The internet is the most amazing tool for writers - not just for research, but also for e-publishing and publicity. I don’t think we’ve all grasped the way it’s going to revolutionise our lives yet. My visit to Cuba and the blog diary I kept while I was there continues to have repercussions.
While I was in New Zealand, I was contacted by a publicist working for one of America’s leading Independent Publishers - they don’t call it ‘self-publishing’ (with all its vanity press associations) over there. They asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a novel set in Cuba, written by an ex-secret service operative who had once spent two months in a Cuban jail as the guest of Fidel Castro. Intrigued, I said yes and waited for Havana Harvest to arrive in the mail box. I also said that I’d like to interview the author and sent off a series of questions.
Robert Landori was born in Hungary, is multi-lingual, has a background in international finance and is a prolific story-teller (I’ll be posting my review later in the week on my book blog). He currently lives in Canada. Havana Harvest is his second thriller - the first, called Fatal Greed, is set in the murky world of Cayman Island based finance and money laundering. Both books are independently published and I was very interested to find out about Robert’s experiences with the American system. He was very generous in his responses to my questions.
When did you start writing - did you write as a child?
Never wrote a damn thing until my sophomore year at McGill. Too busy learning languages.
I spoke Hungarian and German colloquially, correctly, fluently and without an accent (a trick of the inner ear) by the time I was ten, and a governess came to the house once a week to teach me English. In 1947 my parents enrolled me in an all-French boarding school in Switzerland.
At school Robert also ‘elected to learn Spanish because it was easy.’ He goes on to say that ‘I made most of my money through speaking that language.’ One result was that he was sent to Cuba.
‘After I became a Chartered Accountant a client sent me to Cuba in 1959 because he wanted to deal with Fidel’s Government and I spoke the language, but he did not. A number of assignments in Spanish-speaking countries followed, but none involved writing. When, one day in 1986, I remonstrated with my then-girlfriend about her reading only ‘trash’ she, deeply hurt, retorted: “If you’re so smart and superior, why don’t you write a book that’s better.” I bet her that I would produce a superior novel within a year. And I did – from scratch: a 381 page thriller, called Galindo’s Turn.
Were you an avid reader?
Yes, I was. I read in Hungarian, German, English, French and Spanish.
What kind of books do you like reading?
Literally almost everything: classics, thrillers, spy stories, literary fiction, etc... Astronomy, chess, history and mathematics fascinate me and – obviously – I devour anything and everything on language.
Who are your favourite authors?
Hemingway, LeCarre, Alan Paton, Ferenc Molnar, Solshenitzyn and the late Mordechai Richler (a friend).
Have you always enjoyed story telling?
Most emphatically ‘YES’! Always have, always will. I’m a born storyteller, and good at it.
Quite a number of ex CIA and British govt agents have gone into fiction writing - John le Carre, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming to name but a few. Is this because they are forbidden to talk about their experiences and so find an outlet in writing about it?
This is not only true about the world of spooks. Players in the murky world of Mergers &, Acquisitions (one of my professions) are also restrained by contract from revealing telling details.
How much of Robert Landori is there in your main character, CIA agent Robert Lonsdale? (I note the shared history - born in Hungary and the familiarity with banking and the world of the secret services.)
Obviously, there’s a lot of Landori in Lonsdale... as well as LeCarre, Deighton and Ted Allebury.
In both Fatal Greed and Havana Harvest you weave your story around actual events. How difficult is it to combine fact and fiction in this way?
If one is a good story-teller and one has a vivid imagination it is not difficult at all. BUT, THE DEVIL IS ALWAYS IN THE DETAILS, so one has to get the background right AND THIS IS AN ART THAT ALSO REQUIRES FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE. .
On your website you talk about someone called Dania and her part in the genesis of the novel. Could you elaborate on this for readers of this blog?
Dania was a sixteen year old idealistic student in Santiago de Cuba when she was recruited into the Revolutionary Movement in 1956. Her future husband, Roberto Cisneros, and also one of her uncles – Arturo Duque de Estrada – were already members of the underground opposition organised by the student leader Frank Pais in Oriente Province with the objective of ridding Cuba of the Dictator Batista, if necessary by force.
When Fidel sent his famous message to her uncle that Fidel, his brother Raul and El Che were on their way back to Cuba from Mexico on board the yacht Gramma, Dania decided to join the guerrillas in the Sierrea Maestra. She became Raul Castro’s ‘field clerk’ and fought alongside him.
In December 1958, while working at setting up a fifth column in Havana on Fidel’s orders, Dania and her husband were captured by Batista’s secret police. She was nine months pregnant and gave birth to a daughter in prison. In great pain, she escaped a few hours after giving birth with the help of the prison’s doctor. Had she not done so she would have been shot the next day, as would have been her husband.
