TBL: In your “Author’s Notes” you say, “When writing historical fiction we authors have a very specific goal in mind: to transport the reader to a time and place and into the mind of a character that they themselves can’t go to.” What was it about the time and place of Incident at San Miguel that inspired you to tell this story?
The Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro was a watershed moment in the history of Latin America, the history of the relationship between the United States and Latin America, and world history in general. Castro’s defeat of Batista demonstrated the limits of American power in Latin America, often treated as an American fiefdom by the United States and acknowledged as such by the rest of the world at that time. It also represented a significant step in the stumbling attempt to bring an alternative system to capitalism to the developing world. It nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban missile crisis, a personal showdown between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. The aftermath of these world changing realities became a disaster for the Cuban people. In an unintended way, the story of the Jewish community of Cuba, which is at the heart of Incident at San Miguel, became a parable for what happened to Cuba and its people, and a cautionary tale for Jewish communities around the world. I want readers to enter the minds of the characters and feel the emotions of that time and place, so that if they are ever faced with similar situations, they have the experience of the past to draw upon.
TBL: Your books share stories that are historical, Jewish and Latin. What draws you to writing about each of these elements individually? What is the power of your writing covering all three?
Readers are often surprised by the so-called “Latino” character of my work. When I published Forgiving Mariela Camacho, for instance, a young Dominican man came to a book event I held in Washington Heights (a primarily Dominican neighborhood in upper Manhattan) and told me he was shocked when he learned that I wasn’t Dominican. He couldn’t imagine that someone other than a Dominican would understand the Dominican experience so profoundly.
The truth is that while I write about Latino cultures and Jewish cultures, the two are not that different. They share similar immigrant experiences in the United States, experiences rooted in feelings of otherness, and they share similar cultural norms set in traditional, family-based societies. The first time I visited the Dominican Republic some fifteen years ago with my best friend, for the celebration of his daughter’s first birthday, I fell in love with the place, and the Spanish Caribbean in general – I’ve, traveled extensively in Latin America since then – for exactly that reason. I felt like I was back in my grandparents’ immigrant household in the Bronx when I was a child. I knew the way it looked, felt, tasted, sounded, and smelled.
History has always been a lightning rod for me. I believe we can learn from history. What was it George Santayana said? “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” History helps us to understand what’s coming next. To know we are not the first nor will we be the last to be challenged by circumstance. My books are about ordinary people face with extra-ordinary events and how they react to those events. I study the past to learn how to move forward into the future.
As concerns the Jewish content of my work, Jewish history and the Jewish experience are relevant to both Jews and non-Jews today and in the future. Understanding the Jewish experience can help Jews understand themselves and can help others understand and react to the often brutal discrimination they may face in the host society. I hope it provides some comfort. Interestingly, and this may come as a surprise to your readers, when the Dalai Lama sought guidance on how to maintain his people in exile from Tibet after fleeing the Chinese Communists, he sought the advice of Jewish historians and philosophers. He wanted to know how the Jewish people maintained a living culture for two thousand years in exile.
TBL: Incidents at San Miguel is inspired by the lives of real people who you interviewed. What was your experience with interviewing people for this book?
As is the case with all my research, the interviewing process is often life changing for me, as it was with Incident at San Miguel. I should explain first that I met Miriam Abrahams about ten years ago. She wrote a review of my debut novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, for Jewish Book Council. We had a friend in common who introduced us. The summer before the pandemic she contacted me and asked me to look at her source materials for a book she wanted to write about her family’s experience in Cuba during the Revolution. That material became the basis for Incident at San Miguel.
I met her parents in the summer of 2019 and frankly fell in love with them. Though my parents were born here in the United States and her parents were Cuban, they were of the same vintage, from the same era, and they reminded me of my parents, both of whom are gone. Their personal experience with history that occurred in my own lifetime was incredibly compelling. I sat with them for hours. Luckily, they were willing to share not only their experiences and knowledge but their emotions with me. That was also true of other Cubans, Cuban Jews, and descendants of both whom I met subsequently. They recall with a bittersweet sadness this lost paradise, the same way members of my family recalled pre-WW2 Europe. I was sucked into those memories and I am forever grateful to have been permitted to see that world.
TBL: Have your own identities played a role in your writing? If so, in what ways?
