Conversation with the Author
Q. When did you start writing?
A. When I got out of college, I took a job as assistant to the president of a small Manhattan public relations firm. Our clients included many of the nation’s top magazines. I nagged the president for the opportunity to write press releases, but he refused saying, “Everybody thinks they can write, but very few people can.”
Once, when he was out sick, I took it upon myself to write a press release on a breaking political story. It was picked up by all major media outlets, and appeared on the evening news networks.
When my employer saw the story on television, he thought another firm had written and distributed the news release. He feared he had lost a big account. When he learned what had happened, he berated me for taking charge and then promptly promoted me to staff writer. Go figure!
Q. What inspired you to write your novel?
A. At one time in my life I had started to write a novel about Catherine the Great, but life intervened and the project got sidelined. I wasn’t even thinking about writing a book when I was approached by the protagonist’s daughter, a colleague of mine at work. She said her father had lived a fascinating life, and she was looking for someone to write his story as part of their family history. Once she told me a little about it, I volunteered.
Frank and I met over dinner, and I sensed within an hour that he had a dynamite story to tell. We began meeting once a week and, as his gripping story unfolded, I realized it had it all: romance, adventure, history, politics, and suspense—the works.
I began reading Cuban history and realized that Frank was providing me with a glimpse into little known aspects of Cuban life that would appeal to a wide audience— thriller lovers, romance fans, historical fiction buffs—anyone who loved a compelling, fast-paced read.
I thought the book would resonate with both sexes and various age groups and would be helpful for those hoping to gain insight into this important period in history. I hoped it would be especially interesting to descendants of Cuban immigrants curious about living conditions that might have prompted their relatives to flee Cuba.
I wanted the book to be easy to read, rich in detail, and replete with scenes vivid enough to remember. I hoped this slice of Frank’s life would shed some light the culture of oppression under Fidel Castro’s regime.
Q. How did you use your life experiences or professional background to enrich your story?
A. I come from a big Irish family, which says a lot. Everybody is a great storyteller, and we are always jockeying for airtime. During Christmas we put on a family show where we dress in costumes and act out a song, a poem or a skit that we’ve written in accordance with a pre-determined theme. The acts go on for hours. We’ve been doing this for years and it really sparks creativity.
Professionally, my magazine writing and corporate communications background disciplined me to keep my writing descriptive and spare. I was a history major in college which helped me to structure the historical context for the book.
Q. Is your novel more plot driven or character driven?
A. That’s a tough question. Frank is a strong, engaging character who is dealing with momentous decisions at a tender age. Beginning in his early teens, his life is impacted by political events that help inform his decision to defect from the army and follow his girlfriend to America. He enjoys a strong relationship with his family, especially his grandfather, which will resonate with many people. The story really revolves around him.
On the other hand, the plot is so compelling that people tell me that they can’t put the book down. The drama stems from the tension between Frank’s needs and desires and outside events over which he has no control. I don’t know how you can separate the two. I leave it to my readers to decide.
Q. Who is your favorite or most sympathetic character? And why?
A. Frank is by far my favorite character. He is smart, determined and willing to risk everything for love. His ability to make life and death decisions at such a young age was remarkable. I hope I did his character justice.
I was also much taken with Abuelo, Frank’s grandfather, who taught him to read the currents, the wind and the stars, skills that helped Frank finally escape to freedom. He was a wise old man and his love for his grandson was endearing.
Q. Who was your least sympathetic character? And why?
A. Frank’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Pino, takes it—hands down. He was so ego-driven that he shot himself in the foot by failing to follow protocol in trying to apprehend Frank.
Frank and Pino were engaged in an epic battle of wills, and it was amazing that Frank was able to outsmart not only him but so many members of Cuba’s special forces. The interaction between the two characters is riveting.
Q. What part of writing your book was most challenging?
A. During our interviews Frank recreated scenes and dialogue so well that I felt the first-person narrative would be the most effective way to tell his story. This provides the reader with a sense of immediacy that would be missing if the material were handled differently. But it left me wondering how to write the scenes where Frank wasn’t present without interrupting the book’s tone and rhythm. Finally, I decided to fictionalize those parts, making the book into a true-life novel rather than a memoir.
Q. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A. This book provides readers with a wonderful opportunity to learn about everyday life in Cuba during a fascinating historical period. Before interviewing Frank, I did not know about the existence of Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and other ways Fidel’s policies impacted Cuban citizens.
