Andromeda Romano-Lax, author of The Spanish Bow (September 17-October 1)
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I just loved The Spanish Bow. Can you tell me what was your inspiration when you started writing this?
Imagine a time when suddenly, the country feels imperiled, the political atmosphere is charged, and every person finds himself (or herself) searching for what he or she should do -- MUST do -- in order to have an impact. Regardless of which presidential candidate you may support, isn't that how a lot of us feel right now? I know that I am finding myself desperate to read the headlines, have heated conversations with friends, get involved, volunteer.
That's how many of us felt 7 years ago as well, in the days after 9/11. I was a nonfiction travel writer/freelance journalist back in those days, working on several lackluster projects. Then 9/11 struck, and I desperately wanted to be engaged in a hopeful project, writing something that would matter. Specifically, I wanted to find a heroic story to tell.
I am passionately in love with the cello, so the story that first came to mind was that of Pablo Casals, probably the world's most famous cellist, who became even better known for his stance against Spanish fascism.
His story took me to Puerto Rico and later to Spain and France, to research the lives of musicians and artists who found their artistic dreams complicated by the tumultous politics of the Spanish Civil War and two World Wars. Very quickly, I discovered I didn't want to tell just Casals's story -- I wanted to tell a larger, more universal and complex story with room for history, politics, friendship, love, family, and anything else my imagination cooked up. I decided the book should be fiction and I became, to my complete surprise, a novelist.
But to return to my first point: the germ itself was a sudden desire to become involved and participate in the world, at a moment of crisis. And my characters become people who struggle to lead satisfying personal lives while the larger world is in turmoil. I wrote the novel hoping it would shed light not only on Spain from 1898-1940, but that it would mirror our modern times. Spain is losing its empire as my novel opens; characters are being forced into action; family members are finding themselves on opposite sides of political and religious issues. And at the same time, as the book opens, people are craving what people always crave: love, beauty, and peace.
Thanks for welcoming me to Librarything! I'm looking forward to answering questions about THE SPANISH BOW, a novel about classical musicians. I had such pleasure researching the book, including trips to Puerto Rico, where I studied cello (in order to better portray my main character, who is a Spanish cellist), and to Spain and France, where I researched settings for the novel (from Barcelona to the Alhambra) and even tracked down the village train station where Hitler met Franco. (It was their only meeting, after which Hitler allegedly quipped, "I'd rather have several teeth pulled than meet that man again.")
My research involved listening to gorgeous classical music, touring opera houses, interviewing musicians, eating tapas and drinking Catalonian liqueurs -- and many other arduous tasks.
I'm happy to discuss any of that, or to share more about some of the real-world figures who make cameo appearances in THE SPANISH BOW, including Picasso, Franco, and others.
I'm just as happy to discuss books in general. (Isn't that what we're here for?) My favorite authors include Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, and E.M. Forster; I also enjoy Paul Theroux, Graham Greene and Zadie Smith. Lately, I've been tickled by the writings of Meg Wolitzer and Lionel Shriver.
Some topics, big and small, that interest me: people's reactions to "sympathetic" versus "unsympathetic" narrators. Blending fiction and nonfiction. Should authors write extensive author's notes to explain their tricks, or stay mum and expect critics and readers to work it out? What are some of your favorite novels that explore political themes? What is your favorite book about music or a work of art?
I'll count myself lucky if I leave Librarything not only having met a few of you online, but also having an even bigger list of TBR books on my nightstand.
I haven't read your book, but it's on my wishlist now... it looks like something I would enjoy, and I'd love to go back to Spain one day, so the setting is a definite draw for me. I'm glad Tim mentioned the chats in his blog post, because I'd forgotten about them.
It sounds like you enjoyed the switch from nonfiction to fiction. Do you think you'll write another novel? Did you go about your research differently than you would have for nonfiction? (geez, that sounds like an essay question from my college days... sorry. I'm not going to delete it though. At least it isn't multiple choice.)
Hey, great to have some company here and willing to answer any questions, multiple choice or essay form.
I loved switching to fiction; it was like I'd been seeing in black and white for years and suddenly the color got turned on. I did the research the same way. I wanted the setting and political details to be absolutely accurate in order to make other parts of the imagined story more believable. My journalistic background and general nonfiction inclinations proved useful. The hardest thing was allowing myself to move away from the facts. What I still love best (both as a writer and reader) are stories that seem to evolve from some factual basis, and then head off into a more free direction. In real life, there isn't always a pattern or meaning to things. In fiction, we can impose just enough pattern to find meaning between the realistic details.
Among some books I've enjoyed recently are Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA (in which he imagines an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes President) and Michael Chabon's YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION in which Alaska becomes a homeland for Jewish refugees. The premises for both books, while wild, are rooted in fact. But I enjoy how Roth and Chabon weren't hampered by fact.
