Those of you who have read two or more (or even all) of my novels may have noticed a common theme in relation to the heroines: each is immersed in a new culture.
In Burning Embers, Coral is returning to Kenya, where she lived in her early childhood, to take over her inheritance, a plantation. Since the age of nine she has lived exclusively in England – Kenya, then, is a strange and exotic new world.
In The Echoes of Love, Venetia has come to live in Italy to work for her godmother’s architect firm in Venice. She has grown up in England, but is looking for a new start removed from the heartbreak she’s known in London; mysterious Venice, city of mirrors, seems a good fit.
In Indiscretion, Alexandra has a mixed heritage: her mother was English, her father is Spanish. But she has been estranged from her Spanish roots ever since her mother left her father (and then, subsequently, died), and has built a life in England. When she is invited to Spain, to meet her Spanish family, curiosity drives her to accept. But the Andalucía of 1950 is so very different to all she has known before.
In Masquerade, Alexandra’s daughter, Luz, is centre stage. Her mother is half-Spanish, her father Spanish; she is rooted in Andalucía. But her travels – she was educated abroad, in England – have made her open to new cultures, and she finds that she is fascinated by the gypsies in the area, their history and culture.
Finally, we come to Legacy, the conclusion to the Andalucían Nights series. Again, the heroine is of mixed heritage; this time her mother was Spanish and her father is American. Luna has grown up in the US, but a job assignment sends her to Cadiz, where she is surprised to see just how much a pull her Spanish roots have.
Culture, then is a very important in my novels. I take a young woman and thrust her out of the comfortable, safe – a little staid – life she has always known, and plunge her into a brand-new culture, one that is colourful and vibrant and exhilaratingly exotic, but also, by its nature of being foreign, somewhat overwhelming. Emotions run high as this new environment challenges the heroine at her very core: Who is she? Where does she fit, in this world or the last? Where in the world will she choose to live – in what cultural landscape? Most importantly, what kind of man will she fall for, one from her past or one from this heady new place?
The journey that my heroines take is one with which I identify strongly. I grew up in Egypt, and because the government put my family under a sequestration order, we were not able to travel for many years. As a child that did not concern me too much; Egypt has much to offer to occupy the mind of a little girl with a big imagination. But by the time I was a young woman, with a degree in French Literature from the University of Alexandria, I had a deep-seated need to see the world.
I spent several years travelling in my twenties, predominantly in Europe, and I met my husband at a drinks party in London. Ever since we have lived something of a cosmopolitan life, between different cultures: this year, for example, we have divided our time between our homes in Ireland, England and France, and we have travelled to Egypt to see family and to the Greek islands, as part of research for a future novel.
For me, experiencing different cultures and their people is as essential a part of life as reading and writing (as Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta said, ‘Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller’). That is why all my novels are infused with a passion for travel. But not only travel, of journeying to an end point.
Each of my books is really about the heroine finding a home, wherever that may be, a place in the world where she belongs. For Alexandra, that means settling in Andalucía, with her Spanish family. But the ending, I know from my own life, need not be so simple. Coral, for example, decides to move to France with French-born Rafe and live there in his manor, because the Africa she loves (of the 1970s) is changing; but she will return each year to visit her plantation in Kenya, which will always be a special place because there she and Rafe fell in love. The place matters, of course, but it is what it represents – memories, emotions, connections to people – that is really of importance.
As American writer Henry Miller said, ‘One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.’
In my latest novel Legacy, the male protagonist, Ruy, is a man faced with two legacies: that of his mother, Luz, who is descended from a respected and noble Andalucían family, and that of his father, Andrés, whose mother was an infamous and powerful gypsy queen.
It would be all too easy for, as one of the characters in the novel puts it, ‘The mixed gajo and Caló blood that runs in Ruy’s veins [to] pull him in different directions.’ But in fact, Ruy has reached a point in his life where he embraces both sides of his heritage:
* He is an eminent physician, with his own clinic treating cancer patients, and he assimilates easily into the mainstream Andalucían culture.
* He is an active member of the gypsy community – a flamenco guitarist, and a healer, having been taught herbal, alternative, medicine by the talented healer La Pharaona.
