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Liza Katz
March 2, 2021

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (book jacket image)

I think most people imagine a writer’s trajectory is a straight line but I’ve gone up and down...writing is a game of endurance.

Like many of you this past summer, I read Mexican Gothic by the award-winning Silvia Moreno-Garcia and absolutely loved it. You clearly agree. At the time of this interview, 929 Brooklynites await their turn to read Mexican Gothic. It has all the bells and whistles of a classic gothic thriller: a once-grand estate, a misty cemetery, ghostly occurrences, a wealthy and peculiar family (complete with eligible bachelors), a beautiful young woman in peril, a glamorous young woman to the rescue. But this story sails in with a twist and a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Even a cursory survey of the prominent authors throughout the history of Gothic literature: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, reveals striking demographic conformity. With Mexican Gothic, Moreno-Garcia both upends this trend and ushers in an exciting evolutionary phase of the genre. Instead of the misty moors of England, she provides a refreshing shake-up by relocating to a haunting estate in El Triunfo, Mexico and recasting the lead with Noemí Taboada, a Mexico City socialite who is as fearless as she is glamorous. Noemí leaves the city behind to check in on her cousin, Catalina, who has unexpectedly married into the wealthy Doyle family. Since joining the Doyles at their estate, Catalina professes to be beset by the “restless dead.” Interestingly, the Doyle family remains British. Moreno-Garcia uses this lingering trope to her advantage, creating conflict and contrast between Noemí and the Doyles. The result is a uniquely surreal gothic tale that spotlights the inherent horrors of eugenics, white supremacy, and even mycology.

Moreno-Garcia is a Mexican-Canadian author with whom we at BPL were already smitten Her previous book, Gods of Jade and Shadow, was nominated for the 2020 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize and is also one of my personal favorites. In this interview, Moreno-Garcia opens up about her past struggles in the book industry, the real inspiration for El Triunfo, the sinister history of eugenics, and recommends some of her own favorite literary thrillers.

Off the Shelf (OtS): Silvia Moreno-Garcia, it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome you to Off the Shelf! How did your writing career begin?

Silvia Moren-Garcia (SMG): I started out writing short stories. I’ve sold more than 70 short stories over the years, mostly to small speculative magazines and small presses. I published my first novel in 2015. It was released by a British press, and it was about a group of young people in Mexico City who cast spells using vinyl records. After that, I’ve bounced around between publishers.

OtS: Did libraries play a role in your interest in literature?

SMG: I grew up in Mexico and sadly I didn’t have easy access to libraries in my neighbourhood, though my parents did buy me many books. We had a lot of Sepan Cuantos, which were very affordable editions of classics, and my mom took me to the Gandhi bookstore to buy the remaindered and highly discounted books. She was always looking for bargains. One of the things I appreciate about Canada is that there are many accessible branches near my city and that you can now get books online.

OtS: Do you remember the first time you found a book of your own on a library (or bookshop) shelf?

SMG: It was a British science fiction anthology called Shine. The places I published in were niche and small, you wouldn't find them stocked in a store, but this book had some bookstore distribution and they had a single copy at a bookstore near home.

OtS: How does it feel to be the woman behind this critically acclaimed redefinition of gothic literature?

SMG: I’m just very happy to still be around. I think most people imagine a writer’s trajectory is a straight line but I’ve gone up and down. I’ve been remaindered [when unsold books are liquidated at a low rate] and found myself without any offers for books. We’ve had deals go belly up and checks that were eternally in the mail. Writing is a game of endurance.

OtS: Noemí discovers that the Doyles are a singularly peculiar people living in a decaying, obstinately-British estate atop the mountains. What inspired the Doyles and this particular setting?

SMG: There’s a real town in Mexico – Real del Monte – that was a British mining settlement. It has its own British cemetery. It’s high in the mountains, it can get chilly there and very misty. They sell these little pastes pachuqueños, which are derivatives of Cornish pastries. The inspiration for the setting is absolutely real and you can find it on a map.

OtS: I was chilled by your use of colonialism, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, eugenics and, most surprisingly, mycology, as horror devices. Did you plan to employ each of these elements before you started writing, or did they come together as the plot evolved?

SMG: Eugenics has embedded within it many issues of gender and race. Often you have eugenicists making these charts where they are classifying the ‘fit’ and ‘unfit,’ and the charts are organized along racial lines, with darker people classified as inferior. But there are also many concerns about women and womanhood. You see sexually active women being presented as dangerous and many behaviors, such as drinking, seen as violations of the moral and natural order. At the same time, there is a cult of motherhood where the mother is held in a revered, special position. We have eugenicists defining unsuitable and suitable women, and warning men about the dangers of these bad women. I read a paper by a 1930s British eugenicist, Anthony M. Ludovici, who said incest was preferable to race mixing. So, in the end I felt everything fit like a jigsaw puzzle. Mycology is something that I enjoy quite a bit. Fungi are neither plants nor animals, and they form vast networks that are crucial in terms of forest ecology and literally send information from one part of a forest to another part. They also have interesting chemical properties. Finally, certain mushrooms have associations with the development of religion. John Marco Allegro argued that Christianity owes its roots to fertility cults that used hallucinogenic mushrooms, and although this theory proved quite controversial in the 1970s, I’ve seen more recent work that makes similar arguments.

OtS: You celebrated Noemí’s flair for fashion in a particularly fun way with the paper dolls in your Mexican Gothic Book Club Kit. Is this a reflection of your own interest in fashion or fashion history?

SMG: I also like wallpaper. I mean, yes, but also one of the things about writing historical books is that people want you to help them visualize the world and fashion is one way you can do that. You can also help indicate character. For Mexican Gothic, it helps manufacture the dislocation of time and place. The protagonist is a modern woman (for the 1950s) who is thrust into a world where everything is drab, enclosed and decayed.

Author Photo Silvia Moreno-Garcia by Martin Dee
Copyright Martin Dee

OtS: Fans will be thrilled to hear that Mexican Gothic will be adapted as a limited Hulu series. How did you feel when you learned about this exciting adaptation? Can you share any details with us?

SMG: I know people are very excited about this, but there’s nothing to talk about at this point. We sold the TV rights and that's about it. It's just a bunch of paperwork right now.

OtS: While we’re waiting for the Hulu adaptation, what thrillers do you recommend to Brooklyn Public Library patrons?

SMG: For fans of Stephen King I recommend The Only Good Indians. For people who don’t mind gross content, Tender is the Flesh, which has cannibalism as a regular practice in a near-future dystopia. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber merges feminism with fairy tales. Du Maurier is best known for Rebecca, but My Cousin Rachel is a Gothic novel where the older, magnetic and possibly dangerous romantic partner is a woman, a neat inversion. Cullinan’s The Beguiled is incredibly fun because it has so many different points of view and unreliable narrators. It doubles as historical and also a bit of Southern Gothic. It’s not out yet, but I’m reading an advance review copy of Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon and what I’ve read is interesting. It’s about a young woman who escapes a cult and hides in the woods. And finally Lavie Tidhar's upcoming Robin Hood retelling with a gangster edge, The Hood, has some bizarre fungal activity in there, in case you feel mycological.

See all of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s thriller recommendations collected in this booklist

Liza is an archivist-turned-librarian living in Brooklyn with her pup and husband. She enjoys foraging for new books, unearthing forgotten Brooklyn history (especially the weird bits), and arranging her personal library by color.

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