Published on April 8th, 2019 | by Marcile Montoya
When We Left Cuba
An Interview with Chanel Cleeton, Author of Next Year in Havana, on the Eve of the Publication of When We Left Cuba
Chanel Cleeton is the USA Today bestselling author of Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick Next Year in Havana. Originally from Florida, Chanel grew up on stories of her family’s exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution. Her passion for politics and history continued during her years spent studying in England where she earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Richmond, The American International University in London and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
Apuntes: You are an American of Cuban descent. How have those identities co-existed or conflicted throughout your life?
CC: You know, I think it’s one of those things that has always been a part of me. I grew up in the United States, lived for two years in the Dominican Republic, and I learned Spanish before I learned English. I kind of grew up on my family’s stories. My grandparents lived with us. My father and my grandparents left Cuba in 1967. My dad was eight when they came over and I think that for my grandparents it was extremely important to preserve a sense of our culture and identity in exile and pass it along through the generations. So, we ate Cuban food almost every day; my grandma loved to cook, and she was always cooking for us. My grandparents always spoke Spanish at home, so we all spoke Spanish. And they constantly told me stories about Cuba. We were fortunate that they had a lot of their family photographs, smuggled out of the country by some friends. I remember looking through their photos and my grandmother telling me stories about Cuba. She always spoke of it with so much affection and nostalgia. It was a part of my everyday life. I grew up in north Florida – we weren’t in a big Cuban community. Back then, there weren’t even Cuban restaurants that we could go to. My sense of culture just came from home, the stories I heard, and the things that my family did. Like, they played Buena Vista Social Club a lot. I remember coming home and feeling like I was in a little bit of a different world because of what they had created, even in the way they decorated. They had lots of maps of Cuba. My grandfather is kind of an amateur historian and he’d draw street maps of Havana from memory. And that passion, which I see in a lot of Cuban-American homes, was not something that I really thought about when I was younger – it was just part of our family and part of our history. As I got older, I got to appreciate it a bit more. As my grandmother passed away and my grandfather aged, that’s when the story started evolving. It reignited a desire in me to learn more about the culture. So, I think, it’s just as much a part of me as being American.
Apuntes: Tell us about your education. You did your undergraduate studies in England, which is somewhat unusual. How did that come about?
CC: I did my freshman year at an honors college in South Florida – outside of Palm Beach – and while I was there, I took a lot of Latin American studies classes, which gave me a different perspective on Cuba, one outside of my family’s history. That really sparked an interest in me to study international politics, so I found a study abroad program and I did a semester at Richmond, The American International University in London. I just fell in love with the program and was fortunate enough to be able to transfer so I finished my undergraduate degree there and loved it so much I stayed and did my master’s at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Apuntes: You studied politics and then law. At which point in your life did you take up writing?
CC: Yes, I went to law school in South Carolina. I started writing, just for fun, a few years before I started law school. I had always been a big reader – I can’t remember a time during my childhood when I didn’t have a book in my hands. I didn’t think of it as a career initially, but as I got older, I thought more and more: Why don’t I try to write a book. I played around with the idea for a few years and it was when I realized that law school wasn’t a great fit for me that I decided to seriously try to become an author. I was fortunate enough that in the months after graduating from law school my agent sold my first book, so it was nice for that to work out the way it did, allowing me to move into a new career.
Apuntes: We have a quote in Apuntes from Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa where he says that, “You can’t teach creativity.” How do you feel about that statement, based on your experience?
CC: I’ll be honest: I’ve always had kind of a funny relationship with creativity. It is part of why people around me were really surprised when I started writing, as I’m a very analytical person and for the most part less creative. My studying law and politics is consistent with that. I’m not at all gifted in the arts, I can’t carry a tune, I’m not that artistic. I don’t know if creativity is something that we have inside of us, or something that we must work at. I certainly look at writing as a discipline where you might have that spark of creativity, but I think writing is very much something that you have to work at to hone your skills, just like anything else. When I compare things that I wrote at the beginning of my career to things I am writing now, I see a marked difference, just from experience and practice. So, I don’t know. I find that to be an interesting quote. I think that perhaps that spark can be taught, but I absolutely think that artists need to grow and learn from our experiences and it is very much something you have to apply yourself to.
Apuntes: Right, I understand that some writers, like Garcia Marquez, believed you had to spend so many hours a day in front of the computer even if no writing came out. He and other writers also said that the writer is never done editing, that they send their work to the publisher just to stop editing it.
CC: That is very true. I don’t re-read my books because I know that I’ll find something that I wish I could change. When I pull quotes for marketing purposes or sections of the book that are being released to the public, I always have to do it before I finish the final stage of edits because I know I’ll find something that I want to tweak before I finish.
Apuntes: Tell us about your writing process, from conception to final product.
CC: I would say that every book is different – that’s the most consistent part of my process. Some books are easy, it almost seems like they write themselves. Others are a lot more challenging and I have to fight with them throughout the process. Havana was definitely one of the easier books that I wrote. I started writing it in the summer of 2016 and finished it in November 2016, so I worked on the book for about 4 months. I think because it was such a personal story and I already had such a foundation from my family’s history, it felt like the words poured out of me. I don’t really plot a lot when I write my books. I start with a shell of the story I want to tell, then I see where my characters take me and I just follow them on their journey. So, I knew the basis of the story for Havana – I knew it would be a story of a grandmother and her granddaughter, and I knew where I wanted to end up. But the getting there always comes out for me as I’m writing – that’s the process. I’m not necessarily the kind of writer who writes every day. How much I write depends on my schedule; I try to fit it in when I can, and some days are certainly more productive than others. I’m a big editor. The editorial process for me is a huge part of my writing process, so if I’m ever stuck when I’m drafting a story, or I know something is not working, it’s always nice to know that I can go back and get that fixed before the final product is ready.