The balance Ruy has created in his life between the two different sides of his heritage has not come easily; his was a tortuous and painful journey. But it has opened new doors for him. Professionally, he is able to blend the two forms of medicine at his clinic, with impressive results. Personally, he has come to have a peaceful acceptance of his place in the universe and a faith in how that universe works: he has come to embrace some of the beliefs and traditions of his gypsy grandmother and bring these into his daily life.
Most notably, Ruy believes in more than cold, hard facts; he believes in fate, and he believes in the power of ancient traditions. This is most evident when he initiates a ritual at the gypsy camp when a new baby is born.
A cradle made of bamboo was brought out. The matron handed Ruy three sprigs of garlic and three pieces of bread, which he placed underneath the mattress. Then, dipping his finger in the hot cinders, he marked the child’s forehead with a semi-circular sign illustrating the moon…
‘The garlic and the bread are for the three goddesses of fate. El Mèdico has explained to us that this tradition we have comes from the ancient legends of Greece. The first goddess spins the thread of life for each person with her spindle, the second measures it with her rod, and the third determines when and how it should be cut. El Mèdico is very knowledgeable. El es un hombre sabio y un curandero, he is a wise man and a healer.’
Of course, being a man of learning, Ruy has an academic interest in the gypsy traditions, and he has researched them. In this case, the ritual goes all the way back to Ancient Greece, when people believed that three sister goddesses – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, known as the Moirai or the Fates – controlled aspects of life. At birth, they ‘spun out’ a person’s destiny: spinning, measuring out and then cutting the thread of life. Honouring these goddesses then with an offering at a child’s birth is wise, therefore, so that they bestow a good fate on the child (and look more kindly on any deviation the child may make someday from his prescribed course).
The heroine of Legacy, Luz, struggles greatly with Ruy’s faith in fate, and indeed on all traditions connected to ‘the other’. The gypsy culture seems one of arcane symbolism and superstition – it is alien to her and, consequently, frightening. But as she watches Ruy perform rituals for the new baby, she feels ‘an odd stirring inside too, as though some inner part of her was reaching out to it all, like a hungry sapling seeking the sun’.
The odd stirring – could it be fate? The inkling of a destiny laid out for Luz at birth? I have written before on the legend behind the Andalucían Nights series, the one that Ruy believes will draw he and Luz together, and fate lies at its very heart (see http://hannahfielding.net/the-legend/). But will Luz come to see their love from his perspective? Ultimately, which viewpoint will win out?
‘Do not be afraid; our fate / Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.’ ― Dante’s Inferno
‘I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul’ – William Ernest Henley’s Invictus
Do you remember the comic strip series ‘Love is…’ by cartoonist Kim Casali? For a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, this ‘brand’ was everywhere (perhaps because it called to mind the First Corinthians chapter of the Bible beginning, ‘Love is patient, love is kind’). Romantic that I am, I always looked for the strip in the newspaper, and it made me smile.
Love is so much, but if there is one single definitive ‘Love is’, I think it is this: ‘Love is… discovery’. In my new book, Legacy, this theme is at the core of Luna and Ruy’s love story in various ways:
Luna is a journalist for a scientific journal. She is educated and opinionated, and a firm believer in what science tells us is fact. Dr Rodrigo Rueda de Calderón is also educated and opinionated, but his gypsy heritage has opened the door to a whole world of alternative, herb-based healing that he believes can complement his science-based medical training in oncology.
Luna has been sent to Spain by her boss to write an exposé on Ruy’s clinic in Cadiz, which she assumes is using ‘cutting-edge, although possibly questionable, use of some rather wacky herbal treatments’. But from the outset, Ruy will challenge her preconceptions and spar with her intellectually.
I believe love can only spring from a meeting of minds, which requires each to challenge the other. This is by no means the easiest part of love (frequently it can lead to disagreement), but ultimately the challenge leads to personal growth and a mutual respect that forms a foundation for attraction and admiration.
An essential ingredient in romance, don’t you think? No matter the person’s background, for a relationship to work the chemistry must be fantastic and lasting, and the sexual connection must be brand-new, exciting and entirely unexplored territory for both. In Legacy, Luna is inexperienced when it comes to men, and the sensations that flood her when she is around Ruy are very hard to ignore. Ruy, meanwhile, is swept into his own awakening – when you really feel for someone, the attraction is transformative and so much more poignant.