What a great question. Yes, my own identities have played a crucial role in my writing. I have always been very Jewish. My identity as a Jew is central to my being, my psyche. No, I’m not particularly religious. I’m not kosher, nor shomer Shabbat. But, at the same time, my Jewish identity goes to the very core of who I am. I am named for two victims of the Holocaust, my grandfather’s brothers. One doesn’t easily escape that legacy. Writing The Interpreter and Forgiving Maximo Rothman, plus a trip to Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic a couple years back with my son to visit the birthplaces of my grandparents have provided me with a sense of closure and personal peace with regard to the realities of Jewish history and how it has made me who I am.
I am also very fortunate, more fortunate than most. My best friend is Dominican. He and his family have treated me like a member of the family. I began traveling to the Dominican Republic with him fifteen years ago, every winter. I go for anywhere from two to four weeks and stay with him in his home. I’ve learned to speak Dominican Spanish. I’ve learned their culture and feel as if it’s my own. There are few places in the world where I feel as comfortable as there, the other being Israel. When I sit in the colmado with his friends – now mine as well – on a Sunday afternoon chatting for hours over beer, laughing about whatever, I feel like I’m home. The patios of Santo Domingo remind me of the courtyards of Old Jerusalem or Safed, where time is somehow suspended, where only the loving smile of friends and family matter, where there’s always something to eat and someone to chat with. I am as Dominican as I am Jewish now, at least I feel that way. I think I said it best in this passage at the end of Forgiving Mariela Camacho where Tolya Kurchenko, the protagonist, bears his soul:
“The passion of the music was enough. The sweet whine of the guitars and the vocals sparked his Russian soul, the soul he teased about regularly. It often brought tears to his eyes for its simple emotional honesty. He realized after a week in this warm, close place, where everyone touched everyone all the time, that there was less separating him and them than connecting them to each other. He needed only to respond to a smile with a smile. He was something by birth – Russian, Jewish, an immigrant American who learned to love baseball. He was never sure. But now, he knew what he really was. He was Dominican by choice. He would hold this place in his heart forever.”
I was really talking about myself.
TBL: Why do we need stories like Incidents at San Miguel? What do you feel is the value of historical fiction generally? Why do you think it is important for people to read your works of historical fiction in particular?
As I mention in my Acknowledgments, historical fiction, if well written, provides readers with the ability to travel in time without a time machine. Who among us hasn’t imagined ourselves in the past, whether in Ancient Rome or in Paris in the Roaring 20s. While the value of non-fiction works such as histories, biographies and even memoirs are invaluable, it’s only in the fiction form that a reader can feel transported back into the past entering the mind of the characters as they experience that past. In The Interpreter, I provide the reader with a glimpse into the room as a young interpreter, born in Vienna, escapee from Nazi persecution, acts as the conduit for the vile confessions of an unrepentant Nazi. No history of the OSS can provide the level of discomfort to readers that many reported to me after reading The Interpreter. They were there in the room, in Kurt Berlin’s mind.
Rendering history into fictional narratives is an important and successful way to bring the past and knowledge of history to readers seeking more than facts. Facts are important and shouldn’t be altered or falsified. You can’t change the date something happened or the outcome of historical events – that’s when it becomes alternative fiction – but you can enable readers to get as close to the experience as your craft permits. I hope I’ve done that.
TBL: On your website you share recipes that are referenced in Incidents at San Miguel. What is the story behind some of them?
In addition to be an author, I am a professionally trained chef. I like to cook and I like to eat, so I expect my readers do, too. So, I include some recipes that are reflective of the story, place, and time with each book. It’s really that simple.
TBL: What’s next for you and your writing? How can people stay connected?
My last few works have examined the effects of political change on ordinary people. I’ve written about the Holocaust, communism, fascism, war. I need to do something a little lighter. My head is still spinning from the research from Incident at San Miguel. I’m working on two projects right now. The first, which requires no research, is a comic re-telling of Les Miserables, set in a retirement home in south Florida, titled Get Me Feldman. The second project, Fielder’s Choice, is a novel about baseball set in both the U.S. and the Dominican Republic. After that I plan a murder mystery. Really dark and sinister, but first I need to come up for some light and air. I’m often asked if I will write any more books set during the Holocaust. I’m not sure. It’s very taxing mentally. I have one idea lurking in the back of my head, but it has to percolate for a while. I’m also interested in doing something about American Jewish history. Perhaps a multi-generational family drama beginning back in the 1600’s and progressing through the late twentieth century. I mean if you’re gonna take on a big project…LOL