Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
I would first like to thank the author, John Thorndike for the opportunity to review his book A Hundred Fires in Cuba!
John takes us to Cuba in the 1950’s into the mind of Claire, a photojournalist who finds herself in a love triangle between a Cuban business man and the father of her child, Camilo Cienfuegos, who also happens to be one of Castro’s head commanders. Claire met Camilo while he was in New York working as a cook and fell instantly in love. Not long after, Camilo is deported back to Cuba and Claire never hears from him again. Her fear is that he has died in Fidel’s invasion of the island. Claire also discovers she is pregnant with the child of a man she thinks she will never see again.
Claire marries a wealthy Cuban businessman and moves to Havana with her two-year-old daughter, only to discover that her first love is not only still alive, he’s now head of the Cuban Army. She cannot believe it. Soon Claire finds herself right in the middle of the chaos and danger, in hopes of finding him. As the story unfolds, you will find that love never dies, even in the darkest of times. It was interesting to read about a side of history that I may not typically be familiar with, and John Thorndike’s account of Clare and Camilo is all too real and heartbreaking at times.
This story has just enough depth to it, that I almost had to read it in one sitting but unfortunately sleep got the best of me. It has a pinch of romance but not like what you find in other stories. It’s a well rounded, interesting and enjoyable read.
Tell us a little about yourself?
John: My first real job, after the Peace Corps, was farming. I started out raising chickens on a backcountry farm in Chile, then moved to Athens, Ohio and grew vegetables, which I sold at the local supermarket and farmers’ market. My house still sits beside a field that once held 2500 tomato plants, along with peppers, squash and a dozen other crops. I loved farming, but the profit was slim. Today, the organic vegetables I grew would bring a better price, but in the late seventies I actually took down my Organic Produce sign, because it made people suspicious. Full of bugs, some of them thought. Eventually I left farming behind and started building houses. I still own several of these, and rent them out.
When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?
John: I always wrote. I started in high school and wrote in college. (A few years ago I stumbled across a couple of my early short stories: rather embarrassing.) I wrote during the winters when I had a break from my crops, and found more free time as my son grew up: I was a single father from the time he was three. When he turned thirteen we moved to Colorado, and I stayed out West for a dozen years, first in Boulder, then in Santa Fe, NM. In those years I wrote full-time.
Tell us a little bit about your first book or the first book in the series.
John: My first novel, Anna Delaney’s Child, is a book about loss. My mother died early, at 57, and year after year I missed her. Then, a woman I was in love with left me, and those two miseries drove me to start a book about the worst loss I could imagine, the death of one’s child. It’s something that all parents fear, I’m sure. I made the boy in the novel nine, the same age my son was when I started making notes for the book. After a while, of course, the story went off on its own path, quite independent of my mother, my lover or my son. This is what books do, and one reason we write them.
How did you choose the genre you write in?
John: I don’t think I have a genre. I’ve published two memoirs and three novels, and the most recent of these, A Hundred Fires in Cuba, is historical fiction. “Literary fiction” might be my category—but are books in any genre non-literary? That sounds insulting, and I resist such labels. Like most authors, I write the story I want to tell, as well as I can. It’s true that I don’t toss off a book. Each one takes years, mainly because I keep rewriting until I can read every paragraph, every sentence without a hitch. Perhaps that’s my genre: Books Endlessly Revised.
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write?
John: For my current book, the opening. But as often happens, that kept changing. The beginning was first set in the kitchen of the Waldorf Astoria, where Clare and Camilo meet. Though my first impulse with a manuscript is to follow a strict chronology, I don’t stay with that long. I want to come in at a moment when the tension rises, and I was drawn to the day that Clare—now married to someone else, because she believes that Camilo has died—sits alone in her husband’s car outside Havana, listening to a broadcast from Fidel Castro’s rebel station. That’s when she learns that Camilo, her first love and the father of her child, is not only still alive, he’s one of Fidel’s top comandantes. From that moment, her life must change.
Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
John: The division between these two seems thin to me. After all, isn’t our imagination founded on what we’ve experienced? Novels are a stew of things we’ve known and things we’ve made up. Memoirs are the same, because our memory is never exact. When I quote a conversation from thirty years ago I do my best, but I doubt that I’m recalling the words precisely. There are memoirs—I’m thinking of Mary Karr—seen from the eyes of a five-year-old, and surely that leads to a mix of fact and fiction. We try to evoke the essence of a scene, of a character, but the line between real life and imagination seems increasingly blurred to me.
Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?
John: Justine, by Lawrence Durrell. My mother gave me a Faber & Faber paperback of the book—the first volume of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet—when I was nineteen, complete with her penciled notes in the margin. It was a way of confiding in me, of letting me see something of her passionate nature—which in her life with my father was pretty much kept under a cloak. The heart of Justine is an affair, set in Egypt in the nineteen thirties and forties. I read the book, and the others in the quartet, eight or nine times. I read it again last year. I think my mother wanted to show me that there’s a world beneath the daily one we live in, a world of emotion and obsession, of strange dreamers, misfits and powerful women, of people for whom sex and love are more vital than anything else.
Do you ever experience writers block?
John: Not for long. On the other hand, I have to overcome a kind of block every time I sit down to write. How hard it can be to get started in the morning—or afternoon, or at night, whenever I begin. It helps if I write every day. If I take Sunday off, it’s harder on Monday. If I take a month or two off, it can take me days to get the flywheel turning again. Then I’m fine. Almost always, I begin by reading what I wrote the day before, or the week before. Or I turn back to the beginning. I’ll go over the start of a book fifty times before I’m done. If I’m stumped, if I don’t know what comes next, I go back to the first paragraph, and slowly the flywheel starts to move. Those first few revolutions are the most difficult, but then I start to cruise. Soon the words are pouring out as I shotgun whole paragraphs, coming up with material I’ll be correcting later, over and over. I no longer fight any of this, it’s just my way.
Is there an author that you would really like to meet?
John: Yes, but he died three years ago. James Salter’s Light Years is the book of books for me. I’ve kept a copy between my mattress and headboard for twenty years. That’s another way I get the flywheel turning: I pick up Salter’s book, sometimes at random, and read a page or a chapter. As Richard Ford says, “Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master.” Light Years is written with a nostalgia that steadily grips me. “Her life was like a single, well-spent hour…. The days were cut from a quarry that would never be emptied.” Of course they will be emptied, and people will die—but not as long as I reread the book. I did try to meet Salter. My editor wrote his wife, and a friend of my father’s was close to him, but no go. He lived part of the year on Long Island, and died in Sag Harbor at 90, in the gym, working out. My mother owned a house in Sag Harbor—bought in 1961 for $8,000!—and it’s there my next book will be set. Meanwhile, I read Light Years the way I eat and drink and breathe: endlessly.
Will you have a new book coming out soon? If so, can you tell us about it?
John: The new one, A Hundred Fires in Cuba, is out now. Here’s the description from the back cover: “In the spring of 1956, a young American photographer falls in love with a Cuban line cook at New York’s Waldorf Astoria. They have a ten-week affair which ends when Immigration arrests and deports him, and by then Clare Miller is pregnant. Few Americans know the name Camilo Cienfuegos. All Cubans do. In real life he was the most charismatic of Fidel Castro’s commanders—until his small plane vanished only months after Fidel came to power. In A Hundred Fires in Cuba, Clare must choose between the stable Cuban businessman she has married and her first love, Camilo. Though a true revolutionary, Camilo likes to dance and drink. He likes women, and too many women like him. His courage is legendary, but when he comes to visit Clare he’s afraid of his own daughter and her moods. Clare worries that he’ll never make a good parent, but she cannot resist him.”
If you could go back and do it all over again, is there any aspect of your first novel or getting it published that you would change?
John: Hey, I got it published! People liked it, I started going to writers’ colonies, gave up most of my magazine articles, buckled down to the next one. No, that all worked out fine.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
John: Only, I’m afraid, the same clichés you’ve read many times. But here’s the one I try to follow myself: Write the book you want to, the one that’s closest to your heart. Follow your true focus. Shakespeare’s Polonius gave us the greatest clichéd advice of all, because it’s the most vital: to thine own self be true.
Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
John: Aren’t books great? Don’t we love to read? We have ebooks now, and audibles, but they’re still books. My father read endlessly, my mother as well, my brother, my son—and now my grandchildren, who both love to climb into a book. Sure, they play some video games, but they’re fully engaged with books. Everyone in my family has always had it: a simple taste for reading.