Interview with Teresa Dovalpage, author of Death under the Perseids
Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview Teresa Dovalpage, whose latest novel, Death under the Perseids, is our featured new release for 6th December.
Death under the Perseids is the fourth book in your Havana Mystery series. Can you tell us about the series and where it began?
The series began with a culinary mystery, Death Comes in through the Kitchen (Soho Crime, 2018). Matt, a San Diego journalist, travels to Havana to marry his girlfriend Yarmila, but finds her dead in a bathtub. The police suspect him so he hires Padrino, a former cop, who also happens to be a Santeria practitioner, to solve the case. That was my first mystery and I had so much fun writing it and creating the characters that I decided to continue with the same detectives (Padrino and Marlene Martinez) in the next books, Queen of Bones and Death of a Telenovela Star. Now with Death under the Perseids, which is still part of the series, I have a first-person female narrator, Mercedes. This is even more enjoyable as I can incorporate a lot more personal elements than in the previous novels.
You lived in Havana, Cuba until you were thirty. How important was that experience to you as a writer?
It gave me a lot to write about. I can always assure the readers that I will take them on a real “tour” of Cuba because I have all this first-hand information about places, smells, food…you will always find food references in my books! I can also demystify some concepts about the island and shatter a few clichés—Cuba is more than cigars, rum and vintage cars! My life in Cuba has also given me a distinctive voice, though I often say at book signings that “I don’t have an accent when I write.”
Your first book in the series, Death Comes in through the Kitchen, was published in 2018 by Soho Crime (an imprint of Soho Press). Publishers Weekly called it “a dazzling culinary mystery” in a starred review. Can you tell us something about the role of food in that novel and your other books?
I love to eat…and food is such an important part of our lives, so many memories are formed around the act of sharing it, that I believe it deserves a special place in fiction. I also use it as an opportunity to write about interesting dishes like arroz con pollo, which is rice and chicken cooked together with saffron, olives and raisins. Sometimes we divide it into layers separated by cheese “blankets” and then it is called “imperial style.” I swear, it is yummier than I made it sound here! In Death Comes in through the Kitchen, Yarmila, one of the main characters, has a food blog, which gave me a chance to weave in the story some authentic, tried-and-true Cuban recipes. Below is one of my favourites:
Queen of Bones, the second in the series, was chosen by NBC News as one of the “top 10 books from 2019 by and about Latinos.” What is the significance of the two Cubas which appear in that novel, set twenty years apart?
I wanted to reflect on how the country has changed in twenty years, as seen by Juan, who left in 1994 and, upon his return, finds Havana transformed with private businesses (small restaurants called paladares and casas particulares, sort of Airbnb) as well as the presence of foreign investors. The changes in the political and social structure may be surprising to many readers too. Here is an example of the changes Juan witnesses:
Do the books in the series overlap or are they stand-alone works?
They are all stand-alone novels, though some characters, like Padrino and Marlene, appear in most of them. Something funny happened with Marlene, who was actually a supporting character in both Queen of Bones and Death Comes in through the Kitchen. She kept wanting her own novel and ended up being the protagonist of Death of a Telenovela Star, a novella where the action also happens on a cruise ship that goes from Miami to Belize and Costa Maya. It follows the real itinerary of a cruise that my husband I took three years ago. I witnessed some shenanigans…though not as bad as what happens in the story.
What is your writing practice? Do you like to finish one book and start another?
Usually, I like to finish a book before starting another so I can give my undivided attention to the project. But I found myself jotting down ideas though I wasn’t quite done with Death under the Perseids. At the end of the novel, Mercedes, the protagonist, is finally ready to start looking for her long-lost mother. That’s the plot of the next book, which doesn’t have a title yet. I am still working on it.
You have written numerous books in Spanish and English, including non-fiction and plays. Please tell us about these. Where can your readers find out more about them?
I have written six novels in Spanish, my first language. Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana) was a runner up for the Herralde Award in Spain in 2006. Now I realize that I was already flirting with mystery since then! El Difunto Fidel (The Late Fidel) received the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009 and was based on my theater play Hasta que el Mortgage nos separe (Until Mortgage Do Us Part). Another theater play, La Hija de La Llorona (La Llorona’s Daughter) was inspired by the legend of La Llorona, The Wailing Woman.
I have only one nonfiction book, A Brief Guide to Taos. Where to Eat, Shop, Work Out…and More, which is actually a collection of articles I wrote for The Taos News, a local newspaper, when I lived in Taos.
The best way to find out more about my books is to visit my websites
In the Havana Mystery series, what is the importance of Santeria?
There are elements of Santeria in all the novels because Padrino, the detective, is a practicing santero, a Babalawo. But this syncretic religion plays a particularly important role in Queen of Bones. The title itself alludes to an orisha (Afro-Cuban deity), Oyá, who presides over cemeteries. This is how she is introduced, at the beginning of the novel:
One of the characters, Rosita, is a mortician and works at the Havana cemetery. She is also a Santeria believer and keeps bugging Oyá about getting Juan, “the man of her life” back. Finally, Oyá obliges, but not in the manner that Rosita expects…or desires. Orishas have a twisted sense of humour, at times.
Where will the series go next?
I am working on the second novel with the same characters—Mercedes, her grandmother Mamina and her friend Candela. Now Mercedes is back in Cuba, trying to find her mother, an American who vanished from their home in Havana twenty-seven years ago.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my work with your readers.
About Teresa Dovalpage:
Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana and now lives in Hobbs, where she is a Spanish and ESL professor at New Mexico Junior College. She has published twelve novels and three collections of short stories.
Her Havana Mystery series published by Soho Crime started with the culinary mystery Death Comes in through the Kitchen (2018), set in Havana and featuring Padrino, a santero-detective. It is loaded with authentic Cuban recipes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and caldosa (a yummy stew). The second mystery, Queen of Bones (2019) includes elements of Santería and, again, food—clearly, the author loves to eat! It was chosen by NBC News as one of the top “10 books from 2019 by and about Latinos.” Both novels are rich in details about life on the island, the kind only an insider can provide. The third is Death of a Telenovela Star (2020) set on a Caribbean cruise and showcasing the dark—sometimes deadly—side of celebrity, as well as the shenanigans that often happen abroad a cruise ship. Upcoming is Death under the Perseids, where the author proves that there’s no such thing as a free cruise.
In her native Spanish she has authored the novels Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana) (Anagrama, 2006), a runner-up for the Herralde Award in Spain), El difunto Fidel (The Late Fidel) (Renacimiento, 2011), which won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009, Posesas de La Habana (Haunted ladies of Havana) (PurePlay Press, 2004), La Regenta en La Habana (Edebe Group Spain, 2012), Orfeo en el Caribe (Atmósfera Literaria Spain, 2013), and El retorno de la expatriada (The Expat’s Return) (Egales Spain, 2014).
Her short story collections are The Astral Plane, Stories of Cuba, the Southwest and Beyond (University of New Orleans Press, 2012), Llevarás luto por Franco (Atmósfera Literaria, 2012) and Por culpa de Candela (Floricanto Press, 2009).
Once in a while she delves into theater. Her plays La Hija de La Llorona and Hasta que el mortgage nos separe (published in Teatro Latino, 2019) have been staged by Aguijón Theater in Chicago.