A: I interwove Aztec myths in this novel to help create that mystical sense 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.
Q. Your novels are known for being set against a backdrop of an important environmental issue. Why butterflies this time?
A: 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
Q. You do extensive interviews and hands-on research as part of your writing process for each book. What experiences seemed to be the most powerful and pivotal to your story development for this book?
A: Certainly the most remarkable experience was my journey to the monarch overwintering sanctuaries in
Later, I raised monarchs from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Caterpillars are eating machines. That’s all they do, eat and poop. (It is called frass). It was only in observing the caterpillar’s brave journey to become the chrysalis that I fully appreciated the power of metamorphosis. The lowly caterpillar faces the darkness to completely transform. It twists and writhes as it changes to chrysalis. It begged the question “What is courage” in my novel. When a butterfly was due to emerge, I got up at dawn and waited and watched. Blink and you’ll miss it! I never tired of it. Never will. I learned patience and consistency as the theme of transformation became paramount in the novel.
Q: 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.
A: 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 driving 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.
Q. The Mexican culture comes alive in this novel as young Luz seeks her roots in
A: Once I decided that the major theme of the novel would be based on the monarch’s journey across borders to
Q. 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?
A: We tag butterflies each fall as they migrate to
Q. Many of your novels have been based on Southern landscape and culture. What compelled you to take a break from the norm and write about the Mexican culture and the
A: I didn’t take a break. Rather, when I set the stage for a novel I have to determine how to best bring my readers to the story world. For The Butterfly’s Daughter, I wanted to mirror the monarch butterfly’s migration—it had to be a road trip! So I began in the north,
Q. 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?
A: 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 all 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.
Q. 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?
A: 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.
Q. 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?
A: 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? The basic cell mitosis, known as the mother-daughter cell, was a perfect analogy for Luz’s journey.
Q. As an author with a conservationist’s heart, what do you hope readers take away from The Butterfly’s Daughter?
A: Simply put, the monarchs are in trouble. In 2009 winter storms devastated
the population, some 50-70 %. Most people don’t understand how critical the milkweed plant is to the monarchs’ survival. The milkweed is the monarch host plant, which means it is the only plant the female monarch will lay her eggs on, and it is the sole food the caterpillars eat. Milkweed used to thrive in the
I hope my readers will all plant milkweed and nectar flowers in their back yards and flower boxes. AND DO NOT SPRAY INSECTICIDES! Not everyone can rescue sea turtles or birds of prey. But everyone can make a difference with the butterflies!
Q. And what do you hope readers take away at a personal level?
A: I hope we all appreciate the power of transformation that lies within us all.