Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Guest Post: Linda Dahl author of Gringa in a Strange Land

Linda Dahl, author of the book Gringa in a Strange Land, stopped by to share with us a piece she wrote.

Why I Like my Minor Characters in Gringa in a Strange Land

A problem I can have when writing fiction is that the major characters can easily become tyrants, demanding attention all the time. Anyone who has raised or been around children knows what I mean: the querulous toddler, the narcissist who invades the teen years. Or perhaps a too-needy parent or spouse. My main character wants control. During the process of writing my new novel, Gringa in a Strange Land, my protagonist, Erica Mason, often veered towards becoming, in a wonderful phrase of the entertainment business, the actress who “eats the scenery.” And what’s where the supporting cast comes in, to pull the attention away from this would-be diva.

I confess I have fun with my “minor” characters, at least most of the time. I don’t have to obsess about them the way I must about the heroine. These players are all about business, they walk on, say their lines and leave, mostly without fuss. Few of them demand such constant care and feeding as Erica.

Not to say that I didn’t empathize with Erica,a twenty-something middle-class, middle-American woman living in Mexico in the countercultural early 70’s. It’s fatal for a writer not to feel something for her characters; they become cardboard if the author does not feel, somehow, their humanity. Of course, it’s Erica story, her series of obstacles, triumphs and adventures, but the bit players in Gringa add ballast and color to Erica’s odyssey. In this novel, these are mostly foreigners (at least, to American readers. I don’t think they would be to Mexican readers.) There’s the upper-class Merida widow who morphs into a kind of lonely princess in a tower of privilege, a prisoner of class and status who plans her mild escape: a shopping trip to Miami. A peasant mother and her son who Erica meets on a train are transformed by serious illness into living examples of the daily “emergency” that deep poverty can impose. For comic relief (dark comedy), there is a small cast of the kind of personalities who abound in a somewhat isolated colonial setting: The local “author” with illusions of grandeur; the speed-addled disc jockey whose world revolves around his local radio program; the pot-smoking chicken farmer who dreams of life on the road as a guitar player. And many more, grifters and dreamers, scoundrels and decent people, hippies and housewives. All of them add to the melting pot that is Gringa in a Strange Land.

About the book:

Gringa in a Strange Land brings back the exhilarating and confusing time of the “counterculture” in the early 1970’s.

Erica Mason, an American woman living in Mexico, is torn between working to become an artist and the lure of the drug culture.

Set mostly in the colonial city of Merida in the Yucatan peninsula, the story also moves among Mayan ruins, laid-back beaches and the cities of Belize and Oaxaca.

A host of bohemian expats and Mexicans, and the complex character of Mexico itself, infuse this portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-American, culminating in an unexpected resolution.

About Linda:

I have always loved to write about characters, usually edgy, little-known folks with wonderful stories and talents. I love places too and music, above all jazz. As a girl, I dreamed of traveling around the world and as soon as I could, I took to the road. I was fortunate to live and work in a number of Latin American countries. After college (Latin American Studies, University of Wisconsin), I moved to the Yucatan in Mexico, and then made the pilgrimage to another foreign country called New York with a suitcase and several hundred dollars. This was in the mid-l970’s.

Finding the requisite cheap, shabby apartment (you could still do so in those days), I started writing in earnest. I had a number of ridiculous jobs to pay the rent, such as writing reviews of C- movies I never actually saw (no one else seemed to be watching them either), driving an ice-cream truck in Central park for just one day until I had a fender-bender, and writing a history of all the world’s cheese with a two-week deadline for a manic food editor. I managed also to produce novels, biographies and essays about women in jazz, and quirky travel articles about such topics as the Carmen Miranda Museum in Rio, a priestess of Candomble, a.k.a. voodoo (interview in rudimentary Portuguese), and a Mayan folk healer.

I am happy to say that most of my writing efforts have been published, well-reviewed and are still in print. My latest novel, a love-child, is “Gringa in a Strange Land,” available in January 2010.

You can visit Linda Dahl’s website at


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I posted this at Win a Book for you, babe. Thanks for the e-mail heads-up about it!

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