It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.

Interview with Rebecca Pawel

In Writers on January 8, 2007 at 2:39 am

Death of a Nationalist

Rebecca Pawel is an American writer, known for her series of mystery novels set in fascist Spain. The series’ central figure is Carlos Tejada Alonso y León, a lieutenant in the Guardia Civil and an unrepentant falangista. Pawel has made a series of very compelling books using a rarely sympathetic protagonist.

Although Tejada is not without a conscience, it has yet to be exercised freely. His wife complicates his life as she was an active Republican sympathizer during Spain’s Civil War. He loves her but feels guilty for doing so. There is a Huck Finn aspect to Tejada’s character. He might not have turned Jim in either and he would have felt just as guilty. Of course he might just as easily have shot him in the head instead.

***

How did you start writing?

I’ve always told stories. I dictated stories to my parents before I knew how to write them down. When I was in third grade my dad taught me to touch type on a Brother Electronic Typewriter. My parents had a lot of old dot-matrix spread sheet paper, the kind with green and white stripes running the width of the paper, and I typed my first story on those green and white stripes. (It was an unfinished science fiction novel in the form of a diary of a girl who grows up in a space station and returns to recolonize an abandoned earth in the year 2620.) My parents got me a typewriter for my next birthday, so that they could use the one in the living room for themselves again.

What inspired you to write mysteries?

I never planned to write mysteries, although I’ve always enjoyed reading them. But the summer I wrote Death of a Nationalist I had a friend who was reading Hammett, and another one who was teaching a course called Detective Fiction and the City, and we were having various email conversations about those two topics. The emails bled into an idea for a story to keep myself amused.

What led you to set your mysteries in Fascist Spain?

Really, Death of a Nationalist was inspired by the idea of a mystery about a city at the end of a siege. I’d majored in Spanish literature, with a concentration in Iberian stuff, so the idea of a city under siege naturally came together with Madrid in ’39.

More generally, I think that I’m a child of my times. I don’t think I’d be able to set a mystery in Madrid in ’36, or still less in ’31, at the beginning of the Republic, because I simply can’t make the empathic leap to a time of such tremendous optimism and hope. I understand fighting losing battles against the dark. But I look at people who thought that goodness was going to win out, and all I feel is this terrible sadness, and sometimes a little anger at their naiveté. Call it post-Holocaust despair, or post-Vietnam cynicism, or whatever you like. But I think don’t think anyone of my generation can ever really experience that kind of giddy joy first-hand.

Describe the genesis of Lt. Carlos Tejada Alonso y León, your “hero.” What inspired you first to make him an unrepentant fascist and then to marry him to a Republican?

Remember that Death of a Nationalist was originally conceived as a standalone mystery, with two protagonists of equal weight; a republican (Gonzalo) and a fascist (Tejada). At the end of the novel, I realized that I’d told the republican’s story, but that the fascist still had some room to evolve. So he evolved, over the course of four books.

Tejada gets shaken out of his certainties in the first book, and the rest of the series is about him trying to regain that certainty. He reaches a balance of sorts at the end of the fourth book, I think.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from rightists, in Spain especially, to your books? From leftists? How difficult is it for people outside that culture to understand the conflicts and history. As of several years ago, my last trip to Spain, these rifts are still very much a part of the present. It has been said that Spain is the only country never to really examine its fascist past.

My favorite reaction came from a friend who grew up in Potes (where The Watcher in the Pine is set), during the post-war period. He is the son of an officer in the Republican army who had to report to the guardia civil post in Potes every week for ten years, for what he wryly referred to as “dental work” (i.e. getting his teeth knocked out). I sent this man an outline of the first three books and received the following response (in Spanish): “My dear Rebecca, your good heart and feminine kindness has deceived you. There is no guardia civil anywhere who has ever felt the slightest remorse for the atrocities that they have committed and are still committing.”

I haven’t gotten much reaction from the right in Spain, because only the first book has been translated, and it didn’t make much of a splash there. But I have gotten mail from Franco supporters in other countries, who generally congratulate me on humanizing Tejada. (“Face it, the Right has found their hero,” commented a leftist friend in Barcelona, after reading the translation.) This troubles me a little.

One thing I find fascinating is that people of all political complexions have stated that the emotional truth of the books depends on the murder Tejada commits at the beginning of Death of a Nationalist. This was precisely the murder that my editor at Soho wanted to change, because she said that it would make Tejada “too unsympathetic.” It turns out that the right don’t find him unsympathetic just because he blows someone away in the street, and the left think that’s the one thing that anchors the books in realism. In light of subsequent police shootings in New York (never mind in other parts of the world), it seems that they’re right.

