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Author Interview: Cynthia J. Bogard

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Cynthia J. Bogard, author of Beach of the Dead (The Heartland Trilogy, Book Two).

FQ: What a treat it was to read your second book in the Heartland Trilogy, Beach of the Dead. I would like to start with where the story was set: Zipolite, Mexico. Why was Zipolite, Mexico the place for Ana (formerly ‘Jane Meyer’) to escape to?

BOGARD: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I chose Zipolite because I wanted a place that was stripped down to the essentials, close to nature, a simple, open society, so that the novel could focus on Jane/Ana’s inner life and struggles. For Jane, Zipolite was more of a desperate choice – she simply set out for the only obscure place in Mexico she’d heard about from a trusted source (her professor, Maddie).

FQ: In line with my previous question, you write so vividly of this paradise in Mexico, it makes me wonder if you have personally spent time there. Have you, and if so, what is your most memorable experience while there? If not, is it on your bucket list of places to visit?

BOGARD: Yes, I spent the winter season there many years ago, when it truly was a simple stick hut village with no running water or electricity. Zipolite back then did have all the wonderful natural amenities that Ana experiences — and, sadly, the daily sea turtle truck. One unforgettable moment of my time there was recreated as the scene where Ana first encounters the pool and waterfall. I was a novice traveler that season and living in Zipolite was my first close encounter with a culture not my own. That winter started a passion for travel that’s never left me.

FQ: There are two distinct considerations in your story line: the acceptance toward gay or lesbian and the ‘paving’ of raw beauty with ‘progress.’ If you were given a platform to address a community on what acceptance means, what would be your mission statement to encourage attendance? Similar question toward ‘progress’ - what would your mission statement be that would strike a balance in how progress can have a positive impact to a community?

Author Cynthia Bogard

BOGARD: Our human community is enriched by embracing, not merely tolerating, or accepting, a wide array of individuals. I personally witnessed this as the university I worked for greatly increased its diversity (race, sexual orientation, ability status, ethnicity, religion) during my quarter century there. Our classroom discussions were enhanced, there were more creative ideas generated in departments ranging from medicine to drama, student friendship groups and organizations became more diverse, as students sought out people different from themselves for friends and colleagues. Eventually, students told us they were interested in coming to our university because its diversity represented the society at large better than many others and therefore prepared them for “real life” better than a more insular community. I learned so much from students who came from perspectives different from mine, and it was so much fun hearing about their experiences and backgrounds. We are an incredibly diverse species and the more we embrace that about ourselves, the more creatively we can live on our planet. In Beach of the Dead, the life of the community was much enhanced by listening to Thorpe’s wisdom about how to organize themselves more equitably and by her poker skills!

Progress is a slippery term – what might be progress for some can be profound loss and destruction for others. When a natural space becomes developed for human use, habitat, and lives of the creatures who had inhabited that space are destroyed. But people get places to live and work. For too long, we humans have mostly privileged our own progress (or what seems in the moment like progress) over respect for and caring for the natural world. That’s coming back to haunt us now in the form of climate chaos. We didn’t consider the impact of our use of fossil fuels on our planet’s atmosphere and climate. At first, that was because of ignorance; now, it is because almost all of the human world is addicted to fossil fuels and it’s hard to give it up. In Beach of the Dead, José thought his job killing sea turtles was progress — and, indeed, compared to working in the smelly factory or being in prison, it was, for him. But when he enlarged his perspective, he came to see that killing sea turtles took an unsustainable toll, on the turtles of course, but also on him as a moral being. The questions José asked himself are those we all should ask when confronted with decisions about “progress.” Are we thinking about the big picture? The future? What will be lost? Do we compromise ourselves morally by engaging in this type of progress? There are no easy answers to these questions.

FQ: Back to your credentials for a moment...Having been a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, you referenced in your first interview how characters Jenny and Jane were developed as a result of: "...friends you knew in college and their childhood experiences..." You were incredibly respectful in your response, and I have to ask if you are still in touch with them both today?

BOGARD: Sadly, I’m not sure what happened to either of them. I had my own struggles during the time I knew them and then I left the US and lived abroad for a number of years. When I returned, I moved to another part of the country. One of them I did have contact with years later and learned that she had become highly successful in her field (the Jenny character). The other woman changed her name to something very common (it was part of her healing process) and disappeared from my life. I am indebted to both of them for their friendship and for modeling the courage to continue after experiencing trauma.

