NEW YORK – Author Eleni Gage has continued her entertaining exploration of cultures, families and relationships with her third book – and second novel – The Ladies of Managua.
According to Gage’s website, “The book follows three generations of women, each with her own secret, as they explore their intense relationships to each other, and to their homeland, Nicaragua.”
The alchemy of genes, home environment and life experiences that created Gage has now produced a touching story of family members the reader comes to care about. By the end of the novel, the reader has almost become a member of the family.
Gage’s own family is literary, but the child of two authors didn’t wan’t to go that route. “It didn’t seem like tons of fun,” she told The National Herald.
“It looked like just sitting in a room typing – which it is – and asking people questions they felt uncomfortable answering,” she said
But she loved reading, “and as I went through school I wanted to be a teacher.”
By high school when she had to start thinking seriously about the future, her answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up” – the question that is fun in elementary school but really annoying to teenagers – was “happy,” spoken in the tone of “back off!”
Her college environment, however, reinforced nature and nurture. Her Harvard roommate wrote for the Crimson and after attending a meeting of the newspaper’s weekly lifestyle section called “Fifteen Minutes,” she was hooked.
“You could pitch ideas and write up stories and by the time I became a senior” – she majored in folklore and mythology, a field that could only be turned into a career through more schooling – “I decided to apply for a job in a magazine.”
A lot of her interest in folklore and mythology came from navigating the currents of a multi-cultural family – her father Nicholas Gage immigrated from Greece and her mother Joan is from Minnesota. “I could not believe there was a major where you could actually study this stuff,” she said.
She eventually poured it into her novels involving ethnic groups she was not born into, but her non-fiction North of Ithaca is about her role in rebuilding the family’s house in Epiros.
She had a lot of fun living in her father’s village and writing about the experience. “And I had this idea that writing fiction you just made things up so a) wouldn’t it be less work and b) wouldn’t you be less likely to offend people.”
What she found out about fiction is that “a novel creates a world that seems real, and a lot of that comes from specificity, so you end up having to do much more research,” she said, but Gage now enjoys that part, and the connection with her schooling.
On the other hand, it turns out a lot of the inspiration comes from real life. “It may not be stranger than fiction, but it’s often more interesting.”
When she learned from her husband Emilio about her grandmother’s life story that became the heart of The Ladies of Managua,” she said “why am I just learning about this now?”
At first the book was going to focus on the grandmother, but Gage became fascinated by the idea of writing about the differences and conflicts among generations and the changes in life experience of individuals in societies undergoing dramatic transformations.
“So you needed to hear from the other ladies,” she said.
“I did not know how the book was going to end until I took Emilio’s grandmother to New Orleans for her 80th birthday.”
She went on a tour of Sacred Heart Academy, the boarding school his grandmother attended.
“When I saw the courtyard and the fountain,” which figured prominently in the story, “I knew how the book was going to end.”
“One of the most amazing things was that even things I totally made up,” resonated with Emilio’s grandmother, who said “I’m reading about things I haven’t even talked about.”
They were not real but she identified so much with the character that she said “yes that happened to me,” – a tribute to the power of Gage’s intuition.
The book’s ending diverged from real life, but she admitted it is “spooky” how the product of an author’s imagination could possibly alter reality.
The book also examines how hard it is to know reality of even people we are close to.
That comes from Gage’s life.
“The hardest thing I had to learn is that people don’t do things for the reasons I would do them.”
She gave an example of how easily good friends can misunderstand and become angry with each other. A practical lesson from the book is that people should more frequently ask others what they are thinking or feeling. Asked about literary coaching from her parents, Gage said, “I never showed them articles before they were published but I often asked questions.” She did show an early draft of “Ladies” to her mother. “It was interesting to get her viewpoint both as a writer and as a woman in her age group.”
For North of Ithaka, her parents were valuable as authoritative sources and guides to books to read. “That they saw many drafts of,” she said.
Gage was more affected by them philosophically than technically as a writer, saying “I think the fact that they always look for connections and larger themes” in life and literature made an impact.
She doesn’t think anything from her family – she has a brother and a sister – entered the book.
“But who knows” she said, “maybe on the subconscious level.”
Between her two young children and working for a magazine, Gage is not ready for next novel, but she has thought that in her next book she would return to Greece.
The interview took place as she was about to depart for Greece, so more inspiration was right around the corner.