Her husband was severely tortured to the point where he never recovered his sanity completely. Totally disillusioned by the way the Revolution became compromised and turned into a dictatorship he, like so many other idealistic members of the July 26th Movement, committed suicide by immolating himself in front of his children.
In 1968, Dania and I were arrested while we were having lunch at the Havana Libre (previously Hilton) Hotel. I was accused of spying and was kept in solitary for 66 days. She was charged with nothing and let go the next day, BUT she was fired from her job and could not find employment (except as maid, or dish washer or waitress) for about four years. Finally rehabilitated in 1972, she married again and worked as a senior official in the Ministry of Tourism until her retirement.
She left Cuba in 1990 after giving up her pension and her apartment, and went to live in the US with her parents and sisters.
In 1993 she gave me a book to read: Case Number 1 of the Year 1989 – the Trial and Execution of Arnaldo Tomas Ochoa Sanchez, also known as El Moro (because of his dark skin). I felt that Ochoa had been treated unfairly. It seemed to me that Fidel and Raul had known all the time about Cuba’s involvement in drug trafficking and arms dealing and that Ochoa had committed no crime that merited the death penalty.
By writing HAVANA HARVEST I tried to right – at least partially – a great injustice.
YOU SHOULD RESEARCH THE OCHOA CASE IF YOU HAVE TIME!
Having just been to Cuba to meet some Cuban writers I’m interested in your take on the country’s current political situation and the direction it is moving in. What do you see as the future for Cuba?
Fidel has recently announced (although he recanted later) that his economic model is not working. He’s right. An industrious, imaginative and independent-minded people, like the Cubans, are far too enterprising to live within a centrally controlled economy.
After the disappearance of the present geriatric leadership (within the next five years) Cuba will quickly morphe into a Social Democratic state similar to what the Province of Quebec is like today: strong entrepreneurship through small and medium-sized businesses active in the agricultural and hospitality industries, in other words, tobacco, sugarcane, rum distilling, market gardening and floral produce, cattle and horse breeding, at one end, and hotels, restaurants, etc... at the other.
Two new industries may become a factor: off-shore banking and health services.
It is likely that Cuba will make serious inroads into the revenues of islands such as Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda etc...
Partly due to the current publishing crisis, there is tremendous interest in independent publishing in Europe at the moment. This doesn’t just apply to first time authors, - quite a number of well established authors are bringing out their own work. What advice would you give authors thinking of doing this?
By all means self-publish, but make sure that you buy the best of the industry – a house that has strong, wide-ranging and EFFICIENT distribution facilities. This costs money, so don’t venture into the self-publishing field unless you have at least $50,000 to throw at the project.
How did you choose Greenleaf Publishing? Did you try any commercial publishers first and if so, what was their reaction?
Commercial publishers and their gate-keepers, the literary agents, are swamped by good material and unless one has a friend in the business, or one gets to be very lucky, one is bound to be rejected. (Even F. Scott Fitzgerald had to publish his own stuff).
I am proud to say that I had over 70 rejection letters from publishers and literary agents. Altogether I have written six books of which only two have been published
Everybody is writing books these days, so what you need to do is to find a publicist who can create a brand name out of your name, thereby separating you from the run-of-the-mill. I was fortunate to meet such a person: Sarah Wilson. She was the one who introduced me to the Greenleaf Group.
Publicity and getting books into the book retailers is always the hardest part. How do you go about this?
Like John Grisham, I packed a bunch of copies of my first published book into the trunk of my car and went from book store to book store across Canada and the North-Eastern Sates of the US. I met over 20,000 people who told me what they looked for in the type of books I was writing.
My latest book is promoted by Sarah Wilson through blogging, supported by a modest advertising budget. I also lecture frequently on Money Laundering and Terrorism and appear on radio and television whenever I can.
In other words, I beat my own drum constantly and furiously.
What’s the next project? (If you’re able to talk about it, that is!)
I’m in the process of writing a sequel to Fatal Greed, my first published book.
I’m also in the process of arranging for a digital (electronic) version of Havana Harvest.
Is there anything you would like to say that isn’t covered by the questions I’ve just asked - feel free to add any comments that you want to.
TO SUCCEED IN THIS BUSINESS YOU MUST HAVE
1. TALENT TO WRITE WELL,
2. IMAGINATION TO CREATE GOOD PLOTS,
3. PERSEVERANCE AND DETERMINATION,
4. DISCIPLINE AND DEDICATION TO WORKING HARD,
5. ENOUGH MONEY TO SUSTAIN YOU WHILE YOU ARE WRITING, PRODUCING AND PUBLICIZING YOUR BOOK,
6. PERSONALITY AND A STRONG EGO THAT ENABLE YOU TO SELL YOURSELF.
Havana Harvest is published by Greenleaf Publishing, part of the Emerald Book Company