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John Thorndike grew up in New England, graduated from Harvard, took an MA from Columbia, then lit out for Latin America. He spent two years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, then married Clarisa Rubio and moved to a backcountry farm in Chile, living beyond the reach of cars, telephones and electricity. After several years in Chile and Central America, he returned to the U.S. with his son and settled in Athens, Ohio. For ten years his day job was farming. Then it was construction. His first novel was Anna Delaney’s Child, and his second The Potato Baron. His third book was a memoir, Another Way Home, about raising his son after his wife was overtaken by schizophrenia. A second memoir followed: The Last of His Mind, about his father’s descent into Alzheimer’s. A Hundred Fires in Cuba is his latest novel, and he’s at work on the next one, a half-fictional evocation of his mother’s life.
John Thorndike grew up in Westport, Connecticut. His mother was an anesthesiologist, his father an editor and writer, and the house was filled with books. He graduated from Harvard, then took an MA from Columbia. Following two years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, he married Clarisa Rubio and spent five more years in Latin America, including two on a backcountry farm in Chile, raising chickens and growing potatoes as they pursued the ultimate back-to-the-land experience of the Seventies.
Separated from his wife and settled with his young son in Athens, Ohio, Thorndike began to write in earnest. He published more than a hundred articles, reviews and columns for Horticulture, Country Journal, Fine Homebuilding, and The Boulder Daily Camera. His first novel, Anna Delaney’s Child, about a woman whose son dies in a car crash, was published in 1986. His second, The Potato Baron, about a man trying to hold his family together on their farm in northern Maine, appeared three years later. His 1996 memoir, Another Way Home, described his wife’s descent into schizophrenia, and the years he spent raising his son.
In the fall of 2004 Thorndike found that his father’s memory was failing and his confusion growing. To keep him out of a nursing home, John left Ohio and moved to Cape Cod, living with his father until the ninety-two-year-old Joe Thorndike died, in his son’s arms, of congestive heart failure and complications from Alzheimer’s. The book that followed, The Last of His Mind, A Year in The Shadow of Alzheimer’s, is a memoir about the dementia that stripped his father of language, memory and self-awareness. A Hundred Fires in Cuba is his latest novel, and he’s at work on the next one, a half-fictional evocation of his mother’s life.
John Thorndike is the author of two earlier novels and a pair of memoirs, the most recent about his father’s final year with Alzheimer’s. Thorndike has lived in El Salvador and Chile, and traveled widely in Latinamerica. A Hundred Fires in Cuba takes place during the early years of the Revolution there.
What led you to this story?
My mother. She died when I was thirty and I always wanted to save her—which meant writing about her. When I look back at my first notes for this book, which I made over a quarter century ago, I can see that even then I was trying to come up with some man who might keep her alive. The first candidates were unlikely, and it was years before I settled on Camilo Cienfuegos.
Camilo is real, he’s an historical figure—but did your mother know him?
No, that’s all invented. One of the pleasures of a novel is stealing what you want from life, and I found Camilo intriguing. Few people in the U.S. know his name, but in Cuba everyone does. He was one of Fidel’s first comandantes, and when the Revolution took power on January 1st, 1959, he was named head of the Cuban Army. But in October of that year his small Cessna disappeared on a routine flight to Havana, and no trace of him or the plane was ever found.
So why Camilo? Why not Che Guevara?
Che is too well-known. Besides, he was far too somber and doctrinaire. Camilo liked to dance and drink, which Fidel and Che and Raúl all frowned on. He was handsome, and women loved him. In the Sierra he was famous for his jokes and good spirits, always a lively guy. The first time I read his name he was hoping to board the Granma, the yacht that took eighty-two men from Mexico to Cuba to start the Revolution. The boat was overloaded with guns and ammunition and diesel fuel, and there wasn’t enough room for all the men who’d been trained. Dozens were being left behind, but Camilo, who was slight of build, stepped in front of Fidel and said, “Take me because I’m skinny and I’ll fit.” He was the last man let on board, and one of few who survived the landing.
Is Camilo anything like your father?
Not at all! This story is kind of a parallel reality to my mother’s life. She had a good run with my father, but it ended badly and she died at the age of fifty-seven. My idea was to go back and give her a second chance, a second life. One day I read that Camilo had worked as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant, and right then I thought: My mother could have met him there. I lifted him up to line cook and put him in an elite kitchen, which is where Clare Miller finds him. Clare is the young American photographer modeled on my mother.
