John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Archive for March, 2013

Why Cuba?

Monday, March 11th, 2013

So what’s the book about?

That’s the normal, almost inevitable question. I usually say something like, “It’s about an American photographer in Cuba in 1959 who finds out that the father of her child is not only still alive, he’s one of the leaders of Castro’s rebel army.”

Occasionally someone wants to know, Why are you writing about that? Why Cuba?

My interest goes back for decades, it’s been with me for so long I’m not even sure when it started. It might have been a couple of lively Cubans I met when I was in the Peace Corps in the late sixties. Later I read Ernesto Cardenal’s En Cuba . My Spanish was good by then, but it was an adventure all the same. Cardenal is a poet and priest from Nicaragua, and his portrait of the country was both realistic and mystical. In those days, the pure fact that Castro was paying attention to Cuba’s poor still seemed a miracle, at a time when most of Latin America was ruled by wealthy and despotic leaders.

At the same time, as I read more about Castro I could see how in love he was with his own legend. I read about Moncada, about his imprisonment, about his proselytizing and fund-raising trips to the U.S. But leave all that aside, I suggest. To see the definitive Castro, go to the core, to the act that needs no embellishment, his invasion of Cuba.

In December of 1956, in the small Mexican port of Tuxpán, 82 men boarded a cabin cruiser, the Granma, a boat that I originally read was 39 feet long. That couldn’t be right, I thought—and later I read that it was 80 feet long, or 58 feet long. Its length, in fact, is 68 feet. I’ve paced it off myself in Havana, where the Granma sits on chocks behind glass panels near the Museum of the Revolution. It’s a squat solid boat made to sleep twelve, and onto it Fidel loaded 82 men, all their guns, ammunition, food and water, plus dozens of jerry cans full of diesel fuel, because the boat’s tanks weren’t large enough to get them across the Caribbean. Once on board, the men were packed so close that few of them could lie down, and most slept sitting up.

The Granma never reached Cuba’s south shore, but rode up on a sandbar a mile from the beach. Fidel unloaded his heavier armament—bazookas and machine guns—into a dinghy, which promptly sank. The men, some holding on to their their rifles, waded chest-deep through a mangrove swamp toward the shore. It wasn’t a landing, Che said later, it was a shipwreck.

Everyone on the boat made it to solid ground, but three days later they were ambushed in a canefield by Batista’s army. Most of them were killed, a few surrendered and were executed, and only fifteen escaped into the Sierra. Fidel likes to say it was twelve—which has a ring to it, like the number of disciples—but by most accounts, fifteen. Among the survivors were Fidel, Raúl, Che and Camilo Cienfuegos. Only two years later their movement had grown so strong that they brought down Batista and his army of thirty thousand.

That original invasion, and the ultimate success of the Revolution, seems to me the most romantic story of our hemisphere—romantic, as my dictionary puts it, in the sense of “the mysterious appeal of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.” Once I read about it, there was no going back. My book, which had begun as a love affair between a woman somewhat like my mother and a Puerto Rican, or possibly a Cuban immigrant to the U.S., now took a flip and landed in Havana.

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Call It Done

Monday, March 4th, 2013

New Yorker cover Jan 14 2013

I liked John McPhee’s last paragraph in a recent piece he wrote for The New Yorker (Jan. 14, 2013) about the structure of his articles and books:

“People often ask how I know when I’m done—not just when I’ve come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions of one word for another, how do I know there is no more to do? When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

Yesterday I finished the novel I’ve been writing for years. I’ve done all I can do, so call it done. Well, that’s what I thought last night—but today I hear a small voice, soft as a mourning dove in March, which tells me I could go over the manuscript one more time. Of course, that’s what I said last time, and the time before that.

When I write a book, I start out with notes. It was fifteen years ago that I made my first notes for this novel (Hundred Fires, named for one of its protagonists, the Cuban revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos). With extensive notes, and with some basic and later-to-be-corrected notions about the structure of the book, I start writing. The first draft of any scene goes down fast, shotgun style, what fun. Then begin the many revisions. I’ll go over the same passage ten times, twenty times, until I get it right—which is always a moving target.

I’m never quite as sure about finishing as McPhee. I think I could always go over a book and find some small improvements to be made. For the larger changes I rely on an editor; I become so fixed on the structure I have, I’m resistant to upsetting the entire cart. But down inside the sentences, in the endlessly-debatable phrases, something will pop up that is not quite deft, not quite perfect.

Of course it’s often like Flaubert and his commas: he might spend a morning putting one in, and in the afternoon he took it out.

But after fifteen years with this book, I call it done. Next up, the really hard writing: a query letter, a synopsis, some flap copy and an author interview. Every day a thrill.

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