Still Water Saints
April 5, 2007
About this Book
"Still Water Saints" is Alex Espinoza's debut novel. A Spanish language version of the book, "Los Santos de Agua Mansa, California: Una novela," was also published in 2007. As a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, he served as the editor of the university's literary magazine. He earned his B.A. from the University of California, Riverside, where he graduated with honors. The youngest of 11 children, Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and raised in southern California. He currently teaches creative writing at his alma mater in Riverside.
Ron Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Alex Espinoza, whose first novel, Still Water Saints, has just been published by Random House. Welcome.
Alex Espinoza: Thank you.
Ron Carlson: It's so exciting to have you here as this book just comes out.
Alex Espinoza: Thank you.
Ron Carlson: I know it's been published in English and Spanish at the same time. The book itself is organized around a botanica in a town of your making up in the southwest and then organized over time via the festivals, the religious festivals throughout the year. And I wonder if you could just give us -- set it -- the book -- by reading that -- just the very opening page.
Alex Espinoza: Sure, sure. The first section takes place on January 12th, which is the feast of the epiphany of our lord and Dia de los Reyes, magi and kings of Africa, Arabia, and the East, patroners – patrons of travelers. "She could walk on water. She roamed the banks of the Santa Anna, among the long green stalks, chanting to the moon, to the gods of night and shadow. She rose and stepped onto the river, her footsteps gently rippling the surface. She summoned the spirits of the dead. They whispered their secrets to her, and she scribbled their messages on scraps of paper and in the margins of her phone book: 'Tell Ramón the locket fell on the floor between the bed and the nightstand.' 'I'm all right. It's like Disneyland up here, only without rides.' 'I don't miss my ears because they were too big.' She fought the devil. Every night he came to her, his head crowned with horns, his skin covered in scales. He cursed and called her names. She beat him back with her bare hands and sent him running, his cloven feet tapping against the tile of her kitchen floor. She was a bruja, a santa, a divina, a medium, prophet, and healer, able to pass through walls and read minds, to pull tumors from ailing bodies, to uncross hexes and spells, to raise the dead and to stop time. When doctors failed, when priests and praying were not enough, the people of Agua Mansa came to the botánica oshún, to Perla. The shop sold amulets and stones, rosaries and candles. They bought charms to change their luck, teas to ease unsettled nerves, and estampas of saints, the worn plastic cards they carried in their purses or wallet for protection. As thanks, the customers brought her booklets of coupons and long strips of lottery tickets. They gave her fresh bouquets of roses and carnations. They showed her pictures of aunts and uncles she had helped see through heart surgeries and hip replacements. They brought in the children she had saved from drug addictions and prison sentences. They told her of the abusive husbands and gambling wives she had chased away for good. Men often grew uneasy in her presence, but the women always opened up."
Ron Carlson: That's about -- that's the introduction to Perla, but she can't really walk through walls, or can she?
Alex Espinoza: No, she can't.
Ron Carlson: And she, this woman, has assumed ownership and she's the proprietor and the – perhaps the bruja -- and what is that, bruja?
Alex Espinoza: A bruja, or a currandera, is usually sort of a faith healer, someone who uses herbs, teas, prayers to heal or, you know, to help if you've been cursed.
Ron Carlson: Right, and she runs the botanica.
Alex Espinoza: She does, she runs the botanica.
Ron Carlson: And the -- without any training except intuitive training. And it's everything that – she can buy a prayer card, and that helps, or a vial of...herbs, and that helps.
Alex Espinoza: Right, right.
Ron Carlson: And that became the unifying theme, or place, of the book.
Alex Espinoza: It did, it did.
Ron Carlson: And all these people's lives pass through that shop. Tell -- where did you get that idea?