As to whether people from outside of Spain really understand the conflicts there, I’m an outsider too, so how would I really know? One thing I do think is ironic is that Spain spends a lot of time worrying about having an unexamined past, when in fact it’s tremendously examined. There are at least as many (if not more) books (both fiction and non-fiction) and films and TV series, etc., dealing with Spanish fascism as there are dealing with German or Italian fascism. The difference (that nobody likes to admit) is that in Spain the fascists won. Period. They then adapted with the times, and became respectable, but no matter how you “examine” the past, you can’t examine that away.

[I disagree with Rebecca here about the level of examination. As has been reported, one Spanish survey indicated that half of all Spaniards had never talked about the period at home and 35 percent had never had it taught to them in school. She is right about the fascists having won, and hung on for 40 years. You don’t often “examine” a national shame in the midst of living it. —ed.]

You do an excellent job of creating believable male characters. What makes one writer capable of convincingly writing a character of a different gender while another cannot? Or is too much made of the differences?

Thanks for the compliment! I tend to go with Ursula K. Le Guin’s great line in Tehanu about gender differences, “it seems to me we make up most of the differences and then complain about ‘em.”

That said, I think it’s important for a writer to understand how much gender roles are just that—roles—that people play. I’m fortunate that Tejada lives in a time and place where gender roles are super-defined, and there isn’t much tolerance for improvising on the script. So men (and women) have to act a certain way, and like all good method actors, they try to find psychological justification for their role. So in most of the books, I know how Tejada is going to act. The only challenge is figuring out why he is acting this way. Then I just have to imagine how I would rationalize the kind of weird behavior he displays.

For example: Tejada’s extreme jealousy and possessiveness about his wife in The Watcher in the Pine are the only culturally appropriate way he has of expressing his concern about her political beliefs. He doesn’t really think that she’s cheating on him. But sexual infidelity is the only mental vocabulary he as for his real worry: that she is having independent thoughts, and shutting him out of them.

Finally, I try to be vague about specific physical experience that I have no first hand knowledge of. I can write what it feels like to be tired, or sweaty or stiff in the morning, because those experiences are common to men and women. But I can’t really describe how a man feels when he’s shaving or sexually aroused, so I don’t. I find if I describe the situation, readers will fill in the details themselves. (Incidentally, I think that holds true for all kinds of description. For instance, I’ve never smoked, so mention of cigarettes and descriptions of smoking are extremely limited in the books, although of course Tejada is a smoker, because given his time and place and position, he’d be a freak if he weren’t. You can always ask a trustworthy friend if a specific detail is right. Then leave that detail in, and leave everything else to the reader’s imagination.)

Which women writers do you think write excellent male characters and which men write convincing female ones?

I’d say generally good writers write convincing characters. My gold standard for writing is Terry Pratchett, who has written several novels with convincing female leads. More impressively, he’s written about women of all ages, from nine year olds (Tiffany Aching in Wee Free Men) to old crones (Granny Weatherwax and her companion Nanny Ogg, in various wonderful novels). Of course, both the nine year old and the old women are witches, and his most attractive young women are a werewolf and a dwarf, but the principle still holds.

Which writers do you esteem, of both your progenitors and your contemporaries?

Well, Terry Pratchett, as mentioned above. Also Jasper Fforde and Robert Barnard. All of these gentlemen share the distinction of writing excellent funny books. I think we undervalue humor, generally. It is not the same thing as being cutesy.

In terms of progenitors, I read through all of Dorothy Sayers in high school, and while the anti-Semitism in some of her stuff is disturbing, she’s still the gold standard for a lot mystery writing, for me. The end of The Summer Snow owes a lot to the end of Sayers’ fourth and final novel about Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Busman’s Honeymoon.

What are the challenges in writing a book set in a culture and time not your own? How do you empathize with a man who is clearly on the wrong side of history?

Who said the winning side was the wrong side? [That would be me.—ed.] Tejada does quite well for himself and dies honored and in his bed, just like Franco.

As for the challenges, I find writing about a far away time and place liberating because it allows you to know exactly what to describe. I call this the “bus window” phenomenon. Ask any New Yorker in Rome about the size of the windows in Roman buses, and they will say “the buses have large windows.” Ask a New Yorker about the size of bus windows in New York and they’ll say “I’ve never measured them.” We all have an internal standard for what’s “normal,” and we find it very hard to describe. It’s much easier to describe variations from the norm. (Most people will have an idea what a “narrow” alleyway looks like in their own city, and also about the width of a “broad” avenue. But the width of an “average” city street is wildly different in New York, Madrid, and Chicago. And anyone from any one of those places will drive right through the so-called “normal” streets in LA wondering when they’re going to get off the highway.)

That said, obviously the challenges are doing enough research to avoid subtle anachronisms. When the characters think, do they think in miles or kilometers? What music do they hum in the shower, and are they taking a shower or a bath or avoiding the freezing cold pump out in the yard altogether? The key with music, clothing, and food, is that fifty years before the story takes place is perfectly plausible, but six weeks after the story takes place is an anachronism. People are quite capable of wearing clothes that are ten or fifteen years old, but they certainly aren’t wearing next year’s styles, unless they’re models for Vogue. Likewise, just because technology exists doesn’t mean that everyone has access to it. E-mail has existed since the 1980s, but if a novel written fifty years from now describes someone who is not an obvious tech geek somewhere in the basement of a university science lab communicating via email, that’s an anachronism.

