Welcome to the Ed Ass Monthly Book Club! The October Book Club book is The Spanish Bow, a debut novel by Andromeda Romano-Lax. Andromeda has also recently started a blog, 49 Writers, No Moose, about writers and publishers in Alaska.
THE SPANISH BOW is a rich and lovely debut novel about a Catalan cellist born at the turn of the 20th Century. Feliu Delargo, crippled at birth and raised in the impoverished wake of a fallen father, knows he is meant to play a cello the first time he hears one. The talented and unrelenting Feliu makes his way to Barcelona and then the royal palace before meeting his best friend and nemesis, a larger-than-life concert pianist and would-be composer, Justo Al-Cerraz, who drags Feliu across Europe.
Feliu seems to have an uncanny knack for appearing in the right place at the right time for every major event in 20th century Spanish history to rub elbows with Queen Ena, Franco, Hoover, Hitler, Picasso, etc. But Feliu is much more than a Spanish Forest Gump. His story is the winding tale of a lonely man who must negotiate his own rigorous ideas of right and wrong in a society where scruples are not rewarded.
The book is masterfully researched and leaves you fulfilled on many levels--yes, you'll learn all about Spain and its many pockets, about the civil war, about music and politics and history, but it's all disguised in a most beguiling pageant of unrequited love and complex and blighted friendship.
I chose this book for Book Club this month because it is one of those rare books in which everyone can find common ground. I've bought it as a gift for at least fifteen unaffiliated people at this point, because I know they have an interest in one or more of the following themes: Spain, music, friendship, 20th century history, unrequited love, danged good writing.
For me, the theme of the occasionally hostile friendship between Feliu and Al-Cerraz is the most compelling theme in the book. I'll quote here again from one of my favorite passages:
A shroud of bad luck still seemed to hang over him, but he appeared to be taking the news astonishingly well. "What lasts?" he asked rhetorically, as he had so many times before. Then he laughed. "Good looks, rarely. Money--never."
"And friendship?" I asked cautiously.
He fingered his mustache. "Sometimes. I suppose I'd put it in the same category as love: flawed and messy, and of questionable duration, and yet somehow irresistible."(336-337)
As is my unfortunate habit, I had a lot of good book club discussion questions, but then I asked the author all of them, and she obligingly replied.
Interview with Andromeda Romano-Lax
MR: I have to ask you our famous debut author questions, since what I always want to know is how your whole book deal came about. How did you come to work with your agent?
ARL: A dream scenario. I went to my first out-of-state writing conference, at Aspen, Colorado in 2002, and signed up for one of those 15-minute meet-the-agent spots. That day I paid attention during the editor/agent panels to how the visiting agents were talked about, and I picked out the one agent who seemed to get a lot of respect from editors (i.e. “When ES sends me a manuscript I’ll pull over on the side of the highway to read it,”) and requested her for my personal meeting.
She read a few pages of my fiction – the novel was really in its infancy -- and expressed enthusiastic interest. I promised her 50 or 100 more pages and sent them a few months later, worrying (as many writers worry) that she would forget about me. In the meanwhile, another agent I hadn’t had time to meet personally at the conference, but who had gotten hold of a soon-to-be-published nonfiction book of mine, offered to represent me as well. Now I was in the unexpected position of choosing between them. I researched the agents, their lists and recent sales, and made a choice. (Research any prospective agent is the advice I give to others.)
Let me add one more thing about that particular writing conference. Going there was well beyond my budget. Each time I went to an ATM to withdraw money, I wasn’t sure any cash would come out and I knew my family was back home, eating tinned beans while I (somewhat guiltily) soaked up the Aspen sun. But there comes a time when you have to aim high and invest in yourself, let the checks bounce where they may.
The full novel took three more hard years to finish. Writing a novel is a lot like pregnancy: if you could really picture all that’s involved, you probably couldn’t endure it. Luckily, a sort of amnesia masks each completed stage of the process.
MR: What was the sale of your novel like?
ARL: My favorite words ever said by my agent via long-distance phone call: “You might want to sit down before I tell you this.” Words I’d only heard uttered in a movie! Then she told me the advance. And a few minutes later: “Congratulations. You’re a novelist.” All that excruciating effort and voila, a living thing emerges!
Most of the hubbub of the book sale happened in about a one-week time period, which happened to coincide with the Jewish high holidays, in fall 2005, so (being Jewish through marriage) I was running back and forth between synagogue and checking my phone messages. The manuscript went out to lots of places simultaneously, two houses made offers, and I chose Harcourt. Actually, it was a local Alaskan writer who called to tell me Harcourt was seriously interested before I heard elsewhere. I’d never even met her but she lives just a few miles up the road, and happened to be a Harcourt author, and had heard the buzz.
I surprised my husband with the final news by taking him out to dinner and handing him a card in which I’d written, in very tiny print, the amount of the advance. My kids were in on the secret and had a ball with it. A month later there were lots of foreign deals made at the Frankfurt Book Fair. (THE SPANISH BOW is being translated into 10 languages).
Great happiness aside, for all of autumn 2005 I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was sure that somehow the good news would dissolve. I’ve mentioned already that we’ve lived hand-to-mouth for many years, due to my career choice and our unconventional family life. (We homeschool, which is not so rare in Alaska, and travel at every opportunity with our children; my husband works an odd schedule.) It took me a long time – one year, in fact -- to realize I could throw away my Hanes cotton underwear with holes in awkward places and buy a few new pairs.
MR: So you're an Alaskan writer... what took you to Spain for your debut novel?! Do you have a secret connection to Spain we should know about?
