Book reviews, Culture

Maria Dueñas and her realistic characters

The writer takes success in her stride, without giving it more importance that it has. In spite of the fatigue that the promotion of two novels entails, she still manages to maintain the excitement and energy of her early days.

Olga Briasco

Her life changed in the very instant that she decided to invest her spare time in something different. It happened after two decades of working as a professor of language and literature at the University of Murcia and of having always had a hidden passion for writing.

“I needed to do something different, and I knew that I wanted to write”, she commented. It was then that I began to profile what would later become the novel “El Tiempo entre Costuras”. Her roadmap took her towards a historical moment and a geographical context that she knew well, explaining, “My mother was born in Tetuan and came back to Spain only in 1956 after the independence.”

She decided for this subject not only because of this “familiarity” historically, but also because of the “ignorance” of the protectorate and her own perception that there was a “gaping hole in Spanish narrative about the subject”.

It was then that she began a process of investigation and documentation which brought her to create a historic scenario and to construct the novel. She had no literary training but her passion for reading and her work in the university allowed her to write with “discipline and rigour”.

She did it with the belief that she would “publish the novel”, and even though she had no contacts in the editorial world, and nobody knew her name, she managed to get a good manuscript together, which was finally published in June 2009 by the editorial “Temas de Hoy” (Planeta).

Since then it has sold more than a million copies, and Sira Quiroga, the protagonist of the novel, is known throughout the world. What’s more, it has been translated into 25 languages.

In November 2011 it entered the English-speaking market under two different names: ‘The Seamstress’ (UK) and ‘The Time in Between’ (US). “The translation was the same but it was for marketing reasons that in the United States it was given one name and in the United Kingdom another.”

She has been able to export Spanish culture because of her literary talent but also because of her open, easy going and sincere personality. What’s more, her humility has allowed her to listen to her readers, who have in one way or another made Maria Dueñas  feel a certain amount of pressure writing her second novel, “Mision Olvido”, published in August 2012.

She presented the English edition of “El Tiempo entre Costuras” at The Cervantes Institute, and afterwards The Prisma was able to speak to her in Puertollano (Ciudad Real).

Adriana Ugarte

How has the English speaking market received your book?

Very well. I am really happy because in the first quarter 80,000 copies have sold. The paperback will be coming out next, which normally gets a better reception.

You are a professor of English language and literature. Were you involved in the translation?

No, it’s the job of a professional. Daniel Hahn took care of the translation. It’s wonderful. He consulted some things with me and asked my opinion, but nothing more. Especially in the more difficult parts, making a woman who speaks Andalusian dialect from the 30s speak English is complicated. He has done a magnificent job in making “La Matutena” sound the same in English as in Spanish.

Has this sudden success changed you at all?

Not much. All along I have tried to be the same person that I always was. I have changed my job, and I now have a more public life, but when I arrive home I still have the same life as before.

What are the ingredients for a book that have made the book such a success?

I don’t know. My readers tell me that the book has a very fast paced plot. Some have even said they have missed their metro stop to finish a chapter. Most of all it’s that the characters awaken emotions and they are deeply human. They are characters that you can identify with and feel a level of involvement with. That realness of the characters is what captures people.

And after that success you present us with “Mision Olvido”, a story which was born in the past.

Exactly. On a visit to California I almost by accident came across the last Franciscan mission in Sonoma, and I thought that one day I would end up writing its story.

Both books have a female protagonist and both emigrate.

Sira Quiroga and Blanca Perea aren’t at all alike. Blanca comes out of a romantic breakup and decides to run away to California, while Sira goes to Morocco for love. Besides, the historical context is completely different.

Yes. I have always advised my students to leave Spain. To get to know other countries, speak other languages, live in other worlds and other experiences. To educate themselves, open themselves, to learn. I think that it’s really important to get out there and right now more than ever.

What would you to those who claim that “In Spain they don’t read”?

We have a pretty bad tradition of reading and it comes from a long time back. We’re not a reading nation, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t read and that there aren’t a lot of people who want to read. There are a lot of readers but nowadays, they spend their money on just one book.

Adriana Ugarte

And what do you prefer, books made of paper or electronic ones?

In Spain we are a long way behind the United States, where the electronic book is more established and sales are fairly similar of both formats. These figures are a long way from the Spanish, but I’m sure that this is the future. The electronic book will find it’s place and will succeed, but I think the traditional book will survive. Personally, I prefer reading paper, however when I travel I take my ebook.

(Translated by Thomas Wright – Email:

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