Good to Know
In our exclusive interview with Eire, he shared some fascinating facts, anecdotes, and observations with us:
"Although Spanish is my native language, I think in English. Consequently, it is difficult for me to write well in Spanish. I tried translating my own book and gave up after one chapter, for the results looked like something a fifth-grader would have written. And that is just about right, since it was at the age of 11 that my education switched from Spanish to English. I am currently looking for a Spanish-language publisher who will buy the book and pay for a translator. Ironically, it has already been translated into Dutch and German, and a Finnish translation is in the works, but there is no Spanish translation anywhere on the horizon. This means that my own mother can't read my book. Though she has lived in the United States since 1965, she never learned English and has never been able to read anything I have written."
"I am constantly being asked: ‘Have you ever been back to Cuba?' or, ‘Would you like to go back?' My reply is: I will not go back while Castro is in power and human rights are routinely trampled. No way. When things change, as they will, I suppose I might go back. But the world that exists in my memory is so vivid only because I have given up on the idea of ever reclaiming it, physically. Unlike most people I know, I can't revisit my childhood haunts, so that world survives in my mind and in my soul, intact. I know that if I were to go back the squalor and the crushing oppression of present-day Havana, it would have a devastating effect on me. I got a good sense of that by trying to watch the film Buena Vista Social Club. I couldn't watch more than 15 minutes because the physical destruction of Havana -- and of my own people, and my past -- is so evident in that film. I started weeping so uncontrollably that I had to return the film to the video store, unwatched. As far as I am concerned, Fidel's Cuba might as well be the lowest circle of hell. I don't want to go to either place."
"I am also constantly told that Waiting for Snow in Havana reads more like a novel than a memoir. There is a good reason for this. I wrote the book as a novel and marketed it as a novel. I didn't really want to tell my story and expose details of my life to the whole world. My intention was to tell a story about a boy who grew up during the Cuban Revolution, and to expose through small details the horrors of what many people in the world still consider some benevolent humanitarian experiment. Soon after I began writing, however, I discovered that what had actually happened in my childhood was far more interesting than anything I could invent, so I simply kept writing straight from my memory, changing everyone's names.
"But after the publisher had purchased my manuscript and I revealed that 98 percent of what was in it was history rather than fiction, it became clear to all involved that it had to be published as a memoir. Since one of my reasons for writing a ‘novel' rather than a memoir was that I thought a novel would sell more copies and expose the real Cuba to a wider reading public, I agreed to publishing it as a memoir after it was pointed out to me that nonfiction sells better than fiction, and that my story would have a much greater impact if it were presented as a factual account. The funniest thing that has happened since publication is that many reviewers have praised the book's ‘magic realism' or even praised my imagination in coming up with such outlandish things as my father, the judge, who believes he is the reincarnation of King Louis XVI of France. I am still laughing and will always laugh at this. What a sweet irony: I expose the facts, and many believe them to be fiction, or even worse, ‘magic realism.' One reviewer actually accused me of making false claims and exaggerating. Another thing that makes me laugh is when people compliment me on the title. The fact is that the original title was Kiss the Lizard, Jesus. I still prefer that title and can never think of the book as Waiting for Snow in Havana. My editor found Kiss the Lizard repulsive, however, and asked me to change it. So I came up with a list of 150 alternative titles, and out of all of those Waiting for Snow jumped to first place. In my household, we still call the book The Lizard."
"I don't have time for hobbies -- other than writing books without footnotes -- but I do like to work with my hands. I love gardening and carpentry. I recently built a shed in the back yard, and am as proud of that as any book I have written, even though someone else did all the thinking for me and came up with the plans and measurements. Having failed trigonometry in high school, putting up a well-proportioned structure with straight angles on level ground was no small feat."