To answer another one of your questions: yes, I plan to continue writing novels.
Here's my question of the week for any readers out there: Should a novelist be explicitly political in her work (and/or in her life), and if so, in what way?
This question was explored in my novel, THE SPANISH BOW, through the lives of musicians and artists who have to choose whether or not to make political stances. What about writers?
I've just started to read your book (100 pages) and am enjoying it. I will be on the look out for your next work.
That was the easy part - Now to the question.
In my humble opinion an artist needs two basic things. Passion for their chosen medium and skill in their craft. Both must be present or the art will be flat or just OK Just look at all the paintings, books etc. that fill peoples home and book shelves mine included. I call these near art.
One more thing is needed to raise near art to true art. That's a defining moment or an epiphany. Picasso's murals at the 1937 French exposition or Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984
and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls all are all directly come from their experience and of the Spanish Civil War. They all had the skill and passion to create these works of art.
Thanks so much for bringing up Orwell. His Homage to Catalonia is one of the best books I've ever read about Spain -- which is funny considering he is British. I think he had just the right remove and sense of humor to be able to reflect upon and portray absurd truths (for example, how so many left-wing splinter groups in Barcelona were fighting each other instead of managing to unite successfully against the fascists). His 1984 and Animal Farm are excellent examples of a writer raising some wonderful political questions --I always prefer questions to answers -- without stooping to oversimplication or propaganda.
Since so many of us are assigned Orwell's books in high school, it's hard to imagine what it would have been like to read them when they were first published, at a time when people were sorting out their post-World War II/early Cold War ideas. They were daring books, presenting no easy answers. I'd love to learn more about his life and I'm looking forward to reading a new book on my TBR shelf that may provide some insights: The Same Man: George Orwell and Eveyln Waugh in Love and War by David Lebedoff.
On re-reading my answer I guess I didn't answer the question. So I'll try again.
A good novel tells a good entertaining story. A great novel tells a story that transends boundries of both time and cultures. The classic novel tells stories of people in such a way to reveal a truth about ourselves or our society, or forces us as the reader to question or ask the question "What would have I done if this was me?"
Classic literature at its best does all the things.
These questions can only be asked in the content of existing problems, which arise out of some sort of turmoil. Because the fate of humans is to live together on this planet makes most of the problems arise out of political turmoil.
So the novelist needs to be passonate about their story. And yes if they have the passion, skill they should be political. People may not agree with them, but if the story is done with skill it may force people to ask "What would I have done?"
If you enjoyed Orwells "Homage***' , you may enjoy his Down and Out in Paris and London
Nicely said, especially about the novel transcending boundaries of time and culture. My favorite historical novels are mirrors for our own times. It can be easier to see patterns in history, ask hard questions about ourselves, and be more empathetic about others' predicaments when we have just a little distance. For example we can read a novel about the Holocaust or the Stalinist era and wonder how we would have behaved in another character's shoes more easily than we can reflect on our own modern behavior within a too-current, confusing context. To use a sillier example, there's a good reason the movie and TV show MASH was, on the surface, about the Korean war even while it was made during the Vietnam era. When something is too current, we get distracted arguing the controversial surface facts and can't attend to the deeper issues and absurdities.
As for passion, yes, I want to find passion in all the books I read.
As for people "agreeing" with the author -- I'm not so sure about that. I'll often let my characters say things that I myself don't believe at all, so there isn't a singular voice in the story with whom the reader is expected to agree! (And I hope readers can relate even to characters with whom they don't agree.) I don't think any really good novel yields a single interpretation about much of anything. That, to me, would be a difference between literature (written to inspire questions) and propaganda (written to deliver a single, clear message or answer).
Thank you for your time and comments. I've another 100 pages of your book read so far and I am enjoying it thoughly (even if the seduction by the Counts daughter was a little obvious).
I'll admit I was drawn to your book because of the time frame of the Spanish civil War. Upon opening the book and reading your Opening line - " I was almost born Happy"- I was hooked , brought to mind Dickens David Cooperfield - "I am born" - and Melvilles Mobey Dick -"Call me Ishmael"-. I'm a sucker for short, simple and understated opening line that speaks volumes.
I agree that time and setting and distance can give us an unexpected view to our own time.
I've started to read "The Rougon-Macquart Novels" of Emile Zola, and in Le Curee (2nd of 20 novels) the discription of gaining wealth for wealths sake and the spending for just to show how much you can out spend your rivals has some very disturbing parallels to todays headlines.
Again, thank you for your time. Good luck on your next book. Looking forward to it.
Thanks for hosting me. My turn is up but I invite readers to visit my website www.romanolax.com where there are classical music clips related to my novel, as well as an interactive map of Europe showing where THE SPANISH BOW is set. I also run a blog about Alaska authors and books at http://49writers.blogspot.com. Happy reading!
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