Q&A: Leonardo Padura, best-selling author, cuentapropista

Just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York: An altogether different novel by Leonardo Padura, who rose to stardom with his Mario Conde detective novels.

Award-winning novelist Leonardo Padura recalls getting word that a top director in Los Angeles wanted to talk with him about a film version of his book. He told the director, “You call me, because if I call from Cuba, all the money you’ll pay me for the movie, I’d spend on the phone call.”

Best known for his dark series about Havana seen through the eyes of detective Mario Conde, he is a winner of Cuba’s national literature prize, and his work has been translated into many languages. The 58-year-old visited Miami in February on a three-city U.S. tour to promote his new novel, Herejes (Heretics), and the English-language translation of his epic “The Man who Loved Dogs” about the murder of Leon Trotsky. Padura continues to live in his family’s long-time home in Mantilla, a working-class neighborhood in the south of Havana.

He is not only a writer but also an entrepreneur. CubaNews reporter Doreen Hemlock spoke with Padura about what it’s like to be self-employed in Cuba. What follows is a translation from Spanish, edited for brevity and clarity.

How do you publish your books?

I’ve been publishing for the last 17 years with a Spanish publisher, Tusquets Editores of Barcelona. The first editions of my books come out in Spanish with Tusquets. Then, they give me permission to publish in Cuba without charging fees. Tusquets also works as my agency, selling the books into other languages.

Does your living in Cuba make the process any different?

For author’s rights and contracts, no. For the help they give me, yes. Because from Cuba, it’s much harder to get access sometimes to information, books, an airline ticket…

Could you publish without that long-standing relationship?

It would be more complicated. I’d have to look for an agent or find a publisher on my own. There are many writers in Cuba who, even with agents, have trouble publishing abroad. The book market is very closed, very competitive. And most books published are not literature. It’s tough for writers of literature to find publishers who can help them, especially from Cuba.

Could you live solely from your novels?

Maybe, but it helps that I also do journalism and have been collaborating on films in recent years. In Cuba and around the world, there are very few writers who can live off their author’s rights.

What about coming and going from Cuba?

My case is special, because I also have a Spanish passport. Spain gave me citizenship three years ago for my work in Spain, so I can travel more easily than other Cubans who need to ask for visas.

Could you travel to the United States before?

Yes. But during the Bush era, it was impossible – either because they would not give us the visa or they would not respond to our requests for visas.

Does living in Cuba make it easier to make it as a writer?

I don’t pay rent. I live in my family’s private home. That saves me money. And although the cost of living in Cuba has increased, I earn my money overseas, so it stretches further for me than for most Cubans.

Would some reforms make it easier for you to work? Skype, to work with translators, for example?

The Internet continues to be limited and very expensive in Cuba. There are some self-employed who use it to market their businesses. I know some writers have websites. I have a web page through the publisher. That’s enough for me.

I have an Internet connection at home. It’s very slow. Skype and all that is very complicated. With translators, I work by email. Sometimes, they call me, but generally, we e-mail… It works for me.

Does that slow down the process or influence the nature of the communication?

E-mail has changed everything, so if you have Internet, it changes things more. And If you had normal costs for calls…The other day I had to talk to a very important movie director in Los Angeles, and I told him, “You call me, because if I call from Cuba, all the money you’ll pay me for the movie, I’d spend on the phone call.” Phone calls are very expensive.

I’ve seen you quoted saying that the mentality in Cuba has changed, that the self-employed are no longer considered “parasites” and earning a decent living is no longer considered a “sin.”

That changed because the state wanted it to. The state needs the self-employed as a way to create jobs, earn money and make services and some production more competitive. The state changed its attitude. People didn’t have that [negative] perception. That was the government. It used to see the self-employed as a “necessary evil.” That changed with Raúl.

How would you describe the view of the self-employed now?

As something normal. To have a cafeteria or work in a [private] cafeteria is normal anywhere in the world. It wasn’t normal in Cuba for many years, but it is now.

Are there any measures that can help you or the self-employed generally?

For trades and businesses, I think there’s much more room to open up, more space to grow and develop. For me, less so. Writing is solitary work. What’s important for me is tranquillity and a computer. If I have Internet, better, but with e-mail, it’s enough.

There was a time in Cuba when artists, like dancers, could live from their art. They got subsidies that were the envy of U.S. artists who had to work as waiters too. What’s the situation for writers?

