Cecilia Velástegui was born in Quito, Ecuador where she spent her childhood. She was raised in California and France, and has traveled extensively to over fifty countries. She received her graduate degree from the University of Southern California, and speaks four languages. She serves on the board of directors of several cultural and educational organizations, and was nominated for the Arts Orange County Award. She lives with her family in Dana Point, California.
Welcome, Cecilia. I’m anxious to hear about your new book Missing in Machu Picchu. I think the ruins at Machu Picchu are pretty well-known, but could you tell us what about this location appealed to you as the setting for a novel?
It was a confluence of events and memories. First, I had a personal goal to climb Huayna Picchu, the iconic peak in Machu Picchu. As a child, I visited Machu Picchu, and I remembered it with the cloudy memories of a child. On top of these memories, over the last dozen years I’ve tracked the tribulations of the return of the archaeological artifacts from the U.S. to Peru. Then, in 2007 Machu Picchu was recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. While planning my most recent trip to Machu Picchu, I came upon stories of infant trafficking of Peruvian babies to the U.S. and Germany, so I was compelled to write this novel in the shrouded setting of Machu Picchu.
Will you tell us briefly about the four women who are the main characters in the novel?
They are professional, competent, intelligent women who graduated from the most prestigious Ivy League universities. However, they have failed miserably in their love lives. In particular, they resorted to online dating, where they deceived their suitors, and vice versa.
What does online dating have to do with the novel? How does it lead the women to the Andes Mountains?
The women join an Ivy League alumnae hike on the Inca Trail with the objective of getting rid of their online dating dependency. They find out about the hike from an online hiking website linked to a blog that skewers online dating. They all arrive to Cusco with varying goals for the Inca Trail hike only to find that they have incompatible goals and conflicted ideals of love.
I understand the trouble starts when the female characters start to fall for their guide, Rodrigo. What is so attractive about him?
Rodrigo’s magnetism is innate. Even as a child, his combined ethnicity (Peruvian indigenous and Boston Irish) and charisma brought him adulation from all women, but it is his eventual narcissism and megalomaniac disorders that make him use women with impunity.
You also include two indigenous women in the novel, Taki and Koyam, who turn out to be the story’s heroines? What made you decide to have the indigenous women be the heroines?
As a child, I was brought up by indigenous nannies in my native city of Quito, high up in the Andes Mountains. They were more than caregivers to me; they loved me unconditionally. Some of their folk ways would be considered “way out there” by Western standards, but to me, talking to the dead or predicting the future in the ways that they performed regularly did not seem odd then –– or now. They were loving, kind, resolute, hardy –– and mystical. They shaped my positive outlook on life.
I know the novel has a mystical element. What can you tell us about that without giving away too much of the plot?
In the Andean highlands, there is symbolism to all of nature’s events. When the torrential rains of January 29, 2010 occurred and Machu Picchu was closed off from the rest of the world, something significant and shocking had to happen to these four women hikers who had unresolved visions of themselves and of their search for love online. Unbeknownst to the women, they have been under the vigilance of Taki and Koyam, two indigenous women who understand how far Rodrigo can go.
Do you think there is a new openness or desire for such mystical elements in novels in recent years and what do you attribute that to?
In many ways, novels explore themes that are percolating in society. This may be where the desire to explore mystical elements in fiction stems from. In my own cultural background, the mystical has always been present.
A lot of the books that include mysticism that I’ve read focus on Native American spirituality or old Celtic beliefs. Where does the South American mysticism fit in in this trend and would you say at least for the South American novels it’s an offshoot of magical realism? For example, an author like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ often bizarre characters and stories are part of the magical realism genre, but he also has people communicate with the dead in his books.
I believe that contemporary American writers are including idiosyncrasies from their varying cultural backgrounds into their narratives. To some readers it may seem as mystical or unusual, but to others it is just a reflection of their own upbringing. At the end of the day, I hope that my readers are entertained and if they so wish, they can further explore these themes. I always include a bibliography in my novels.
Cecilia, your last book, Gathering the Indigo Maidens was about art fraud and the black market and also contained mysticism and a South American connection and your book Traces of Bliss also included mysticism and South American characters. By comparison, what themes do you feel are similar and which ones different in Missing in Machu Picchu?
The underlying theme of my three novels is the heinous crime of human trafficking. In Gathering the Indigo Maidens, a young indigenous woman was trafficked to Los Angeles as a sex slave. In Traces of Bliss, as a secondary theme to the main subject of ancestral memories that are triggered by an Amazonian massage oil, I introduce the anguish of a forty-year-old mother who is working in Los Angeles as a caregiver to a wealthy elderly woman, while late at night she goes out looking for her nineteen-year-old daughter who was trafficked as a sex slave. In Missing in Machu Picchu, a suspected infant trafficker is at the center of an insane plot that includes the clueless American women looking for love online and with their guide on the Inca Trail hike.
Since you’re from a South American background, have you found your books appeal to a certain readership, such as people with a similar background to your own, or have you found acceptance among readers of all cultural backgrounds?
I believe that my readers are people who love to read about a range of contemporary issues, and they like to learn how I connect these current problems to historical events/developments that continue to influence our present day. In Traces of Bliss, the root of the modern-day problems explored in the novel was the Spanish Inquisition and its deep and lasting pain. In Missing in Machu Picchu, I introduce the thoroughly contemporary obsession of online dating, along with its pitfalls and misrepresentations, and take the characters to a mystical location where their insincerity and delusions meet a charismatic and alluring man who takes them on a hellish hike. The women are disconnected from modern communications and must deal with their own character strengths and weaknesses to make sense of what is happening to them.
You mentioned your own trip to Machu Picchu to climb its highest peak — did you take a hike similar to that of your female characters? And did the hike inspire the book, or did you go hiking to do research for the book and its atmosphere?
Prior to this novel, I had visited Machu Picchu. On this last visit, we did hike on the Inca Trail, but it was a sunny and optimistic hike with lots of laughter and camaraderie. Although I often asked myself, “What if it was raining and foggy and you were trying to flee? How frightening would that be?”
Do you have any future books in the works that you can tell us a little about?
Yes, I’m writing a novel set in 1973 Paris, a time of student unrest, European terrorism, but a time where a great love takes place despite these conflicts.
That sounds like a departure from your other novels, Cecilia, or will it also have mysticism and South American connections in it? When should we look for it to be published?
The entire novel takes place in France, but there is one unbelievable historical connection between the Amazon River and the Seine River. It should be published on Valentine’s Day 2014.
Thank you for another great interview, Cecilia. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we can find there about Missing in Machu Picchu?
My website is www.MissinginMachuPicchu.com. My books are available in hardcover and ebook at all ebook retailers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, etc.
Thank you, Cecilia. Best of luck with your latest book and I hope you’ll be back to talk to us again in the future.Powered by Sidelines