Q&A With Cara Lopez Lee

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Q&A With Cara Lopez Lee 

Samantha Lien has been kind enough to connect me with author Cara Lopez Lee. Cara is the author of the books They Only Eat Their Husbands which is a memoir and co-authored the veteran acclaimed Unexpected Prisoner which is also a memoir. Her latest release which came out on May 28th is Candlelight Bridge. Cara’s writing has appeared in famous publications which are The Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, & Rivet. In a past life, Cara was an award-winning television journalist in Alaska. 

Q: Cara, I’m very happy to be doing this interview with you. For those who haven’t read Candlelight Bridge, would you like to give a brief description of the book?

A: In 1910, twelve-year-old Candelaria Rivera and her family flee across the desert to America to escape the Mexican Revolution. Meanwhile, twenty-year-old Yan Chi Wong flees the Chinese Revolution, also bound for America. They meet in El Paso, Texas, where they struggle to make a home in a world that doesn’t want them. Candlelight Bridge is no romance but a tale of grudging partners trying to survive the American Dream. 

Q: I know in both The Authors Note & The Acknowledgements Section of the book, you mentioned that your Mexican & Chinese roots played a part in this story. I know its fiction, but are the characters of Candelaria & Yan Chi based off of some of your relatives? 

A: My Mexican-and-Chinese American grandma raised me, and I always begged her for family stories. Candlelight Bridge was inspired by the stories she shared: tales of secret immigrants, mixed-race children, and trauma passed down like an inheritance.

When I began writing this novel, its main characters were Graciela and Yan Chi, fictional versions of my great-grandparents. But Graciela remained three years old for too many chapters, not old enough to have agency. So, I picked a more dynamic hero: her older sister, Candelaria, inspired by my great-aunt.

Q: How long does it take you to write & research a book? How long did it take for you to research & write Candlelight Bridge? 

A: My first book was a memoir. It took six years to complete a first draft, and three more years of revising to land a publisher. I’ve also ghostwritten many books, which each took a year or two. 

In 2006, I started research for Candlelight Bridge, which took me to China, San Francisco, and the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico. I wandered villages, archaeological sites, and museums; interviewed family, locals, and historians; and read history books of all kinds. 

In China, I found my great-grandpa’s village in Toisan, met a 99-year-old cousin who shared local history, and celebrated the Ching Ming tomb sweeping festival with distant cousins. 

I didn’t know which village my great grandma came from, only that she was born in Chihuahua. I pored over maps to pick a route her fictional family might take to flee the Mexican Revolution. Then I took a road trip to explore that passage. The book begins in Mata Flores, a fictional pueblo inspired by the real village of Mata Ortiz. Both sit in a valley between two shoulders of the Sierra Madre, a place where life moves slowly.

After three years of research, I began writing in 2009, finished a draft in 2015, then spent years submitting and revising. FlowerSong Press published Candlelight Bridge in 2024. That’s an 18-year project!

Q: What was it like co-authoring the memoir Unexpected Prisoner with a veteran? It sounds like the highest honor anyone could have, since our veterans have done so much for us. 

A: Robert Wideman was a Navy bomber pilot who got shot down in the Vietnam War and became a prisoner of war for six years. I expected the story of a brave man who overcame adversity—and he did. However, Robert’s cruelest problem was not mistreatment by his captors, though that did happen. Worse was enduring years crammed in tight quarters with fellow prisoners. 

Robert and fellow POWs struggled over power and values, loneliness and privacy. Some prisoners tried to impose their ideas of military discipline on others and treated anyone who disagreed like traitors. However, instead of making him intolerant and cynical, the experience transformed Robert into a more empathetic, flexible person, who went on to an impressive career. I admire Robert, who taught me the power of resiliency and acceptance.

Q: Are you currently writing your next book now? If so, is it too soon to reveal the details or are you able to reveal any details?

A: I’m writing the sequel to Candlelight Bridge, which picks up where the first story left off—in 1934. The sequel focuses on Yan Chi’s kids from the first novel. I’ll send them to Los Angeles, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and back to the borderlands of El Paso and Juarez. The story will take readers through World War Two and beyond… 

Q: Who would you have played Candelita & Yan Chi if Hollywood were to have the rights to Candlelight Bridge? 

A: Lucky me if Hollywood ever must answer this question. Not sure I can. The actors need to be much younger than me, and I’m not as familiar with actors that young. One dilemma: Yan Chi isn’t handsome and most well-known actors are. I’d prefer them played by unknowns, so people have no preconceived notions about them.

That said, I can imagine Mexican American actor Xochitl Gomez portraying Candelaria. She played America Chavez in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, proving she can come across as both ordinary girl and hero. She also has the chops to break your heart when you see hers breaking. 

Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu is a possibility for Yan Chi, partly because he has the requisite big blocky head. Still, he might be too handsome and associated with too many good-natured roles like Asian Ken in The Barbie Movie, or Marvel hero Shang-Chi. On the other hand, he has piercing eyes that might easily switch from villain to Mr. Nice Guy, perfect for Yan Chi.

Q: What was it like having written for pieces for The Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, & Rivet? What advice would you give us for anyone wanting to submit pieces for those publications? Would you ever submit this Q&A to any of those publications?

A: I don’t usually write with specific publications in mind but write what interests me and then choose where to submit. If I do write for a specific publisher, I first read their publication to see if I can write something that’s a good fit. It’s like dating: why try to date somebody exciting, only to discover you have nothing in common? 

The types of publications I typically submit to wouldn’t accept a Q&A like this, because they focus on essays and short fiction. However, I’m open to submitting to any publication with integrity. So, you never know…      

Q: You used to be an award-winning television journalist in Alaska. What was your experience of being an award-winning television journalist like? Would you ever go back to doing television journalism? 

A: Haha, I didn’t experience myself as an “award-winning television journalist” so much as a TV journalist who worked hard and got lucky. Nine of my ten years in TV news, I worked in Alaska, the adventure of a lifetime. I followed mushers on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, learned what Alaska Natives do during two months of night in Barrow, and broke a whistleblower case in Alaska’s National Guard.

Journalism taught me the importance of sharing the personal stories of individuals to help people understand major events. But I love fiction and memoirs too much to return to the news. I love digging beyond facts into the deeper truths of what it means to be human.