Authors tell you what inspired their work
Andromeda Romano-Lax, Author of "The Spanish Bow"
I kept hearing about joy, but what I saw was struggle. Doubt. Anguish.
I heard praise, but even without looking, I stumbled upon notes of opposition that told -- just maybe -- a different story.
The year was 2002 and I was in Puerto Rico on a research trip, watching archival footage of the famous Spanish cellist Pablo Casals.
Casals, who died in 1973, was a much-loved figure, a musical innovator and a humanitarian who made public stands against fascism in his native country, refusing for many years to perform in countries that recognized the dictatorial government of Francisco Franco, or to return to Spain until democracy was restored.
When people talked about the cellist, they described a joyful man. A statue of him that I would see two years later, in his hometown of El Vendrell, shows him playing the cello with his face tipped skyward, euphoric. By contrast, the archival footage I watched showed him wearing a bulldog expression, sometimes fierce and sometimes tender, but nearly always sober. That and various archival materials I stumbled across convinced me there was nothing simple or untroubled about this man, whose love of music and despair about 20th century politics frequently collided.
In 2002, I was a journalist and nonfiction writer planning to write some sort of nonfiction book about this musical maestro, inspired by my own love of music and my own need -- in the very recent wake of 9/11 -- for an uplifting moral tale. I could have taken the more complicated story I felt was waiting, under the surface of the simple story, and turned it into a difficult biography, perhaps an exposé. Because there were other elements of Casals's life that didn't match the public view, either. People wanted him to be perfect. Of course, he was not.
But what was the point of exposing someone for being human? Of course, Casals wasn't the man everyone desperately wanted him to be: flawless, heroic, pure. Perhaps heroism was just another impossible challenge the world had foisted upon him.
The thought seemed mirrored by the day's politics. We invaded Afghanistan. We prepared to invade Iraq. Flags waved everywhere. From day one, I had my doubts, and my own frustrations about the public tendency to see black and white instead of shades of gray, to expect ease instead of difficulty, to sort the world into villains and heroes.
The desire for greater ambiguity, and I hope for greater tolerance, turned me that year, for the very first time and to my utter surprise, into a fiction writer. Through fiction, I hoped to write about a man who had to make difficult choices as he struggled to find the artistic satisfaction and personal happiness that frequently eluded him.
I used Casals as the original inspiration for my main character, Feliu Delargo. But I also found inspiration in the life stories of many more artists, musicians, and composers who lived during the same period, from the singer Edith Piaf (who does not appear in my book) to Picasso (who does). Those artists were forced to choose: Should they collaborate with fascists? Lend their names and talents to political activities? Put their art first, or their political views; their personal happiness, or their public reputations?
Instead of providing answers -- the journalist's task -- I aimed to provide myself and readers with a novelist's questions, many of them unanswerable.
Though the questions are serious, the resulting novel has as many light moments as dark ones, and the experience of creating it was one of great pleasure. I loved imagining the exquisite music my characters perform, and relished evoking the atmosphere of Spain (and all of Europe) in which the story is set, feeling the joy as well as the sorrow of those difficult times, in those beautiful places.
Andromeda Romano-Lax has been a journalist, a travel writer, and a serious amateur cellist. The Spanish Bow is her first novel. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with her family. Please visit www.RomanoLax.com.