He is the December Hometown Track MN Author in the Spotlight and he graciously agreed to answer some questions about his book for my readers. If you want to win a copy of The Cigar Maker please find the link at the end of this post.
- Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a descendant of Cuban cigar makers and as a child I spent a lot of time in Tampa, Florida which used to be the cigar capital of the world, and the home of many of my relatives. My experiences there served as the inspiration for The Cigar Maker. My work has been published in Cigar City Magazine and La Gaceta (the nation’s oldest tri-lingual newspaper). My first book was called Elvis and the Blue Moon Conspiracy, published in 2003 by Beaver’s Pond Press and The Cigar Maker was published in 2010 by Seventh Avenue Productions. I am currently working on a World War II thriller which should be published sometime in the next two years. I live in Northeast Minneapolis with my wife and daughter.
- What is the inspiration behind the story of The Cigar Maker?
The story is based on the true events that shook the cigar industry in the early part of the 20th century in Tampa, Florida. I realized there was no novel on the early days of the cigar industry in Tampa and it is a fascinating time period – a story that absolutely needed to be told but I needed a hook. Growing up, I heard many colorful stories from my Cuban relatives about the heyday of Tampa, when it was the cigar capital of the world. I was frequently immersed in Cuban culture, Cuban people and Cuban food, and surrounded by history books about Tampa and the cigar industry.
In one of these history books I found an obscure reference to a group of cigar makers, labor leaders, who were kidnapped during a major strike in 1901 and deported to a deserted beach in Honduras and left for dead. I became fascinated with that event and wondered what kind of men would be involved in such a dramatic kidnapping. What events lead up to that moment? and what happened next? The story grew from that incident into the epic tale of a fictional cigar maker who moves his family from Cuba to Tampa and gets involved in the labor strife and vigilante violence that was common in the industry during that time.
- Why did you decide to place your novel in Cuba and particularly in Ybor City in Tampa?
Since the story is based on true events that took place in Ybor City. Cuba has a fascinating history, even before Castro rose to prominence. Before the 1959, it is a country that has almost always been at war, either with itself of with Spain. The time period is filled with conflict, colorful characters and wonderful culture. I also knew that there was a built-in market for the book in Tampa and in the vast cigar smoking community.
- What is Ybor City like today?
Ybor City still retains much of the charm that made it a great cigar city. Many of the old brick cigar factories still stand, but have been converted into apartment buildings, offices or libraries. It is a historical district, with the old streetcars restored and running as they did during the heyday. Seventh Avenue is still populated by restaurants and cafes serving Cuban food, with many small buckeyes, or cigar shops, on every block. The social clubs still stand, and are magnificent cathedrals amid an otherwise quiet, culturally diverse community. You could spend an entire day there walking the street, visiting the shops and museums and immersing yourself in the history.
- Have you ever visited Cuba? If so, what it is like? How do you feel about Cuba’s communist background?
I have not visited Cuba yet but I do plan to go in February or April of 2011 with a delegation of artists and writers, to attend the International Book Fair in Havana. The trip is legal and approved by the US government but there is some red tape and a few open questions to be resolved before the trip happens. I plan to do extensive reporting on the trip so I will certainly have plenty to write about once I return! As for the communist background, since it is not something I have experienced firsthand, I am unable to make an educated comment. If I am able to make the trip I’m sure I will certainly have an opinion.
- Is this novel based on the history of your family ancestors? If so, which family members are represented?
Both of my great-grandfathers on my mother’s side were Cuban cigar makers who brought their families to Tampa in the early part of the 20th century. Parts of the novel are loosely based on their transition from Cuba to the U.S. but the main character, Salvador Oritz is completely fictional. The two characters who most closely resemble family members are Salvador and his wife Olympia, who are based on my grandparents Carlos and Camelia Roque. Though my grandmother was not the daughter of a wealthy sugar planter like Olympia, her personality is definitely represented by the book’s female lead. My grandmother was very confident, and very much in charge. My grandfather on the other hand was more reserved and he took pride in a hard day’s work, a recurring theme in the book, and he loved to play the lottery. My grandparents, like Salvador and Olympia, both loved to play dominoes, were closely connected to their families and culture and put their families above and beyond all.
