My Latest Novel: A Hundred Fires in Cuba
Updated: Jul 29
Written As A Way to Save My Mother
My mother was the more passionate parent. It was she who had affairs, she who left my father, she who fell apart. Of her final disastrous affair she once told me, "I had four years of absolute love, and it was worth any price."
I was thirty when she died, and it wasn’t long before I started planning a novel that would tell her story. She died, essentially, of grief, and I wanted to save her. My first notes for Hundred Fires go back more than a quarter of a century, and when I look them over now I see that I was looking around for some man with whom she might have a future. The notes are filled with unlikely candidates, and it was years before I settled on Camilo Cienfuegos.
Here's how I found him. In the late 1950s, most of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution passed over me unnoticed. I was a student in a New England boarding school and oblivious to most world events. After college I thought briefly of joining the Venceremos Brigades, groups of young idealists who went to live in Cuba and cut sugar cane for Fidel—who himself was cutting cane, I’d read, for an afternoon each week. Instead, I joined the Peace Corps, and it was more than a decade later, after living in Central and South America for several years, that I first read an account of how Fidel invaded his homeland.
It was the most daring, the most improbable, the most romantic of invasions. Fidel had gone into exile in Mexico, where he established camps and trained over a hundred guerilla fighters. Finally, on a November morning in 1956, in the small coastal town of Tuxpán, Fidel and 81 men boarded a squat cabin cruiser called the Granma. This yacht, only 63 feet long, was loaded with guns, ammunition, food and dozens of jerry cans of diesel fuel for the long haul to Cuba. At least by legend, Camilo Cienfuegos was the last man Fidel allowed on board. Though the boat was already overloaded, Camilo was a good shot, and he was slight of build. "Take me because I'm skinny and I'll fit," he’s reputed to have said, and Fidel, leaving fifty others on the dock, let him go up the gangplank.
Seven days later, the landing on Cuba's southeast coast did not go well. Though everyone made it ashore, within days almost all had been killed in an ambush by Batista's army. Among some fifteen survivors were Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, Huber Matos and Camilo Cienfuegos—all of whom became early comandantes of the Revolution.
What drew me to Camilo was how much fun he was. Almost alone among the revolutionaries, he liked to drink and dance---but he was also famous for his courage. El Señor de la Vanguardia, they called him, always at the head of his column. He was handsome, and women loved him. Though twice wounded in the Sierra, he was famous for his jokes and good spirits.
At some point I read that before the invasion, Camilo had come to the United States looking for jobs, and that for a time he worked as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant. I thought, My mother could have met him there. I was sure she would have found him irresistible, and soon enough, I gave him to her.
The first scene I wrote for Hundred Fires was Clare and Camilo's meeting in the Waldorf-Astoria kitchen, where I promoted him to assistant line cook. This scene, like most in the book, is made up: this is a novel, not a biography of either my mother or Camilo. Yet throughout the book I stay close to the facts of his life. If in the novel he flies to England to talk to Selwyn Lloyd about buying some jet fighters, or if Raúl pulls a gun on him in the midst of an argument, or if Fidel asks him in the middle of a speech, "¿Voy bien, Camilo?"—all that happened in real life.
Few Americans today know Camilo's name. All Cubans do. They know that only ten months after the Revolution took power, he disappeared on an official flight from Camagüey to Havana. He and his pilot took off at 6:01 in the evening in a small two-engined Cessna, and were never seen again. Upon reading this I thought: That's perfect for a novel.
At first I imagined the book to be about my actual mother and a fictionalized, real-life Cuban revolutionary. But as often happens with a novel, the characters took on lives of their own, and Clare Miller emerged as quite a different woman from my mother. Clare was her own person. I could guide but not resist her.
This has led me to plan another novel, one that will cleave more tightly to my mother's actual story. But what fun I had with this book. In the midst of writing it I went to Cuba, to see if the images I’d conjured up fit the actual island. By then many decades had passed since Fidel's victory and the delirium of early 1959, when the novel opens---but Cuba, of course, is still deeply imprinted with the changes brought by the Revolution. Because the novel ends in 1961, it gives only a glimpse of the early successes, and even less of the vast unhappiness of the Castro brothers' rule. Still, to this day I keep track of Clare and Camilo, as I imagine them. I know their children and grandchildren, their work and their interests. Recently I've been thinking they might want to go back to Cuba. Now in their eighties, they might want to revisit the world of their youthful romance, in those wildly hopeful months at the start of the Revolution.