Matthew Langdon Cost’s ambitious historical novel of the Cuban revolution, I Am Cuba, came out in early March just as libraries and bookstores were closing down and cancelling plans to help him launch his book. It was very bad timing for a very good book. It is a highly-detailed and well-researched story that readers may find quite surprising, especially as regards the humanity of the revolutionaries and the degree to which the United States’ interests in Cuba were the source of friction that led to that revolution. But much more than a book about international politics, it is a gripping war story, covering the entire conflict from Fidel Castro’s faltering first forays into battle with an army of eighteen men to his becoming the most powerful man in Cuba, worshipped by millions. It is, as well, a human story about the suffering of a nation slowly giving rise to a resolve to unseat the corrupt government that ruled over and repressed them. As part of Dead Darling’s Virtual Book Tour, we recently asked Matt about I Am Cuba and his writing of the book.
Tell us a little about your book. What is it about?
I Am Cuba is about the Cuban Revolution of 1953 to 1959. It focuses on Fidel Castro but delves into many other characters of that meaningful and historic event. These others include incredibly influential people such as Celia Sanchez, Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, Frank País, Camilo Cienfugos and others. The book is told through the viewpoint of my two fictional characters, Vicente Bolivar and Sophia Franco. They represent the everyman and everywoman of Cuba and the United States, and their love affair is fraught with fiction much like the relationship between Cuba and the United States. The revolution staggers early on, and just six months before they take control of Cuba, have only 300 bearded guerrillas. In the summer offensive of 1958, this miniscule group of men and women defeat an army of 12,000. This novel explains who Fidel Castro was and how he came to power in Cuba.
Growing up, I remember hearing the names “Fidel” and “Che” and about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by the US, and I knew Castro had taken over Cuba in an armed revolution, but it was not a subject that was widely taught in schools. Like me, I suspect most Americans don’t really know what happened there or why. Is that why you decided to write about this subject? If not, then why?
There were several reasons I chose the subject of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. When I wrote the first draft of this novel back in 1990, there were very few accurate depictions of this momentous event, and today, that still holds true. What has been written about it is either non-fiction not meant for consumption for anybody outside of scholarly circles, or cheap fiction that was incredibly inaccurate and usually centered around trying to assassinate Fidel. But the main reason for writing this historical is that it is probably the greatest underdog story of all time, fact or fiction. The arc of Fidel being a rebellious teen and poor student, into the leader of a movement, a guerilla commander, and head of the government of Cuba is nothing short of amazing. The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae have been well covered in their defense against a much larger force. In Cuba, the 300 not only put up a good fight, they won the battle and then the war and changed the world.
There must be many history books written about Castro’s revolution. Why write a novel about it? How much of your book is historically accurate and how much is fictional?
I have read over 25 nonfiction books about Fidel and the Cuban Revolution. They all fall into two distinct camps of thought. The first is the carefully manipulated version put forth by Fidel. The other is hate skewered version espoused by exiles who were either evicted from their homes by Fidel or those who fled Fidel. As you can guess, these are polar opposites, and neither one is very accurate. My goal was to find the truth about this man somewhere between those radically different interpretations. And yes, history is no more than an interpretation of the past. As a history major and former history teacher, I stick as close as I am able to my understanding of that historic event and man. Where I verge into what is considered fiction is creating dialogue when there was no recording of exact conversations, as well as entering into the heads of Fidel and other characters. In my attempt to maintain accuracy, I do use two fictional characters to throw a spotlight onto the incredibly complex Fidel Castro and the convoluted events of the Cuban Revolution. As a historic fiction writer, I am most definitely on the spectrum far closer to historic than fiction.
Being a historical novel, your book dramatizes the story of a violent revolution over the space of some six years or so. We get a dramatic understanding of tactics and battles, attacks on garrisons, guerilla warfare and life in the jungles and mountains of Cuba, sabotaged trains and communications, diversionary tactics to lead leaders astray, and political infighting on both sides of the battle. It’s a really well-detailed war story. How much research did you do and how did you do it?