"We have four cats. Three are males: Sparky, a brown tabby; Wolfie, a gray Maine coon; and Ralph, an orange tabby. The fourth is a calico female: Oblyna. We keep them indoors all the time because we have a lot of coyotes, foxes, and skunks around our house. Sparky is our escape artist, but we have always been able to retrieve him from the woods. Once, however, our female, Oblyna, disappeared for two weeks. She had slipped out unnoticed. When she returned one Mother's Day morning, she had a huge gash along her back. Apparently, she had a run-in with the wildlife or a neighbor's dog. After being stitched up, she recovered nicely and has never gone out again."
"Speaking of predators and food chains: I am a vegetarian and therefore a huge pain in the neck to my wife and my kids and for anyone who invites me to dinner. I can't bring myself to eat anything that was once a living being. This might be due to the fact that a chimpanzee bit me when I was a child, showing me what it feels like to be eaten. I do eat eggs and milk products, but that is as far as I will go along with the exploitation of the animal proletariat. Since I often travel to Europe for my work, I have a hard time eating over there, especially in Spain, where vegetarianism tends to be considered a disease or a bizarre deviant behavior, akin to self-mutilation."
"And speaking of deviant behavior, here are six of my favorite ways to unwind: shoveling snow, raking leaves, mowing the lawn, splitting wood, digging large holes, and hauling heavy stones from one place to another. I also find any task that involves sledgehammers, axes, picks, and chainsaws very, very relaxing. This is what a revolution can do to your personality."
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In the fall of 2003, Carlos Eire took some time out to discuss some of his favorite books, authors, and interests with us.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis -- When I arrived in the United States in 1962, the only thing I had in my pocket was this 15th-century devotional manual. The Cuban authorities would not let us bring along any money, or more than two changes of clothing, but were gracious enough to allow us the luxury of bringing along one book. Much to my chagrin, The Imitation of Christ happened to be the one text my family had chosen for me. As I bounced around from foster home to foster home, I began to grow attached to the book, not because I liked to read it, but simply because it was one of the very few mementos that linked me physically with my family. It might as well have been some useless trinket, however, for although I handled it often, and kept it close to me, I never read it. Every now and then I would open it at random, take a look at a sentence or two, and shut it immediately. Not only did it seem useless and dull, it was actually very frightening. It spoke of suffering and redemption, of emptying oneself, and of dying in order to be reborn. Every page reminded me of crucifixes, and of nails driven through hands and feet. It scared me as much as a dark, empty church. Still, I felt compelled to look into it regularly, feeling that it brought me close to those who had given it to me, whom I missed terribly.
Very, very slowly, the book began to speak to me. As months of separation from my loved ones turned to years, and as I matured, what had once frightened me out of my wits began to seem sweet, even inebriating. Gradually, I began to read it and I embraced what the book had to say, which boiled down to this: Suffering can be redeeming. It also let me know that in a world where pain, death, and moral failure are inevitable, the only real treasures are intangible, and that the greatest three things on earth are faith, hope, and love. This book also had a profound influence on my writing style, for it introduced me to the art of introspection and the art of finding meaning in the smallest of details.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Odyssey by Homer -- The mother of all tales, this ancient saga takes its readers on a journey through time, back to a world where there was no such thing as magical realism, but only real magic -- a time when myths linked the human soul to the entire cosmos. This book can also take its readers on an inward journey, even into the realm of the subconscious, where our identities are defined. Reading this book out loud to my children four years ago was a prelude to writing Waiting for Snow in Havana.
The Confessions by Saint Augustine -- Much more than the quintessential autobiography and a blueprint for writing about consciousness, this 5th-century masterpiece lays bare the deepest longings of every human heart, and brings us face to face with the deepest existential questions. If I were exiled or marooned on an island with only one book to read, this would be the one I would like to have with me. Though it chronicles the spiritual evolution of one mere human being, it is a truly universal, inexhaustible book.
The Cloud of Unknowing -- Written in the 14th century by an unknown English hermit, this devotional manual is perhaps the most exquisite treatise ever written on the human psyche, on prayer, and our need for transcendence.
Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante -- Part Alice in Wonderland, part Confessions of Saint Augustine, and part Joyce's Ulysses, this stream-of-consciousness masterpiece searches for meaning and redemption in the beautifully corrupt Havana of the 1950s. As close as one can get to a psychedelic experience without drugs, this stylistically pioneering narrative might also be the most eloquent obituary ever written for a prematurely dead culture. This book allowed me to reclaim my Cuban heritage when I was 30 years old.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- The Bible of magic realism, this novel transports all readers beyond the limits of their own imagination while also exposing them to the nearly hallucinatory, yet lucid mindset of Latin America. A feast for mind and soul, this book deserves to be enshrined alongside the first novel ever written, the quintessentially Hispanic classic, Don Quixote.
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges -- Each of the short stories in this collection packs more of a punch than most novels or philosophical treatises. Written by a blind man, these tales point to infinite horizons and unanswerable questions, offering all readers a dizzying ride into the inconceivable.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -- A tale of mythological proportions: this is The Odyssey transposed to Victorian England, without gods or monsters. Narrative that sweeps you away. Characters at once larger than life and as real as oneself. This was the first novel I read as an adult that transported me to another world totally, while helping me to reinterpret my own life. A great read, even if one is not a formerly dispossessed child or incurably nostalgic for the best and worst that imperial Britain had to offer in the heyday of the industrial revolution.
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain -- A grown man speaking in an orphaned boy's voice, recounting adventures from a troubled, yet idyllic childhood. Humor and drama, laced with sarcasm and good will, all at once. This was the first novel I ever read, when I was in second grade, and it made me fall in love with reading. It also made me wish that some day I could write books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and caused me to pine for the banks of the Mississippi River and all things American. When I finally did visit Hannibal, Missouri, at the age of 26, I knew I was standing on holy ground. I placed my hand on a desk once used by Mark Twain, thanked him, and asked for inspiration.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler -- Hard-boiled prose that comes damn close to poetry. Plots with more twists than a hangman's noose, and every bit as tight. Metaphors as stunning as a curvy blonde, and as perfect as a dress one size too small stretched across her behind. Characters as shady as the bottom drawers in a pawnshop desk. Sun-drenched Los Angeles in crisp black-and-white. A hero tougher and nobler than any medieval knight -- and infinitely funnier -- Chandler's Philip Marlowe searches for truth in paradise lost, sticking to a code of honor that even a Trappist monk would find hard to observe. This novel was my introduction to Chandler. Ten pages into it, I vowed to read everything ever written by him, and did so with passion. My writing and my life are all the better for it.
Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor -- A story of biblical dimensions, full of ethereal wisdom, this novel about a total misfit who seeks to redeem himself, written by a gifted young woman who was dying of lupus, is so densely packed with insight on the human condition that it needs to be savored, and returned to repeatedly, just like certain parts of the Gospels. John Huston's film rendition of this novel is equally compelling.
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot -- A Psalter for the post-Hiroshima world, deeply steeped in mystical literature and the poetic heritage of Western civilization, yet as untraditional and unique as a cubist painting. Saint Teresa of Avila once had an ecstasy in which she saw and felt an angel piercing her heart with a flaming spear -- an experience known as the transverberation, which the Baroque sculptor Bernini immortalized in marble. The impact this book has on me reminds me of Saint Teresa's transverberation, especially as depicted by Bernini. Whenever I pick up The Four Quartets, I am pierced right through, as by a heavenly branding iron, and brought face-to-face with two transcendent and interdependent mysteries: the infinite power of words and the all too ephemeral limitations of our earthly existence.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Amarcord -- Fellini at his best; a masterpiece in which the world is seen through a child's eyes. This film made me realize that the way we look at the world when we are children largely determines the way we will see it for the rest of our lives. It also made me realize that we might actually be closer to the truth when we are children.
The Vikings -- The first historical film I really understood; plenty of action, great costumes, cool boats, castles, moats, a battering ram, and a wonderful plot. It is a story about two half brothers who end up hating one another. Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas play Cain and Abel fighting over Janet Leigh, in a medieval setting. I know that this film has a lot to do with the fact that I became a historian. It made the past look so much more interesting than the present, and so much nobler.
