Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Q&A with Barbara Sapienza



Barbara Sapienza is the author of the new novel The Girl in the White Cape. Her other novels include The Laundress. A retired clinical psychologist, she lives in Sausalito, California.


Q: What inspired you to write The Girl in the White Cape, and how did you create your character Elena?


A: I drew my inspiration from the Russian fairy tales Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga.


When I first came across the fairy tale in Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run with the Wolves, I was intrigued by Estes’ interpretation of the doll given to Vasilisa as feminine intuition. That felt right to me. I began to wonder whether each of us, men and women, has a doll in our sacred pockets whom we nurture and feed to develop trust in our own intuition.


I entered the novel with a vague idea of a modern character, Elena, who like Vasilisa would face unimaginable tasks, yet with her doll would feel safe on dark cold days. I had to find a way to weave this mysterious fairy tale world into 2020 San Francisco.


Raising my own 15-year-old daughter in the Russian neighborhood of San Francisco, among the blue and gold domes of magnificent Russian churches, aided me to place a 15-year-old Elena in a small Victorian building with a blue dome. I didn't know then how she got there or that some mad woman would become her mentor— I was channeling a Baba Yaga.


Why her guardian, Father Al, would send Elena to a forest-like cabin on the other side of San Francisco to learn from an out-of-control Baba Vera befuddled me.


I wrote in third person, following my character. She led me. When the old woman stepmother came for her, I discovered there was a vendetta, a curse, that had been put on the girl's birth mother. As I followed the plot points in the fairy tale, Frank, with his readiness to witness and protect the girl, appeared. Of course, she protected him. A plot twist.


Why Frank?  He too needed feminine wisdom and spiritual direction to deal with what he was observing as a witness. Along came Jane, an ecologist and spiritual leader to the rescue. Here, I relied on my spiritual practice to help me and the reader suspend disbelief and accept what I put forward as being real.


I wrote, stumbling with Elena and Frank through the forest, the city to the seascapes. Through specific details of the neighborhoods and the wild nature of the park, we trampled through the tale.


Frank became a second POV to help us see Baba Vera with her childish antics fighting with the mad, hissing witch Anya. Baba Vera like Baba Yaga mentored Elena, demanding impossible tasks and setting limits in a crazy world.


I immersed the reader in imagery and magic with metaphor, figurative language, and sensory details, especially in the hut on Taraval Street where Baba lived. Details like the glowing skull on the wall, calling to Elena.


Maybe it was just the sun reflecting off the skull but Elena saw it as fire. Maybe she remembered the fairy tale that Father Al had read to her every day as a child, recalling that Vasilisa took the skull and brought it to the ugly stepmother.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Elena and Frank?


A: Frank is also a motherless child, nursed by an older brother, Fred. When he delivers a bewitching old woman to a church in the Richmond District of San Francisco where Elena lives, he begins to know that the old woman with the zig zag eyebrows wants to harm the girl she calls her daughter.


Frank deems himself her protector and finds himself coincidentally bumping into her in many places as if he were chosen to be her witness. He has a keen sense for her and experiences a synchronicity with her, where things like magic happen. He becomes obsessed with her safety and at some point he knows that she came into his life to save him.


They are going on parallel journeys. His journey points him to the spiritual and like her journey there are elements of separation, initiation, and return—the components in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.


Q: The author Lynne Kaufman said of the book, “The timeless hero’s journey tale, immortalized by Joseph Campbell, finds its latest incarnation in Barbara Sapienza's intriguing novel.” What do you think of that description?


A: Yes, Lynne Kaufman aptly observed the hero’s journey in this tale.


Joseph Campbell has delineated the hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The timeless hero’s journey as immortalized by Campbell shows an uninitiated person on a quest that involves separation, initiation as a rite of passage, and return. 


Elena is on a hero's journey where she is given what seems impossible tasks. She too, as in Campbell’s formulation, lives in a ordinary world but is called to the extraordinary.


She must leave the safety of Father Al’s church, where she plays with her imaginary friend V, to cross the wild park to go to Baba Vera’s strange house to do crazy tasks—crossing a threshold to find her identity. Tests are given to Elena, challenging her.


In this ordeal, things go wrong. Demands are made on her to do impossible tasks that lead to crises. With her doll she must rise to the occasion and even kill her beloved duck. Ultimately, she must break the curse related to her mother.


Joseph Campbell describes the return as the final stage of the hero—she must find her way back to the light. In Elena's case she must enter the real world where she makes friendships, demonstrates her mastery with the knife, becomes a member of a family, meets people her own age, teaches others her skills and ultimately owns her mastery, finding joy and wholeness.


When I was writing the novel I wasn't thinking about the hero’s journey. I was more focused on the doll as a spiritual guide in the development of intuition. Thanks to Lynne Kaufman’s comments, I better see Elena’s journey as a hero’s journey— psychological and mystical, one in which each of us lives. In life we are challenged then we change and grow— over and over, as Campbell suggests.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on memoir, focusing on the probable experiences of my immigrant grandparents over a hundred years ago, crossing a big sea to come to America from Italy to raise a family. I begin to see how their sacrifice enabled me to become who I am.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am blessed with two beautiful granddaughters, going to college and living out the ancestral dreams.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Sapienza.

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