I was inspired to write this novel by a Latin American history class I took in college. The professor was so passionate about the subject that I decided to write about it upon graduation. I read five or six books and read a bunch of news clippings and finished a rough draft in 1990. Luckily, I realized three things upon completion. The first was that I needed to work on my writing, the second was that I needed to do more research, and finally, I needed to visit Cuba to give a more complete and sincere rendition. For the next 25 years I worked on my writing and read everything I could about Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Along came the Internet to help with that. For all those years I tweaked, changed, fixed, and fiddled with my manuscript, working constantly at making it better. In 2016 I got the opportunity to make a self-devised research trip following the revolutionary war trail of Fidel through Cuba. At that point, I put the finishing touches on I Am Cuba and sent it off for publication.
As you said early, your book views the revolution through the eyes of two fictional characters. They are Vicente Bolivar, a young revolutionary, and Sophia, the niece of an American mobster who Vicente falls in love with and who joins the revolution. I found it quite compelling to see the revolution from their perspectives and to witness the evolution of their relationship and their political leanings. Why did you tell the story through these two characters?
I believe, if this possible, that they actually help create more historical accuracy by casting a spotlight on the real characters and events of the Cuban Revolution. I wanted to humanize the diverse people involved. If I told the story through the eyes and mind of Fidel, for instance, the facts would be tainted by his viewpoint which was very one-sided. Vicente and Sophia allow me to portray Fidel, Celia, Che, and others as human beings with both strengths and weaknesses.
Besides those two, there’s a huge cast of characters in this book. Some names we recognize, like Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara, and their adversary, the Cuban leader Batista, but many of these people will be unfamiliar to readers. What did you do to understand these major and minor characters, what they looked like and how they behaved, who their families and lovers were and how they got along?
As stated earlier, I spent 30 years researching this book, and a lot can get read in that time. It is generally not a good idea to have too many characters in a book, so I attempted to keep it to only the most compelling men and women, and there were so many of those! I doubt many people have heard of Celia Sanchez, for instance, but she created the network that supported the guerrillas in the mountains. Without this peasant support, Fidel would not have lasted a week. Then she joined the guerrillas in the mountains and became a warrior, Fidel’s stop strategist, and his lover. Juan Almeida was working as a grave digger in Havana when Fidel recruited him, and he went on to become one of Fidel’s top commanders, as did Crescencio Pérez, who was a bandit king before the revolution. The list of captivating characters goes on and on.
You pointed out earlier that the revolution ‘staggered’ early on. To me, it seemed very much a learning process with many false starts and failures before Castro and his revolutionaries found their stride. It makes the story very human, as the reader comes to understand the many defeats, sacrifices and hardships they had to learn from and overcome. It was quite heroic, too, that they could persevere through so many tough times. That perseverance really struck me. Can you talk a little bit about that and why this revolution was so important to so many?
History is made up of the haves and the have-nots. Throughout time, it is the haves, the ones with money, education, and power, who dictate how things are going to play out. This was especially true throughout the history of Cuba. The indigenous Taino were replaced by the Spaniards who were replaced by the United States as masters of the island nation. Underneath these power brokers were a tiny percentage of the population of Cuba who prospered. They were included in the company of the haves. Almost all of these people abused the rest of the population for their own advancement. Corruption was rife. Into this came a man who said enough, no more. Fidel spoke for the poor. He acted for the have-nots. First as a lawyer in Havana, then as a revolutionary with a gun, but all the while espousing a system that flattened the playing field. He gave the 99% his respect, and in turn, their dignity. This started out as an idea and was then nurtured by a small band of men and women and grew to encompass the entire country. And once dignity is gained, most are reluctant to give it back.
You paint a picture of Fidel Castro as being ruthless with enemies who perpetrated atrocities on his soldiers and on innocent civilians, yet also as a man of great compassion who used bloodshed only when necessary, who unlike his adversaries often freed captured soldiers to return home. You depict a man who was generally considered honorable and fair in his treatment of others and who only wanted the best for the people of Cuba. Do you believe Castro was misunderstood? Was he a ‘better man’ than we have been led to believe? Did he change in the years since the revolution, and if so, how?
