Saturday, August 1, 2015

'The Ladies of Managua' author considers generations, cultures in collision



There's a bit of magic in Eleni Gage's life. She's willing to follow her instincts, and those of trusted others—so much so that she picked a wedding date a year ahead of time, before even meeting her eventual husband.
Oh, yes, she did. They married on 10-10-10. More about that later.
Gage has pursued a busy freelance and full-time career at magazines and is now executive editor of Martha Stewart Weddings, mother of two small children, and an author. In May, St. Martin's Press published "The Ladies of Managua," her second novel, third book.
Born in Greece, she grew up in Athens and North Grafton (where her parents, Nicholas and Jane Gage, still live). She is named after her grandmother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis—executed by Communist forces for whisking her children out of Greece to keep them out of Communist "training" camps. The children settled in the Worcester area, and one of them, Nicholas, became a New York Times reporter who researched his mother's death before writing an award-winning book, "Eleni." That book became a movie starring John Malkovich and Kate Nelligan in 1985.
With creative parents (Jane has turned to photography and art), and her brother Christos a screenwriter, she may have been destined to write as well, but she didn't plan it that way.
"I wanted to be a teacher. I saw my parents writing, and from the perspective of a child it looks fairly boring—you sit at the computer a lot. But it was a way of looking at things and observing things. Mom's not Greek, and she was always pointing out to me, 'Look at that ritual or celebration," "Isn't it interesting the way this is cooked or this holiday is celebrated?' So when I went to college, I studied folklore and mythology, because I became so interested in ritual and cultures—in what makes up a person's identity." That is what she has written about in her books and many of her travel articles.
After graduating from Harvard, she landed a role as editorial assistant (later associate editor) at "Allure" magazine. She moved on to "Elle" and "InStyle," later becoming beauty editor at "People." But with a solid career—still not teaching—she wanted to do more.
On a visit to Greece, she began writing a travel memoir, "North of Ithaka." She credits the elder residents of her grandmother's small village, Lia, who sat outside for part of each day and shared stories, for the memories and traditions that fed into her writing. "We were there overseeing the rebuilding of my grandmother's house, which had fallen into ruin after the Greek civil war," she said.
The memoir drew fans, but presented her with another problem. "A lot of people loved it, but I also got, from relatives, why did or didn't you do this?" She began to think writing fiction might be better.
One doesn't just sit down and become a novelist, however.
She pursued an MFA (Master's degree in fine arts) from Columbia University and achieved another goal: "I taught while I was getting it." She also wrote the draft of a novel. Later, she re-entered the freelance world, successfully publishing articles in travel and lifestyle magazines. (She has also contributed to The New York Times, Parade, and The American Scholar.)
She was researching a novel, when an Indian astrologer predicted her marriage to "a soft-hearted businessman" on 10-10-10, she chose that date for her wedding. She did, indeed, meet that businessman, a Nicaraguan coffee trader named Emilio Baltadano. "Other Waters" is about an Indian-American psychiatrist convinced her family is cursed. Its themes revolve around multi-cultural identity and conflict. The novel was released to good reviews in early 2012.
It was through her husband that seeds were sown for "The Ladies of Managua." The couple brought their first child to meet her Nicaraguan family. "We lived there for seven months between 2012 and 2013, in Grenada. He told me about his grandmother, who had gone to convent school in New Orleans during the late 1940s to '50s." His grandmother's own star-crossed romance as an adolescent led Gage to imagine one of the three characters who narrate the latest novel—her favorite, as it turns out. Her first draft took shape.
"I learned about the things girls learned in these schools: how to set a nice table, how to get into a cab properly." This set the character of Isabella in the novel, mother to the revolutionary Ninexin and grandmother to Maria Vazquez, who returns to Nicaragua for her grandfather's funeral. "I loved writing about her (Isabella); I feel like, as women we're always trying to figure out the rules of the world around us. We're raised to listen to the rules of society, as opposed to men, and I sort of realized by the time you figure out the rules, they've all changed. Older women carry so many worlds inside them—both the societies that don't exist anymore, and themselves at a younger age. I like how they (older women) are kind of uncensored. People of that age stop worrying about what others think."
She studied the revolution from the writings of a prominent Nicaraguan writer-revolutionary, Gioconda Belli. "I read a lot of books and articles by her; she wrote about coming across her daughter's college entrance essay (her daughter was raised in the United States, as is the character Maria). In it, her daughter wrote that she wished her mother had been around more. Belli felt badly when she read the essay, but her daughter told her it was alright, saying, 'You couldn't have been a good revolutionary and a good mother.' That inspired me for the conflict between daughter and mother. Guilt is hard to escape, especially for women. You're expected to do certain things. Raise your kids a certain way. Ninexin wanted to change society and was a little more fearless in that way, but the judgments of the people she loved weighed on her. She had this secret about Manuel (Maria's father) that she couldn't reveal because he was a national hero, and was a hero in his daughter's mind."

Their secrets, and their passage across years of disappointment and misunderstanding to find each other again, is what makes "The Ladies of Managua" a deeply satisfying novel. "They're all intelligent and I think they're all pretty passionate about things—but the difference comes in that they're all passionate about different things."
She wrote the novel in three voices, as "a way of exploring how much we can misunderstand even the people closest to us. Often, they don't know what we're thinking. So that was a really fun exercise."
She read a lot about women in Nicaragua and the revolution, while there. "There are not many novels written about that period of history in Nicaragua. But if you think of World War II, and about our own Civil War—how many books have been written about that?"
In September 2013, she became executive editor at Martha Stewart Weddings, living in New York City. "I have a great day job for a writer. You are exercising the skills that you use in writing; I'm writing and editing all day long, so that is really nice, and I enjoy the people I work with, but I do feel like there's never enough time in the world to do the things I want to do."
She finished working on "The Ladies of Managua" over the course of 18 free Fridays. With kids you have to plan carefully. She did a brief  book tour during maternity leave for her four-month-old. "It's a little crazy bringing the kids, but a lot of that is done digitally these days. You can blog or Skype with book clubs, or things like that. I try to fit in events when I'm going to places anyway. I was in Miami for my husband's work, and I did a reading there."
She hopes to do another book, when time allows, setting it in Greece again. But at present, she's enjoying the release of her newest, busy mothering her 4-year and 4-month-old children, and working full-time. She has learned to write whenever she can, wherever she is. "If you've got 20 minutes, sit down and write. You can edit it later. You can't wait for those magical moments when you'll have all the time in the world.
The author blogs at theliminalstage.com. There, she writes about themes of identity, family and cultural differences.

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