The Blues Brothers -- Pure schlock, but a work of comic genius. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as petty criminals who turn into prophets on "a mission from God." A profoundly religious movie, despite of its superficial mocking of religion. It is all about redemption, and miracles, and self-sacrifice. Funny as hell too, and jam-packed with good music. Having lived in Chicago, and having been a fan of John Belushi at Second City before he became famous, this film speaks to me every time I see it. And I am very proud of my kids for watching it about 300 times since we bought the videotape in 1991. I just can't decide if I would like to be Jake or Ellwood.
American Beauty -- All the wrong ingredients go into this story: midlife crisis, drugs, adultery, teen alienation, voyeurism, self-indulgence, despair, repressed feelings, violence, yet, somehow, the perfect morality tale emerges. Few other films have ever left me so moved and so shaken as this one.
The Matrix -- Plato's allegory of the cave reinterpreted for our own age. The deepest metaphysical questions of all, asked in an action film that is also stunningly beautiful. "Red pill, or blue pill?" I have been asking myself that question for my entire life. I assign this film to the students in my course on Christian mysticism -- a pointless requirement, actually, since they have all seen it many times before they get to my class. As far from schlock as Hollywood can get while aiming at commercial success, and a work of genius on various levels.
The Big Sleep -- Raymond Chandler's novel is captured so perfectly on film that it is hard for me to decide which version I like better: the film or the book. Cinema noir and American slang at its very best: a hard-boiled epic, and as compelling a tale of heroism in a fallen world as the best ancient Greek myth, with a plot as hypnotically engrossing as Humphrey Bogart's face and mannerisms.
The Maltese Falcon -- Fraternal twin to The Big Sleep. Dashiell Hammett rather than Raymond Chandler was the author of the original story, which means that this is more like a hard-boiled haiku than epic poetry, and that the hero is Sam Spade rather than Philip Marlowe, but aside from that there is very little difference in what makes this film just as perfect as its twin. Ditto on everything said about The Big Sleep.
Chinatown -- Cinema noir, in color. Everything comes out right in this film, including the tragic, nihilistic ending. A perfect combination of great scriptwriting, directing, acting, and cinematography. One hell of a story too, which is hard to forget. Very few films have made such a lasting impression on me.
North by Northwest -- Alfred Hitchcock at his best. Mistaken identities, unrelenting suspense, plot twists as clever as an Escher print, with romance thrown in for good measure, along with plenty of comic relief. Unforgettable scenes. I see the crop dusting plane in many of my dreams, buzzing me in a dried-up cornfield. Sheer escapism, raised to the level of art. Hard to choose between this film and its slower, introspective sisters, Rear Window and Notorious. It's the pacing and the settings that makes me rank North by Northwest a little higher, but all three are masterpieces.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God -- A film that has German-speaking Spanish conquistadors floating down the Amazon River on rafts should be impossible to forget. As stark an unflinching a look at human ambition and cruelty as has ever been captured on film, in the lushest of settings, with the most unlikely actors and the most Spartan of dialogues. Visually stunning, nearly hallucinogenic. Some of the scenes that director Werner Herzog managed to create in Aguirre rank way up there with the work of Velazquez, Titian, Raphael, and Rembrandt, with the distinct difference that these images move, and are accompanied by sound and music. Who could ever forget the ending? A raft crawling with monkeys, and one lone conquistador played by Klaus Kinski proclaiming himself emperor of all that the eye can see, muttering, "Ich bin Aguirre...Ich bin der Zorn Gottes...Wer sonst ist mit mir?"
O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- Entertainment with a Master's degree, maybe even a Ph.D. Loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, and set in the deep American South during the Depression, this comic epic is worth watching many times. As subtle as Ockham's razor, yet as funny as the best of comic operas. Wise and wise-ass all at once. A sepia-tinted homage to classical themes, accompanied by traditional music as captivating as that of any siren.