I’ve also become increasingly aware that it’s important to situate the time of the novel in relation to other times. A 60-year-old in 2006 probably grew up watching “Gunsmoke” and has vivid memories of the Vietnam war. That 60-year-old’s 30-year-old child in 2006 knows what these things are, but grew up watching “The Electric Company” and vividly remembers the first Iraq war. And the 60-year-old’s five-year-old grandchild has no clue about “The Electric Company” because she’s watching “Dora the Explorer.” This kind of layering takes place in the past too. (For example, in Law of Return a character asks Tejada is he is old enough to remember the Spanish-American war of 1898, even though Tejada was born in 1910. This scene grew directly out of several experiences of mine with people who assumed that I remembered the Vietnam war, which concluded two years before I was born.)

How much research do you do for one of your books? Do you do extensive research before and then write, or is the research process with you all the way through the composition stage?

All of the above, really. With Death of a Nationalist I had a running start on the research because I was coming fresh from a degree in Spanish language and literature, that of necessity involved a lot of reading about the Spanish Civil War. As the series evolved, I kept researching specific details that I needed, and also kept an eye out for interesting tidbits. I had no clue who the murderer was in The Summer Snow until about a third of the way through the book, when I found a specific bit of information in a book that I had bought to research general background. (I won’t say the information, since it’s a spoiler. The book is cited at the end of The Summer Snow.)

For my current novel, which is set in Renaissance Flanders, I’ve done research constantly while writing. It’s a very exhausting process, but it’s fun. First you lay out the broad historical outlines, which are easy, and then you start coloring in all the little bits about daily life: clothing, prices, food, forms of address, etc.

What books would you recommend for a fan who would like to learn more about the Spain of Franco and beyond? What about resources that are not books?

I liked the novel Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas. (It was made into a movie, which I did not like so much because it made a couple of changes that I thought were unnecessary.) I generally find Gabriel Jackson fun and readable, and there is an excellent memoir (now sadly out of print) called Death Row: Spain 1936 by one Patricio P. Escobal, a civil engineer who (as the title implies) was arrested and put on death row by rebel insurgents in 1936. He was saved due to his wife’s connections with the Falange, and also (although he downplays this) because of his own celebrity status: he was a former member of Real Madrid, and had played for the Spanish Olympic soccer team. He ended up in New York in exile.

Are there any active plans afoot to make a movie from your Tejada series?

No.

[Paging Mel Gibson. Paging Mel Gibson.—ed.]

Tell me as much or as little about your life as you’d care to. For instance, where do you live? Where did you grow up? What did you do prior to writing professionally? What is your family like?

I live in New York city, about two miles from where I grew up (also in New York city). I teach in a public high school there, and have since I finished my Masters. The repeated concerns about schools and teaching in the novels have something to do with my so-called real life.

How do you write? That is, do you write on vellum with a quill? On a legal pad with a pencil? On the computer? Do you have a regular writing place, a study or café? What do you see when you look up from writing? And how do you compose? Do you outline the story or make it up as you go along? Do you know, when beginning a book, how it will end? What starts a book? A line, a situation, a crime?

I write on a computer, preferably either my desktop at home or my laptop, but I can write pretty much anywhere. If I have to (i.e. I’m bored and stuck in a meeting or some place I can’t get away from) I’ll write with pen and paper, and transfer my writing to the computer when I get the chance. I prefer the computer because I type faster than I write, and my hand doesn’t get tired.

I tend to write in bursts, during school vacations, unless I have a deadline, or I’m at the end of a story and it’s calling out to be finished.

Usually my books start with a setting (the “large window phenomenon” at work). I’ll say, “gee this would be an interesting place for a story,” and then I’ll try to come up with a story that fits the geography.

What’s next on your writing agenda? Can you tell us anything about what’s in store for Tejada, Elena and the rest?

I’m letting the characters in Death of a Nationalist rest for a little while. I’m working on a novel about Renaissance Flanders, set in 1577 during the Eighty Years War. Flanders was part of the Hapsburg Empire, until the northern provinces (Holland, Zeeland, and the rest of what is now the Netherlands) rebelled against the imposition of federal taxes and the Inquisition. (Mostly the taxes actually, but mostly the Inquisition in terms of propaganda.) The southern provinces (Flanders, Brabant, Artois and what is now Belgium and northern France) eventually stayed loyal and stuck with the Spanish crown, but there was considerable rebellion there too, and a fair amount of Spanish soldiers and foreign mercenaries floating around. So actually it’s not as much of a leap from the Tejada books as it seems.

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  1. [...] If you would like to read another interview with a writer, see my conversation with Rebecca Pawel. [...]

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