Growing up as an expat I have always been interested in other cultures, mores and languages. Comme diraient les Français “Vive la difference.” So it was natural for me to be attracted to literature of this nature and to use such themes in my own writing.
Life in Russia: You grew up in a number of places. What countries have you lived in?
CCM: In chronological order: Greece, Germany, Colombia, Costa Rica and New Zealand. My formative years and by far the longest time was spent in Colombia and Costa Rica.
Life in Russia: Tell us about your book.
CCM: It is set in Colombia during a volatile time (1980’s) and is about a young woman who marries a colombiano. They go to live on his family coffee finca (farm) in an isolated part of the Andes Mts. surrounded by cloud forests – which she loves because she’s a biologist. Without giving away too much – calamities befall them one after another and she ends up running the finca by herself. It is a literary genre with a little adventure and romance thrown in and a scary bit near the end.
Life in Russia:What was your inspiration for writing A Place in the World?
CCM: Well like all writers the story was simply in my head and wanted “out.” But I guess there were three motivating factors:
1) Growing up as a girl without a country – with the ex-pat experience of coming “home” for the first time to the States for college and feeling totally out of place. Writing gave expression to some of this unexpected culture shock.
2) I originally wanted to be a rainforest biologist and so I was able to live this dream through Alicia. It gave me an excuse to visit and study rainforests and cloud forests in several places.
3) And I love Latin America – the setting and culture are comfortable. There were people who were enormously kind to me and experiences I never would have encountered anywhere else. I wanted to write about them and it was wonderful way to spend time in a place I can never forget.
Life in Russia: Tell us about Latin America culture and how it is reflected in your characters and story.
CCM: Carmen, the barefoot maid who worked for the family most of her life, is my favorite character. She represents many women in Latin America who have difficult lives but remain cheerful and giving.
Then there is the Latin Lover which husband Jorge plays well – he is slightly spoiled and self-centered as well as macho, but is a decent man nonetheless. He is balanced out by his father don Felipe, who is jovial, cultured and loving – although he still thinks women should stay at home. (Remember this is the 1980’s as well as an older man from a different culture.)
Abuelita (“Grandmother”) is even more old school – an old lady who expects the family to cater to her – and they do. Panama was once part of Colombia and Abuelita grew up hearing how the US supported the Panamanian Revolution so they could build the canal; she has never trusted Americans because of that. Nonetheless she and Alicia come to respect each other.
I peppered in little tidbits such as the “segunda casa” (the second house) which refers to a man supporting two households – one with his legal wife and family and another for his mistress and her children. It was practically an institution in those days. But again this is all balanced by men who are responsible and decent family men, such as the foreman of the finca who looks after Carmen and Alicia. Family is very important to Latinos.
Life in Russia: How did you come up with the title?
CCM: It came to me early on and I like it because it is both literal and figurative i.e. the story is about a certain physical Place in the World – a coffee finca in the cloud forest, but it is also about a person finding their place in the world. You could say the main theme is belonging.
CCM: This was important to me and took some time, perhaps because I had a definite feel for what I wanted. It is from a painting (1901) I love by Martin J. Heade of a cloud forest in the Amazon and so encapsulates the soul of the book. I just knew at once this was it.
Life in Russia:You were an expat. What was it like when you first came to US? What made an impression?
CCM: The first time I came to live in the States was for college and I was aware that I stuck out like a sore thumb: I wore the wrong clothes, didn’t know the music, had never been to a football game etc. yet I spoke and looked American. As far as what impressed me – the seasons were fun (although winter was awfully cold) – and libraries. I’d always treasured good books, especially in English as they were hard to come by back then – we relied on other expats to share. So walking into a library and having your choice of most anything was such a privilege – and still overwhelms me!
Life in Russia:How did you even know which universities to apply to?
CCM: That was a problem because there were no counselors and to me each state was the same. I didn’t realize how different the NE, the West or the South could be. I went to the University of North Carolina because my Costa Rican boyfriend was there. The culture shock was such that I returned to Costa Rica after my second year and didn’t venture back to finish my degree for several years.
Life in Russia:You considered killing off Alicia. How and why would you have killed off your heroine?
CCM: There were many kidnappings and killings in the area Alicia lived during the 80’s. I know families who experienced this and people who were driven off their land by the violence. It just seemed a likely thing that might have happened to someone traveling those roads regularly or even at her own finca. I like Alicia and found myself wondering how she and the other characters were doing after I’d finished writing their story…as if they were real people. (Maybe there’s something Freudian there!)
Life in Russia:Now that’s interesting. What misconceptions about Colombia do Americans have?
CCM: Well first of all the tendency is to mis-spell it ”Columbia” when in fact it has two “o’’s and no “u” – and is pronounced Co lo( long o) bee-ah. They have a long history of strife but it is no longer as dangerous as it once was. Most people live perfectly normal lives and even at the time this was surprisingly possible. Tourism is on the rise and the economy is stable. Besides coffee they have a large flower industry.
Life in Russia:You visited Bogotá a few months ago, how was it different from the Colombia of your teen years?
CCM: The people were the same, friendly and caring; poverty unfortunately is still an issue. The city I grew up in was almost unrecognizable – it probably doubled in population. One little colonial town that used to lie just NE of Bogotá has been engulfed and devoured by development so that it is now a neighborhood of the metropolis. The traffic can be pretty bad – no wonder a nature girl like Alicia didn’t want to live there. But the setting on a high plateau nestled in the Andes is striking. For those thinking of visiting Colombia you will find a land of incredible beauty and diversity. Be sure and to see one of the preserved colonial towns.