Memories of Underdevelopment -- The first truly great Cuban film, Memories tells the story of a man whose wife and children flee into exile in the United States, leaving him all alone in Castro's Havana. Unsentimental to the core, sardonic, heartbreaking, and as true to life as any film I have ever seen. It made me realize for the very first time in my life, after 15 years of exile, that Cubans were capable of producing great art, even under the worst of circumstances. Knowing that the film was produced under very strict censorship in Cuba made the achievement seem astounding and depressing all at once. It also inspired me in a way that no other film ever has, for despite its gloomy and nearly despairing tone, and its eerie likeness to my own family's circumstances, it made me see, literally, that the so-called Revolution could never fully capture the minds and hearts of most Cubans.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like to mix it up: classical, blues, rock, jazz, new age, African, and Cuban music. I don't listen to music when I am writing scholarly texts, but I often listened to music while writing Waiting for Snow in Havana. I didn't limit myself at all. Here is a brief list of artists I heard through my headphones, in no particular order -- which is how I listen to music: Nirvana, Beethoven, Miles Davis, Pearl Jam, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dave Matthews, Vivaldi, Muddy Waters, Gregorian chant, Rolling Stones, Pat Metheney, Sade, Orquesta Aragon, Angelique Kidjo, Third Eye Blind, B. B. King, Frank Sinatra, Rossini, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Jarrett, Beny More, Sting, Bach, Thelonious Monk, Remy Ongala, Moby, Cesaria Evora, Red Hot Chili Peppers -- the list could go on and on.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
You could say I actually run book clubs for a living, since I teach. Every class is a lot like a book club, since I assign readings, discuss them with my students, and ask questions on exams. All of my undergraduate courses have discussion sessions built into them. All of my graduate courses are seminars, which means that they are entirely devoted to reading and discussion.
So, in my professional book club we read texts that have to do with history, especially the history of the Christian religion in Europe, with a concentrated focus on the years 1300-1700. I decided to specialize in this area because it is the one subject that fascinates me the most. I realize it is not everyone's first choice. But I love being a historian and getting others interested in the past and in its interpretation. Not knowing about the past is a lot like having amnesia. Imagine having to go through life without knowing what you did yesterday, or a year ago, or ten years ago. That is what it is like to live without history. I see myself as responsible for keeping some memories of the human race alive and for interpreting them in a way that can help us all better understand the present. Without historians, the whole world would have amnesia, and everyone would be reinventing the wheel over and over, so to speak. As the Spanish philosopher Santayana once said, "He who does not know the past is doomed to repeat it." Since I work about 60 to 80 hours per week all year long, teaching, advising, and grading, and a lot of that time is spent reading for my teaching or research, I do not have much time left over for fiction or poetry. I wish I did, for I love good fiction and poetry as much as I love history, but I will have to wait until I retire.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I tailor my choices to the tastes of the person who will be receiving the present. For this reason, I never give books to anyone other than my wife and children. Choosing a book for others requires knowing them intimately. I have come to this conclusion after receiving many books as gifts that I didn't like very much or couldn't even bring myself to read. I don't have any favorite kind of book to receive in terms of genre or subject matter. I have a range of subjects in which I am interested, nonfiction as well as fiction, but given the fact that I don't have much time to read anything that is not related to my work, I pose a great challenge to any gift-giver. Any good book is always a welcome gift, but sometimes the most wonderful gifts just sit on my bookshelf for years and years, waiting for their turn.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I don't have any rituals whatsoever, and can't afford to have them. All I care about is finding the time to write, which is extremely difficult to do during the school year, or when I teach summer school. In order to write I have to "steal" time from my job and my family, and also from sleep. I do most of my writing in the summer, and very late at night, after my whole family has gone to sleep. I can write anywhere, as long as I can find the time and a relative amount of peace and quiet.