Alex Espinoza: You know, I was -- I was an undergraduate at U.C. Riverside, and I was working with a – a wonderful writer named Susan Straight who had told me that, you know, as part of my senior thesis I needed to work on a novel, and I was frightened of that word, so I thought, "Well, I can try to maybe take something in small chunks and see what happens with it." And initially it was -- I was going to use these crazy folk remedies that my mom would subject us to when we were kids to like, you know, cure our Tonsillitis, and they never worked, but they were too obscure and too weird. So around that time, I was visiting botanicas, and I was fascinated by the eclecticism, how you could see a statue of a Buddha sitting next to a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, you know, where you can find Kachina dolls and menorahs. And there's this -- just this collision of different religious images, usually in a store that's found in a strip mall between a nail salon and a laundromat. And I thought, what -- what a -- you know, what a wonderful place of exchange. And I started going in there, into these botanicas, just sort of lured by the smells and the sights, and I would hear these amazing stories that people would come in and tell the person on the other side of the counter. Some of the problems that they had were very, very personal, very painful, and some were also very sort of ridiculous and funny, and I wanted to capture that somehow. And so I started with that initial idea, and I'd been working retail for years, so I understood the relationship that sort of a customer and, you know, a client have, and that -- sort of that intimacy. And I went with that, and each -- you know, I just wrote these first-person accounts of these people coming into the shop for various reasons to see Perla, to see the then-unnamed character, because I hadn't named her, I didn't know who she was.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Alex Espinoza: So it started that way.
Ron Carlson: Before we go any further with this book, why don't you tell me -- you grew up actually going to the botanica and having sometimes cures. But you were -- you have siblings.
Alex Espinoza: Yeah, I do. I have 10.
Ron Carlson: So you're -- you're what, the second youngest of 11?
Alex Espinoza: I’m the youngest of 11.
Ron Carlson: You're the youngest of 11?
Alex Espinoza: Yeah, yeah.
Ron Carlson: And you were born --
Alex Espinoza: I was born in Tijuana. I was born in Tijuana in 1971, and when I was about 2 years old, you know, we came back here, or to Southern California. But I was actually -- we were actually living in Southern California already, all of us. And my mom was pregnant with me, but she did the reverse. She went back to Tijuana and had me because she didn't trust these American doctors, so she went back there and had me, and of course, my siblings were very upset with her because they said, "He's the only one that had the opportunity to be born here in the United States, and you go back and have him there."
Ron Carlson: Oh, that's interesting.
Alex Espinoza: So, you know, my experience with sort of being bicultural in that way has always been very unique, and I always tell people that story and they're like, "What?!"
Ron Carlson: Right, right.
Alex Espinoza: But that's what she did.
Ron Carlson: There are lots and lots of border stories like that.
Alex Espinoza: There are.
Ron Carlson: It's rich. The town you've created, Agua Mansa, that's not a real place.
Alex Espinoza: No, it's not a real place. It was -- it was founded in the 1840s by a group of settlers who left New Mexico and traveled down --
Ron Carlson: This town was?
Alex Espinoza: No, the settlers --
Ron Carlson: Oh, okay.
Alex Espinoza: -- in New Mexico left New Mexico. They left a place called Abiquiu, New Mexico, which is referenced in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. And they settled along the banks of the Santa Anna River in Southern California in the then-community of where San Bernardino is now. And shortly after they settled there -- they settled along the Banks of the Santa Anna and they called it "still water," Agua Mansa. And shortly after they settled in the 1860s, it rained and the river overflowed its banks and that settlement was washed away. So, you know, those settlers never resettled. They never repopulated that area. And the only thing that they left behind was this old cemetery that's up on a hill. For the purpose of this novel, I went in and I sort of resurrected the town, and I sort of just imagined what would this community look like had it had the opportunity to establish itself and grow into a thriving city? What would it look like? Who would live there? And right now the only – the space where Agua Mansa should have been is occupied by a cement factory, the Colton Portland Cement Factory, the cement that was used to build city hall in downtown L.A. So it's landfills and it's the cement factory, and it's this huge, empty spot. Now, when I was working on this, you know, I knew I wanted the Santa Anna, I knew I needed the 10 freeway, I knew I needed certain, you know, things that I wanted to have in my book. And I just went in and I saw this empty spot and I just gave it a grid and I just went in and started playing with it and I plotted it out. And so I sort of just resurrected it.
Ron Carlson: And created your own town.
Alex Espinoza: Yeah.
