Ruthie Marlenée’s new, acclaimed novel, AGAVE BLUES, presents readers with a strong sense of place and a strong-willed protagonist, Maya, whose story is interwoven with the magic of Jesus Maria, a small village in Mexico, and her life as a successful lawyer in Los Angeles. The book is a gripping family saga, poetry, and lesson in transformation. An excerpt, plus an in-depth conversation with AFLW Special Projects Editor Lillian Ann Slugocki and the author on her inspiration–and the magic in her writing process.
Chapter 12 – “Los Olvidados”
STANDING AT THE border, breathing in the field, I suddenly missed this place, like I’d missed a favorite cousin. And then when a little dove landed on the tip of an agave plant, I stepped a little closer, but the bird took off deeper into the field. Dwarfed by agave on either side, I chased the dove, remembering at once how I would run through here as a child with my cousin, Gabriel.
When I came to a slight peak in the meadow, I stopped. Hands on my knees, I lifted my head, gulping in more air. The sound of children squealing pierced the wind but when I looked all around, I was alone. As I took in the view across to the north, like a valley of death, I felt my eyes go wide, goose bumps erupting on my arms. What used to be rows of thriving agave were now just shriveled plants in dirt choked by weeds. Beyond the edge of the field, scrubby mesquites and ancient oak trees dotted the landscape. Further out, I could see a dried-up riverbed where a couple of emaciated-looking cows grazed. I rubbed my arms and then reached into my pocket to pull out the picture from Papa’s wallet. I held it out in front of me. The river used to be full. I felt a twinge in my stomach, steeling myself for the pain to follow. But surprisingly, I felt no aching.
Stretched before me was the exact panoramic view, the same spot where my father had taken my picture as a girl. I could almost see myself running toward the camera, legs thin as churros caked in cinnamon powder, twin red-ribboned braids flying in the wind.
“Papá,” I whispered now. I cleared my throat and continued to wander back through the rows of agave.
The ancient sky above this part of the field seemed to sparkle more sapphire and certainly bluer than any Los Angeles sky I’d ever witnessed. The dew on the tips of agave glistened like liquid sugar drops. The heart of the field pulsed with life. Insects appeared larger—butterflies more vibrant. Bees buzzed boisterously. The belly of the field was sweet and incandescent, like a child’s birthday cake topped with a generous arrangement of candles.
An orchestra of sound vibrated through me, infusing me with a warmth penetrating my being, dulling my pain—like a good Tequila. I twirled slowly, so enthralled by my surroundings. Another dove joined the first one, and I followed them both deeper into the field until, out of nowhere, I came up behind a man seated in front of a short easel and a canvas.
I stopped in my tracks, taking a moment to watch him paint. His back to me, I strained to peek over his shoulder. He sat barefoot and cross-legged in a loose, gauzy linen-colored tunic and drawstring pants that draped over his reedy frame. His head full of obsidian-colored hair gleamed halo-like in the sun. Staring at the canvas, I sucked in a quiet breath when I noticed no brush gliding across the painting—no hands involved in the creation bleeding onto the work. Shaking my head, I squeezed my eyes shut, but quickly re-opened them. And then before I could try to make sense of what unfolded before my very eyes, and as if sensing my presence, without turning around, the young man said, “Come closer, Maya.”
Mind scrambled now like a kaleidoscope of vividly colored emotions, I stammered. “I’m so sorry. I just—hey—how did you know my—that it was me?” He remained seated, turning his head slowly. Seemingly, ageless, genderless, he beamed as radiantly as Buddha himself. And as he tilted his head back to look up at me, I peered at him, mesmerized, almost able to see his soul. I saw the field weaving through his blue-green eyes and at once I could see myself as a child running through that field hand-in-hand with my cousin, giggling like raindrops.
“Oh my God. Gabriel you’re all grown up,” I said, quickly distracted by the sound of a child laughing. I looked all around and then turned back toward him.
“Do you still paint?” my cousin asked in a voice so delicate I feared he might crack if I answered too loudly.
I heard the child again and cocked my head slightly. “Not anymore. I’ve lost the touch—don’t you hear that?”
“Yes, I hear her.” He paused and returned to his work. “It’s all in the brushes.”
I walked over and picked up one of his brushes, examined it, then put it to my ear. “The brushes?”
“The touch, the strokes,” Gabriel said quietly, dabbing on some paint from his pallet this time using a brush.
