Claire Ibarra received her MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. Her work can be found in many literary magazines and anthologies. She currently teaches creative writing in Colorado. Learn more at www.claireibarra.com.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Claire Ibarra: Many years ago, when I was a college student, I decided to study for a year in Peru through an International Program at my university. After completing my year of studies, I extended my stay there and eventually married and started a family. “Fragile Saints” was inspired by living in Peru and 25 years married into a Peruvian family.
Most of my adult life was spent intimately connected to Peru, its people and culture. My oldest daughter was born there, and in some ways the novel is a gift to my daughters. This story is my way of sharing that connection with them, as well as an homage to the country. My experiences there sparked my journey as a writer and poet.
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SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Ibarra: I feel that this excerpt establishes the tone and setting for the story. I have been greatly influenced by Latin American magical realists, and this section certainly has magical realism. This has always been my favorite genre, and much of my writing is in this style. This excerpt reveals some of the relationships in the novel, as well as Elsa’s backstory, with hints at some mystery and questions left for the reader.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Ibarra: While living in Peru and with a large extended Peruvian family, I was inspired by their fascinating, and sometimes outlandish, family lore and stories. Also, I traveled extensively throughout the Andes, and spent time in remote towns and villages.
For example, the hacienda depicted in the novel is a real place that I visited. It was at one time a hacienda that became a town when Velasco expropriated properties during his presidency in the early 1970s. It became my life’s work to find a way to tell these fascinating stories about the culture and land.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Ibarra: The narrative really did have a mind of its own! In early drafts, the story was a messy family saga that spanned numerous generations using mainly vignettes, because each character was trying to find a voice. As it is now, the story still spans four generations, but developing Elsa’s story and writing from her point of view helped give shape to the novel.
The story is told using two timelines, the present day and the family’s past, which allowed me the space to write about history, lineage, and family lore. I had to “kill some darlings” in the process of writing the novel, but in the end, the voices and stories that most needed to be heard are there.
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SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Ibarra: One of the biggest surprises to me was to discover that my novel is largely about colonialism. I never intended to write anything sociopolitical. As a fiction writer, I felt more concerned about my characters than politics.
But looking back, it would be impossible to write any story set in Peru that did not include and grapple with the issue of colonialism and its effect on the Indigenous people and society. I believe fiction writers can address important social and political issues within storytelling, without overtly preaching and politicizing.
This organic way of exploring issues and revealing them through the characters often makes for a deeper understanding and greater impact.
SunLit: Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Ibarra: My readers have been incredibly kind and supportive. I feel fortunate to have such broad support and praise for the book. Many of my readers have requested a sequel, but I haven’t gotten that far.
I, myself, have raised questions and have had some doubts about writing a book set in a country and culture that is not wholly mine. At this time, when appropriation and othering are issues to be aware of and sensitive to, I always address this concern openly and honestly.
I have deep ties and connections to Peru, but I am sensitive to these issues. I don’t want people to assume I am Latin American, especially because of my last name, and then be taken aback.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Ibarra: My writing routine is not necessarily consistent. I teach creative writing at a college, and during the semester I tend to write less. I am reading more, and my writing is in the form of student feedback and comments. That takes a lot out of my creative energy.
During time off, I can focus on my own projects. It seems I work with extremes — long dry periods with spurts of intense focus and hours of writing. I do enjoy my office, where it is quiet and has a large window with a view of a gorgeous open space — the trees, hillsides, and creek inspire the poet in me.
SunLit: How would you describe your novel “Fragile Saints”?
Ibarra: Peru lends itself to magical realism. There is so much mystery and intrigue to the history and culture. Spiritualism seems ingrained into the fibers of the culture. This story is part ghost story, part mystery, part love story, and as I mentioned, about colonialism.
These all happen to be gothic themes. That happened to be another surprise upon completing the novel — how the story weaves together magical realism with gothic elements.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Ibarra: I recently completed my second novel, “Alteration.” This is a quirky story about a woman named Margaret who decides to live from her bed. It is set in New York.
I adore the characters in this story, and I got quite attached to them. The story is offbeat, and I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope it will be published soon. I think it should be out in the world! I am also pursuing getting “Fragile Saints” translated into Spanish. I always envisioned that “Fragile Saints” would be available in Spanish and find its way into Peru and Latin America.