On writing 90 miles to Havana
Every book starts with an idea and then an itch. The idea can be murky and shapeless, or clear and perfect as a pearl. The itch comes from the need to scratch your idea into the shape of a book, just to see how it looks in the real world. This is where imagination meets creativity, and the gravity and friction of the writing process start to shape, and change your idea.
When your first draft is finished, you step back and you notice that your idea looks a lot different than it did in your fluid imagination. Often shapeless ideas emerge clearly defined, while the clear ones get muddied up and complicated. The immersion required by the writing process enables us to draw on higher resources in order to bring focus to the vague, or to take a critical look at accepted assumptions. But, I’ve come to actually look forward to the surprise at the end because where I had hoped for one little pearl, I usually end up with a whole necklace of ideas.
I began writing 90 Miles to Havana with what I thought was a very clear idea about how the book would look at the end. Initially I saw it as biographical story about a pleasant and privileged life in Cuba that was interrupted by a revolution and then the experience of life in the refugee camp of Operation Pedro Pan.
My first chapter sketches were about the fun things my brothers and I did, such as swimming in our turquoise sea, or riding horses over the green hills. I would often send my brothers the rough drafts and then we would laugh about our adventures. They liked the sketch about how we used to hijack my father’s messenger’s big red motor scooter and then pile on as many neighborhood kids as we could fit. Our record was seven. They had almost forgotten the one about watching the movie Dracula, and then staying up for three nights, too afraid to sleep.
Our conversations unearthed our communal memories and helped me create a more detailed view of the streets, beaches and rooms that I would visit when I wrote. As time passed and the good memories, the ones on the surface, thinned out, I had to dig deeper. From that point on I could never be sure whether the images and feelings that I unearthed every morning would be bitter or sweet. At night I read as much about Cuban history as I could get my hands on in order to place the events of my life in historical context.
The year I was born, the presidential candidate, Fulgencio Batista, was running third when he decided that it would not be wise to wait for the election. He took control (again) in a military coup, and then promptly cancelled elections, alienating a large segment of the population and energizing the long festering and violent opposition. Seven years later, in 1959 Batista flew away with the contents of the treasury and the rebels claimed victory for the Revolution. In 1961, my brothers and I escaped the revolution through the window opened by the State Department and the Catholic Church. That window was called, “Operation Pedro Pan.”
My golden years in Havana, the time in between the coup and the revolution, were a time of economic growth as well as escalating political unrest and violence. Our parents tried to shield us from the upheaval, but as the violence intensified, the muffled gunfire and explosions in the distance came roaring down our street to knock at our door. I was frightened by the noise, but I remember feeling insulted — indignant — that the people who made the movies we went to see on the weekends had presented gunshots and explosions as pleasant pops, no more threatening than hands clapping or beating on the tightened skin of a drum. The real gunshots and explosions I experienced were not pleasant at all, they were jolts of electricity that cut right through me and left a bitter taste in my mouth.
The memories and stories reeled out easily, but they were turning darker than I had envisioned the book to be. Even so, I did not want to close the door on that period of my life that I had purposefully “forgotten.” I didn’t want to lose the connection to all those memories and emotions until I could start to understand the part they had played a big part in shaping my view of the world. I decided to let the stories ramble out and then edit, cut and shape at the end. Then I could put the memories back where they belonged.
One of the dark stories that was cut out recounted my accidental discovery of a teenager under the big train table in the back room of my father’s office. He was hiding from Batista’s secret police and scared for his life. As I crouched under the table with him, I could feel his fear washing over me like a nauseating wave and then I was terrified too. He warned me that if I told anyone I had seen him, it could be dangerous for my father and my whole family. I believed him.
We all knew about the secret police — sinister men who rode around in black Buicks, wearing black suits and sunglasses. Their job was to run down, beat up, and do much worse to anyone suspected of being involved in the resistance. They were masters of the art of intimidation, an art they performed in a very public way to give those who were considering joining the resistance a graphic demonstration of the consequences. More than once, my mother had warned me to look away as we drove by one of their cruel warnings on the side of the road. I wish I had listened to her.
