Yesterday I shared my thoughts on the new novel, The Butterfly’s Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe. I was so intrigued by this novel that I wanted to share some of the author’s own thoughts on this novel and its characters. Here are some of her own thoughts on The Butterfly’s Daughter.
The story opens with an Aztec myth. What is its importance in the novel?
I interwove Aztec myths in this novel to help create the mystical aura needed for the final scene at the sanctuaries. It is also an important cue to set the tone of the power of storytelling as a means of transferring information from one generation to the other. Abuela told stories to her daughter, Mariposa, and her granddaughter, Luz, not only to soothe the child, but to teach moral lessons and the Mexican culture. This particular myth was chosen because I wanted to ask the story question, “Will you bring light to the world?” This lies deep in the heart of Luz’s journey as she brings light and change to so many people. Her name, Luz, was chosen because it means light.
Your novels are known for being set against a backdrop of an important environmental issue. Why butterflies this time?
I’d wanted to write a novel set against butterflies for years. Who doesn’t love butterflies? As I began researching butterflies, however, the monarch stood out among all of them. It’s the only butterfly—the only insect—that migrates like a bird or a whale! Every fall this brave, fragile creature travels thousands of miles across the country, joining millions of others, to reach their overwintering grounds in Mexico. It is a sacred journey of instinct and courage. Then in the spring, they journey north again. Long live the king!
Can you talk about Mariposa? In the novel, this character was going through the most powerful and painful transformation. Many of the characters in The Butterfly’s daughter go through a metamorphosis, or change, as well.
While raising monarchs, Mariposa came alive in mind—I realized she wasn’t dead! It was a complete surprise to me, but also very exciting. It gave me a whole new dimension for the novel. Mariposa was like the butterfly she was named after—beautiful but flighty. Her diving force was drugs (similar to the caterpillar’s eating) and it led her to ruin. By the time the story takes place, she’s a recovering addict. Her phone call home was the instigating incident. Mariposa’s journey to forgiveness involves a transformation that is ongoing at the story’s end. To say she is changed would have been unrealistic for a recovering addict. It is her daily struggle and conviction that is inspiring.
I wanted each of the women (the “goddesses”) to transform as a result of this journey. Luz went from a child without roots or dreams to woman with family and possibilities; Margaret from someone locked up and “beige” to open minded and colorful; and Ophelia from an abused, insecure pregnant woman to a fierce, committed mother. It’s easy to understand why the butterfly is a powerful symbol of transformation in many religions and cultures around the world.
The Mexican culture comes alive in this novel as young Luz seeks her roots in Mexico. How did this theme come about?
Once I decided that the major theme of the novel would be based on the monarch’s journey across borders to Mexico, I was set free with possibilities! I created Luz Avila to carry the story. She is a young woman of Mexican/German descent in a predominately German city. Raised by her Mexican grandmother, Abuela, she is typical of many first generation ethnic children who do not want to be defined by their parents’ culture, but rather, to be American. When Abuela dies, Luz is alone. As she journeys to Mexico she seeks clues about the mother she never knew, as well as connections not only to family, but to her culture. It was a great opportunity for me to present the beautiful Mexican traditions, food, culture and holidays and without the politics. I hope the novel encourages the celebration of our cultural diversity.
Luz Avila learns how to tag butterflies when she meets Billy McCall at a cluster of trees where monarchs were roosting for the night. How did you learn about the details of tagging?
We tag butterflies each fall as they migrate to Mexico in order to learn more about them so we can protect the species. The Monarch Watch group leads this effort. I was fortunate to meet Billy McCord, a local butterfly expert. He took me out to Folly Beach and taught me how to capture the monarchs as they roosted and tag. He also helped me appreciate how important these indigenous way stations are for migrating butterflies and birds. Now I tag my monarchs and those that migrate through Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, SC.
There are several conversations about the symbolism of monarchs and the afterlife, and a few characters experience the comforting presence of a deceased loved one during a monarch sighting. Have you had your own similar experience?
Yes! I was amazed to discover how many people shared that they’d had a personal connection with a butterfly after a loved one died. Perhaps at the funeral, or later when they thought of the person, a butterfly appeared. My father- in -law passed away during the writing of this book. My son and I ceremoniously released three butterflies I had raised in his honor. Two flew promptly away, as they are want to do. But one butterfly lingered for a long time, alighting on my arm and my son for a long time. He seemed reluctant to leave. I was astonished. It was just as I’d described it in my novel! I released many butterflies that summer but this was the only time one lingered so long. It was memorable and poignant. I believe we have connections with nature that we simply do not understand.
On page 226, the character Stacie says to Luz and Margaret, “You might not know where you’re going, but in the end, you get to where you’re supposed to be.” Did you know where you were going with The Butterfly’s Daughter from the very beginning?
I have to share with you where that quote came from. I’m part of a group of women who all share the same birthday! We call ourselves The GEMs because we’re all Gemini’s. During one birthday while I was writing the book, we shared stories of road trips taken. Some were hilarious! Susan told me about a wild and colorful woman who shouted out the above quote and when I heard it I knew I had to use it. I loved it so much I based my character Stacie on this real woman. Often when writing a novel, the author can’t make up anything as good as the truth.
As for whether I knew where I was going with the book from the start, the answer is no. I knew butterflies would be the backdrop for the story. I had a lot of possibilities, but it wasn’t until I fully understood the majesty of the monarch’s migration, and visited the monarch sanctuaries and witnessed the magic there, that I committed to the monarch. Writing a novel is much like Stacie’s advice. We might have a lot of ideas, characters, and themes in the beginning of a novel, but it’s a crazy journey and in the end you get to where you’re supposed to be.
Mariposa and Sam have a conversation about the genetic memory of monarchs, and it is compared to the mother-daughter connection of Mariposa and Luz. What personally intrigues you about the concept?
Consider the monarch. Unlike the bird or whale who makes the round trip migration, for the monarch it is the 4th generation monarch that returns! Isn’t that incredible? Science is discovering how much information is transferred genetically. On a personal level, don’t we all love to look at our children and say, “Claire has Nana’s nose.” Or we note how one family is good in science, or music. Imagine if you didn’t know your family that shared DNA, wouldn’t you be curious? Basic cell mitosis, known as the mother-daughter cell- was a perfect analogy for Luz’s journey.
And what do you hope readers take away at a personal level?
I hope we all appreciate the power of transformation that lies within us all.
Interested in owning a copy of The Butterfly’s Daughter of your own? If you are interested in purchasing a copy of The Butterfly’s Daughter, check out the information here.