Sunday, 20 December 2015

I've been in love with the cello since I was a child...

Interview with Andromeda Romano-Lax
by Agnes A. Rose

Andromeda Romano-Lax was born in 1970 in Chicago. Before she decided to create fiction she had worked as a freelance journalist and travel writer. Her first novel – “The Spanish Bow” – was hailed the international bestseller and so far it has been translated into many languages. Her second novel – “The Detour” – was released in 2012. She is also the author of nonfiction books which are related to her traveling. Among these books we can mention for example: “Walking Southeast Alaska: Scenic Walks and Easy Hikes for Inside Passage Travelers” (1997), “Searching for Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja's Desert Coast” (2002), “Alaska's Kenai Peninsula: A Traveler's Guide” (2001) and others. Andromeda lives with her family in Anchorage (Alaska), where she co-founded and now teaches for a nonprofit organization. Her next novel – “Behave” – is going to be published in USA in March 2016.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you very much for your accepting my invitation to take part in this interview. So far in Poland two of your books have been published. There are “The Spanish Bow” and “The Detour”. Let’s start our conversation with talking about the first one. I read that you wrote this novel because you had been inspired by the Pablo Casals’ life. Could you tell us how you found the biography of this eminent cellist and what was so special about his life that you decided to create a main character based on him?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: I first became aware of Casals due to his performance of the Bach Cello Suites and only later came to know about his life story. My first research stage involved traveling to Puerto Rico (where Casals spent the end of his life) to learn as much as I could about him, originally intending it to be a nonfiction project. This was just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, a time when I, like many people, was looking for heroes and stories of hope and beauty. I was fascinated by the political position Casals took against the dictator Franco, even when it meant sacrificing his own performing pleasure in order to make a public statement. The project evolved into fiction in order to embrace other characters and situations beyond Casals's own life. The intersection of politics and arts, and the question of personal sacrifice and its unintended consequences, impelled me to write The Spanish Bow.

Agnes A, Rose: How many common features do Feliu Delargo and Pablo Casals have and how much different are they?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: Both are Catalan (Pablo's Catalan name was Pau, by the way), both share royal patronage (but by different queens), both possess a gem-studded bow and Republican political views. However, Pablo Casals was born in 1867, while the fictional Feliu was born in 1892 and in the novel comes into contact with different musicians and politicians. There are other differences that I explore in my author note and website. One of the things I loved about the novel is the greater flexibility it allows in combining experience and imagination, facts and fiction.

Agnes A. Rose: In your novel you revived a few historical heroes such as Francisco Franco, Kurt Weill, Pablo Picasso, Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, and others. Could you tell us something about your historical researching?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: Well, I love history, and I love research, including library and archival research, which invariably leads in unexpected directions. I never expected to include Kurt Weill in my novel, for example, and getting to learn more about Pablo Picasso and Queen Ena was a huge treat. My favorite kind of research involves travel to the places where a historical figure lived. Absorbing the landscape and culture, talking to local people, eating local foods, touring buildings, and serendipitous encounters are all part of the reward for writing historical fiction.

Agnes A. Rose: The friendship between Feliu Delargo and Justo Al-Cerraz is very strong. Feliu is quite sure that he knows Justo very well. While reading I had a feeling that the pianist was rather a mysterious character and he did not reveal his authentic thoughts. Could you tell us what inspired you to create Justo Al-Cerraz? Is he completely fictional or maybe did you model on anyone special?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: Justo Al-Cerraz is also a composite, inspired by another musician, the pianist Albeniz, who lived in an earlier time period. He is – intentionally – a person who is not in touch with his own authenticity, but in the end, he was one of the most fun characters to write about. The character Al-Cerraz is a passionate searcher, full of joie de vivre, and though I first intended him to be an antagonist to the more noble Feliu, Al-Cerraz won me over. 

Agnes A. Rose: Feliu Delargo is very clearly opposed to the Francisco Franco’s politics. His disaffection is so huge that he wants to play the cello in public no longer. Do you think that this kind of manifesting of his reluctance is good for the public who really loves the virtuoso? Does a musician generally have the right to leave his/her performances on the stage because of his/her beliefs?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: Those are great questions, and ones I hope every reader will consider, but I'm not going to answer them, because I want to leave them up to the reader to decide!

Agnes A. Rose: Have you ever been to Spain? If so, what did you like best in this country?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: I first visited Spain when I was 15, traveling alone, and the time I spent in Barcelona made a huge impression on me. I returned for a longer trip in 2003 to do research for the novel. What do I like about Spain? Too many things to say here, but the first things that come to mind in no particular order are: the art (from Goya to Picasso), the literature (including Don Quixote), the fantastic museums, the Arabic influence especially in terms of architecture and music, the Spanish language, tapas and Spanish liqueurs, and a history that touches nearly every part of the world.