FQ: In line with my previous question, are there 'real' people who were the inspirations for the fictional characters in Beach of the Dead and if so, what in the story resonated with them?

BOGARD: I have been privileged to know some excellent people in my life, people who have inspired me, who demonstrated the type of moral courage I tried to portray in Beach of the Dead. But most of those in this book are part of my younger life and probably will never know how they influenced the development of my characters. But they have shaped me, and I hope I’m honoring them by representing them in fiction.

FQ: I enjoyed the homage you played to how precious the ecosystem is and the turtle refuge outside of Zipolite, where Ana finds work. How close is this to real work and studies being done in the region today?

BOGARD: When I looked up modern-day Zipolite on a map, I saw that in neighboring Mazunte there is now the National Mexican Turtle Center, a small museum to make tourists and others aware of the work needed to protect sea turtles. It was a welcome discovery for me — as I sadly witnessed the sea turtle slaughter of decades ago. I thought linking this actual transformation to what José experiences was a way to exemplify the reshaping that some of us have done in our attitudes towards nature — from exploiter to protector. Nathan Nelson followed the old model of progress, “improving” nature to make it “civilized.” These contrasting attitudes remain a huge source of tension. Ironic, but typical, the only way José could pursue his vision of turtle saving was to work for Nelson.

FQ: Toward the end of the story, there is a bittersweet ‘tying up of loose ends’ that you captured beautifully: "...When we drew closer, I saw that the huge yellow machines used to build roads had arrived in Zipolite. Nothing much had happened there yet, but the implications for the future were clear. There would someday be a road that reached from Puerto Escondido through Mazunte, through Zipolite, to Puerto Angel. This spot of paradise that had protected and nurtured me would be forever changed..." How does this relate to something you have personally experienced in terms of what was once ‘paradise’ is lost forever now?

BOGARD: Change happens. Our childhood homes burn or become homeless shelters (both happened to me). Our treasured streams and fields become culverts and suburbs (also part of my history). We leave old selves behind, too. Thorpe’s attitude on this mirrors mine. “Nature does change things up unexpectedly and life must adapt. And does.” (p. 261) My current hometown, Montpelier, Vermont, recently experienced a devasting flood — the entire downtown business district was wiped out. While it is so very sad, our only choice now is to adapt and go forward. The past can only live on in our memories. The past cannot be restored because the very nature of reality is that it evolves, changes. We must fight to preserve what is worth saving in its pristine state, such as our national parks. But when nature (now assisted by our insistence on using fossil fuels) is experienced as floods, fires, tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricanes, we humans have no choice but to adapt. Hopefully, we will relearn (as many ancient peoples knew) to work with the natural world instead of thinking we can conquer it.

FQ: You didn’t touch too much on the character Thorpe’s work, but it was clear she is a research scientist of some sort. You alluded to her studies in the Rain Forest and something she had discovered that could be tied to the pharmaceutical industry. Is this a seed that has been planted and something we can anticipate being further developed in book three of this series? A miraculous (and potential cure) to some egregious disease?

BOGARD: I’m glad you noticed that! Most definitely, Thorpe’s discovery will be a feature of a subsequent book.

FQ: I want to thank you for your time today and once again express how very much I enjoyed reading Beach of the Dead. You have an innate gift for storytelling, and I cannot wait to settle into book three. When can we expect it (and are you able to shine a light on what we can expect)?

BOGARD: I’m about a third of the way into the next story featuring some of these characters. I’m still deciding whether there needs to be a sequel and a prequel to the stories I’ve already told, or if they are best combined into a dual timeline novel. Both parts of the new narrative, the part that takes place in the 60s and 70s and the story that grows out of the 1980s timeline from the first two books, explore how women are shaped by the larger social forces around them. Because I’ve studied social movements in my career as a sociologist, readers can expect to see some of these important shapers of lives and society show up in my next stories. As to when the next book might be released, I’m hoping for 2025.

Much appreciation for these great questions. They made me reflect on my craft and my life, and for that, I’m thankful to you.

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