Fidel was at war with the corruption caused by wealth and power. To this end, he had no compassion for those that participated in this exploitation of Cuba, and as you said, could be downright ruthless. He had no fight with the soldiers who were being used as pawns by the malfeasance of the power brokers in Cuba. It was a little more straight-forward during the revolution who was good and who was bad. When he came to power in 1959, it was not always clear which side people came down on. I believe he made many errors persecuting, jailing, executing, or exiling Cubans who didn’t deserve their treatment. After the revolution, many wealthy Cubans opposed to his rule tried to assassinate or overthrow him, often with the help of the United States government. To keep his vision alive, Fidel was forced to take extraordinary measures, which often led to the mistreatment of those who didn’t deserve it. Since 1960 the US has enforced an embargo on Cuba, which states that any country that wishes to do business with the US must not do business with Cuba. Every year the United Nations General Assembly votes overwhelmingly in favor of condemning the cruel and illegal blockade of Cuba. Last year, the vote was 191-2 in favor of condemning the blockade. The two votes against condemning the blockade came from the United States itself and apartheid Israel. Why? Because Castro nationalized US interests in Cuba and gave them to the poor. This policy was created by the Dulles brothers, John Foster who was Secretary of State at the time, and his brother, Allen, who was the Director of the CIA. They both were also board members and investors of United Fruit which was nationalized by Fidel. Robin Hood became a hero and Fidel became a villain.
One facet of Castro’s revolution that stands out in your book is that he treated women as equals. He strategized with them as he would with his generals, allowed them to be his bodyguards and to be gun-toting soldiers in the field, and went so far as to form a platoon made up solely of women. In terms of his treatment of women, Castro was in some ways years ahead of his time. Why do you think that was, and did that continue to hold true in the many years he held power before his death?
Fidel seemed to espouse equality, regardless of color, gender, or monetary situation. For purposes of the revolution, he certainly utilized whoever was fit for the job, as can be evidenced by Juan Almeida, the black grave digger, who became a top commander, and Celia Sanchez. I am not sure if this continued on after the revolution as much as it should have. It is tough to judge and would take more digging than I have done. One of Fidel’s weaknesses was his horrendous treatment of the queer community.
The American author, Jeanine Cummins, has been criticized for writing her book, American Dirt, about Mexican migrants fleeing drug lords in Mexico and migrating illegally to the United States. Some critics say that as a white citizen of the USA, she had no right to tell this Mexican story and that, in some ways, she does so ‘inaccurately’ and ‘stereotypically.’ (I happened to read her book and though it may well be flawed, I found it well-written and enjoyable as well as educational.) So, people might ask, what qualifies you, as a white man and a life-long resident of Maine, to write a book about Cubans and the Castro revolution?
My first qualification is the 30 years of intense research I put into the writing of this novel. I have also talked about the two polarized camps of thought that have been written about Fidel and the revolution and would argue that my objectivity as an outsider might actually be of benefit to me. Most Cubans I have read, spoken to, or seen interviewed either love or hate Fidel. At the same time, I tried very hard in my writing to not stereotype, which is a major cause of criticism I have heard in regards to Jeanine Cummins’ novel.
You paint a generally unflattering picture of US involvement in Cuba before the revolution. According to your book, we supported the corrupt Batista regime that repressed the Cuban people in favor of US interests, and that repression was what lead to the revolution. I think many readers will be surprised to learn just how much of Cuba was owned and controlled by US interests, both legal and illegal, before the revolution. Do you think our prior relationship with Cuba helps explain why there’s been so much friction between our two countries since the revolution?
I absolutely believe that the friction was created by Fidel seizing US properties in Cuba and turning them over to the poor. I make no statement as to whether or not that was right or wrong, but I vehemently believe that the discord is directly related to money. This friction was increased as Fidel was forced to befriend Russia and their form of communism to not knuckle under to US pressure. I spoke of the Dulles brothers, but JFK loved to go to Havana when it was run by organized US crime. The mobster, Meyer Lanskey, had turned Havana into a hot spot for Americans with money, and any sort of fun, pleasure, or debauchery could be found there for a price. If I know anything, I know not to get in between a rich person and their money. Fidel obviously did not heed this same advice.
America continues to hear vaguely ‘bad’ things about Cuba that always seem to justify the US’s blockade of Cuba and its disdain for the Castros and their government. Even after President Obama loosened restrictions on Cuba, President Trump has tried to reassert them. After all you learned about Cuba writing this book, do you have an opinion on the current state of affairs between our two countries?