The closer I looked, the more I kept seeing things, like a hidden picture quality where you see something, then look again, and then you don’t see it. There was an underpainting in turquoise, giving it a glowing backlit feeling. He’d layered so much paint, very thin, like washes, so fine and translucent that I could see the layer underneath. I noticed the intricacies of the agave plant he painted—small insects crawling across the points, clouds floating lazily across the sky. And then as the clouds overhead drifted by, the painting took on a different look in the different light. In one moment, the dominant color glowed a teal green, luminous, as if being lit from behind. And then in the next moment, the red tones came to the fore, glowing garnet. Peering closer at the agave plant, I gasped. In the gathering dew, I saw a distorted reflection of my own face. I stopped breathing. This painting was alive.
“Oh my God! Is this one of those magic fields like in Field of Dreams or something?”
“This is a field of reality,” he answered as a matter of fact.
Excerpted from AGAVE BLUES with permission from the author.
The Uncanny and the Magical: Ruthie Marlenée in Conversation with Lillian Ann Slugocki
Lillan Ann Slugocki: The sense of place is so strong and so palpable in AGAVE BLUES. From the very beginning, when Maya stands outside the morgue where she’s just identified her father’s body, the street with the whitewashed casitas and even the angle of the sun, is so evocative and so powerful. Can you talk about your own history with the village of Jesus Maria and why you chose it as the setting for this book? Is there a psychological or emotional or even spiritual element to the landscape or the geography of this small town?
Ruthie Marlenée: Sagrada Familia “Holy Family” is the fictional town of Jesus Maria where many of my family members still reside. Growing up my dad, mom, sisters and I would visit this magical place set in Los Altos, “The Highlands” de Jalisco flowing with strawberry chocolate rivers and the place our tall relatives, the place my family and ancestors with the kind, all-knowing agave blue eyes, walked. The place was so magical, according to my little sister, even the animals could talk. “Take me with you,” they’d say to her.
I also grew up hearing so many stories about the region, like the uncle who fell down the water well–the town’s only potable drinking water source–the cousins who married each other, the brick that fell off the wall and hit an uncle in the head, killing him. And, of course, how they shaved my grandmother’s head and then all hid in the church cellar when Pancho Villa and his troops came riding through. When writing AGAVE BLUES, I couldn’t help but weave the bits and pieces of my truth as I knew it with some fiction. After all, you mix together a little family, drama and tequila and you get a hell of a cocktail!
LAS: We talked about one of the major themes in AGAVE BLUES–the call of the blood or la sangre atrae. Can you elaborate on that concept and how it drives the story?
RM: I’m half-white, having grown up in a barrio with my maternal Mexican grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins, but I also share their same blood. During that era, Mexican children were not allowed to speak Spanish in school so, unfortunately, I was always getting in trouble for interpreting for my cousins. Some of us ended up losing our language, our culture. We assimilated. But if one really listens and heeds the call no matter what the language, the blood will call you back. And if you’re lucky enough find a way to return, you must. That is the magic.
LAS: And the second part of that question is: What always seems to call us back? Is that a universal idea?
RM: I believe it is a universal idea. After all, wasn’t it Dorothy who said, “There’s no place like home?” And didn’t she venture out on a journey in search of returning home? In Jesus Maria, during the months of December and January, thousands of people from all over Mexico and the United States return (like the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano in California) for the “Las Fiestas Patronales” to reunite and celebrate in honor of La Sagrada Familia–“The Holy Family.”
LAS: In your book, there is an irreducible magic that the readers experience through Maya. For me, that magic was tied to the element of mythology, both personal and transpersonal. Can you expound on that?
RM: First of all, one can simply listen to the story of how the Virgin, Our Lady of Guadalupe, appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant, and miraculously imprinted her image on his rough cloak. Mexico’s religion is a marriage of Catholicism (only one God) and Aztec polytheism (multiple deities, gods of the moon and the stars, including Mayahuel, the Goddess of Agave). Whether one believes the history is full of magic or miracles, mythology is also a huge component. What could be more magical than how the Mexican Catholic church came to be–and the Spaniard’s role in it–and then Juan Diego gets to be canonized a saint? I grew up where the Catholic Church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, bordered the barrio and the cantina “bar” was at the heart.
LAS: What stories did you draw on, and how do they contribute to Maya’s arc.