Sometimes I think I understand what it must be like to be a war correspondent: I, too, have to dodge bullets and bombs, and still get my story out, no matter what the circumstances. I am now wholly dependent on computers and word-processing software, but there have been times recently when the only way I could sneak in some writing was by writing longhand, the old way, and I have managed to do it. I also can't afford to get attached to any objects, much less depend on having them around in order for me to write. My desk and my study are a mess, for in my scholarly writing I need to refer to other books constantly, and I keep many of these on my desk and all around it, including some on the floor, stacked up in piles, according to subject matter. Martha Stewart would probably die of a heart attack if she were to walk into my study.
What are you working on now?
I am working on four projects simultaneously, all of them scholarly. The first, which is receiving the greatest amount of my attention, whenever I can steal the time, is a survey of European history, 1400-1700. I have a contract for that with Yale University Press. The second project is a collection of early-16th-century German pamphlets, translated into English. The third is a translation of the two autobiographies written in the 17th century by a Spanish nun, Sor Ana de Bartolome. The fourth project is the most ambitious, and I have been working on it intermittently since 1996: a history of attitudes towards miracles in the 16th and 17th centuries. I am studying two types of miracles that totally defy the laws of nature but were constantly reported during this period. One of these is the phenomenon of levitation (flying or hovering); the other is bilocation (being in two places at the same time). My working title for this book is A History of the Impossible.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It has been twenty-five years since I earned my Ph.D. and began to teach and to write and publish. I don't know whether to laugh or cry every time I am introduced as a "new" author or Waiting for Snow is referred to as my first book -- which happens almost all the time nowadays -- for I have been writing since the late 1970's and already had three books and many journal and encyclopedia articles to my name before I first sat down to write my memoir.
Throughout the world, the work that most scholars produce is always out of view, almost invisible. We really do not exist at all and get no attention, as far as the world is concerned. There is nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, but that fact speaks volumes about the values and priorities of our culture. None of us who write scholarly books ever makes much money -- or any at all -- from writing. In fact, some scholars actually have to pay to get their work published. Even a popular textbook can bring in surprisingly little income. For instance, last week I received my yearly royalty check for a textbook I co-wrote with three other historians, entitled Jews, Christians, Muslims: An Introduction to Monotheistic Religions, a text that is used in many university courses throughout North America. My share of the profits for an entire year of sales was a whopping $17.
Obviously, we historians write because we love to do it. We get a very different kind of payoff than other writers, too. My scholarly publishing did pay off professionally, since I am now a tenured professor at one of the world's finest universities. But it is extremely difficult for anyone to get here, or to any other secure teaching position. The saying "publish or perish" is no meaningless aphorism in my profession. Those who don't write and publish can forget about getting or holding on to a teaching job, or about promotion, or about moving on to a better position. Success in my profession is measured almost entirely by publications, though good teaching evaluations are also necessary. And getting published is no picnic. The fact that academic publishing is not keyed to profits makes it even harder to get into print, for no one is out there crying out for one's work. Most university presses have budgets that are constantly in the red, and they need to be supported by their parent institution. To top it off, nothing gets published without the approval of other scholars, and nothing is declared a success without a chorus of approval from other scholars. And more often than not, professional jealousy enters into the evaluation process, as it does in any other human endeavor.
In my case, getting started was very difficult. First, when I finished my Ph.D., I couldn't find a teaching job at all. I couldn't even get hired as a clerk in a wine shop, though I knew a lot about wine back then, and I had to work all sorts of odd jobs, shoveling snow, raking leaves, serving as a subject for psychology experiments, working as a clerk at a library, etc. Then, when I finally landed a temporary teaching job in Minnesota, I had a great deal of trouble getting my articles published in scholarly journals. My main problem was that I was writing on a subject that none of the experts deemed to be significant: the destruction of Catholic religious symbols by Protestants in the 16th century. One of my articles actually won the top prize at a conference but was rejected by the very same journal that sponsored the conference -- even though the prize itself guaranteed publication in that journal. In the 40-year history of this prize I remain the only writer to have been subjected to this embarrassing humiliation. (I subsequently discovered who was responsible for this unprecedented judgment because he came up to me at another conference and proudly boasted of being the one who rejected my article). I submitted that prizewinning article to other various journals, only to get more rejections. Finally, I did manage to have it accepted by what could be one of the most obscure publications in the world, The Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association.
