Maria Elena Sandovici - Three Women, Three Deadly Hurricanes
Maria Elena Sandovici is a full-time writer, artist, and gallery owner living in Houston, Texas. Her previous works of fiction are Dogs with Bagels, Stray Dogs and Lonely Beaches, Lost Path to Solitude, The Adventures of Miss Vulpe, and Lone Wolf. She is also the author of Stop and Smell the Garbage, a volume of poetry in the voice of her dog, Holly Golightly. You can follow her daily adventures on her blog HaveWatercolorsWillTravel.blog. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, Storms of Malhado.
Please give us a short introduction to what Storms of Malhado is about.
Storms of Malhado is the story of three women with strikingly similar destinies who face major hurricanes on Galveston Island through three different historical eras: 1900, 1961, and 2008. Each protagonist is embroiled in an obsessive love story, has unfulfilled artistic ambitions, and is aided by a devoted confidante whose affection she sometimes takes for granted. They all live in the same historic mansion, a house in which the spirit of the past is very much alive. Various rumors surround this house, including the story of two horses that survived the Great Storm of 1900 and lived out their days on the sumptuous second floor.
What inspired you to write about three women and three great storms?
Storms of Malhado was inspired by a story my friend told me during Hurricane Harvey. I rode out Harvey in Houston three years ago, and my friend was my neighbor. We visited each other during occasional breaks in the rain. Her daughter was visiting from Chicago. At some point during the storm they told me that they felt like they had a past life connection. The mother said she thought she might have been her daughter’s nanny in a past life, that she probably had been of a different race, therefore society constructed several barriers between them, but their bond had been unshakeable. She also said she thought they had died together on the Titanic. I loved that story and asked for permission to write something inspired by it. But I didn’t know enough about the Titanic to focus on that tragedy. What I knew about were hurricanes, so I transferred the story to Galveston Island and focused on the storms instead.
Why did you pick Galveston Island as the backdrop for your story?
I love Galveston, have loved it ever since I moved to Texas fifteen years ago. I fell in love with its salt air, its history, its charm, and its stark contrasts. After many weekend trips staying in historic hotels and making friends with local business owners, I rented a place there and spent three years soaking up the beauty, atmosphere, and adventure of a life on the Island. I volunteered at farmers’ market, made friends with local artists, writers, musicians, and a very charming witch, explored pristine beaches during off-season, learned the names of local plants and birds, woke up to a crust of salt on my car, weathered floods and an oil spill, tried to appease an unruly ghost, wore makeshift Victorian costumes for Dickens on the Strand, sold tickets to historic homes tours to somewhat belligerent tourists, showed art in local galleries, snuck a flask into my favorite bar for Mardi Gras, danced at the Witches’ Ball, burned lots of sage, and learned that a muffaletta tastes better if you let it sweat. Eventually I moved to Houston to grow my business, but I revisit the Island often and still flirt with the idea of buying a house there.
Tell us more about the Victorian mansion. What inspired its creation?
The Victorian mansion in Storms of Malhado is inspired by the League House, a bona fide Great Storm survivor, designed y Nicholas Clayton, which stands proud to this day on Broadway in Galveston. I got to visit the League House once, when I was living on the Island. My friend knew the then tenants and was house sitting for them. She invited me to see it, and the home, grand, full of striking artworks and expensive furnishings, but also exhibiting signs of neglect, struck me as both fascinating and eerie. We were afraid to explore the rooms on the third floor, where the servants would have lived, and in an elegant sitting room, on a exquisite Turkish carpet, we saw dog poop. That really freaked us out, as we were not aware of the tenants even having a dog. I think it’s what planted the idea of the horses in Storms of Malhado into my head.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
Like Suzanne, Betty, and Katie, I am a visual artist. I create watercolors as well as large acrylic paintings, mostly figurative, but sometimes abstract. I run my own gallery space in Houston where I entertain collectors and sell my work. During the pandemic I have been hosting a daily Facebook Live show where I paint for a small group of loyal viewers. I also display my work daily on my blog HaveWatercolorsWillTravel.com
Which character was the most challenging to create?
