Talking Location With author Leigh Russell – YORK
Talking Location with Dianne Romain – Guanajuato, Mexico
14th September 2019
#TalkingLocationWith… Dianne Romain, author of The Trumpet Lesson, set in Guanajuato, Mexico
I grew up in a small Missouri town surrounded by fields of alfalfa, feed corn, and soybeans. My father drove a bulldozer to dig ponds for farmers and, occasionally, to clear train wrecks. My mother kept his books, sewed us girls’ dresses, and canned fruits and vegetables in glass jars. To a family of nine and of modest means, a trip meant visiting our mother’s sister in a nearby town. Still, I ventured far and wide—thanks to Nancy Drew mysteries in the library.
When working on my Ph.D. in philosophy, I became devoted to literary fiction. While I loved questions such as “Can we know the external world exists?” I worried that steeping myself exclusively in such esoteric inquiries would leave me with little to say to my family and other non-philosophers. So, in my spare time, I read literature. Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and James Baldwin, I learned, wrote as expatriates. I began to dream of living and writing in another country.
Some years later, my dream came true. My love, Sterling Bennett, and I came to Mexico for a year’s sabbatical. By then I had taken a fiction-writing class and been in a creative-writing group for years. I considered writing a bit of fiction, but, having recently published my textbook Thinking Things Through, I had no desire to tackle another many-headed monster. Certainly not a novel. Besides, I had come to Mexico to improve my Spanish. Imagine my delight, then, in hearing of weekend fiction writing workshops in Spanish in Erongarícuaro, the lakeside village in Michoacán where we had begun our sabbatical. Perfect, I thought. I could practice Spanish while learning about short stories. I hadn’t planned, however, on Sterling wanting to take the short story workshop, too. Thinking we would learn more if we took separate workshops, I entered Maria Luisa Puga’s novel workshop—and ended up writing a novel.
Conceived in Erongarícuaro, the novel, over time, became The Trumpet Lesson; it is set, where we now live, in Guanajuato. An historic canyon city in the central Mexican highlands, Guanajuato thrived in colonial times due to silver and gold mines in the surrounding hills. Now history and art museums abound. As does music.
I’ve always loved music. Listening to music, playing music, dancing to music. In fact, music brought us to Guanajuato, for we visited Guanajuato the first time on the recommendation of my piano teacher in California. Music and other arts brought us back: first, to attend the Festival Cervantino, a yearly international festival of music, art, and literature, and, later, to live.
Naturally, then, the music of Guanajuato plays a key role in my novel. The painfully shy main character, Callie Quinn, becomes fascinated by a young woman’s performance of “The Lost Child” in Guanajuato’s central plaza. Callie asks the woman for a trumpet lesson—and ends up confronting her longing to speak of her own lost child, the biracial baby girl she gave up for adoption more than thirty years before.
Other musical sounds of Guanajuato inform the novel, too. Aztec dancers rattling seed pod ankle bracelets at Catholic festivals. Men singing out “Gas Butano” while carrying tanks up lonely footpaths. Guanajuato’s symphony orchestra tuning up to an oboe playing concert A. Latin rhythms in late-night clubs. Church bells. Jazz.
Guanajuato’s layout provided symbols for Callie’s quest: mazelike pathways, dead-end alleys, tunnels, the Subterránea (a street that winds above a hidden river), and mine shafts in the surrounding hills.
The Trumpet Lesson questions societal attitudes about race, adoption, and sexuality. My next novel explores the effects of inequality, from little children pressed into selling chiclets on the streets to inflation caused by the influx of well-off foreigners.
With a legend told about nearly every footpath and plaza, Guanajuato provides material for genre stories, too. Police making their rounds reported shadowy figures wearing capes and long habits slipping through the walls of the Teatro Juarez, down to the Subterránea and then into the basement wall of the nearby Hotel San Diego.
For tragic love, there’s the legend of the Callejón del Beso (Footpath of the Kiss), where in colonial times an angry father knifed his daughter to death because he disapproved of her suitor. For historical fiction, there’s Father Hidalgo’s famous battle against the Spanish at the Alhóndiga during the War of Independence. Later, having captured and killed Father Hidalgo, the Spanish hung his and the other leaders’ heads in iron cages from the Alhóndiga’s four corners.
We enjoy visiting places rich in art, music, and history: Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Florence, Athens, Mexico City, Kansas City. Perhaps one day I’ll set a story in one of those cities or in that little Missouri farm town where I grew up. For now, I have ample inspiration right here at home in Guanajuato.
Thank you so much to Dianne for such great insights!
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