ARL: Write what you’re passionate about: I believe that with all my heart. I was feverishly attracted to the cello and was trying to write perhaps the world’s least marketable book – a nonfiction book about my own experience learning to play the cello, while also freelance-writing some depressing doomsday science stuff, involving climate change and the oceans, because that fascinated me, too. Then 9/11 happened. I asked myself what I would write if I had only one chance left, and suddenly, it wasn’t a doom-and-gloom story, nor was it about me.
I knew almost immediately that I wanted to write a hopeful, heroic story, and the first that came to mind was the story of a cellist who becomes a political figure, based on the life of Pablo Casals. Given that I’d only recently seemed poised to earn decent money from my nonfiction, this gave my husband a good laugh. A book about an old cellist! Now we were firmly on the downwardly-mobile track, he believed. I did, too, but I didn’t care. I was following the story I wanted to read.
My research began in early 2002 with a trip to Puerto Rico (where Casals lived for years in exile) and continued with research in Europe. Very quickly I found myself wanting to tell a larger, fictionalized work based less on Casals than on musicians in general, with room for plotlines about love and friendship and art (Picasso makes an appearance in the story) and family and more. What does all this have to do with Alaska? Nothing, except perhaps that Alaskans really do have a frontier spirit; we like taking chances and we like to travel.
Oh yes: the secret connection to Spain. I did travel to Barcelona, by myself, at the age of 15. The scenes in the novel that portray Barcelona as both invigorating and intimidating were no doubt inspired by my adolescent visit, during which I spent a lot of time on the Ramblas (which was a lot grungier in the 1980s than it is now, with more prostitutes and anti-terrorism squads). My evenings were spent people-watching and trying to make a single watery sangria last as long as possible.
MR: Debut novels are historically autobiographical. Yet you've written a literary historical novel wherein the main character is male, and Spanish. What made you pick a protagonist who is, ostensibly, so far from your own personal experience? And do you feel at all that Feliu is a lot like you in less superficial ways?
ARL: Feliu’s voice came so easily to me; I must have a shriveled-up, self-denying-while-still-inwardly-passionate little man living inside of me. His yearnings, confusion, desire to do good and egotism are all a part of me, too. But I related to his mother just as much. I can imagine how hard it is to protect a talented child. And I related to Queen Ena, trying to behave as one is expected to behave. They’re all me in some ways, except perhaps Al-Cerraz (a playboy and opportunist), who was originally cast in the villain’s role and became one of my favorite characters in the end. His joie-de-vivre and sense of humor (the book is not all serious) won me over.
MR: The reason I love THE SPANISH BOW as much as I do is because it is (to me, at least) the perfect intersection of several great themes: history, music, friendship, literature, etc. I want to talk about each one of those a little.
The book is intensely rooted in history, and yet very vibrant. Did you have to do tons of research to make the setting and events come to life so naturally?
ARL: Yup. Many books read, historic homes toured, musicians interviewed and (via videotape) analyzed, liqueurs sampled, turn-of-the-century clothing analyzed. At one point I was spending weeks trying to figure out: if Feliu and his anarchist tutor used a chamberpot, would it be emptied weekly outside Alberto’s building in such-and-such a way? (Left that section out, luckily). Mistakes are still made in every novel, but I immersed myself enough to make that world feel more real – to me -- than my own.
MR: Feliu is a cellist. You are also a cellist. I've never heard you play, but my guess is you must be a really fantastic cellist, because if YOUR musical learning experience was anything like Feliu's, you must be really naturally gifted. I say this because I studied violin for a bajillion years (well, until I was 16) and the whole thing was tooth-pulling and tear-drenched folios and debasement and mournfulness. Feliu's musical education, at least, goes much more smoothly than mine did. Was your personal path toward music anything like Feliu's?
ARL: A good guess but precisely wrong, Moonrat. If I were a skilled cellist, I wouldn’t have had this desperate urge to try to turn music into words. It is my appreciation for – but lack of skill at – playing the cello that stoked my literary fire. I fell in love with the cello at the age of 6, played on and off (insufficient practice, lessons and parental oversight – I think I wanted to play more than anyone else cared whether I played; life was tricky enough without a big wooden instrument to tote around). I re-started as an adult amateur when my daughter was born 10 years ago. Listening to the cello played beautifully gives me an actual physical pain inside my chest. Ah well. The great thing about writing is that it lets us explore so many paths and passions – it is the closest thing we get to having multiple lives. There is a part of me that believes in some kind of fate and I hope that when we are denied something it just makes us more passionate about channeling that disappointment into another, perhaps even more fruitful, activity.
MR: I find the friendship between Feliu and Justo to be the most powerful theme in the book, and in many ways I see THE SPANISH BOW as a tribute to life-long friendship. Did you mean it to come off this way, or is that just me reading my personal biases into it?
ARL: I’m thrilled you enjoyed the friendship in the book. I heard the same from some male readers who recognized some of the rhythms of the competitive Feliu/Al-Cerraz friendship, which made me very happy. I’m writing another book right now that, once again, involves an uneven mentorship/friendship. I think that kind of relationship, where two people are learning and growing together (and sometimes challenging each other as well) is a tricky and powerful thing. Don’t you find that friendships get short shrift, as versus romantic love, in literary fiction? (I’ve already read your blog, so I know that you do.) I’m still trying to understand my friendships, past and present. The ones that failed still torment me; the ones that are surviving sustain me.
MR: Tell me about it. I couldn't agree more--I think books about friendship are the most provocative. But yeah, you already know that.
Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by today! Can't wait to hear more about this next book as it comes to fruition.