Since most Americans have been unable to visit Cuba for decades, Frank’s story provides us with a rare glimpse into the workings of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Through the help of family and friends, Frank was able to avoid capture during a massive manhunt that lasted nearly five months. Through his ingenuity and quick thinking, he was able to overcome great odds during three harrowing escape attempts. And through the power of faith, hope and perseverance, he was able to attain his goal. I hope Frank’s story will inspire those struggling with problems of their own.
Q. How do you dial up the tension to keep your readers on the edge of their seats?
A. This story is so inherently suspenseful that it would be difficult for readers not to be on the edge of their seats. It is full of twists and turns that take us to unexpected places.
My biggest issue was how to tell Frank’s story in a way that would do his drama justice. In many ways the book is a memoir but, as I said, there were issues with events that could not be verified. Frank could attest to events and dialogue that he witnessed. But he could only surmise what had occurred in scenes where he was not present, or where he learned of events through family or friends after the fact.
For instance, when Frank was escaping at sea, he saw the Cuban coast guard coming after him. Knowing the people involved, he could surmise what was happening back at the coast guard station. His friend, Lazo, who was present at the station at the time, subsequently told Frank what had happened. But Frank did not witness these events himself. In the spring of 2012, Frank traveled to Cuba to look up his old friend, but Lazo’s house and been demolished and he was nowhere to be found. To make this scene as suspenseful as possible, I fictionalized it to read as it was told to Frank.
I also struggled with how to treat the historical aspects of Frank’s story. Many readers like their history in small doses, so I tried to weave history into the story in a way that would organically advance the narrative.
Finally, I worked on mechanics such as where to end chapters, and how to flesh out an idea while maintaining maximum momentum.
Q. What writers have inspired you?
A. There are too many to name. Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes is a compelling story about bullying and violence. Her writing is crisp, clear and imaginative. Shantaram by Gregory David Robert took my breath away. Stephen King, Anne Rice, Ken Follett, Joyce Carol Oates, Daniel Silva are all mind boggling. I’ve recently read and loved Gone Girl, The Healing, and The Silver Linings Playbook. And then there’s poetry…Kudos to Natasha Trethewey for being named Poet Laureate of the United States. Writers are inspiring in different ways.
Q. What is the writing process like for you?
A. Since reading is the basis for writing, I read a range of genres. I mark up my books with a vengeance and will not read anything without a pen or pencil in hand. I buy used or discarded library books so I feel less guilty about their desecration. I make copious notes in margins, highlight words I don’t know, and underline unusual verbiage. I’m always thrilled with an original turn of phrase.
Many writers suffer from writer’s block or procrastination, and I’m no exception. I’m a firm believer in perspiration rather than inspiration. I find that just sitting at my computer helps to get me started. I like to write in the morning when I’m fresh, revise in the afternoon, and edit a hard copy while watching TV at night. I keep a notebook by my bedside in case I get inspired by a dream. Writing is difficult but when I’m in “the zone”, there’s nothing like it.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice about writing you’ve ever received?
A. Edit, edit, edit. It’s amazing how many times you can look at something and still find things that must be improved or fixed.
Q. What’s the worst piece of advice about writing you’ve ever received?
A. “It’s a waste of time; it’s too difficult to get published.” Yes, it is difficult to get published, but writing is never a waste of time, even if you do it for your own gratification and pleasure. Writing is therapeutic. And there is so much satisfaction to be had when someone reads and likes your work.
Q. What’s next for you? Any new books in the pipeline?
A. I’ve just finished writing the sequel to The Boy Who Said No. It answers many questions raised in my first book. What’s next for Frank after he gets to the States? Do Frank and Magda get married? What happens to Lieutenant Pino? The second book contains as much adventure as the first, with Frank facing an immigrant’s worst nightmare. He believes he has escaped sinister forces in Cuba, but he is wrong. Let’s just say that his escape skills come in handy. I won’t go into the plot line, but book’s working title is Stalked.
Q. Any final words you would like to say about yourself, your novel or life in general?
A. I was very fortunate to meet Frank Mederos and was privileged to tell his amazing story. He has led a remarkable life and remains a remarkable individual.
My advice to anyone starting a creative endeavor is to believe in yourself, enjoy the process, and try to maintain your focus.