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An Interview with Bárbara Mujica, Author of Miss del Río


Bárbara Mujica is a novelist, essayist, short story writer and critic. Her latest novel, Miss del Río, is based on the life of Mexican movie star Dolores del Río, who was both a Hollywood sensation and a key figure in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. Miss del Río was named one of the best books of 2022 by Library Journal and one of the five best recent historical novels by The Washington Post. It won second place in the ScreenCraft Cinematic Novel competition out of thousands of submissions. It was a Target Book Club Book of the Month, and the audio version was an Apple Audio “Must Listen.”

Mujica’s breakthrough novel was Frida, based on the tumultuous relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Frida became an international bestseller, was published in eighteen languages, and was a Book of the Month Club alternate. Sister Teresa, based on the life of the Spanish saint Teresa de Avila, was adapted for the stage by the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. A Spanish version, Hermana Teresa, was published in 2017. I Am Venus revolves around the identity of mysterious model for The Rokeby Venus, the only extant female nude by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. I Am Venus was a Maryland Writers’ Association Fiction Competition winner. A Spanish version, Yo soy Venus, was published in 2023.

Mujica’s short story collections are Imagining Iraq, an Amazon bestseller in the military fiction category, Far from My Mother’s Home, and Sanchez across the Street. Collateral Damage: Women Write about War is a compendium of writings by women from around the world on the trauma of war.

Mujica has won numerous prizes for her writing, including the E. L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition, the Pangolin Prize, and the Pioneer Prize from Dialogue on Diversity. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee.

Bárbara Mujica is a professor emerita at Georgetown University who specializes in early modern Spain. She is author of numerous books and hundreds of articles on Spanish theater, mysticism, the counterreformation, and women’s writing. In 2022, her book Women Religious and Epistolary Exchange in the Carmelite Reform won the GEMELA Prize for best book of the year on early modern Hispanic women.

You can buy Miss del Río here.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I grew up in Los Angeles and have been fascinated by Mexican cinema from the time I was a girl. When I was young, I would often take the bus downtown with my friends to the Mexican movie theaters. By then, Dolores del Río, the subject of my bionovel Miss del Río, was no longer a star, but she was a legend. Everyone knew about her. My interest in Dolores del Río really blossomed decades later, when I wrote the novel Frida. Dolores (known as Lola to her friends) was part of the entourage of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and she came up repeatedly in my research. However, she was very different from Frida. While Frida was brash and deliberately offensive, Lola was decorous. She was glamorous and elegant. She was a fashion icon as well as an actress. She was even voted “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” by a committee of “experts.” Del Río had a stellar career in Hollywood, then returned to Mexico to become a key figure in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Besides being Hollywood’s first truly international Latina movie star, she started the first daycare system in Mexico for working mothers (cooks, carpenters, janitors, seamstresses, etc.) in the film industry. Despite her successes, Dolores del Río’s personal life was marked by disappointments: a devastating miscarriage, two failed marriages, a debilitating affair with Orson Welles. Dolores del Río was a complex and admirable woman. I thought she deserved a novel of her own.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I am a professor emerita at Georgetown University. My field of specialization is sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish literature and culture. My secondary field is Latin America, and I have taught many courses on Frida Kahlo and the Art of the Mexican Revolution.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I had chosen a different title, but the publisher (Graydon House / HarperCollins) wanted a title with Dolores del Río’s name in it. It isn’t unusual for publishers to change a book’s title, so I wasn’t upset.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

Seeing your book’s cover for the first time is always exciting. I remember when I saw the cover of Frida rolling off my printer. My heart skipped a beat. I had envisioned a photo for the cover of Miss del Río—Dolores del Río was so gorgeous—but the publisher’s policy is not to use photos for fiction. I was happy with the image they came up for it.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

Ramona, Bird of Paradise, Charmaine (What Price Glory?)—all themes from Dolores del Río’s early films.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I would like readers to realize that in addition to being a self-absorbed movie star—and the film industry is one that fosters self-absorption and public image—Dolores del Río really wanted to do something useful for her people. In Hollywood, she made films that were frivolous—pure entertainment. In Mexico, she was able to make films that dealt with issues of social justice (class hierarchy, poverty, exploitation of women, intolerance) and then, finally, at the end of her life, she started a daycare system. Although she had no children of her own, she cared about children and about working mothers. Dolores del Río was more than just a pretty face.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

I love doing public readings / presentations. I love interacting with the public, discussing themes, engaging in conversation.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I am beginning a new novel, but because I am superstitious, I won’t share the topic.

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