Interview with Andromeda Romano-Lax, author of The Spanish Bow
Q: The Spanish Bow is your first novel, but not your first book. In the author's note, you mention that this project was originally conceived as a work of nonfiction. What made you decide to try your hand at writing fiction?
A: The story itself seemed to demand it. What began as an interest in one real person, the cellist Pablo Casals, quickly grew into an interest in many artists and musicians -- from Pablo Picasso to Edith Piaf -- and how they responded to the political and social demands of twentieth-century Europe. (A few of those personalities made it into the book, but many of them did not; nonetheless, their life stories guided me toward universal issues.)
Even when I found some journalistic questions that begged to be answered—which might have led to writing an expose -- my mind and heart resisted. I didn't want to produce answers, unseat heroic figures, or ignite controversy; I wanted to ask potentially unanswerable questions of myself and my readers. I wanted to imagine without boundaries. And I wanted to feel. I didn't spend much time wondering if I had the ability to write fiction or sell my novel-in-progress; I was too curious about the story unfolding in my mind. I wrote the book that I wanted to read and asked the questions that wouldn't leave me alone.
Q: Feliu selects the bow as a memento of his father, while his brother, Enrique, selects a compass. Later in the novel, Feliu wonders if "the bow has chosen me or asked me to choose it or simply fallen into my hands as the result of that early waking." What do you think -- did they choose these items or were they destined to receive them?
A: I think that Al-Cerraz, the pianist, believed in personal destiny. But Feliu had mixed feelings on that subject. For him, the greatest challenge was making decisions, taking action, and taking responsibility. He is a much more burdened character, and his greatest anxiety throughout the book is that he hasn't made the right choices. Perhaps that is his destiny -- to have to choose during a difficult time where making a choice leads to sacrifice.
Q: The book explores whether or not artists should use their medium to reflect their political views. Feliu, Al-Cerraz, and Aviva all grapple with this question. While there may not be a clear-cut answer, what are your thoughts on this issue?
A: Answering that question would take more space than I have here. In fact, it would take about 560 pages! In the novel, Al-Cerraz puts his music first, believing it is the only thing that will endure. Aviva puts her personal love for another first. Feliu takes morally decisive public stands that detract from his life as a musician, but his principles are also mixed up with his ego. He not only wants to do right, he becomes attached to his reputation as a principled and revered public figure.
In real life, we can look at the examples of the controversial German/Austrian conductors Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert von Karajan. Furtwangler did not join the Nazi party and still benefited from his association with the Third Reich while von Karajan joined early and ran afoul of Hitler and the party later, for both musical and non-musical reasons. Countless other musicians had to choose whether to collaborate with dictators, when and where to perform, whether to include controversial or cultural statements within their art, and whether to use their prominence as an opportunity to speak publicly on political issues.
We can even look at a modern movie director like Michael Moore, who chose to use his 2003 Oscar -- acceptance speech as a platform for denouncing the Bush administration, a move that elicited both cheers and jeers from the audience. Artists of all kinds don't make the decision just one time -- they have to make it again and again, with varying consequences.
Q: The Spanish Bow takes place over the course of eighty years and refers to many significant historical events. How long did it take you to research the book? How did you decide which details were essential to the narrative and which ones could be left out without compromising the story you envisioned?
A: I researched as I wrote, beginning in early 2002. I completed and sold the novel in 2005 and edited it until early 2007. It was harder to stop researching than to stop writing. I continue to find historical and musical details that I would have put into the novel, given the chance. I did leave out a lot: the life stories of many other artists and musicians and entire episodes that took place elsewhere (including a section of the novel that took place in San Francisco). My editor was very helpful in making the cuts as painless as possible. I have promised myself that my next novel will be . . . ahem . . . leaner.
At the same time, I'd much rather fail on a grand scale than succeed timidly. My favorite modern authors (including Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Zadie Smith) sprawl, digress, and take risks that feel joyful on the page. Even my favorite authors who write slimmer novels take chances with every book; I'd put Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, both of whom I adore, in that category.
Q: You're obviously passionate about music. Is there something in particular about the cello that appeals to you? Do you play any other instruments in addition to the cello?
A: I love the cello for the same reason Feliu does: because its voice seems humble, human, and somehow hopeful. It's also a sensual instrument. Playing it involves your entire body and the vibrations resonate inside you. Also, the instrument itself is beautifully shaped. When I hear the cello played well, I get the same weak-kneed, fluttery, giddy feeling one gets with an adolescent crush. I don't play piano -- yet -- but my children do. They are patient teachers, so there is always a chance.
Q: You're primarily known as a journalist and travel writer, and your family often joins you on your journeys. Did they accompany you on research trips for The Spanish Bow? Have you been on any adventures recently?
A: Yes, my husband and children came with me to Puerto Rico; they flew kites among castle ruins and hunted for coqui frogs while I took cello lessons and visited archives. They also accompanied me to Europe where they visited a museum dedicated to chocolate while I was learning about period dress and touring opera houses. Together, we loved riding trains, visiting art museums, eating street food, and finding our way to the cheapest hostels. Those trips were my reward and my consolation: I figured that even if my novel was never published, I would be thrilled looking back on how much we all learned and experienced.
Our most recent trip was to England and the Middle East, where my next novel takes place. Our most adventurous segment was traveling through rural Syria, near the Iraq border, in search of remote archaeological ruins with a driver/interpreter who, contrary to our expectations, spoke very little English. He warmed to us after we made an effort to learn a little Arabic. Syrians in general were extremely friendly. In Jordan, we spent several days riding camels through Wadi Rum with a Bedouin guide. We also continue to explore Alaska, of course. Every future book idea is attached to a place we're eager to visit; Japan, Africa, and Australia are all on the wish list.
Q: What do you think you'll write next -- another novel or will you return to the nonfiction "ocean beat"?
A: I'm midway through my next novel. I continue to explore natural history and science topics in a limited way, on the side, as a way to spend time in the Alaskan wilderness. But fiction is my real passion. It's large enough to contain everything I want to say and do.
Copyright © 2007 Harcourt
Questions written by Roseleigh Navarre