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A new bride finds something supernatural with her rich husband in 'The Hacienda'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Beatriz has limited options in her young life. Her father, a general, was arrested after the Mexican War for Independence and executed. Her house burned to the ground. She and her mother make it out just in time. Unsympathetic relatives take them in. So when the chance comes to marry a handsome, rich man, Beatriz jumps. But she never asks what really happened to his first wife. Rookie mistake. That's how the action starts in "The Hacienda," and it just doesn't stop. This is Isabel Canas's debut novel and she joins us now to talk about it. Welcome.

ISABEL CANAS: Thank you so much for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Let's talk about this. It's not just the fate of the first wife that she should've asked some more questions about, but there are problems evident from the moment Beatriz arrives at Rodolfo's estate - and Rodolfo is the husband. What does she see when she gets there?

CANAS: So when Beatriz arrives at Hacienda San Isidro, Rodolfo soon goes back to Mexico City to work because he's a politician. And she's there alone, and she quickly discovers that this place is profoundly haunted. But nobody seems to believe her.

RASCOE: No.

CANAS: She's kind of gaslit by the other people who live on the hacienda, who seem very afraid of the house, who avoid certain parts of it, who don't talk about what's happening in the house at night, which is when activity really starts to kick off. And so she goes to town and finds help in the form of a young priest called Padre Andres, who has some dark secrets of his own.

RASCOE: Yeah. And see - and the thing is - here's the thing. This is essentially a haunted house story. Here's the thing that I always look out for when it comes to a house may be haunted. If you have a part of a house that you cannot go into, that house may be haunted.

CANAS: Exactly.

RASCOE: How did you come up with this idea?

CANAS: So I have always been afraid of the dark, and so I knew at one point I wanted to write a haunted house story. When I was about 5 years old - my family moved around quite a lot when I was young - and we moved into a house in the suburbs north of Chicago that was built in the 1920s. And even though I was, like, 5 years old, I knew there was something in this house, particularly in the basement...

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

CANAS: ...That just felt watchful and felt uncomfortable. And so when I misbehaved, which I often did as a mouthy 5-year-old, I got sent to the timeout corner, which, if I was very bad, was at the bottom of the basement stairs.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness. Lord.

CANAS: And sitting down there, I had ample time to really meditate on what the hell was going on in there. It was a creepy basement. It was very scary.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness. Did a skeleton hand come out and, like, grab you?

CANAS: No.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Did it take you?

CANAS: Although my imagination certainly ran wild.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness (laughter).

CANAS: It really sparked those creative juices flowing. But the story for this novel in particular didn't come to me until 2019. I was on my honeymoon in Mexico City, where I lived for a while as a child. I had had an idea for a haunted house novel, but I was primarily writing young adult fantasy at the time and quite unsuccessfully. I'd had a lot of rejections and had just received one that was heartbreaking. And so I was lying awake in bed kind of thinking about, well, where should my career going next? As this thunderstorm tired itself out and rain was lashing the window and, you know, these delicious forks of lightning were just cutting through the sky overhead, I heard this voice...

RASCOE: Oh, wow. Oh, wow.

CANAS: ...Like, as clear as the toll of a church bell, narrating what I knew even then was the beginning of something new. And so I, like, snatched my phone off the nightstand and started typing as fast as I could to pin that voice to paper before it slipped away. And those words became the first chapter - the first pages of "The Hacienda."

RASCOE: And so what made you want to set this story right after the Mexican War for Independence? Why set this in that time period?

CANAS: So this is a historical time period that has fascinated me for many years. It's a period of immense change. And it's a period in which we see the seeds and saplings, honestly, of many conflicts that persist - social conflicts that persist in Mexico and in the Latin American diaspora to the present. So there's colonialism. There's colorism. There's the Casta system whereby one's social status and sometimes even legal status was determined by their racial makeup.

To be of any kind of mixed heritage in this period - it wasn't impossible to advance in society, but it was certainly more difficult. And another thing that drew me to this period, having been raised in a very Catholic household, was the syncretism between Catholicism as it came from the continent and Indigenous practices and traditions in Mexico. And we see this continuing to the present. Like, if you think about Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead, that is the results of Catholic missionary priests in Mexico deciding to incorporate Indigenous days of respect for the dead with the Catholic feast days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. And I really wanted to see that reflected in characters, whether that's the person of Padre Andres, who's mestizo. His father is of European descent and his mother was Indigenous. And in the witchcraft that he practices, it's partially - he inherits it from both sides of his family, from the Indigenous part of his family and the European side of his family. And so that syncretism to me is what I am a product of. And it's something that I've never really seen reflected in genre fiction.

RASCOE: Yeah. And, I mean, you just dropped that in there, so basically, we can say that Padre Andres is a witch.

CANAS: It's on the back cover copy.

RASCOE: I didn't want to do no spoilers, but he is...

CANAS: I know. I know.

RASCOE: ...A witch.

CANAS: So I had an outline - I had, you know, classic gothic archetypes - the young wife, the mysterious husband, the suspicious family members, you know, the big house. And I thought, well, this is Mexico. Of course, there needs to be a priest. And then that priest took and turned the book on its head.

RASCOE: I do wonder about Beatriz. She is a different type of gothic heroine. She's less of a victim, more of a fighter. It seemed like in the beginning of the book, she was trying to work within the system, get her a rich husband and live a rich life. Do you think that the haunting really made her have a different view of what society could be because she realized almost, like, I am one of the people? I'm no - really no different from these villagers who work on this property. Like, we are in this together, right?

CANAS: You're right. The haunting has a way of stripping away the social differences that exist between Beatriz as the woman of the house, Juana, her sister-in-law, and the people who work on the hacienda because they're all at the mercy...

RASCOE: Yes.

CANAS: ...Of this powerful, uncontrollable, malicious presence.

RASCOE: Yes.

CANAS: And they all deal with it in certain ways. So I think the haunting really kicks Beatriz's will to survive into high gear. She's a fighter. She often says, like, she's the daughter of a general. She's not going to go down without a fight.

RASCOE: So what is next for you? First of all, I mean, you got your debut novel. You said you had dealt with a lot of rejection.

CANAS: It's a big moment for me. I'm - the day before "The Hacienda" comes out, I will be defending my Ph.D. dissertation.

RASCOE: OK. And what's your Ph.D. on?

CANAS: Near-Eastern languages and civilizations - so completely unrelated topic.

RASCOE: OK. And then you write novels on the side?

CANAS: Yeah.

RASCOE: OK.

CANAS: Everyone thinks I'm a bit crazy, but it's the way that I've managed to keep myself from going crazy.

RASCOE: (Laughter) OK. OK.

CANAS: I'm currently working on my second book. I can't say much about it yet, except that it also includes the three themes that I think make "The Hacienda" what it is - 19th century Mexican history, a real strong helping of the supernatural and of romance.

RASCOE: That's Isabel Canas. Her debut novel is "The Hacienda." Thank you so much for joining us to talk about it.

CANAS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.