The two of them have a passionate time in New York, and even more so in Cuba. Was it ever awkward, writing intimate scenes about your mother?
Not really. Probably that’s because the longer I worked on the book, the more Clare changed and became not my mother. I started out imagining her as the young woman my mother might have been in her early twenties, before she met my father. But after she meets Camilo she grows into someone else, and slowly I had to let her go. This must happen to writers all the time. The characters change, the story takes over, and you give in to it. I’m happy with Clare, and my next book will say close to my mother’s actual history. Or so I imagine it now.
Do you commonly work on more than one book at a time?
I always have the next one in mind. I might not start writing it, but I think about it and take notes. That’s the easy part, the swirl of characters and scenes. Usually, when I’m down to the final draft on one book, some kind of plot emerges for the next one. Then the shotgun first draft, and after that the rewriting, which for me is ninety-five percent of the work.
Much of A Hundred Fires in Cuba is seen through Clare’s eyes. Are you comfortable with writing from a woman’s point of view?
I gravitate to that. As a man, it feels that my essential job is to understand women and what happens to them. That might sound a little grandiose, so let’s keep it to my mother. My whole life I’ve wanted to know how she felt, what made her the way she was. Why did she become a doctor? What led her to hold bak from me and my brother, and why did she leave my father? Something drove her, and I want to know what it was.
Camilo’s name, Cienfuegos, means hundred fires, right?
Yes, cien fuegos. I lucked out with that one, don’t you think? It would be hard to find a better name for a novel’s hero. He could have been a López or García, any old common name..
How close to you stick to his actual history?
Aside from his love affair with Clare, almost everything about his time as a Cuban revolutionary is true to life. When Raúl pulls a gun on him, or when he flies to England to buy some jet planes, or when Fidel asks him in the middle of a speech, ¿Voy bien, Camilo?—all that actually happened. That’s a famous line in Cuba, when Fidel asked him during a speech, How am I doing, Camilo? In that time he was better-known and better-loved than Che. He was a man of the people, he went to school through the eighth grade, his parents were tailors whose small house sits unchanged to this day in Havana’s Barrio Lawton. Researching all that was fun. But there was also plenty to invent: the love affair, the dialogue, all kinds of conflict.
What about Camilo’s death and the controversy that followed?
All we know for sure is that on October 28th, 1959, Camilo and his pilot took off from the city of Camagüey at 6:01 in the evening in a small, twin-engined Cessna, and that was the end of them. In Cuba most people will tell you that a storm came up and blew them out over the the ocean. Most Cuban exiles in this country are convinced that Fidel had him killed. He was too popular, they say, and no communist, and thus a danger to Fidel.
What do you think?
I’ve read everything I could find about his disappearance, and there’s no solid evidence either way. Fidel killed plenty of others who stood in his way, and in the book, Clare is convinced that he had Camilo killed. But I don’t have to solve that problem. For me, his disappearance is a liberation. When I first read about it I thought, This is perfect for a novel. I thought, He’s mine now. Or he’s Clare’s, and from that point on I didn’t have to worry about staying true to history.
Have you been to Cuba?
I had a great time there. I went almost everywhere I’d set a scene in the book. I’d read plenty about Cuba and the Revolution: Tad Szulc and Hugh Thomas and Tom Miller and Carlos Franqui’s biography of Camilo, along with dozens of other books. Franqui’s biography is a lovely read, but it’s incredibly thin about Camilo’s actual life. In an outdoor stall in Havana I found a battered old copy of William Galvez’s Camilo: Señor de la Vanguardia, and that was a fascination, even though Galvez never wanders from the official line. He reports on lots of long and enthusiastic speeches—but Camilo was a believer.
How’s your Spanish?
Pretty good, though it used to be better. For a couple of years, living in Chile with my wife, I spoke more Spanish than English. Since then there’s been some erosion. I do well in Costa Rica or Colombia, where everyone speaks so clearly, but in Cuba I can’t follow half of what I hear in the streets. If I listen to an old speech by Fidel I understand every word, because of how emphatic and clear he is. It’s a thrill to hear him address one of his massive crowds. But in daily speech, Cubans tend to swallow or shorten half their words, and it can be a trial. I think if I lived there for a few months I’d get the hang of it.