I thought I had hit bottom without ever getting to the first rung of the ladder, but stuck with my chosen profession, earning so little from teaching that sometimes my entire monthly paycheck couldn't even cover my heating bill. (One piece of advice, while I am at it: Never rent a poorly insulated lakeside cabin in Minnesota between the months of October and May). Getting my first book published was also quite a struggle, since the subject was deemed unimportant at the time. I have a very thick file folder full of rejection letters, most of them very brief and unsympathetic -- some of them photocopied and generic. I could tell that no one was even taking a look at my proposal. The worst letter of all came from Librairie Droz, a publishing house in Geneva, Switzerland, which said that they couldn't be interested in my book because they only published genuinely scholarly books ("livres d'erudition") and mine was obviously beneath their standards. The fact that all of this was written in French made it sound much snottier.
I was ready to give up, and then, in sheer desperation applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to do research in Spain, on a completely different topic: attitudes towards death and the afterlife in 16th-century Spain. Much to my surprise, I was awarded the fellowship and spent nearly a year in Spain, researching and planning for some alternative career, convinced that I could go nowhere but downward in academia. But my good wife, Jane, kept encouraging me not to call it quits. While sitting in a park in Madrid, after receiving yet another rejection letter, this time from Princeton University Press, I was ready to throw in the towel. But Jane fired me up at that park, encouraging me to get angry. We went home and I typed out a letter in which I blew my own horn very loudly and explained very carefully why the subject of my book was significant. Lo and behold, within a matter of months I had a contract with Cambridge University Press. The rest was not exactly easy, but at least it was very good. My first book was very well received, and its subject began to gain significance. I ended up with a tenured professorship at the University of Virginia and was invited to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for two years, and then my second book was also published by Cambridge. Then Yale offered me this job, and I came here, to one of the finest jobs any professor could ever hope to have.
Yet, if I had done only what is required by my job, I would not be filling out this questionnaire. I doubt very much that Barnes & Noble would have asked me to take part in this feature of their web site if instead of Waiting for Snow in Havana I had published Reformations: Early Modern Europe, 1400-1700. This is not to say that Reformations is a lesser project or that it is not part of my heart and soul, or that it won't stand a chance of being nominated for a National Book Award. Not at all. I know it will be a great book, and I am having a great time writing it, in the slow and painstaking way in which such books get written. But I have to accept the fact that a scholarly book, no matter how excellent, will never attract the same amount of attention or acclaim. The fact remains that I wrote something that was totally outside the bounds of my professional specialty and also entirely beyond what is required by my job. I had to write Waiting for Snow in Havana under conditions that are nearly identical to those of some writer who is just starting out and has a day job that has nothing to do with his writing, be it as dishwasher, or sales associate, or neurosurgeon. I had to "steal" time to write my memoir -- almost entirely from what should have been hours of rest and sleep -- and if I ever want to write anything like it again, I will have to become the same kind of thief again.
The greatest and sweetest irony of all is this: Readers are thanking me for Waiting for Snow, yet writing that book was the easiest and most pleasurable thing I have ever done. It wasn't like work at all: It was sheer joy, and nearly as easy as breathing. This is why I could do without sleep or rest while writing it. I am now convinced that is what work should feel like when the human race is finally redeemed for good. It took me but four months of writing late at night, from start to finish, and every minute and hour of it seemed like a gift from above. My other books, which took anywhere from five to ten years a piece, and required the intellectual equivalent of backbreaking work, continue to languish in relative obscurity, and probably always will.
I have to laugh. I do. And I also need to get back to work, and to my family. I am filling out this questionnaire in "stolen" time.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Be patient. And never give up, ever. Never stop believing in yourself. And never stop listening to the people you love and trust the most.
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