Ron Carlson: We're talking about a town that Alex Espinoza created for his first novel, Still Water Saints. And then you had the botanica in there. Perla assumes the ownership and starts advising people.
Alex Espinoza: Right.
Ron Carlson: Now, you had many, many episodes as these people come in. There's a woman who comes in because she's overweight, and she then gets involved – what was that story?
Alex Espinoza: That was Rosa's story.
Ron Carlson: Rosa.
Alex Espinoza: Yeah. That's "Release." Yeah, that's "Release."
Ron Carlson: And she -- does she get involved with the wrong characters?
Alex Espinoza: Well, you know, we first meet Miguel and he seems like the wrong character, but looks can be deceiving. His past -- he has a shady past. And she meets him when she's very young, and she meets him at a time in her life when she's very insecure of herself because she's overweight, and the reason she's gone into the botanica is because her mom has urged her to go in because she wants – her mother is obsessed with sort of beauty and perceptions of people, and she wants her to lose weight. And Rosa gets a job working as a cashier at a grocery store called Las Glorias, and that's where she meets Miguel. And Miguel is on parole.
Ron Carlson: We don't know that at first, though.
Alex Espinoza: We don't know that at first.
Ron Carlson: He's a nice guy.
Alex Espinoza: He's a very nice guy, but just very misunderstood. And then we meet -- you know, we get to see them later on, later in Bella's chapters. Rosa's all grown up. She's still working as a cashier, but she's also cutting hair. And, you know, we find out that she has married Miguel, and they have a daughter named Danielle. And, you know, life isn't as bad for the two of them as her mother thought it was going to be.
Ron Carlson: Exactly.
Alex Espinoza: You know, things work out okay. They struggle to get by, but they're fine.
Ron Carlson: There are a lot of family stories where – multigeneration and so on -- each of these instan-- did you -- were each of these episodes couched within the various festivals of the year -- St. Gregory, St. Francis -- were they -- did you do the research? Are these things you overheard, as you said, and expanded?
Alex Espinoza: A little of both. I did the research on some. You know, I wanted to include some Mexican Folk Saints, hence, I have Juan Soldado, whose feast Day is June 25th, and he is the patron of undocumented workers and those unjustly accused by the law, because that was what happened to him when he was in Tijuana. He was wrongly accused of a murder, and witnesses said that after he was executed, they heard his voice crying out for justice. Hence, he became Juan Soldado, patron of those unjustly accused. I -- there were certain saints that I wanted to incorporate just because their stories -- their own stories and their lives were so wacky and so sort of almost offbeat. You know, like Gregory the wonder worker, just the name. You know, he's invoked against impossible causes and floods. And you know, St. Francis of Assisi. But what I started out -- first, the structure of this novel was very interesting. It was first -- the customers came first, those people that would come in to the botanica and see Perla, you know, the first-person chapters of these people.
Ron Carlson: Men sometimes in the first-person and sometimes women in the first-person. And you were writing these episodes and gathering them. Okay.
Alex Espinoza: And I was gathering them, and up until I got to graduate school, I didn't know what the structure was going to be. Perla kept popping up because they would eventually end up at the botanica one way or another, whether through an illness or, you know, somebody brought them, or whatever, circumstance led them there. And Perla was always there to give them something, right? And initially she was kind of just like a supporting character: she'd just walk in and give you what you needed, and then they would leave. And then I thought--you know, once I was finished with my graduate studies, I realized, "I have to write her." And the way that I decided to write her was using third-person and spacing her chapters out within the course of a year and sort of, you know, flipping and flopping back and forth between her and her customers.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Alex Espinoza: You know, so switching the narrative that way. So the customers came first, those first-person accounts, and then I started writing Perla after.
Ron Carlson: Then this overarching story. But Perla has her own story.
Alex Espinoza: She does.
Ron Carlson: Her own history with her husband, her own – her introduction to the botanica, and then this visitor, this young visitor who -- and that's sort of the strongest single thread for her. And it sort of brings the community together at the end. And that is -- those things came last in unifying this book?
Alex Espinoza: Yeah, that all came last.