RM: As a child, I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I’m also a huge movie fan and love beautiful cinematography, so, of course, I was enchanted by Pans Labyrinth, which Guillermo del Toro also later adapted into a novel. Other favorites are Chocolat and Everything Is Illuminated, which were also novels adapted into movies I watched before reading the books. And, of course, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz was probably the greatest contribution to my imagination and Maya’s arc. One might even say Maya is the Mexican Dorothy Gale. After all, Baum was also a theosophist and a member of a renowned feminist family.
LAS: And the second part of this question: Is that where Maya gets her strength?
RM: Maya draws on the strength of all the women in her world, her female ancestors, her mamá, her abuela, tias and primas. She discovers that she’s inherited some important life skills and some wonderful tools necessary to navigate through the rest of her life. She also learns about the super strength of her own daughter, Lily.
As mentioned above, a lot of the legendary magical realism stories tend to be quite misogynistic and patriarchal–women are either witches or old hags. But in AGAVE BLUES, the women in Maya’s family are true feminists, angels and the real giants. I remember strolling through the farmer’s market in the village of Jesus Maria and watching everyone part the way for my tall, regal cousin Angela as if she were royalty. She definitely stood out in the crowd.
LAS: What was the process of writing this book? Did it begin with an image from a myth, a line of dialogue, or was it Maya, your protagonist who first spoke to you?
RM: It was maybe 2006 or 2007–who can remember dates when your life is so chaotic? I kept coming across the saying la sangre atrae–“the blood calls you back.” Both my daughters were out of the house (one in college studying in Cholula, Mexico, the other working as a journalist in Guadalajara, Mexico), and I was an empty nester with a second marriage straight out of Dante’s Inferno. My oldest daughter recommended I read The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz. Desperate for answers, I didn’t hesitate to read his words: “When you are aware that no one else can make you happy, and that happiness is the result of your love, this becomes the greatest mastery of the Toltec: The Mastery of Love.” I ended up devouring the rest of Ruiz’s books and came up with a concept for my own story. I then set out to do research on the Toltecs and Tequila and was able to write the rest of my story filled with a little more love and compassion for all of my characters.
As I wrote, I also continued to follow the breadcrumbs or tortilla chips tossed out to me by the women angels in my life. Even this magazine is called Angels Flight • literary west! One day, I literally found an angel pin stuck to my laundry and that same day, my cousin Angela (hello, angel?) called to ask when I was coming back for a visit. My daughters each told me to return to Mexico. Soon, my protagonist, Maya, spoke to me telling me to return. I’d sit with her day and night having conversations. I was afraid to return, afraid to turn over control. But by writing this story, I was able to transfer my fears and pain over to Maya. Not to sound cliché, but writing was definitely cathartic, and I found a way to take the toro by the horns and point this story in a new trajectory.
But the concept of AGAVE BLUES didn’t start out to be a novel. Before I ever returned to Mexico to do further research, I’d envisioned a movie, so I loosely outlined a screenplay and the whole evolution was pretty quick, moving along with only a few intermissions. After long days at my law office, I looked forward to coming home and going to sleep. But even if I could turn off my brain, I’d start dreaming my story. I’d wake up around 2 or 3 in the morning and tiptoe down to the office/guest room so as not to disturb my husband and just keep writing until the sun came up and I had to get ready for work. I knew that when my ancestors/muses were talking to me, I’d better listen, and I couldn’t just roll over and think I’d remember everything in the morning. I was being given a gift.
So as far as structure, yes, it had to be fluid, I couldn’t argue or censor myself. I’d sort it all out after I was finished. And by the time I was finally finished–I hadn’t yet left my marriage and my father was still alive–I’d reopened my heart to love and forgiveness. I was able to move on and write with more passion.
Amazingly, AGAVE BLUES won several screenwriting awards. There’s an instant gratification when completing a screenplay and while it doesn’t have to take years like a novel to finish, once you’ve written it, it’s easy enough to flesh out. After all, in Act I of the screenplay, you’ve already created that first inciting incident that initiates your protagonist’s journey. You’ve already implemented the beats and the scenes, the plot points, that point of no return and then the resolution all within three acts. You can even move things around.
So, in the novel, maybe the inciting incident won’t happen in the first act, although you’d better have a good hook to keep the reader turning the page. As a matter of fact, in my screenplay, I started out with a prologue that I envisioned being a cinematic feast for the eyes–a scene that would hypnotize the viewers into staying in their seats and make them forget their popcorn. But that wouldn’t have worked in the novel.