- Usually an author puts some of his own life experiences in the book. Did you do that? Do you have anything in common with your characters?
I would say I inherited my grandfather’s work ethic, my mother’s and grandmother’s love of cooking Cuban-Spanish cuisine, and Josefina’s sense of adventure. I grew up hearing all kinds of stories about the old days of Ybor City, and having a very large family filled with many colorful Cuban personalities led to many anecdotes that made their way into the book. Most famous was a story that my grandfather told me about a man who once bit the head off a live rooster after his bird lost an important match at a cockfight. My grandfather told me this story probably a dozen times, always thinking he was telling it for the first time, and it became such a family legend that I started The Cigar Maker by bringing that very event to life.
- Why are Cuban cigars known as the best in the world?
They used to be, because they had the most skilled workforce and the best tobacco but since the embargo, many other countries have learned to produce a cigar whose quality compares to, and even exceeds the Cuban cigar. Cuban cigars are coveted in America because they are hard to come by but most of the serious, seasoned cigar smokers know the rest of the market has caught up. The Cuban tobacco industry simply does not have the finances or infrastructure to consistently produce the world’s best cigars. Ask a group of seasoned cigar smokers which country produces the best cigars in the world and you will hear a variety of opinions. The definition of quality is decided by the person smoking the cigar.
- Are cigars still made in the traditional ways mentioned in your book, or has industrialization ruined cigar making in America? What is your opinion?
For the most part, premium cigars are still hand-rolled though industrialization has definitely diluted the artistic aspect of producing cigars. In the old days cigar makers were proud artisans, and a good cigar was a work of art (many would argue that a good cigar is still a work of art, and I agree!). The struggle for cigar makers to retain their identity as artists and for their craft to survive the profit-driven efforts of industrial quotas is a major source of conflict in The Cigar Maker, and a reason cigar makers walked out of the cigar factories in 1899, a strike that is portrayed in the novel.
- I noticed your novel is self-published. Why did you choose to self- publish? What advice would you give to first time authors who want to self-publish?
There are several reasons I chose to self-publish. One is that I found the traditional route to be incredibly slow not very fulfilling. I found myself spending most of my time writing and sending query letters to agents and publishers. Once someone asked to read the manuscript, all work had to stop while I waited for a response. This was not a rewarding experience, and was not the reason I write books. I like to tell a story and then market and promote my work. I found that sending query letters was a waste of time, time that could be better spent polishing my work, producing a novel and marketing it to the masses.
My advice to an author who wants to self-publish is that the success of a book depends almost 100% on how it is promoted. It is a hustle and you need to do something every day to get the word out. Luckily, The Cigar Maker has two built-in markets where almost all of my promotional efforts are spent: Tampa and the cigar smoking community.
I review books for self-published authors and common mistakes I see them making are: having no presence on the Internet, a poorly written or edited book, a book with no target market, an author with no branding, and a book with little or no marketing plan. If you are a self-published author and want to know more, please don’t hesitate to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- I really enjoyed reading about La Resistencia, one of the cigar maker’s unions. Can you tell us a little history behind this union?
This is a real union of cigar makers that formed in Tampa around 1900 after the Weight Strike of 1899 to protect the workers from, what they perceived to be, a threat of capitalism. The union was meant to give the workers a common voice but also to provide health care, and a sense of community. Management, of course, was not comfortable with the union’s rise to prominence and tried to mitigate the union’s power in a variety of ways (which are portrayed in the book). Eventually the conflict ignited into a violent strike that cost several lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and resulted in the union leaders being kidnapped and deported to Honduras. The main character Salvador Ortiz is one of these labor leaders and the reader will experience this conflict through his eyes.
- Please tell us in one sentence, why we should read The Cigar Maker?
You do not have to like cigars to enjoy the book because it is ultimately a story about family, and a family’s struggle to survive and become descent American citizens who work hard and take care of each other.
Here is the link for the contest to win a personalized copy of The Cigar Maker.