Apuntes: Are you doing something else other than writing?
CC: I’m actually a stay-at-home mom, so juggling writing with everything else is definitely challenging. I have written as a law student, with a job and an internship. I wrote on the side while holding a full-time job. I have been through different seasons in my writing career and learned to make time; time management is critical.
Apuntes: Your recent book, Next Year in Havana, appears to have a great reception in the Cuban-American community (one of our editors, Marcile, really loved it, as did her mom). Tell us how you transitioned from the topics of your early novels to books set in Cuba.
CC: I think it was a natural progression. I have always taken things from personal experiences and put them in my novels. For example, my first book was set in an international university in London, which mirrored my university experience. And my other books include bits from my personal life, stories that I wanted to share. The one thing I had not written about was being Cuban-American. And then towards the end of my contract with my publisher, when we were discussing new ideas about what I would write next, my family was planning a reunion in Cuba, which never materialized. But as we were planning the reunion my dad told me a story that I had never heard before, about the night before they left Havana in 1967, when the family met in the middle of the night at my grandparents’ and buried a bunch of their valuables in the backyard, which was a pretty common practice back then because you really couldn’t take anything with you when you left. And, as soon as my dad told me this story, you know, as a writer, it just really sparked the question for me: If you were forced to leave your home and you didn’t know when you would be able to return or if you would be able to return, what would you choose to save for the day that you could go back? And that really stuck with me and I talked to my agent, I talked to my editor and I gave them the idea and I was just really fortunate that they were both really enthusiastic and on board with me telling this story.
Apuntes: Did you ever make it to Cuba?
CC: We did not go. My grandmother had about 60 people in her extended family and we do reunions every few years; as I mentioned, she is no longer with us. My grandfather, who is going to be 96, was supposed to go on the trip and he became very upset with the idea of us going and it kind of sparked a huge discussion within our family. Like I said, my grandparents lived with us growing up so they were like second parents to me. And hearing my grandfather’s feelings on the matter, that he still felt so strongly, my dad and I decided that it wasn’t the right time for us to go, under the circumstances. In the end we didn’t go. Talking to many people about this book, it has been really interesting to hear everyone’s perspectives. I think going back to Cuba is something that a lot of people are grappling with within the Cuban-American community, and everyone has a different perspective. I completely respect those other perspectives, but for us, with my grandfather feeling as he did, it just felt like it wasn’t the right time.
Apuntes: What is next for you and what encouragement would you share with rising Hispanic/Latino writers?
CC: I think this is a great time. I think we’re starting to see a shift toward more diverse voices. For a long time, it was a challenge for people to be able to get their stories out. Now we’re seeing publishers being a lot more receptive and open and encouraging of those stories. My hope is that we’ll start to see a lot of different perspectives. When I wrote my book, it was kind of hard to find…we do a “comp title,” which means that the publicity and marketing team looks for books that are similar to yours. And it was hard to find similar mainstream books, particularly in historical fiction. Not a lot of people have had the opportunity to write stories similar to mine. My hope is that we’ll start to see more diverse stories of the Cuban experience and get different perspectives. I know there are some great stories out there. I think the biggest thing for aspiring writers is just to hone their craft. It’s really important to do as much as you can to grow as a writer, always be professional, be someone that publishers want to work with, be open and receptive, and be willing to make changes when needed and to really put in the work. I think perseverance is very important. This is an industry where you hear a lot of “No’s” before you hear “Yes’” and even after you get published, you have some books that don’t do as well, or a publisher that maybe doesn’t want to take on your next book. You are going to frequently be faced with those situations where you really have to push through, and believe in yourself and the stories that you’re telling, and be passionate about it. I think passion is really what drives all of us in our careers.
Next for me is, When We Left Cuba, which is the companion novel to Next Year in Havana. It is set in the early 1960’s and covers the tumultuous Cuban-American relations of that time period, with the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, and some of the CIA’s attempts on Castro’s life. The book will be out April 9th.
Apuntes: Do you think that in the futureyou will continue writing on the same topic or move on to others?
CC: Right now I have two additional books related to Cuba in the works. Next year (2020) I will have a book coming out that is set in the Florida Keys in the 1930’s; it is a different time period but it has that same cross-cultural element of the previous two books: I have a Cuban character in there, and I have a native of the Keys. I enjoy exploring this part of history and also part of the world that we don’t see much in historical fiction – there has been a lot of European-centric historical fiction, so it’s nice to do something that’s a little bit different. I am now writing a book that is set in the Gilded Age, around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Spanish American War. This book features a real Cuban heroine, a sort of Cuban Joan of Arc. It has been really fascinating working on this book, where you have an intersection between Cuba and New York society and the newspaper world, and the heroine kind of gets thrust into the American arena.
Apuntes: We wish you the best, thank you very much for talking to us about your work.