What first sparked your interest in the Cuban Revolution?
It wasn’t until my fourth visit to Cuba that I felt any sense of interaction with Cuba at all.
The first visit was in the summer of 1953. I was a 17 – year old Regular NROTC midshipman, who had just finished the first year of college, I sailed aboard the USS Missouri from Norfolk, Virginia crossing the Equator, underway to Rio de Janeiro. The mission was the training of future career Navy and Marine Corps officers. The trainees were an integrated group of all U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman, and all Regular NROTC Midshipman from approximately fifty U.S. colleges who were to enter their senior (first class) or sophomore (youngster) year of college in the fall. The Midshipman were distributed throughout an armada of 18 warships which included two battleships, an aircraft carrier, two cruisers and numerous destroyers. I just happened to be aboard the “Mighty Mo” which served as the flagship. After weeks of intensive training at sea, the fleet dispersed making good will visits to various South and Central American ports. It then reassembled for a final training and recreation stop at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (GTMO). GTMO’s vast resources easily absorbed this task force.
The second visit was in the summer of 1955, this time as a first class midshipman sailing aboard a radar picket destroyer. Similar size task force, same Naval Academy and college NROTC participants, and same training and recreation stop at GTMO.
During both cruises there was no entry into Cuba outside the fences at GTMO, no interaction with any Cuban people or even with the permanent GTMO base personnel.
In 1958, I was a Lieutenant(jg) USN who sailed to GTMO twice aboard the Uss Raymond, a destroyer escort on ‘shakedown” cruises twice to test repairs done at the Boston Naval Shipyard. During the second of these two visits which occurred in late spring and early summer, I finally visited a part of Cuba beyond the gates of GTMO, and was a participant in an incident which in the light recent research, I now believe played a part in the eventual outcome of the Cuban revolution. I have written a short piece describing this incident, which I hope to publish in the future.
When you were in the Navy and your ship was put up in Guantánamo Bay, how were American servicemen viewed?
In my visits to GTMO between 1953-1958 I was never aware of antipathy toward American servicemen. To the contrary in all my visits to foreign ports throughout the Mediterranean and in Latin America, I can recall nothing but a friendly reception from the many local people with whom I engaged. They acted happy to be visited by the U.S. Navy.
Why did you focus on the Cuban Revolution, which the US was less directly involved in, rather than the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis?
When I began to write this book several years ago the focus was upon the incident which occurred in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba during the final year of the Revolution. Pilar was secondary in the beginning, just a vehicle to broaden an essentially military story. The more I wrote, the more important she became. Ultimately I view the completed book as more about the girl and the people around her than about the historical events. I intend to write more about Pilar and these other characters as their world and their lives continue on.
Pilar is a modern heroine with a very old world soul? Who were some of the inspirations for her in real life and also in fiction or in film?
First let me begin with literature, and more specifically contemporary literature. When I began writing as an activity in retirement, I had read, among many other books I was devouring at the time, first two of Stieg Larsson’s books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. While I never consciously set out to emulate Lisbeth Salander, I cannot deny that there is a bit of Lisbeth in Pilar. In fact, I not only purchased and read The third book in the trilogy, The Girl Who kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but for me trilogy was not yet complete. On June 22, 2011 my wife and I attended a presentation by Eva Gabrielsson of her book There are things I Want You to Know About Stieg Larrson and Me. The event which was at the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C. was graciously hosted by Dianne Rehm of National Public Radio. I read with great interest and treasure my autographed copy of Eva’s book which has influenced me in thinking about my role as an author.
Who would you envision to play Pilar on the stage or screen ?
Rooney Mara from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a bit too obvious answer. There are a lot of actresses that would be great. Alicia Vikander, Emma Stone or Kate Beckinsale come to mind.
Was there any model for the Chip Thompson character, the CIA agent who Pilar befriends?
The best model I can think of for Chip Thomson would be Brad Pitt as he was in the movie, Thelma and Louise.
In the novel, Pilar’s father moves to the US because he is a sparring partner of Cuban boxing legend, Kid Gavilán? How did you first learn about Gavi
lan, who is not a well known figure in the annals of international boxing?
You may be surprised to learn that when I was a boy growing up prize fighting was a sport that occupied a far more prominent role than it has in recent years. In the 1940’s Iwould listen to Friday Night Fights on the radio. I remember how strongly sponsored the fights were by Gillette Razor Blades, long before I was old enough to shave. In the `1950’s I watched the Monday Night Fights which was a major TV event which was eclipsed by football later in the decade. I occasionally attended boxing matches at a rink near the Yankee Stadium when I lived in the Bronx. Kid Gavilan was a familiar spots figure to me, and I can still vividly remember the day when I saw Sugar Ray Robinson getting into his famous custom Cadillac. Gavilan fought Sugar Ray twice, and followed him as welterweight World Champion.
The novel is book-ended in present day, as Pilar reflects on her story. Why did you decide to frame it that way?
The front end scenes are more extensive, and to me probably more significant. In future writings I hope to continue to follow Pilar’s life in South Florida through the present day. The opening chapters introduce the family which will play the largest supporting roles in the ongoing story. Some of the other characters such as Maryse, her sisters, Buzz Holton and Lt. Moreno (one of the rebel fighters) may be brought back and become far more important than the villainous Salazar and Chip Thompson, who are pretty much dispatched from the story in the final present day chapter .
What is your theory of the disappearance of the plane of Castro’s revolutionary commander, Camilo Cienfuegos? Do you think Fidel Castro was involved?
Living in South Florida I frequently meet Cuban American immigrants. Whenever possible I tell them about the book and ask them what they think of Camilo Cienfuegos who has become my hero. The answers are virtually all the same. A big smile spreads across their faces at hearing his name. But a cloud then descends as they utter, sometimes in a whisper, “You know the Castros murdered him.”
This seems to me the most logical explanation, although a horrendous freak accident is always a remote possibility. I intend to send a copy of the book to Senators Menendez and Rubio, and hope they reach across the aisle, and join forces to push for offering a U.S. led search for the “disappeared” Cessna 310 using current technology.
There were real tensions prior to the Revolution – and indeed still are – in the Miami Cuban community. You have Pilar’s family symbolizing the pro-Castro, and her friend, Teddy’s family, symbolizing the anti-Castro side, yet in the end they find common ground. In telling the story that way, were you trying to illustrate that the modern day gap can also be bridged?
Well, the U.S. blunder at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 may have engendered some sympathy for and pride in the Castro regime. But I don’t think that any significant pro-Castro sentiment in Pilar’s family would have existed after her return to South Florida after the revolution.
The future of Cuba is wide open. The US has restored diplomatic ties with Cuba and loosened the embargo and travel restrictions. Cuban President Raúl Castro is 85, and none of his sons will inherit the presidency from him. Do you see Cuba becoming a democracy in the next 10-15 years?
The answer is a qualified yes. Assuming continued growth of Internet connectivity, and that Raúl Castro doesn’t stay alive and in power into his 100s, I believe there will be growth in relations with the U.S. and that a democratic Cuba is inevitable. The Cuban people certainly deserve it.
Why did you precede the book with an epigraph page containing a quote from the deceased baseball star Jose Fernandez?