Friday, May 31, 2024

Q&A with Cara Lopez Lee




Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the new novel Candlelight Bridge. Her other books include the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. She lives in Ventura, California.


Q: You’ve said that Candlelight Bridge was inspired by stories your Mexican Chinese grandmother told you. Can you say more about that?


A: Grandma was born to a single teenage mother in 1924. Both sides of her family treated her like an outsider, and she grew into a bitter woman. I know this because she raised me.


Once when I was 4, I ran home crying because a bully beat me up. She said, “I won’t always be here to help you. You have to learn to work things out yourself.” I was always running home but never getting there.


Then, in 2008, at 45, I started this novel, to explore my burning question: how do you find home if you feel like you don’t belong? All my life, people have asked me, “What are you?” Candlelight Bridge is part of my answer. I hope it leads readers to ponder the bigger American question: Who are we?


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: My research took me to China, San Francisco, and the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico. I wandered villages and archaeological sites, visited museums and historical societies, read histories of all sorts, interviewed family members and locals and historians. All to imagine the story of a young man from China and young girl from Mexico immigrating to America in the early 1900s.


In China, I was excited to discover my great-grandpa’s village in Toisan. There, I met a 99-year-old cousin, Old Mr. Ma, who shared local history and traditions. I celebrated the Ching Ming tomb sweeping festival with distant cousins—walking with them across rice paddies to their cemetery to feast with the dead.


I didn’t know what town my great-grandma came from, only that she was born in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and came to El Paso as a child. I decided to send her fictional alter ego on a dangerous journey across the desert with her family to flee the oncoming Mexican Revolution.


I pored over maps to find a path they might have taken across the desert, setting them on a collision course with revolutionaries and federal soldiers. Then I took a road trip to explore that passage with Mexican friends from Juarez and El Paso.

During my research, I came across a shocking 2010 article about a town along our passage: In Ascensión, police arrested two teenage boys suspected in a rash of kidnappings that had terrorized local families. Hundreds of enraged locals mobbed the cops, grabbed the two young suspects, and beat them to death.


I wanted to send that moment back in time 100 years, imagining something similar might erupt from the tensions of a rising revolution.


We stopped in real Ascensión, a town that looked too sleepy to kill anyone. In the plaza, weak little trees rose from dying grass, aging cowboys sat muttering on a bench, and a bored barber in an apron leaned against his shop.


An eerie silence stretched out to parched cotton fields and endless desert. It felt like an Old Western before a shootout, the perfect backdrop for an explosive scene.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: As little as I planned the ending, even those plans upended. I’d hoped to follow two generations of Riveras and Wongs. But it took so long for the Riveras to cross the desert that the character inspired by my great-grandma remained 3 years old for too many pages. That’s not old enough to have agency. I had to pick a more dynamic hero: her 12-year-old sister, Candelaria.


Candelaria was born to domesticity and motherhood, and it became my goal to liberate her. That also took more complex development than expected. In the end, I had to focus only on one generation. My grandma’s generation would have to wait for a sequel. 


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Candelaria Rivera and Yan Chi Wong?


A: The relationship between Candelaria and Yan Chi is no romance. They come together only because marriage seems a safe bet for a secure life as immigrants. They become grudging partners in the struggle to survive the American Dream. 


Candelaria and Yan Chi—nicknamed Yankee—are also survivors of violent traumas, who hope family might be a haven in an unwelcoming new world. But is it? This story poses questions about the meaning of home, family, and how far we go to protect those things.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m also the author of a memoir, coauthor of several other books, and a winner of The Moth StorySLAM who tells true personal stories onstage.


To find my books and storytelling shows, please check out my website,, or find @CaraLopezLee on my socials, including Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. Thank you for supporting stories!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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