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Archive for April, 2013

Robert Olen Butler

Thursday, April 11th, 2013


Robert Olen Butler red

Robert Olen Butler has come to Athens for Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival. I’ve read a couple of his books, including the spicy and engaging novel, They Whisper, so I went in to hear his lecture on writing. He’s a dynamic, sometimes arch speaker, and clearly on top of his subject. (Next up for me, from his works, will be his 2005 book on writing, From Where You Dream.)

His talk was original and fascinating—yet what grabbed me hardest was an anecdote he told about his sixth novel, The Deuce, the story of a young runaway American-Vietnamese on the hard streets of New York. Mind, he had published five novels already, most to solid acclaim. He seemed to hit it big with The Deuce when the New York Times Book Review gave him a full page review. Scott Spencer—he of the glorious Endless Love—called Butler’s voice “marvelously convincing.” He wrote that readers would have “the distinct pleasure of watching a fine novelist as he grapples with his great subject.”

Then the kicker. This book, published by an established New York house, praised by Scott Spencer and the Times, wound up selling, according to the author, a total of “one thousand and sixty-four copies.”


The moral, backed up by the second speaker of the day, the novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell, is that you better write what you want, not what you think anyone else wants. That’s advice that goes down smoothly with me. I write too slowly to do anything else. I can only write a story that fascinates me. I take some story out of the Cuban Revolution and pursue it, connect it to my mother, dig down inside it. I stay happy with it for years, and eventually it’s a book.

But 1034 copies. By a great writer, Robert Olen Butler. That was kind of crushing.



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Why Camilo Cienfuegos?

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013


Often I’m asked, Why this guy? Who was Camilo Cienfuegos?

Most people in the U.S. have never heard of him, but every Cuban knows his name. On January 1st, 1959, the day Batista fled the country, Fidel named Camilo the head of the Cuban Army. He didn’t choose his brother Raúl, he didn’t choose Che Guevara, he chose Camilo.

Camilo was a good fighter, and famous for his courage. But I think Fidel liked having him as a face of the Revolution because of his humble background. Camilo’s parents were tailors, they ran a little shop in Havana in their home, with a pair of sewing machines in the front room. While Fidel, Raúl, Che and almost all the other comandantes had come from the middle class and were university-educated, Camilo had never gone past the eighth grade. Fidel called him “el cubano de verdad,” meaning the true Cuban, a man of the people.

Camilo was also more relaxed, not as straight-laced as the more doctrinaire revolutionaries. Almost all the barbudos came down from the Sierra wearing beards and long hair, looking like beatniks or the saints of old—but Camilo’s beard was thicker and his hair longer than any of them. He was also the one who liked to dance and drink and tell jokes. He was not only devoted to the Revolution, he could dance the merengue.

From the start, Fidel made sure that everyone knew how vital Camilo was to the new government. On Fidel’s first night back in Havana, in the middle of a speech to the nation, he paused to ask, “Voy bien, Camilo?” Am I on the right track?

Vas bien, Fidel,” and the crowd roared.

Reading about Camilo, I was drawn to his easy charisma. Later I learned that before he joined up with Fidel he had traveled around the United States, working in restaurants and sewing shops. At one point he married an American citizen, and enlisted in the U.S. Army, though he never reported for duty. And one detail I could not resist: that he had once been a dishwasher at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria.

At the tine I read that, I’d been making notes for a novel about a woman based loosely on my mother. In the book she’s a young American photographer, and I knew she was going to wind up in Havana. Now I saw that she and Camilo could meet in New York City, that ten weeks later she would be pregnant by him, and that Immigration would sweep in and deport him.

Only three years later, at the age of 27, Camilo is one of the new leaders of Cuba. It doesn’t hurt for my story that he likes to drink and dance, or that he loves women, and that too many women love him. For fiction you load the dice, and in the case of Camilo Cienfuegos the dice were already loaded. Ten months after Fidel rose to power, Camilo disappeared on an official in-country flight, and was never seen again. For a novelist, that was perfect.

Also, I think I looked like him at that age.

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