Interview with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Author Sandra Ramos O’Briant

Sandra Ramos O'Briant large

Stephanie: I would like to introduce B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Sandra Ramos O’Briant. She is the author of The Sandoval Sisters’ Secret of Old Blood, winner of Best Historical Fiction and Best First Book at the ILBA, 2013. Over 20 of her short stories and creative nonfiction have been published. Go to www.sramosobriant.com for links to some of her work. In addition, her work has been anthologized in Best Lesbian Love Stories of 2004, What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest (University of Texas Press, Spring 2007), Latinos in Lotus Land: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, (Bilingual Press, 2008), and Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery (Arte Publico, 2009).

Please tell me about your story, The Sandoval Sister’s Secret of Old Blood.

Sandra: When Alma flees with her young lover to Texas to escape an arranged marriage with a much older man, she sets in motion a drama that will put the sisters and their legacy at risk.  Pilar, a 14-year-old tomboy, is offered as a replacement bride, and what follows is a sensuous courtship and marriage clouded by the curses of her husband’s former lover, Consuelo. She will stop at nothing, even the use of black magic, in her effort to destroy the Sandoval family.

The Mexican-American war begins and the Americans invade Santa Fe.  The sisters survive the hostilities from two important fronts-New Mexico and Texas.  Their wealth and ancient knowledge offer some protection, but their lives are changed forever.

Santa Fe, New Mexico was the first foreign capital captured by the U.S. An unbelievable influx of men occurred, but nary a word has been written about how that affected the New Mexican women.  Until now.

Stephanie: Pilar wants the freedom to pursue whatever she wants when she wants it. There are usually consequences to the decisions and actions we make in life that affect others around us when we want to just do what we want. Are there consequences for Pilar and how does her behavior affect the people around her?

Sandra: The youngest Sandoval sister, Pilar, had a taste of independence few women received in 19th century New Mexico, but just because she liked it doesn’t mean she was willful, spoiled or flamboyant. If radar had been in use in the Territory of New Mexico circa 1840, Pilar would have flown right under it. If anything, she’s guileless and assumes that others are equally open. This aspect of her personality is what gets her into trouble. Her mother died giving birth to her and left Oratoria, the eldest adopted sister, in charge of her sisters. She had been bought by the Sandovals for a sack of flour when she was eight-years-old. Oratoria did not mistake Pilar’s wildness for impetuousness, but rather thought it a gift. When Pilar is betrothed to the much older Geraldo, she doesn’t run off or commit some heedless act-she accepts her fate.

Oratoria realizes that Geraldo is the perfect man for her sister, one who also prizes her “non-traditional” characteristics. My readers love Geraldo and I’m frequently asked where they can meet a man like him. He’s patient and knowledgeable about women. He doesn’t want her to have children while she’s still so young. This necessitated researching birth control methods in that time period. All of which Pilar and Geraldo use. A lot.

Oratoria tells him, “Witches do not ride broomsticks on moonlit nights. They prefer stallions.” Pilar, on the other hand, scoffs at the whole notion of witchcraft, even when she personally suffers from its affects.

Sandra's Book Cover

Stephanie: In my questionnaire to you, I asked you if there is a particular message to your story you would like the readers to grasp? Your answer was, “Prejudice and superstition exists in all cultures. Each of the Sandoval sisters is strong in her own way.” What are some of the prejudices and superstitions you feel that these women in your story face?

Sandra: My maternal grandmother was a Sandoval. In her home, there were santos, statues of saints and little altars, in every room. Many homes in Santa Fe were the same. Sounds all holy, doesn’t it? The flip side to this idolatry was a deep-seated belief that demons and witches live amongst us. In Northern New Mexico ancestor stories were interweaved with tales of witchcraft. The ritualistic power of feverish faith could be as simple as making the sign-of-the-cross over a whiff of bad luck, or carrying a wooden cross and wearing a crown of thorns in a secret ceremony, or perhaps self-flagellation. These same cultural aspects were even more evident at the time of my story.

Back then, a whirlwind of change had descended on Santa Fe when both Texas and the U.S. decided they wanted to control the Santa Fe Trail. The people in the far northern reaches of New Spain had been isolated for two hundred years. They lacked education, and their livelihood was subsistence based. Many of their ancestors had fled the Inquisition in Spain or been banished to the remote outer regions of New Spain. In my story, the Sandovals are set apart: “. . . others feared the awakening of dark powers for which the Sandovals had always been suspect. Not only had they acquired wealth in a desert frontier, they had survived Indians and epidemics while others perished. They could read, too, and their home was sumptuous with white marble pier tables, Brussels carpets and wood floors. This, while many New Mexicans lived in one-room adobe hovels alongside their goats. To make matters worse, they were handsome people. All good reasons to fear and respect them.”

When Alma elopes with Bill and runs off to Texas with him she encounters prejudice of a different sort: she’d married into a slave-holding culture. Texas had fought hard for its independence from Mexico, and most of its Spanish-speaking residents had fled; Texans made few distinctions between Blacks and Mexicans, and the Texas Rangers were known to have lynched Mexicans. Alma’s former position in society was worthless in this new environment, but she made the most of the few friendships she made there, even training with the town doctor.

When she returned to New Mexico, widowed and childless, she treated anyone who needed her help, including the prostitutes in a brothel. The community didn’t approve of this. They also didn’t approve of Pilar’s relationship with Monique, the half-Indian madam of the brothel. “To the alchemy of whores and witches,” Monique said. The people had lost land, been conquered by the U.S. and they were ready to place blame. The Sandoval sisters were an easy target and the crowd repeats this little ditty, “A father dies, a husband, too, and the widows, sisters all, dance under the witches’ moon.”

Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun was an influence on my work.  It’s a history of alleged demonic possession, religious fanaticism, and mass hysteria in 17th century France. When I read about religious persecution in the “modern” world and the effort to slut-shame women (sexual persecution), I think of this untidy piece of history.

Stephanie: What are Oratoria’s characteristics and what role does she play in this story?

Sandra: Oratoria is a scholar. This is Alma describing her sister: “She was the only one of us who’d read all the Sandoval diaries, those monstrous Spanish histories dating back for centuries. She said they were the source of our power. Like their authors, she reserved all her emotion for the biting edge of her words.” Her function is akin to a Greek chorus, relating her sisters’ experience to the lives of their ancestors as described in the diaries: “The secrets of their line were revealed in those journals, entire lifetimes recorded. A community of blood, the curtain drawn aside, allowed my voyeuristic peek. Human dreams had been written in archaic Spanish, and terrible sins described in faded brown ink on whisper-thin paper. The entire spectrum of love was examined: practical jokes and puns, recipes for desperate wives and artistic poisoners, centuries of words put down for those who followed.” She always supported her sisters in their choices. She’s aware of how the mix of fear and superstition can harm her family, and protecting her family is her #1 objective: “If evil is afoot, the people will seek those who have gained the most.” She’s content to be unmarried: “I escaped slavery once, why chance it again?” Then, she’s called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Stephanie:What are Alma’s strengths and weaknesses?

Sandra: Alma is smart and loyal, but she doesn’t recognize her inner strength. She’s been gifted with the Sandoval “memories” but she distrusts them, is even a bit ashamed of them: “The day I met Bill, these obsessive recollections stopped. If lessons of life were to be learned from the Sandoval diaries, I recognized them only in retrospect, after my fall from grace.” She endures the prejudices of living in Texas with Bill, his family and their friends. The memories return to her adding a bit of piquant humor to her plight:

Stephanie: Another thing I asked you in my in questionnaire to you was, “How does your work differ from others of its genre?” And I loved your answer! You said, “There are no historical novels dealing with the Mexican American War from a female perspective (of which I am aware.) My heroines are unique, each in her own way and together they represent the female trinity of Maiden, Mother and Crone. I only realized this when one of my beta readers asked which of the sisters I most identify with. Each of them represent a passage through life that I have made, that each woman makes. The girl I was lives within as do the fears and hopefulness of motherhood. Many historical novels are really historical romances, and I don’t mean to diminish them, but the female protagonists are often stuck in time with their vulnerabilities in the forefront. It makes them appear “feminine” I guess. The Sandoval sisters are womanly, and their inner strength is visible. Always.

Sandra, will you write other novels dealing with the Mexican American War from a female perspective?

Sandra: The Sandoval story is a family saga and the sequel is in the editing stage. It follows the next generation of Sandovals. At the end of the The Sandoval Sisters’ Secret of Old Blood, there is a preview chapter for the sequel called First, We Were O’Reillys. The sisters adopt two Anglo children whose parents died on the trail to Santa Fe. This is Alexandra speaking: “The Sandoval blood was not destined to flow into new generations . . . by chance or by choice. Who knows? Our arrival at their doorstep was taken in stride, as if expected. Their blood was not our blood, but we became Sandovals, nonetheless. They could not let us go. They were set apart, and so were Phil and I. We played with the other children and eventually flirted with them, but we were not the same. Our Anglo last name disappeared and we became the Sandoval children on every legal document of that time . . . We were the children of the Sandoval witches. The community would not forget the old blood.”

This is the essence of the family legend that I was told regarding my maternal grandmother’s family, but the setting-Santa Fe, New Mexico-is also an important part of the story. It’s the town in which I grew up and from which I so desperately needed to escape.

Stephanie: As you wrote your story, did you find your characters doing unexpected things?

Sandra: Absolutely. If I say more, I’ll spoil the twists and turns. The entire process was an adventure, the sisters’ lives played out behind my eyes while I worked, drove my kids to tennis or gardened. My job was to write what they showed me.

Stephanie: How long did it take to write your story?

Sandra: Five years total, but that produced one book and half of the sequel. It took me almost three years to research and write the first version of the story. My agent advised me that I had the makings of two, possibly three, books. She offered plenty of other advice for which I am forever grateful. That first book had begun with the next generation (which is now the second book in process) with lots of flashbacks to the lives of the Sandoval sisters, their aunts. Two more years passed while I moved the past forward into the present to create The Sandoval Sisters’ Secret of Old Blood.

Stephanie: Where in your home do you write and how much time to you devote to your craft?

Sandra: I have an office where most of my writing and editing takes place. But I’ve been known to start scribbling on the backs of envelopes if inspiration strikes. I’m a morning person, so after my workout, I’m at the computer. When I’m heavy into creation, I’ll work at night, too. Total time? Probably 3-5 hours a day, interspersed with gardening and walking the dog. Sometimes, I take breaks to work on short stories. Doing that allows me to change perspective and always leads to new inspiration in a novel.

Stephanie: How did you discover indieBRAG?

Sandra: Part of every published author’s workday is filled with researching marketing sites and ideas. This includes a Twitter feed and contacts with other authors. A number of authors whose work I enjoy referred me to indieBRAG.

Stephanie: Where can readers buy your book?

Sandra: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

A message from BRAG:

We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Sandra Ramos O’ Briant, who is the author of, The Sandoval Sister’s Secret of Old Blood, one of our medallion honorees at www.bragmedallion.com . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, The Sandoval Sister’s Secret of Old Blood, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.

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