Ron Carlson: Were you worried that you'd end up with a group of disparate stories?
Alex Espinoza: I was--I was to some extent.
Ron Carlson: Like Winesburg, Ohio, you know?
Alex Espinoza: Yeah, I was. And it was interesting because when I finished it, I didn't know what I had. I didn't know whether it was a collection of stories or a novel. And so, you know, somebody that I'd worked with in graduate school had said, "Don't worry about what to call it. Those categories don't matter. Just write what you want to write and let somebody else worry about defining it for you." And that's what I did. I just sort of wrote this, you know, part collection of stories, part novel, and I just sort of let it take its own form and let it tell the story that it wanted to tell.
Ron Carlson: You were up against – even that first page you read has a suggestion of magic in it – and you're up against lit candles, incantations. Were you ever tempted to – I mean, I noticed there's a sort of mist of magic at certain points, but weren't you ever tempted just to have somebody get better, win the lottery, or something?
Alex Espinoza: Yeah, I was, and I actually did have one section that early on that had the character win the lottery, and it turns out horribly wrong. You know, everybody wants money, they're banging on his door at all hours of the night, and he and his wife can't sleep. And initially I was sort of thinking about this, about going that way, but I couldn't write a magical-realist novel. I wanted to get really close to the -- you know, that expectation, that if you're a Latino writer, you know, the definition that always comes up is magical realism. And I -- my purpose for writing this was to demystify it and to demystify the character of the currandera, you know, to show that my person, Perla, isn't a magical being with all the answers. She doubts herself immensely, and through those doubts, that's where the real faith comes.
Ron Carlson: Well, the whole moment as she goes out looking for Rodrigo, she feels so flat-footed and so exposed that -- I’m so interested to hear you say that dispelling the stereotype of someone who could create spells or cure. The store itself, the inventory you give -- I forget, about page 80 or so -- is so extensive. The whole -- it's the encyclopedia, 360 degrees of religious and magical and all those suggestions. So that's an interesting decision, and I think it really helps the book, which is already quite strong. The -- so there's -- we're missing one link, and that is, you're a reader and a writer, and this is a very successful book. Is -- and you've studied it in school, and you were at Riverside and U.C.I., et cetera, but what about before that? Where does the rubber meet the road in terms of your very first tangle with -- you know, when writing set you on fire and when you actually made forays as a writer?
Alex Espinoza: Right. You know, coming from a large family, there was never a quiet space. You know, the only time I was quiet or left alone is if I was reading. So I first developed my taste for reading and for putting words -- stringing words together, making them kind of sound pretty, when I was a kid, but I didn't know what that was going to translate into. I almost dropped out of high school; I was a really bad high school student. Then I went to a continuation school where I was in a classroom with a bunch of gang members who would bring their guns, and the guns would fall on the floor. You're like, "okay, well, your gun fell." Yeah, and that was where I first acquired this desire to want to know sort of the mystery within books, like those little treasures, the things that they would reveal about – somehow illuminating an aspect of my life as a kid in Southern California. Reading Edgar Allan Poe, you know, made sense to me. Reading, you know, Emily Dickinson's poetry made sense to me.
Ron Carlson: Was it just you and the book, or did you have teachers who helped make that connection?
Alex Espinoza: I think it was just me and the book, and I think that's what I needed. I needed to discover it on my own, to some extent. And when I got to community college, that was where I first encountered Latino writers who were writing about experiences that mirrored much closer -- they mirrored my own experiences. And then I started realizing maybe I could do that, too. But I left, you know, my studies. I graduated from a community college in 1994 and I was living in L.A. with my best friend. And I had a great apartment and a great job, but I wasn't writing. And again, there was something missing. Some secret wasn't being revealed to me. And I went back. And I went back to school. I left L.A. and I moved back to the inland empire in Southern California, and I went back to school. And I hadn't written in years, but when I got accepted to U.C. Riverside, they asked me to declare a major and I just checked the box that said creative writing, even though I hadn't written. And I was lucky to meet somebody like Susan straight who really helped cultivate my voice and just sort of was able -- she was there and she gave me good things to read, and she helped me develop a palate for good literature, and it just took off from there. So it kind of met me sort of at different spurts, but it wasn't until I fully got to my undergraduate studies, towards the tail end, and before I started graduate school at Irvine, that I realized, you know, I think this is something I could really give a go, and I think I can really try it, and I should really try it, and it's worth pursuing.