Agnes A. Rose: I know that you are a cellist just like Feliu Delargo and Pablo Casals. What motivated you to learn to play the cello? How long has your love for this musical instrument been lasting?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: I've been in love with the cello since I was a child, and I've played off and on nearly my whole life. I am no more than a beginner, however. Writing The Spanish Bow gave me a great excuse to spend time studying and practicing for a concentrated period of time, and any frustration I had about not being a skilled musician I was able to direct into describing the expert cello-playing of other people. I set aside music lessons (and sold two cellos – a wooden instrument and a carbon-fiber one) a few years ago in order to devote time to other forms of research, study and travel. But when I finish my next two books and accomplish a few other goals I plan to buy another cello and start all over again. I miss it too much. My dream has always been to play the full Bach Cello Suites – or even one movement tolerably well!

Agnes A. Rose: Now let me ask you about your second novel “The Detour”. This book tells us the story of Ernst Vogler who is twenty-four years old and he is German. One day he is sent to Italy by his employer. In this book you go back to the Second World War but the war is only the background. In the first place we can see the main character. What did you want to convey to your readers deciding to create Ernst Vogler?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: If I wanted to convey one thing, it was the difficulty of moral decision-making, especially during this time period, which is so often obscured to us now that we are looking back on World War II, rather than living in the years leading up to it. Ernst is naive, somewhat passive, and troubled. He is not a hero. I am rather suspicious of novels about perfect heroes. I don't think they help us understand how it is to live in difficult times, affected by factors beyond our control, making hard choices without the benefit of hindsight.

Agnes A. Rose: As far as I am concerned I treat classical music as a work of art. Both in “The Spanish Bow” and “The Detour” you focus on different kinds of art. I think that your choice of the novels’ subject was not random. Why is art so important for you?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: First of all, I simply love art. Great art crosses boundaries of time and space, communicates what language cannot, makes the past come to life, unites, inspires, and endures. But art doesn't solve all problems and in a strange way, many of the 20th century's worst demagogues have used art to do great harm. In my first two novels, I ended up examining the way art's symbolism and power can be abused.

Agnes A. Rose: Which of these two books was more difficult for you to write and why?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: The Spanish Bow was the easiest because I wrote it entirely without expectations, for my own pleasure, without thoughts of any audience. The Detour was harder because I was writing about similar themes but trying very purposefully to tell the story in a different way and I was more aware of the challenges I was facing, in making a story about a 1930s German man who is serving the Reich appropriately palatable to the reader. The Spanish Bow is an homage to Don Quixote. It is a denser and purposefully episodic work that is meant to reflect its Spanish subject. The Detour is an homage to both classical Italian art and Italian cinema, in a sense. It is a much slimmer book, and written more in the fashion of a screenplay, to tell a more explicitly visual story.

Agnes A. Rose: Andromeda, before you started writing your fiction you had published several books about Alaska. Could you tell us something more about these works?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: My Alaska writing is nonfiction, mostly about the 49th state's wild public lands. Alaska is an amazing place and I've enjoyed helping interpret some of its natural wonders for the public. (I love science and nature as well as art and history!)

Agnes A. Rose: In a few months your readers in America will be able to read your newest book “Behave”. Could you tell us what is this novel about and how did your work on it look like?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: Behave tells the story of Rosalie Rayner Watson, a woman mostly forgotten by history, who was the lover/wife and assistant to John Watson, one of the 20th century's most influential pioneers of psychology. Aside from its subject matter – psychology, parenting, and the birth of modern advertising – it is a story of love, scandal, regret and reckoning. This is my first published novel set in America and I'm grateful to the main character for teaching me, so to speak, what it was like to be a woman in the fast-moving 1920s.

Agnes A. Rose: As shown above now you write historical novels. Have you ever thought about writing a fictionalized biography of a famous queen or princess? I notice that this kind of books is very trendy among writers at present.

Andromeda Romano-Lax: That's an interesting question, and the fact that a very fast "no!" jumped to my mind helps me understand and explain my own interests better! I am less interested in truly famous, well-known, glamorous or undeniably heroic people than I am in people who are forgotten, misunderstood, flawed, and more ambiguous.

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have an idea for another book? If so, could you tell us a little bit about your next project?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: I have many more ideas for books and not enough time to write them all. I am nearly finished with drafting the next, which takes place in the past as well as the future, set in Taiwan and Japan. It's a very different kind of story, involving neither art nor science, but it does involve other time periods and jumping between the 1930s and 2030s, which was great fun.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you once again for this conversation. I am very happy about our interview. Is there anything you would like to add and tell your Polish readers?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: I'd love to tell my Polish readers that I'm grateful for their interest and especially appreciative of the Polish public's interest in classical music, art, politics and history. Thank you, Agnes. It was a pleasure.

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here.