I did not get to Ronda on that trip. I actually wrote Ronda’s journey consulting travel guides. AFTERWARD, Rich [Claudia's husband] and I followed her trip in the book exactly and most everything I had written was absolutely on target. Fiction writers have a knack for creating reality that very much conforms to REALITY, even when they haven’t experienced it themselves. Subsequently, in 2005, our family made still another trip to Spain, when our oldest daughter Jocelyn was studying in Granada. During that trip (I flew to Spain early to meet and travel with Jocelyn) I made a second trip to the caves at Nerja, and also to Ronda.

MT: You’re a traveler in general, aren’t you? I happen to know you’ve also been to Italy in the past year. What are your favorite places to travel and why?

CR: I adore Italy, particularly Florence and Tuscany, and neighboring Umbria, and would love to write a novel based in my “heritage” country! Rich and I also have a special fondness for Positano [me too!] and the Amalfi coast. The Italians, like the Spaniards, really and truly enjoy the moment (recall the book, Eat, Pray, Love? [Yes, I do!]) The Italians love to eat and spend a lot of time and effort creating delicious food. The art, and the sense of aesthetics in the architecture is so exhilarating. Another reason I love Italy (and Spain) is that it’s so often sunny there. For that reason, I also love the southwestern U.S., particularly New Mexico – Georgia O’Keeffe country – and Arizona. And of course, there is also California. I went to grad school there (Berkeley) and never wanted to leave. Currently, I am writing two interconnected books on-line, a novel called Castenata and the companion book, Sister Mysteries. Castenata is the story of a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 in California is accused of killing her cousin. Sister Mysteries tells the story of the modern woman writer who thinks she is that nun.

MT: After living in Chicago, San Francisco, and other places, and after having traveled to many others parts of the world, you’ve been settled for years now in upstate, semi-rural New York. What is it about that part of the world that you love?

CR: I think in all honesty that it is really not upstate New York where I yearn to live. My family however is in New England and we’ve found a beautiful rural community where, in the summer, with the flowers and the pond, it is lovely.

MT: What’s next for you – in your travels and your writing?

CR: The two on-line books are keeping me very busy. And I am also contemplating writing a non-fiction book about the writing exercise I developed for my Happiness class this spring. It’s called “Flip the Script” (the original post here) and it is a technique I have found very helpful to students. Basically, it’s a way for them to confront painful life stories and to find distance and redemption in revising them. The Happiness class has its own blog at , and I have been posting examples of these “Flip the Script” exercises there and on MyStoryLives, my community writing blog. I am thinking of trying to teach a class this summer in the community in which I feature the “Flip the Script” exercises.

I also love to garden and paint and do collage and I have a good time doing both.

As for travels, I haven’t got any planned at this moment but I sure would love to go to Greece! The sun and that great Greek food really call to me!

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