I will say it again. Every year the UN votes overwhelmingly that the blockade is illegal. The vote stands at 193-2. The exiled Cubans are a wealthy and powerful group, and the US government likes to have an enemy close at hand to villainize. I hope that my book helps to begin to shed some light on the true nature of things. President Obama began the process of improving relationships with Cuba, but unfortunately, that has been largely dismantled by the current administration that likes to unify support through the creation of a common enemy.
Now, a few questions about your publishing process. Can you tell us about your path to publication?
The path to publication has been extremely easy for me. It only took 30 years. As I stated earlier, I have spent a large part of that time working on my writing. I have written a mystery trilogy that my current publisher, Encircle Publications, is going to publish. Mainely Power will be out in September, Mainely Fear in December, and Mainely Blackmail will follow in May of 2021. I also self-published a historical, At Every Hazard; Joshua Chamberlain and the Civil War in 2015. I have queried close to a thousand agents over this time period. Most don’t bother replying. A few are kind enough to send a generic not interested email. A miniscule amount request a few pages. My first mystery, Mainely Power, garnered some interest with an editor at the Mysterious Press, but before it could be signed, she died. My second mystery novel, Mainely Fear, was agented and went before the big five publishing houses but was ultimately not signed. The path has been dismal. Being signed and published by Encircle Publications has been that much more exciting for all of that.
Where were you when you heard your book tour and/or launch party was cancelled and what did you do?
My book launch was going to be part of “Cuba Week” in Brunswick, Maine, which is my hometown. Brunswick has a sister city, Trinidad, in Cuba, and one week each year they celebrate that solidarity with a series of events that connect them. This includes talks, music, movies and food. This year I was a featured event of that connection. It was the board members and organizers of that event who informed me via email at home. In truth, I’d been expecting it. One by one, all of the other presentations/readings/talks I’d planned fell by the wayside. At the same time, I am one of the lucky ones. As a full-time writer, I work from home. I live in the woods and walk my dogs several times a day. And the writing community has stepped up and supported each other in amazing ways, as can be witnessed first-hand by this interview.
Are you and your publisher doing anything special/ different instead of a book tour to promote your novel?
I have been very active in getting book reviews and interviews. Unfortunately, bookstores have to be very careful with their bottom dollar and are hesitant to carry books by new authors, and libraries are largely closed and not stocking new titles. My publisher has been fantastic. On March 26th, they did a virtual book reading and discussion with six of their authors. This included Richard Cass, BJ Magnani, Lara Tupper, Kevin St. Jarre, Dane Cobain, and me. We each had 15 minutes to talk and read. It was done on Zoom and was open to viewers who registered for the event. More events like that are planned to follow.
On a lighter note, do you have any quirky writing rituals?
I write in my living room with headphones on listening to jazz music. I am oblivious to the television, guests coming and going, and UPS visits. My wife has to hit me upside of the back of the head to get my attention. I write every day. Other than that, I’m pretty much normal.
Where can we buy your book?
Of course, try your local bookstore first. If that fails, or you are quarantined, you can order from Amazon or Encircle Publications.
What was the hardest thing you had to cut from your book, your favorite Dead Darling?
Word count is an interesting thing for new authors trying to break in. My self-published historical was 140,000 words long. Afterwards, I discovered that this was too long and may have been a reason for my numerous rejections from agents. Research discovered that 120,000 words is acceptable for a historical from a new author. Of course, all of the best historical novels are longer than this, but one has to play the game. To this end, I made I Am Cuba to come in just under this count. Along the process I attended several writing conferences and got a chance to ask multiple agents about word count. Publicly, every agent out there said 120,000 words was the number. Privately, every agent I talked to admitted that they wouldn’t even consider an unknown author with a word count over 100,000. Long story short? I had to cut 20,000 words from what I thought was a finished product. The original version of I Am Cuba had flashbacks into Cuban history that depicted how the Cuban Revolution was an inevitable event due to the history of indigenous people, pirates, colonialism, wars for independence, and foreign subjugation, as well as corruption and abuse. Cutting this and other pieces was akin to sawing off a body limb. But I survived.