Embracing the existence of something greater than oneself
Luna, Ms Practical, has a habit of seeing life in black and white. Since her mother deserted her and then died, this has been a form of self-defence and a simple way of making sense of the world. When she meets Ruy, however, her eyes are opened to so many other colours that are inherent in the true complexity of life. He has been taught by the gypsies to which his family are linked to believe in ‘the other’ – in legends and fate and yes, even magic when it comes to how a man and woman may meet and fall in love and forge a future together. For Luna, love is a journey of discovery in a strange new world which is only visible to those who develop faith.
Coming to know oneself
All good stories, I believe, contain an element of self-discovery. As Polonius said to his son in Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Being true to oneself is particularly important when one bears a family legacy that can so easily be defining. But first, Luna and Ruy must follow the ancient Greek wisdom inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: Know thyself.
All good relationships, I think, require a journey of self-knowledge. How can you offer yourself to another if you don’t truly know who you are? Ultimately, Legacy is a story of a woman discovering how to be not her father’s daughter or her mother’s daughter, or even a scientific journalist, but herself, her soul embodied.
Love is… discovery. And as one of my favourite authors, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, put it, ‘It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process…’
Choosing a name for the heroine of a novel is, for me, one of the most fun parts of the writing – but also one of the most important. The name must encapsulate the very essence of the story, its atmosphere, its meaning.
In my debut novel, Burning Embers, I called the heroine Coral, because I loved the connotations of simultaneous strength and fragility, and the beautiful colour. In my next novel, The Echoes of Love, I ground the heroine in the Italian setting by naming her for the city of love: Venetia.
The heroine of Indiscretion, Book 1 of the Andalucían Nights trilogy, is named Alexandra, because it is a name I love and because it is a nod to the city of my birth, Alexandria. In Masquerade, Book 2 of the trilogy, the heroine’s name also relates to the city of her birth. As her parents recall in the book:
Their daughter had been conceived in Cádiz, the ‘city of light’, on the last euphoric night of their honeymoon and when she came screaming lustily into the world, nine months later, both Salvador and Alexandra instantly agreed that Luz, meaning ‘light’ in Spanish, was the only fitting name for their adored little girl, who had now grown into a charismatically beautiful and spirited young woman.
For Book 3, Legacy, I wanted a richly symbolic name for the heroine, one that would have meaning for both herself and the man who will fall for her. Here is the moment she first introduces herself to Ruy:
‘Luna,’ he murmured, as if tasting the sound on his tongue. From his sinfully perfect lips, her name sounded positively decadent. ‘A Spanish name. The moon, Queen of the Night … Yes, of course.’ He studied her silently for a few moments. ‘Where are you from?’ he ventured.
‘The USA,’ she said.
Her answer to his question is far too simplistic: she may live in the US and have an American father, but the Spanish blood of her fiery mother runs in her veins; she has a Spanish name.
Luna was so named because after she was born her father looked out of the window and saw a full moon. This is the ‘star’ under which she was born, and it shapes her destiny.
Recently I shared with you the legend at the heart of Andalucían Nights, that of Prince Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur, both of whose names mean ‘moon’ in Arabic. Ruy has been enchanted by their love story, from the Arabian Nights, since he was a boy; he has what Luna calls ‘an almost childlike innocence that made him believe in the magic of the moon and the stars and the One Thousand and One Nights fairy tales, in legends and in fate; and that, of course, included happy endings’. In fact, an old gypsy woman cemented this belief, when he was but ten years of age. She told him: ‘The moon will sail up into your sky one day, my boy, and will take hold of your soul. Fate has a strange way of playing tricks on its chosen ones. Go with the tide. If you fight your fate, you will be punished. She is a capricious mistress.’
So when Luna unwittingly chooses the costume of the Moon Queen to wear to a masked ball, Ruy knows he has met his one and only: ‘Luna,’ he says, ‘you look as beguiling as your name … the Queen of the Night … An enchanting beauty, so ethereal that tonight you actually appear to be made of moonlight.’
Luna, then, is a name that has great significance for the story. But what of the rest of this heroine’s name? Her surname is Ward, from her American father, but she is also irrevocably linked to the name Herrera, that of her mother’s family – and that is a name that will not bring warmth and joy to Ruy’s heart, for his family and the Herrera family have been feuding for generations.