What do you think about Cuba’s future?
It’s a struggling country. Everything is still deeply imprinted with the changes brought by the Revolution, but since then it’s been one trial after the next. Because the novel ends in 1961, it speaks more of the early successes, and less of the vast unhappiness of the Castro brothers’ rule. Still, you don’t always feel that in Cuba. You find some unhappy people, but also those who were helped by the Revolution and still praise it. What I know is that Clare and Camilo have long wanted to go back to see how things are going. After all these years I still keep up with them, and post about them on my website. I know their children and grandchildren. They’re in their eighties now, but I’m sure they’d like to revisit the world of their youthful romance, back in those wildly hopeful days. And I’m the one to help them with that.
Reviews of A Hundred Fires in Cuba
“Thorndike is a talented, experienced writer, and Clare and Camilo especially are fully developed, attractive characters. The dynamic between Camilo and Fidel is fascinating. Camilo is a joyous revolutionary and wants a revolution that really does fulfill its promises to the poor and dispossessed. Fidel, on the other hand, is a dangerous ideologue whose first directive is to eliminate perceived threats.
“A highly recommended rendering of a love affair and mysterious slice of Cuban history.”–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The prose is elegantly crafted….A Hundred Fires in Cuba is a sophisticated historical novel that effectively deploys a love triangle to capture the essence of a remarkable figure and the historic period that produced him, laying bare the yearnings of the heart.” —Foreword Reviews
“Thorndike weaves a complex love affair into one of the hemisphere’s great dramas, the Cuban Revolution. Evocative prose, timeless conflicts, and an intimate story full of surprises.” –Natalie Goldberg, author of Wild Mind and Let The Whole Thundering World Come Home
“With A Hundred Fires in Cuba, Thorndike explores his great themes: the mother in extremis, the intrigue of a foreign lover (or two), the beloved child, aging men unmoored, and the complications of passion, passion, passion.” –Ted Conover, author of Rolling Nowhere, Coyotes, and Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.
“In A Hundred Fires in Cuba, John Thorndike has done something remarkable: written a compelling (and thrilling) love story set in the middle of a revolution. Thorndike’s prose is both lyrical and sharp as he navigates a country and a couple in the midst of turmoil and transition. I haven’t enjoyed reading a book this much in a long time.” –Robert Wilder, author of Nickel and Daddy Needs a Drink
“Thorndike’s characters know Havana, New York, and Miami well, and his Caribbean story abounds with righteousness, sex, and love. –Tom Miller, author of Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro’s Cuba and Cuba, Hot and Cold
“Thorndike gives us a unique lens into Camilo’s life through his fictional affair with American photographer, Clare Miller. Thorndike dissects the torrid-but-thorny attraction between Clare and Camilo along with Cienfuego’s inner conflict between idealism and the allure of power…. Every page of A Hundred Fires in Cuba breathes with life.” –Raul Ramos y Sanchez, author of the Class H Trilogy and The Skinny Years
“Electrifying, classic prose, rich and fluent story-telling, a cast of unforgettable characters caught in the thick of one of the most fascinating turning points in recent history…. Gripping from cover to cover.” –Henry Shukman, author of Archangel
“I would like to go to Cuba. Now, with A Hundred Fires in Cuba, I’ve had my chance through John Thorndike’s literary rumba of love and passion amidst the Cuban Revolution…. The dance is easy, intricate, flowing, and sensual, with the tantalizing, wry wisdom that always accompanies John Thorndike’s writing.” –Lady Borton, author of Sensing the Enemy and After Sorrow
“John Thorndike brings a resonant emotional sensibility to the days of Clare Miller and her baby girl, Alameda. Thorndike knows that to become a father or mother is a revolution in itself, and projects this against the big screen of political revolution, with its savage and often tragic logic.
–Paul Kafka-Gibbons, author of Love [Enter], Dupont Circle, and The Last Murder
What you’ve got here is a mystery and a love story about one of Cuba’s favorite revolutionaries. –Nancy Stout, author of One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution
“Thorndike weaves the novel from two interesting threads — a romance rich with passion and sex, and a crucial moment of history starring Fidel Castro and his cohort. We breathe Cuba’s hot humid air, taste Cuba’s culture, gain insights into what it means to be Cuban, and more, what it means to be human.” –Ray Ring, author of Arizona Kiss and Telluride Smile