Katie, the protagonist of the 2008 section of the book. Although of my three MCs she is the only one living through events I myself have experienced, her being so young made her a difficult character for me to write. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been that young, nor had such a sheltered life. I love Katie and don’t want to dismiss her as spoiled. I love that she has a close relationship with her parents, especially her mother, and although she receives a lot of support from them, she is brave in taking on artistic challenges and facing her own heartache. It’s not that I can’t relate to her. It’s just harder for me to slip into her skin as it is with the other more haunted and tormented characters.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t stop writing.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love it when stories start taking on a life of their own, when details that give my novels life present themselves serendipitously to me. I need to spend a lot of time with a book before that happens. There’s a difference between engaging with a project intellectually and feeling an actual soul connection. It’s magical and elusive but when it happens it’s the most wonderful feeling.
Do you have a favorite line from the book, and can you explain what that line means to you?
They say the veil between life and death is thin in Galveston. It’s something my friend Clyde, owner of The Witchery, one of my favorite stores in Galveston, says often. I love that sentence, love that idea of the porousness between worlds. One doesn’t have to be too much into the esoteric to feel that on the Island.
If you could choose one character from your book to spend a day with, who would it be? And where would you take them?
Edna. I love Edna so much! She is all the goodness in this world, warm, caring, funny, non-judgmental, wise, plus she cooks and bakes and understands what powerful comfort one can find in food! I would love to take Edna to Paris. We could walk around, go shopping, and eat scrumptious things. There’s a little café right by Saint Sulpice that I like a lot. It’s not fancy but it’s charming and serves good strong coffee. Edna and I would sit there and talk for hours, then stroll through Saint Germain together. We might make it our business to find the best pastries we can, then later, having returned to Galveston, try to recreate them.
When working on a novel, how do you immerse yourself in the main characters' lives? Do you observe people in a certain culture, or do you try to walk in their shoes?
Because of the different timelines, Storms of Malhado required a lot of research, which allowed me to see different facets of the little island I thought I knew so well. One of my favorite ways of exploring is by taking long walks with one of my dearest friends, who is Born on the Island (BOI) and very knowledgeable. We talk about the characters in the book, about what they would have done or felt. We explore old buildings and back alleys. He tells me stories his family told him about Hurricane Carla or the Great Storm of 1900. His grandmother survived that storm floating on a piano!
Of course, I also read a lot about each storm, as well as lots of Island history. Did you know the first lunch counter in Texas to be desegregated was in Galveston in 1961? I also read novels set on the Island in 1900, to get myself in the mood. The Promise by Ann Weisgarber is superb. I absolutely recommend it.
Also, I cannot fully express my gratitude to my historical expert, long-time Island resident and Galveston Historical Foundation volunteer Margaret Doran. She read my manuscript twice giving me critical input and pointers as to what life would have been like, and what things the characters would have done/said/had access to in the different time periods. No paperbacks in 1900. Less carriages, more walking. She also has an excellent sense of humor and made some hilarious comments: “Why is Betty such a crybaby and why does she eat so much meatloaf?” I made sure to vary her menu a bit, but couldn’t really do much about the crying. If I were Betty, I would have cried too. And I feel like I was Betty at different points in my life, but luckily I snapped out of it.
Do you have any interesting writing habits?
No. I have very boring writing habits which I find comforting. I like to revise for like ten drafts – just going over what I’ve written hoping that inspiration will strike me and I’ll either get to add some magic or take out superfluous stuff.
What are you working on right now?
The Glory Days of Aimée Bonnard. It’s also historical fiction set in Galveston. The time is 1898, so no storms. Not all Galveston novels need to be about storms. Aimée is a successful prostitute – a fascinating subject matter for me to explore.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
On my blog, HaveWatercolorsWillTravel.com, on my Instagram (my favorite social media account!) @mariasando, on Twitter (@SandoviciME), Facebook (Maria Elena Sandovici), my Amazon Author Page, Goodreads, or just by emailing me ([email protected]). Nothing makes me happier than hearing from my readers! Also, if someone posts a review, I might use my newly discovered Canva skills and turn it into an Instagram post – after doing a happy dance, of course!
I am also available for Zoom book clubs. There are few things I love as much as Zoom book clubs!