Pitch your novel, Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban, to the readers in 50 words or less.
Privileged young American woman, the daughter of a diplomat, discovers that her father is not the man who raised her – but a Cuban named José Antonio. She leaves for Havana to find him. In her search, she discovers the world of jineteros, men and women who connive tourists into marrying them.
Through reading about you and the book, I learned that you had intended to spend a week in Cuba and ended up staying for a year. During that time, when did you realize that there was a story for you to tell?
Cuba is like a good mystery. A fascinating country under socialism where people are given basic medical care, schooling, and enough food for about 10 days each month. The other days they’re left to fend for themselves. People are poor, but not impoverished. Many are educated. It’s typical for a Cuban professional to have university degrees and renown among international colleagues. But even the best paid rarely make more than $30 or $40 a month, and a pair of jeans cost twice as much.
When I met a jinetera, a woman who convinces tourists she’s in love with them so they’ll marry or support her, I knew then there was a story. This particular woman was an architect who spoke three languages and worked in an office. But at night she’d slap on the high heels and short skirt and go out. She looked like a runway model but the middling tourist she was meeting was a clueless schlump in black socks and Birkenstocks.
Her family not only knew about her nighttime efforts, but was proud of them as it meant they could buy what they needed. I thought, hmmm, this isn’t what I expected to find in Cuba. I also wasn’t expected to be so impressed with the Cubans’ dignity, with how they’re surviving under the harsh conditions of both the U.S. embargo as well as a dictatorship.
So I stayed for nearly a year. This book is about that time.
What was your initial purpose for penning this novel?
I travel frequently and widely but have never run across a society that is both well-educated and materially poor – and especially one with strong cultural and historical ties to the United States. I found it interesting to pose the question of what we as Americans would do if we were in the Cubans’ shoes. If we had no other choice in feeding our families or to have a better life, would we also partake in jineterismo?
How long did it take you write the novel? Can you talk to us about the process? Like, did you begin working on it while in Cuba, taking notes and journaling on the happenings while there? Did you outline?
On writing, I have very naughty habits! I was trained at a newspaper. I learned to gather information until the last second and then pound out a story. With DBHC, I waited until about 12 weeks before it was due at HarperCollins. I closed my notebook and wrote around the clock, starting in the late afternoon and finishing up around dawn. Even now I keep trying to convince myself to write in a more healthy, normal 9-to-5 kind of way. But I don’t think it’ll ever happen!
I don’t journal; never have. But I do take copious notes. I also find that traveling clears my head and enables me to be more perceptive. Living in New York is not always such a good thing for a writer; it’s easy to become distracted. I find that when I leave my normal environs I’m flooded with ideas and insights that may have eluded me at home. Or this may just be a long-winded justification for my insatiable wanderlust.
On outlines, I don’t find them to be optional. I think of an outline like a frame around a painting. If I craft a sturdy outline, I’m free to let loose within that context.
Cuba plays a significant role in your novel; in fact, I would call it a character. What are some important things you learned about Cuba that moved you not only in your visit, but also in your writing of the novel?
Ay, Cuba! I dream about it all the time. I believe Havana in particular to be one of the great loves of my life. People who are from there or who’ve visited know what I’m talking about. Walk the streets of Havana and your shoulders will shimmy a little. Music is everywhere. The energy, the people, it’s phenomenal.
What I took from Cuba, and what has affected both my life and my writing most, is the living with shades of grey. Americans by nature tend to see things in black and white — this person is good, this person evil. But Cubans live a complex existence, under a leader for whom they feel ambivalence, and lives that are neither wonderful nor horrific. They accept and make peace with contradictions that may seem outrageous. I tried to write a novel that reflected that ambivalence and not the polemics normally associated with Cuba.
How did you get connected with Salon to do the Havana Honey series, the series to which your novel is based?
I pitched it to an editor at Salon and she accepted the piece. Most of my submissions (including an opinion column that appeared recently in the editorial pages of the Washington Post) have been “blind” submissions, meaning I pitched to an unknown editor. I always keep a good bottle of Champagne around that can only be popped if an editor says yes. I make it a game with a reward, instead of something I dread.
How has your book been received since its publication?
It’s sold like three copies! Seriously, it can be so tough for a first novel. But the newspaper reviewers have all been incredibly generous, from the Boston Globe to the LA Times to the Miami Herald to the Washington Post. So that’s a real treat. Other treats are the heaps of e-mail from readers. Most touching have been first-generation Cuban-Americans who have written to thank me for writing about the island they dream of but have never seen. The other great thing is that the book rights have been optioned in Hollywood. (Yay!)
As a published author, what three pieces of advice would you offer to aspiring-to-be-published authors?
It irks me when people say: write write write. Duh! But what about writing is so difficult? It’s fear. Writing is not necessarily overcoming fear but – as fear is in perennial supply – living comfortably with it.
Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Writers have already done that before lunch.
So here’s my advice:
1. Learn to be comfortable with fear.
2. Don’t give the publishing industry the power to determine what you are. Being published or un-published does not change your status. If you write, you are a writer.
3. Don’t concern yourself with publishing trends; it will kill your originality. Never write what you think others would want to read. Trust only your taste. Write a book that you would buy – in hardcover.
What are you currently working on?
Outlining my next novel. Planning promotions for the Spanish-language version of Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban (May 2007). Writing two magazine articles. Working on a speech about Cuba for some upcoming engagements. And tomorrow I’m leaving for a long trip to the Yucatán. (¡Ole!)
Dream-on: You’ve been greenlighted to do any creative project you want. What project would that be?
Been kicking around the idea of doing a documentary or a series on female sex tourists. One of my best friends is a filmmaker and we travel together often. Seems everywhere we go, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America, more and more women are scouring underdeveloped countries for young boyfriends and husbands. Of course the male sex tourist phenomenon is well documented. But with women it’s a whole different game intellectually and emotionally and romantically. A fascinating subculture. It should be on screen.
To learn more about Lisa, Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban, and Lisa’s upcoming works, check out Lisa’s website: http://www.lisawixon.com. If you’ve read DBHC and would like to give Lisa a shout out, e-mail her at email@example.com!
n.com. If you’ve read DBHC and would like to give Lisa a shout out, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org!