Ron Carlson: And what you've created here is quite original in terms of -- as a Latino writer then stepping into -- it's a territory which is at once familiar but treated with a different expectation. Is that part of it? I mean, this is an original work In terms of the turns it takes.
Alex Espinoza: Mm-hmm, right.
Ron Carlson: And it's not at reality.
Alex Espinoza: Right, but I think that's what my favorite writers always do is they take a subject or something that's been done and they put their own spin on it, you know, they show a different side to it. And that was my goal for this book was to demystify that character and to show not the magic of it but the mundane, the ordinary.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, the counterpoint is powerful. You write men and women well-- and young people. Now, so you're creating credible characters all around. Is it -- is there a way – could you give me some advice, or give a writer some advice in terms of creating, occupying characters?
Alex Espinoza: Occupying characters? I think, you know, I always tell my students, "Research is important. Always know your subject, always know who it is you're writing about and why you're writing about that person." I think you need to understand why you're taking on that role. It's a big responsibility, and it's one that I take -- with, you know -- as serious as I possibly can. Yeah, and I always tell my students, "If you're going to write from a female's perspective and you're a male, and if you're going to write from a female's perspective, a female being pregnant, you have to understand why. You can't just do it because you feel like doing it; you have to understand the motive behind it, and you have understand the story that you want to tell." I always try -- you know, the most fun I have are with those characters who are nothing like me, you know, who are so far removed from me. And I think that's because we always are trying to find ourselves.
Ron Carlson: There's a couple of thieves in here.
Alex Espinoza: There are.
Ron Carlson: Those guys who built the electronic store.
Alex Espinoza: Yeah, they steal from it. Beady and Shawn. And then Daisy gets introduced, and Daisy's bad news.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, was Beady the first-person?
Alex Espinoza: Shawn was the -- Shawn's telling it, yeah.
Ron Carlson: Shawn, yeah, I felt bad for him.
Alex Espinoza: Yeah, he's a very troubled guy.
Ron Carlson: But the -- I want to get to one other thing, and it is that do you -- is this book then written from part toward theme, element toward theme, or did you have general themes of community and other issues in mind?
Alex Espinoza: I think, you know what, my approach to that is kind of nebulous. I think at times I did have some thematic threads that I wanted to sort of, you know, pursue and examine, but I also wanted -- you know, I wanted my community to reflect an actual place, and I wanted it to be populated by real people first, you know, first and foremost, real people who embody a sense of spirit and identity of the place that they're living within. So at times, you know, some were more theme-driven, and then others weren't. Others started off with an idea, a voice, a character, a specific dilemma that needs to be overcome, and then I sort of went at it that way. But you know, I -- at times I looked at them, and at times I didn't. But you know, they were kind of -- the themes were kind of loose, though. I never went in and wrote specifically. If it didn't work, then that was my cue to get out, right? And a lot of times I found that when I worked through theme, it was kind of hard sometimes.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, you can guide it too strongly.
Alex Espinoza: You can.
Ron Carlson: Is -- were there a lot of episodes left out?
Alex Espinoza: Oh, yeah, a lot, a lot.
Ron Carlson: So this book wasn't just an act of magic. You wrote an overage and then trimmed and cut it.
Alex Espinoza: Yeah, I chiseled it away.
Ron Carlson: Is Agua Mansa going to return -- the town -- in your other -- in your future work?
Alex Espinoza: It is-- it is. We're not going to see it in the second, my second novel, but I do -- I think I’m planning on visiting it again for my third. I'm real excited about that because I want to know what changes.
Ron Carlson: That's good to hear. Congratulations. Well, Alex, thank you very much for being with us today. It's a privilege, and good luck with the book. We've been talking with Alex Espinoza about his first novel, Still Water Saints, just published by Random House. I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I hope you'll join us next time.