“The island is still a huge part of who I am, and I return to it often, especially in my writing,” says author, artist, and gallery owner Elena Sandovici. For her latest novel, she was inspired not only by Galveston but also by a particular era and location—1890s Postoffice Street, particularly the blocks between 25th and 29th Streets, home of a red-light district called The Line.
When a favorite reader asked if she would consider writing a novel about a prostitute in Galveston, prompted by brief mentions of the topic in her penultimate work and first historical fiction novel Storms of Malhalo (2020), Elena says she realized it was something she had always wanted to do.
“I was always fascinated with the talent for seduction and the charisma that successful sex workers possess,” she explains. “On the other hand, as a person with strong reclusive tendencies (people: ew!) I found the idea of such work rather off-putting. Which makes it perfect to explore in fiction.”
Elena also realized that she had been hesitant to write such a novel because of the general narrative of prostitutes as victims of circumstance. “That was not compelling,” she says. Fortunately, she discovered another approach after reading Galveston’s Red Light District: A History of The Line by Kimber Fountain.
“Kimber’s book was immensely helpful, not only in informing me of the life of prostitutes on the island, but most importantly through its innovative claim that prostitutes were not driven into their line of work by dire circumstances but rather by a desire for freedom in a world that offered very limited prospects to women,” Elena says. “This helped me shape the character of Aimée, a woman who definitely wants to hold the reins of her own life.”
Set in 1898, The Glory Days of Aimée Bonnard is Elena’s seventh book, all self-published. “The themes are similar to those in my other books,” she says. “I write fiction with a strong feminist twist, so my novels always explore the ideas of independence and self-actualization.”
Elena explains that Glory Days speaks to the concept of economic freedom that Aimée is pursuing with her chosen profession, as well as freedom from “our own fears, our own ghosts, and most importantly, freedom to…shed the layers of pretense that keep us from being our most authentic selves.”
This journey is one that Elena has taken many times herself—both in her life and with her art. Educated as a social scientist, Elena earned a Ph.D. in Political Science from SUNY Binghamton in 2005 and taught at Lamar University for 14 years.
“I had tenure, a decent list of publications, research collaborations that allowed for international travel, and a beautiful 1950s house with a fledgling antiques collection,” she recalls. “Nestled in a very secure and at times exciting existence, I was miserable and couldn’t shake the feeling that life was passing me by.”
That is when she discovered painting. She started in her garage and admits that at first it was “just furious splattering of acrylic—my own unexplainable frustration thrown onto canvas.”
Around the same time, she decided to take advantage of her flexible academic schedule, and rented a house in Galveston where she would spend long weekends. “I ended up making friends with artists, musicians, farmers, yogis, market goers, and an eclectic assortment of other dreamers,” she says.
“Mostly, I fell in love with the Island, its serenity, its fascinating history, its ghosts. With the support of my new friends, my art grew to be much more than a hobby.”
Elena began showing and selling watercolors at Tangerine Boutique on Postoffice Street, released her first novel Dogs with Bagels in 2013, and launched a daily blog to showcase her paintings. HaveWatercolorsWillTravel.com is still active eight years later.
In 2018, Elena graduated from John Ross Palmer’s Escapist Mentorship Program which allowed her to find more opportunities as an artist and writer. That December, Elena quit her academic job and moved to Houston to start her own art gallery where she exhibits still today. And of course, she continues to make frequent trips to Galveston, often using the island city as a basis and inspiration for her written works.
“The fun of writing is that characters can take risks that I wouldn’t, overcome phobias I might not, live in ways I might shy away from,” Elena says, maintaining that Glory Days practically “wrote itself.”
She had already gathered much of the historical information she needed from her research for Storms of Malhado, which included reading historical non-fiction books, consulting the City Directories housed in the Texas & History Center at Rosenberg Library, and also indulging in some fiction works of the same time period. “My favorite is The Promise by Ann Weisgarber,” she says.
Elena was also fortunate to have a local history expert critique her two historical works in their early stages. “Margaret Doran has worked with the Galveston Historical Foundation for over 20 years. She generously read [a total of three] drafts and pointed out historical blunders,” she says. “If there are any still left in the book, I take full responsibility for them.”
As for her writing process, Glory Days is written in first person from Aimée’s point of view which allowed Elena to immerse herself into the character and then write stream-of-consciousness. While keeping in mind some vague plans of where the story would go, she allowed her imagination to surprise her.
“Aimée had a will of her own,” she says. “When I initially imagined her character, I had a specific intention for her, a love story I had envisioned. But as I kept writing, things moved in a different direction. Aimée surprised me, and I think she surprised herself.”
Elena also found herself nearly consumed with the story, claiming that she has never written a novel so fast nor been so consistent in her daily writing practice. “The whole book was so fun to write,” she attests.
“I find the whole story magical and organic, but I am particularly in love with the ending. I don’t want to give spoilers, but it’s pretty sweet, just the type of escapism I needed during these troubled times.”
Other Books by Elena Sandovici
Dogs with Bagels (2013). The story of a family of Romanian immigrants in New York City for whom the American Dream doesn’t work out as planned.
Stray Dogs and Lonely Beaches (2015). A novel about a young woman who tries to outrun her problems by whisking herself off to a luxury resort in Mexico, only to find that her demons follow along.
Lost Path to Solitude (2016). The follow-up to Dogs with Bagels her readers asked for. A decade later, the same characters face similar problems. Are we all doomed to repeat our mistakes?
The Adventures of Miss Vulpe (2017) A sexy, sassy, and rather inappropriate novel, part coming-of-age story, part mystery. Although the protagonist is a teenager, this is definitely a book for adults.
Lone Wolf (2019). A road-trip story about a writer seeking to overcome writer’s block.
Storms of Malhado (2020). A historical novel set on Galveston Island. Through three different historical eras, three women with strikingly similar destinies face deadly storms in the same Broadway mansion. The house in the story is inspired by the League House.
Elena’s books are available online at www.HaveWatercolorsWillTravel.com and Amazon, or in person at Tippy Toes in Galveston (212 23rd Street in the Trueheart-Adriance building) and Sandovici Gallery (appointment only). Available in paperback ($20) and ebook ($4.99). For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact Elena at ElenaSandovici@gmail.com or Instagram @mariasando.