It seems strange now, but at the time, the idea that institutional bullies used fear to intimidate people did not come as a surprise. I thought that was just the way things were done. I saw it often in the playground. Even though I was only nine years old, I understood that the drama of the playground was a scaled down version of what was going on in the streets. I also remember thinking that real fear and gunshots belonged in the same category. It was during this period that my fascination with the nuanced relationship between the virtual, whether painted, projected or printed, and reality began. This fascination engendered a lifelong involvement with the creative process.
It wasn’t until I arrived in the U.S that I realized just how strange it was for a ten-year-old to be thinking about intimidation, fear and the reality of gunshots. My new American friends were not thinking or worrying about those things. They had been born into a stable democracy with a constitution and laws that were generally respected. There were regular elections, people talked freely and seemed to be able to come to an agreement without shouting at, or shooting each other. Best of all, I didn’t see any men driving around in Buicks intimidating anyone. Unfortunately this grace period did not last long. The assassination of John Kennedy and then the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, all played out in our grainy black and white T.V., forced me to re-think my first impression. But that's another story.
As I suspected, the first rough draft turned out darker and more complicated than the pearl of a memoir that I had imagined at the start. The writing process did reward me with a necklace of ideas, strung with just as many spiky urchins — the messy memories and insights, as pearls.
The process of editing down to find the core made me realize that a biography would put me too close to those messy memories that had bubbled up and keep me from writing a story that was bigger than my own. My doubts with the biographical approach were also due to the fact that I live in Queens, NYC, the most culturally and ethnically diverse place on earth. I often hear hair-raising tales of life in the old country, the epic journey to get here, and stories that make my experiences sound like a walk in the park by comparison.
I decided that a historical fiction novel would allow me to expand and include universal themes, tell the bigger story that celebrates the resilience and inventiveness of children in difficult situations, contains insights on bullies, and provides a view of a culture and an important moment in the history of both the U.S. and Cuba.
Historical fiction deals with monumental events, History, in big block letters, but it always relies on accessible characters that the reader can trust and willingly inhabit, and together they push and pull the story down the road. When I visit schools to talk about the book or the writing process, I explain the function of the character as the Avatar effect. Aboard their chosen Avatar, they can walk around with their senses fully engaged in a specific time and place, and fully implicated in the virtual moment. This is always a more exciting way to ride through history than a textbook could ever provide.
Of course the author is always the first to ride the Avatar. The fictional, but familiar, character of Julian carried me to a vantage point from which I could view the panorama of experiences objectively, and then gauge their relative size or importance in the context of the narrative I was trying to weave. This distance helped me to see the bigger universal principles underlying my small experiences.
From this perspective I was able to create a scaled-down version of the revolution that I witnessed in Cuba. In the parallel world of the camp, Caballo, the bully, intimidates, and generally throws his weight around, much like the two dictators that we experienced. As the plot evolves, Caballo’s heavy-handed approach alienates many of the kids in the camp. First they complain individually, then they form a group, and then they fight back. When they meet to discuss how they will carry out their mini-revolution, they consider two options: the “democratic way,” a new concept that Dolores, the camp’s cook suggests, or to do it the way they’ve seen it done before.
Sadly, they decide to model their uprising on the events that they had just witnessed in Cuba. The revolution that ultimately led to displacement and social chaos at home was not a unique event. Violent overthrow has been a viable means of political change since the Spanish American War, and Cuba’s liberation from Spain.
Julian’s efforts to prove himself — to claim his independence from his two older brothers — forms the central conflict that drives the plot. Julian’s involvement with the events in the playground are presented as an outgrowth of this core aspect of his character, and engage the reader at a level that most young adults can relate to. When his brothers are sent away, Julian misses them, but he also enjoys the freedom to use his own unique set of talents in situations that his brothers would say he was too young to take part in. He is independent at last.