‘’Tis but thy name that is my enemy,’ said Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. ‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet’. In fact, as she and Romeo discover to their cost, there is a lot in a name, and renouncing a legacy is not easy. Can Luna be Ruy’s Moon Queen and yet not carry forth the legacy of the Herrera name? ‘Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized,’ said Romeo – can love conquer all in Legacy?
What does the name ‘Don Juan’ mean to you? No doubt you can think of various characters with the name and attributes of Juan, the archetypal womaniser.
Given that the heroes in my Andalucían Nights series are all strong, virile, handsome Spanish men, the legend of Don Juan resonated with me as I wrote.
It dates back to the seventeenth century, when a dramatist called Gabriel Téllez wrote a play under his pen name, Tirso de Molina, entitled El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest). In the play, Tirso portrays Don Juan as a seducer of women, suave and smooth and devilish. A wealthy man, women are his sport: he lives to conquer. Tirso wanted to send a message that one cannot sin throughout life expecting merely to repent on the deathbed and enter heaven, but must live a good life; otherwise, consequences would ensue. In Tirso’s original version, the dastardly Don Juan murders the father of a girl he has seduced, and upon his own death he is condemned by God.
Since Tirso’s play, many writers have seized on the character of Don Juan and reimagined him for new cultures and times. The ending is the most reinterpreted element of the story. In the Don Giovanni version, Don Juan refuses to repent. In Espronceda’s version, ‘Don Felix’ enters hell through his own choice. In Zorrilla’s take, Don Juan solicits and is granted a pardon from God.
Versions of Don Juan include:
Poems: Don Juan(1821) by Lord Byron;El estudiante de Salamanca (1840)by José de Espronceda.
Plays: Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre (1665) by Molière; Don Juan Tenorio (1844) by José Zorrilla; Don Juan (1959) adaptation by Bertolt Brecht.
Operas: Don Giovanni (1787) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Réminiscences de Don Juan (1841) by Franz Liszt.
Movies: most notably Adventures of Don Juan (1948) starring Errol Flynn; Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman (1973) with Brigitte Bardot; Don Juan DeMarco (1995)starring Johnny Depp; Don Juan (1998) with Penélope Cruz and Emmanuelle Béart.
Don Juan also inspired Victor Hugo in Les Misèrables, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, in which the Phantom is writing an opera focused on the legend entitled Don Juan Triumphant.
Clearly, the legend of Don Juan has inspired many creative types – even writers like Jane Austen, who said of Don Juan: ‘I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty and Lust.’
For me, in writing Indiscretion and Masquerade, I was most interested in how the Don Juan type Spanish culture relates to the idea of honra, which is an important theme in both of the books.
In the Don Juan legend, Juan is a man without honour in the true sense of the word. He feels nothing for the women he leaves behind, who are merely a number – a notch on his bedpost, as they say. And yet, the women he seduces do not have the same luxury of living without the constraints of the Spanish honra. If they are seduced outside of wedlock, they are dishonoured; and that dishonour extends to their entire family.
Although Don Juan is a centuries-old legend, the questions it raises about honour remain relevant in Indiscretion (1950s) and Masquerade (1970s).
In Indiscretion, Salvador feels bound by honour to another woman. Is that honour misplaced? Can a woman, in fact, be just as much a Don Juan as a man? Will the heroine Alexandra lose out because of the seductive wiles of her adversary, a young and cunning gypsy?
In Masquerade, Luz must question the importance of the traditional honra as it relates to her own blossoming, and the sexual revolution being driven by Spanish women in the 1970s. Should the men she is torn between – Andrès and Leandro – protect her honour? Should she hold herself back, and save herself until marriage? Or should she redefine honour for a young woman in the new Spain that is emerging?
Ultimately, in each of my books the hero is not the Don Juan of the original Tirso play. But he has a little of the legend in him. He is not about control and conquest; but he can make the heroine’s knees weak and her heart flutter in her chest. I imagine him having something of the Johnny Depp characterisation in Don Juan DeMarco:
‘There are only four questions of value in life… What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same: only love.’
Now that, honour aside, is a Don Juan to set a writer’s pen aflame!