Writers always needed another job. Dancers, actors, filmmakers were paid salaries as professionals. But writers, we’d get our author’s rights, which were very little, whenever we published a book. So you had to be a journalist, professor or government official too.

Now, writers have found more alternatives to make a living – giving talks, contributing to newspapers, publishing in an anthology…So, you can earn $100 here, $50 there and make ends meet. It’s easier now.

And what about publishing in Cuba?

Author’s rights are very low. For a book, they’ll pay you $250 maximum. And if it takes you two years to write a book, and you get $250, surely you can’t live off that. In some smaller markets elsewhere, they might pay 1,000 or 2,000 euros. Other countries pay 10, 15 or 20 thousand euros. That’s better income.

What future do you see for Cuba’s self-employed?

It appears there’s no turning back, that it will increase. But in Cuba, you’re never sure of anything… Because you never know what the government is going to do, and you can’t influence the government, there could be changes to the self-employed tomorrow. They can change things from one day to another.

You like your house, because you are in touch with the neighborhood. What do you hear on the street these days about the economic situation?

People know that Cuba doesn’t have money, and they don’t either. It’s a difficult situation, and with what’s happening in Venezuela, I imagine the government must be very, very worried. Because if things are tough now, imagine how they’d be without oil.

Do you get lots of publicity in Cuba?

Very little. It’s word of mouth. When I speak, places fill up. People seek out my books. But on an official level, I get very little publicity.

And what does that say about Cuban society? In Havana, I listened to music by Celia Cruz and many others out of favor by the government. I found Cubans very up-to-date on the arts.

People seek out alternatives. If the government doesn’t provide information, they find options. It’s funny that many people get their information from Spanish-language TV in Miami. The government wants to have control, but they can’t the way they used to, before the Internet and cable TV.

Is there a contradiction in socialism that someone could get rich from their work?

There shouldn’t be, because one of the principles of socialism is, “To each according to their work.” If you work hard, are very productive, very efficient and earn well, welcome that. Because it means you have contributed more to society than someone who works little.

But Cuban socialism has been terrified of money. It’s part of personal thinking of Fidel Castro. Many people in Cuba say that instead of distributing wealth in the country, they distributed misery.

Why be terrified of money?

That’s how Fidel is. He didn’t need money. Every time I heard it said that Fidel had millions in accounts, I would laugh. Why would he need millions when the day he wants a plane, he gets one. The day he wants a ship, he has one. He can put the whole country at his disposition. For him, it was very easy not to have money.

But why terrified?

People have phobias. I have a friend afraid of frogs.

It’s known that if people are economically independent, they’re also politically independent.

Raúl is letting people earn more, but the system of Cuban taxes may be the most expensive in the world. Starting this year, people in Cuba who earn more than $2,500 per year pay 50 percent tax. Before, you’d pay on a progressive scale, and it was less.

What blew my mind in “The Man who Loved Dogs” was the contrast between the beauty of socialist ideals, compassion and theory, and the horrors of socialism in practice. The murders, the cynicism – it was devastating. How can you live with that feeling?

Many people live with that inside, gnawing at their soul. What I do is try to express it. I speak about the perversion of utopia. I speak about the need for freedom. I speak about the expectations of the Cuban people in my journalism, and I try to express all these things I have inside.

Because in the end, if you stay silent, I think it’s worse. Many people in Cuba don’t speak out, because they’re scared, or because they think it simply makes no sense to.

For me, writing is catharsis. As I write, I feel better, because I can say what I think about reality and about history.

Why set stories historically?

You can’t understand the present without looking at history. The present is the consequence of history. If you don’t understand Stalin, you can’t understand why in 1991 the Soviet Union disappeared, why the Cuban economy is totally inefficient, or why in Cuba you can’t find potatoes, cows and sugar.

Emotionally, how do you deal with all that?

I get bothered with some things also. People are very frustrated. When you’re on a bus that’s 96-100 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ve waited two hours to get on the bus, you go home with no money, you don’t know what you are going to eat, your kids have broken shoes, you have to keep together your old Russian fan with wire — as soon as you see a mouse, it turns into an elephant.

Even so, it’s a society…

…where there’s no space for social explosion.

And relatively speaking, there’s almost no violence in Cuba. How do you explain that?

I don’t know. I’m not a sociologist or a psychologist. There are many reasons for violence, but people hold back.

What’s your next project?

None. I have to let “Heretics” pass. That took me four years to write.

Do you have any tips for other Cuban writers on how to become independent?

Write. There are more people in Cuba who say they are writers than those who write.

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