When Julian is forced to deal with the bully, Caballo, without the help of his brothers, he immediately becomes aware of the price and weight of his independence. But Julian does not retreat. Angelita, his closest friend in the camp, helps Julian see Caballo in a new light. He understands when she explains that it takes a bully to make a bully and Caballo’s actions are driven by the fear that someone will bully him, again. Angelita suggest a new approach that will not set off Caballo’s fear, causing him to respond the only way he knows how. Considering his intimidating size, the might is right option has always been very effective. Julian understands Angelita’s sage advice. He tries to disconnect from the lessons he has absorbed from the playground and history, but in the end, he also responds the only way he knows.
I learned from my experiences early in life that it takes a bully to make a bully and that fear keeps adding new bully links to the chain. It is a sad and vicious cycle that is hard to break, but I’ve also had experiences that taught me that there is hope.
I went to five different schools my first year in the U.S. and like Julian, I had to deal with the schoolyard bully—five of them. In almost every one of those schools I was challenged, and then faced the same sad routine out by the swings. I don’t remember ever losing a fight, but then again I never really won one. I guess I never had the heart for the required and belittling, push the face into the sand stuff. Even back then, I knew that if I did it properly, beat the kid up, I would be giving him a good excuse to try to beat me up again. That would just lead to countless afternoons wasted fighting. It never made any sense to me.
By the third school I came to the conclusion that since the tormentor kid didn’t know anything about me, he had no good reason to want to beat me up. I guessed that it was because I was different. I did dress funny, spoke a broken halfway English, and I was usually the only Hispanic kid in the whole school. I decided that some kids and adults too, often feel threatened by people and things they don’t understand and when people are threatened they tend to act out of fear. That is when I decided that it was up to me to introduce myself — show them that there was nothing to be afraid of. This worked well with most of the regular kids I met, but it was little trickier with the school bullies — they were a tougher nut to crack.
By the fifth school my bully radar had been fine tuned. I was sure that the the kid who had been riding around me on his bike was waiting for the right day to do his thing. I could tell he was coming by the clicking of his pedal on his loose kickstand. One day I waited for him by the bike rack with a big adjustable wrench in my hand. I could tell he was surprised. Yes, It was awkward. I wasn’t what you would call a skilled communicator, and he didn’t seem to know what to say. I waved the wrench and then knelt down to tighten his kickstand, he looked around to see if there were any witnesses, then he smiled and mumbled something that I didn’t understand. He seemed relieved and I think he said thanks. No, we did not become best friends, but we never fought either.
The consistent response to 90 Miles to Havana has been that it is fast-paced and it opens the door to discussions on a variety of relevant topics. This is very rewarding to hear since I wrote 90 Miles to Havana with a close eye on my “stall meter,” the gauge that beeps when back-story or description create a drag instead of a lift and the reader’s interest takes a dive. While writing 90 Miles to Havana, I had the meter set between Young Adult Historical Fiction and Fast Paced Action Novel.
There is a wonderful moment when you finish a book and you can hold it in your hand and feel the weight of the idea that just had to scratch it’s way out. Finally that necklace of pearls and prickly urchins had been strung in the right order. The big ideas about bullies, history, and revolution that had wanted to drive the book had been pushed, pulled and pacified, to take their proper place as passengers in a Young Adult adventure about a boy named Julian, who insists that he has something to contribute.
I’m very proud of the recognition and acknowledgements 90 Miles to Havana has received for its accurate depiction of Hispanic culture, and Cuban history from: the Association for Library Service to Children and REFORMA, The Pura Belpre Author Honor Award, The National Council for the Social Studies Exceptional Children’s Book list, Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year, Association for Library Service to Children Notable Children’s Book list, The Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s Choice Award.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoy reading 90 Miles to Havana.