I always knew I wanted to flesh out AGAVE BLUES into a novel in which I would be in control as the director, cinematographer, set designer, costume designer, choreographer. A well-written screenplay already has the perfect structure and outline for a novel. All you need to do is show, don’t tell. Add all the sensory details, taste the agave, hear the bees buzz, feel the ant sting, smell the damp earth, see the shooting stars. You get to decorate the stage, dress your characters and get inside their heads. Make it more immersive for the reader. Let them be in the room with your characters.
LAS: You also said that the structure, while writing it, had to remain fluid. Can you explain what you mean by that?
RM: During a boot camp/master class in a UCLA Extension Course taught by Shamus ward-winning novelist Lynn Hightower, the assignment was to outline our novel. It worked for my previous novel Curse of the Ninth and I survived the arduous task, but I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again, at least not as rigidly. Besides, each of my books is different with a different structure.
And, while I do think writing an outline is essential, mine are usually simple structures with a beginning, middle and an end. In AGAVE BLUES, I had to keep the structure fluid, loosen it up a bit in order to let my characters speak to me, as mentioned above, thereby allowing me to really get to know them and then letting them guide me along the winding road. I also love the element of surprise, something I might not get if I have to plan it out. I love to ask the question “What if?” I also tend to mix things up a bit with a nonlinear structure and, of course, in order to sustain the imagination, I must sprinkle in some magic.
LAS: In what ways do you think AGAVE BLUES is relevant today?
RM: Still today, immigration is so messed up and such a struggle and not just for the Latin countries. Asylum-seekers are desperate to get in just to survive, maybe even live a part of the American dream. I have family that will never even be able to visit El Norte and so those of us who can are fortunate to be able to return. Sadly, and also ironically, in gaining this elusive freedom, so much is lost or ends up being left behind. That is an American tragedy.
LAS: You write about Maya’s journey back home, to unconditional love and even magic. How does this relate to “reopening,” the theme of this issue?
RM: Maya sets out on a journey of drink, pray, love. She returns to the root of her family, the root of the agave, where she rediscovers pure, unadulterated love and kindness. Whether or not she’d set out to find the truth, by walking the agave fields and observing nature, she remembers certain facts and all the possibilities life has to offer, including the magic. She remembers that the piña (literally means “pineapple” in Spanish because it resembles a pineapple) is the heart of the agave. She remembers that when we’re born our hearts are open to everything
And so, we start covering up, closing ourselves off, building a wall around our heart for protection. But only by tearing down that wall and reopening the piña will we get to taste the sweet juice of the agave, the sweet nectar of life.
On the theme of this issue, “reopening,” it’s important to remember, as we return after Covid, the words of Don Miguel Ruiz:
“Humans are made for love … Humans are born in truth, but we grow up believing in lies. One of the biggest lies in the story of humanity is the lie of our imperfection … The moral is to go get your heart’s desire. But be prepared for obstacles.”
Ruthie Marlenée is a Mexican-American novelist, screenwriter and poet, who was born and raised in Orange County, California, and lives in Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley desert with her husband. Marlenée earned a Writers’ Certificate in Fiction from UCLA and is the author of Isabela’s Island, Curse of the Ninth, nominated for a James Kirkwood Literary Prize and AGAVE BLUES (Touchpoint Press, February 2022), from which an excerpt, “A Good Tabernero Listens,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on a sequel, And Still Her Voice. Her poetry and short stories can be found in various publications, including Shark Reef, The Coiled Serpent Anthology, So To Speak, Detour Ahead, What They Leave Behind: A Latinx Anthology, Silver Birch Press and Slow Lightning: Impractical Poetry. She’s received awards for her screenplays from the Women’s International Film Festival, the Oaxaca Film Festival, Carmesi International Fest and the Mexico International Film Festival.
Lillian Ann Slugocki is an award-winning writer and the Special Projects Editor for Angels Flight • literary west, for which she has led writing workshops and co-produced two East Coast Salons at KGB in NYC. She also curated and produced BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, also at KGB. Her nonfiction has been published at Longreads, The Nervous Breakdown,Volume 1: Brooklyn, Salon, Bloom, The Millions and other publications. She produced and wrote a documentary series for National Public Radio, co-wrote The Erotica Project with Erin Cressida Wilson, and has been reviewed in The New York Times, Art in America, The Village Voice and more. Follow her on Twitter at @laslugocki.