Cristina Garcia's most recent novel is King of Cuba, which features a fictionalized Fidel Castro. Her many other books include Dreaming in Cuban, The Aguero Sisters, and The Lady Matador's Hotel. She lives in Greenbrae, California.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for King of Cuba?
A: I think it was that I had been spending a lot of time in Miami with my parents’ set. They’re not quite as old as Goyo [one of the main characters in King of Cuba, an anti-Castro exile]; they’re in their late 70s. They’re waiting for the son-of-a-bitch to die; that’s what was keeping them alive, that and triple espressos.
It was originally about an octogenarian exile guy, and then I realized that Castro is the elephant in the room. It just sort of required that balance. There were the two official histories, only about a very small segment of the population, and I started going back and forth between the two of them. I needed more air, and the rabble of other voices kicked in after a trip to Cuba.
Q: Did you include the other voices that are part of the book to broaden it out, then?
A: To rupture the official history that these two men represent. These were voices of real Cubans living out their daily lives. Many of the voices were women’s voices—they have a way of skewering and sabotaging the official voices.
Q: Were these the words of real people you met there, or were they fictional characters based on people you met?
A: Most of them were made up, but they were inspired by the three weeks I spent in Cuba in 2011. There were exploding coffee makers, and that’s what everyone was bitching about.
There was only one true story, “Galapagos,” the woman who built a treehouse structure between two mansions—that was true. That was pretty much what she told me—she takes the turtle for walks in the park to sun itself.
Q: What was it like to write from the perspective of the fictionalized Castro character?
A: It was much more engaging than I would have imagined. I approached it a little nervously. Before I wrote it, I immersed myself in everything, [including] old footage. Where was that charisma coming from? I read everything I could get my hands on….I listed to speeches, to the way he talked.
I wanted to do more than the ventriloquist thing; I wanted to get at the essence of the man, the staggering egomania, the ambitions, everything. I was learning more about the chip on his shoulder, about being a bastard—I hate that word—things that had fueled, ultimately, the Revolution and his sense of himself.
Once I got inside him, it was a very heady experience. I felt I could wake up and do whatever the hell I wanted. My daughter was joking, “You’re becoming so unreasonable!”
“Because I said so”—that incredible sense of entitlement, of adulation, of having big enemies like the U.S., an oversized sense of yourself. It was very interesting that way. We can all, on some level, identify with the perpetrator; it’s important to get inside that. It was a real comedown after I finished the book!
Q: This book combines fiction and history. What did you see as the right mixture of the two?
A: Of course I reference a lot of historical events. I wanted to have the historical events be a kind of grid for the book, through which I could make up a lot of stuff. I imagined conversations, [for example] between Fidel and Raul—why not make it Shakespearean? Brothers who were mortal enemies?
I took great liberties; I used history as a loose grid. I was more interested in getting at the essence of the man, rather than the historical events.
I also learned a lot—in Latin America, especially, there are a lot of strongman novels, and I reread all that I had read, and read what I hadn’t; they were helpful too….they bolstered my courage to let it rip!
Q: When you’re writing a novel, do you stick to a plan, or do you change things as you go along?
A: Oh, no, I have no plan! I write much more organically with what surfaces. I try and cultivate the chaos a little bit—you never know what’s going to surface. You can’t plan your best material. You make a big holy mess in the first draft or two and then figure out what you’re doing.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a book that’s tentatively called “Tall Tales from Berlin.” It’s a book of many different voices [speaking] from contemporary Berlin, from World War II looking back historically. There are Cubans in there. It’s still in its first draft.
I spent three months in Berlin last summer. I wanted to find out about what happened to the Cubans who had studied in Eastern Europe. Cuba in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s--they had an extraordinary foreign policy. They sent people into Africa, students to Russia. I was on the hunt for those stories. Then I got waylaid—I found Berlin itself, and its history, so interesting.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb