In another post I reviewed Venceremos, a novel based on 1960s radicals. I have asked the author, Howard Waxman to tell us about the work, his background, his methods, and his thoughts.
Brooklyn-born Jay Cardinale, Vietnam War hero turned deserter, has fled to a commune in Canada. Aching to get back home he gets his shot at redemption in the form of a Faustian bargain: he can have a full pardon if he’ll go to Cuba and assassinate an American radical living there in exile. Jay says “no” only to discover he has no choice. He becomes a last-minute addition to the Venceremos Brigade, a group of idealistic Americans leftists heading south to work side-by-side with the Cubans in their vital sugar cane harvest. Once there, Jay cuts cane, finds love, is immersed in radical politics, plots murder, makes Fidel laugh, turns twenty-one, and becomes a new man. Amazon Purchase Link
“Waxman’s portrayal of hippies, communes, rich kids pretending to be activists, alongside dedicated bombers, hard-core Weathermen, communists, socialists, informers and government agents is gripping for it exposes the failure of youthful naiveté and idealism to overthrow political reality.” — From Review of Venceremos – BUSHNELL ON BOOKS – Kennebunk Journal, Maine
Howard Waxman spent the 1960s in the radical theater movement. He was a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the revolutionary film collective San Francisco Newsreel and a co-founder of Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. His plays, including Knuckle Sandwich, Punk Rock, Joan La Poucelle, and Landslide, have been produced by The Lion Theater Company on New York’s Theater Row, at the Vietnam Veterans Theater in NYC, and at Broom Street Theater and Wisconsin Mime Theater. He is a two-time winner of the Wisconsin Arts Board Playwriting Fellowship and has also served as theater critic for weekly Variety. His political column “Scoundrel Time” was featured in the Lake Champlain Weekly. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, he lived in San Francisco, Santa Fe, Manhattan, Madison, WI and rural New York State before settling in beautiful Bath, Maine. Venceremos is his first novel.
- 1. Why do you write?
As a child I always had characters in my head improvising dialogue, mostly my own version of characters from TV and movies acting out variations on what I had seen. As I got older I made up my own characters and began to write them down in their own stories. I think my work is very dialogue driven.
- 2. What are you most afraid of? Does this inspire any part of your writing?
Right now I am most afraid of falling on the ice. I usually take one big flop each winter and it’s getting harder and harder to recover. Not sure if that has anything to do with my writing.
- 3. What sources did you use in writing about Cuba and cutting cane?
There were two main written sources: “Venceremos Brigade,” a collection of writings by members of the First and Second Brigades that included a map of the camp where they lived and descriptions of the work and relationships; and Cuba Journal, by poet Joel Sloman, a member of the Second Brigade, which is in diary form and has the exact dates of when they left Canada, arrived in Cuba, had days off, etc. which helped me shape the timeline of my story. In addition, I did a fair amount of online and hard copy research about the Brigade and Cuba in 1970 as well as interviewing people who had been in Cuba around that time for non-Brigade reasons. The political stuff is out of my own experiences and perceptions from that time.
- 4. Which of your secondary characters has been your favorite to develop?
I was very fond of Geronimo, the Weatherman who is part of the Brigade and Jay’s rival when it came to cutting cane. He was sort of a compilation of the “Action Faction” types I knew in the 1960s, many of whom came from wealthy homes and had little respect for or understanding of the working class.
5. Have you gotten emotional while writing? If so, what has been the most emotional part of your book to write?
I get emotional when I do readings but not much while writing.
6. Are you completely happy with the first person POV your employed in Venceremos?
First time I tried it and yes, it worked well for me. I loved being Jay when I was writing the book. He is a better person than me and it was good to be him while writing. I love doing readings from the book for the same reason. Reading his words makes me feel young and hopeful.
- 7. What do you consider to be your ideal writing environment?
Looking out over a large body of water from a balcony or terrace. I’ve had it happen a few times in Italy, Greece, and on the Gaspé Peninsula. Looking out the window of a moving train or even a bus is also good for me.
- 8. Of character development, description, and plot– which was the most challenging in writing Venceremos? Why?
Description is always hardest for me. Characters emerge and develop on their own – it’s just the way my brain works. I just have to get out of their way and write down what they say. Plot flows from character. I will have a story idea but how it develops is all up to the characters doing what they must do given who they are. So describing a field or the sky or a building or clothing is where I have to actually work at writing.
- 9. What marketing and promotion have you done since Venceremos was released?
I did readings around Midcoast, visited bookstores, sent copies to reviewers. That was all in the first year. Not much else since except the movie script stuff (see Question 13 below).
- 10. What is your favorite novel? Why?
I think “Sentimental Education” is my favorite. The way Flaubert captures human frailty but with a forgiveness and understanding that is all we can hope for in this world. I love a bunch of other big books like “Les Miserables,” “Three Musketeers,” Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Anna Karenina,” and “McTeague.” Wish I could write big like that. But I’m also a sucker for Somerset Maugham, especially “The Razor’s Edge” and for Mark Twain and one of the largely forgotten incredibly great American writers, William Dean Howells. Add in Robert Louis Stevenson, who probably more than anyone else made me want to become a writer when I was very, very young. And lately Elmore Leonard, who let me feel comfortable trusting my characters.
- 11. What about the theatre world informs your novel?
I write dialogue, or rather, I channel dialogue from the characters, and that is at the core of my novel writing. I also envision action as if I were directing a scene on stage or for a film.
- 12. Who is your favorite playwright?
Toss-up between Chekhov and Brecht, with Clifford Odets in the ring as referee.
- 13. What future projects are in the works?
I have a screenplay of Venceremos for which a lovely young would-be producer out in Hollywood is trying to raise money; I am updating a movie script I wrote with my writing partners a dozen years ago, which a different producer is looking to raise money to produce; I’m turning a play I wrote eight years ago into a TV movie script at the suggestion of my brother who thinks he can sell it as a cable TV miniseries; and I have half a new play written, which is what I would most like to be working on. On top of that there is at least one sequel to Venceremos in my mind, a thriller set here in Bath, and an historical novel (or maybe a screenplay) about a character from American folklore (who really existed) who has always fascinated me and about whom I have done a load of initial research. Two old movie scripts in the drawer that need some updating but otherwise ready to show if either of the producers can sell either of the scripts they have now. I’m also giving a workshop called “Reading With Conviction” on Feb. 9 for Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Did it once before and it seemed to be of value to the participants so we are going to do it again!
- 14. What does your writing/editing process entail?
When I get started I try to write at least one page a day of fiction and 2-3 pages if a script. I prefer to write first thing but can’t always and then will rite before I go to bed just to stay on schedule. My wife hates when I say this, but if you write one page a day, you have a full-length novel at the end of a year. I edit as I go along, changing what I write the day before and then adding a new page. I will move scenes around as I realize they should be moved and make major cuts or additions as they come to mind. When I have about 50 pages or so, I’ll give it to Lisa, my wife, and couple of friends for some feedback. When I’m done, I wil read through, make some changes that I think need to be made then give it to the same people plus a handful of other smart readers I know for their reaction.
- 15. Is there anything else you want your potential readers to know?
Not every book is for every reader but this has had good reaction from many different types of people. Younger readers like the take I have on the 1960s and find it kind of eye-opening and older readers like being taken back to that time and being reminded of their own coming of age experiences. I really wanted to be a serious, deep, philosophical writer offering original perceptions of the human condition. Instead it seems I have a talent for creating low rent entertainment. I accept who I am. After all, it could be a lot worse.
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