Well, that’s it. My latest novel, Havana Lost, is finally out in the wild, being read by a bunch of fans who have downloaded the Advance Reader Copy. I’ve already been asked a whole load of questions about the writing process, the book, the characters and Cuba itself.
Here are my answers.
What attracted you about a plot set in Cuba? Where did the inspiration come from?
I was talking to my sister on the phone after I’d finished A BITTER VEIL. I knew I wasn’t ready to go back to my Georgia Davis series yet, even though I was already about 60 pages into it. I’d been thinking about doing a World War Two thriller—I’m continually drawn back to that period of time. Unfortunately, I ultimately realized there was probably nothing I could write about the period that hadn’t been done better by someone else.
The conversation turned to other time periods and settings, and my sister brought up Cuba. As soon as she mentioned it, I started to get that itch. It’s the kind of itch that can only be scratched by delving more deeply into the subject. I told her how I remembered my parents flying down to gamble in Havana. This was when Batista was still in power. I must have only been about 6 or 7, but I remember being jealous that they were going to a foreign country and culture. I wanted to go too. Of course, they didn’t take me.
A few years later Fidel took over and Cuba became off limits to Americans. Plus, it turned Communist! Communism was our enemy. Because of that, Cuba seemed even more mysterious and exotic, and I remember wanting to know more about it. Then, of course, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which made Cuba even more impenetrable and distant. So close and yet so far.
Finally, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, I recalled one of the Godfather films where Al Pacino (Michael Corleone) and Lee Strasberg (Meyer Lansky) are on a rooftop supposedly in Havana discussing how they’re going to own the island. Shortly after that, Michael sees a rebel willing to die to overthrow Batista and changes his mind about doing business with Lansky.
That clinched it. I realized I had most of the elements for a terrific thriller: revolution, crime, conflict, and an exotic setting.
There was only one other element I needed. I enjoy—actually it’s more than that… it’s probably an obsession—writing about women and the choices they make. I needed a female character who would have been thrown into the middle of the revolution. It would be fascinating to see what she did and how she coped. Once I came up with Frankie Pacelli, the daughter of a Mafia boss who owns a Havana resort, the rest was, as they say, is history.
Are any of the female characters in HL based on you? If so, which aspects of their personalities are inspired by yours?
None of my female characters are based on me. All of my female characters are based on me. I think it’s impossible for an author not to share shades of themselves through their characters. The issue isn’t so much what comes from me, though; it’s their own authenticity. Once they’re on the page, they have to be true to themselves. Consistent. They can’t do one thing on Monday, and the opposite on Wednesday, even if I want to.
Have you been to Cuba? What did you think / feel about it?
Absolutely, I went to Cuba. My daughter and I went in 2012 on a cultural tour that coincided with the Havana International Book Fair. It turns out that the Book Fair is one of the largest in Latin America, and it was packed. We were there for 9 days. Of course we did a lot of other things and saw other places (Varadero, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad), and one day, we even ditched the tour and went on our own to Regla. I had written most of the book by then, so it was a perfect opportunity to fact-check. I’m glad I did. I got the geography of Regla wrong.
I took hundreds of pictures, and you’ll be able to see some of them in the coming weeks.
How do you go about creating a new persona from scratch?
I write a ‘stream of consciousness’ “backstory” for each major character that includes their motivations, background, experiences and emotions. Each backstory only needs to be a couple of pages but they act like skeletons to hang the details on. Everyone has a history and backstories help me make people real, breathing life into them. You can watch a video about my process here.
How do you plot your books? Beginning to end then fill in the middle? Or plot on the hoof, as you write?
I write chronologically from beginning to end. Probably an anal compulsion, but I can’t switch around like other writers can. For example, in SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, the middle section takes place in 1968, well before Parts 1 and 3. I thought I could write that first, since it preceded the others. Nope. Couldn’t do it. I had to write Part one, which takes place in the present, then go back to write Part 2, and then fast forward again to the present to write Part 3.
However I don’t outline… well, that’s not entirely true. I know the premise before I start, and I THINK I know who the perpetrator is. Then I start writing. What we call “a seat of the pants” type writer. I prefer that. It keeps my writing fresh, and more important, allows the characters to determine the plot, rather than me getting in their way with a preconceived notion or outline about what I think they would do. Consequently, in almost every book, the person who committed the crime changed from the person I initially thought it would be.
How long did it take you to write HL?
About a year.
Do you treat the creative process like a 9-5 job or do you only write when you feel in the right creative mood?
I used to be a lot more disciplined and wrote every morning for an hour or so. Now, though, my schedule is all over the place. Mostly because of the added responsibilities of marketing and self-publishing. I wish I could get the discipline back.
Have you ever spent a day writing them trashed the lot?
Which is your favorite HL character, and why?
Luis and Carla. Because they are noble.
Did the plot take you in unexpected directions or did you know who you wanted to kill off right from the start?
I pretty much knew this was going to be on the noir side from the outset and that it would have a fairly high body count.
What do you think about female authors and gore – are they as good at the gory stuff as male authors?
Absolutely, and I resent the fact that anyone would think differently.
Do you enjoy writing or is it just 100% hard graft?
I hate it. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I love the notion of “having written.” And I love editing. For me, that’s where the magic happens. Still, I remain somewhat incredulous that I’ve actually published 10 novels. How did that happen?
Are you good at keeping secrets, like Luis?
No. I’m terrible. NEVER tell me a secret you don’t want out.
Where do you get the names for your characters?
I consult a lot of websites for the time and culture I’m writing about. There are also a few websites that randomly generate names. Those are fun.
That’s it for now, but keep the questions coming. I love hearing from you. And don’t forget, you can pre-order the print, ebook, and, within a week or so, even the audio of Havana Lost on Amazon right here.
Map of Cuba Image Source: Moon Travel Guides