Marta Rojas has an eye for the unusual, and is a tireless researcher. Photo: Jorge Luis González

Marta Rojas, passionate journalist and audacious novelist, resorts to life experience for inspiration, And her books show it. The Count of Albemarle’s wedding in 2001, in Havana, gave her the idea for Inglesa por un año; standing before the painting of Francisco Pradilla in the Museo del Prado she conceived a character for Las campanas de Juana la Loca; a portrait of Vicente Escobar in Havana’s Fine Arts Museum inspired Santa Lujuria, and a book on the sugar industry, El Harén de Oviedo.

Winner of the 1987 José Martí National Prize for Journalism and member of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize jury in 2012, when Chilean poet Nicanor Parra won the award, Marta Rojas (Santiago de Cuba, 1931) agreed to this interview, which evolved into a long conversation in her office at the daily newspaper Granma, of which she is a founder. The original motivation was the launching of her sixth novel, Las campanas de Juana la loca (Editorial Oriente) and a new edition of Inglesa por un año (Ediciones Boloña).

I propose starting with something general. Tell us about the first books you read?

When I began to read, Martí was the first, La Edad de oro, and others. The first novelist was Honoré de Balzac, then Henry Barbouse, Curzio Malaparte. You might say, what a mish-mash! My family was from Santiago de Cuba, my mother from Matanzas, a seamstress. My father had a tailoring shop. He had a friend who was a barber, and books about many, many things ended up in the barber shop, and he brought them home. That’s why I started to read this way, chaotically. I read Quixote when I entered high school, but didn’t finish it because I was taking the exams to get into the School of Journalism. I won’t go into detail about any others. I started at Bohemia (magazine) in October of 1953, after the Moncada, in the Cuban section with Enrique de la Osa. He was a great reader, very close to Latin American literature, and he lent us books, for example, La Vorágine, Doña Bárbara and I remember very well that one of the first books was El reino de este mundo, because Carpentier was a friend of his, and he brought us the first edition published in Mexico. Through

Ángel Augier, who was on the section staff - but under a pseudonym, because he was a communist – I met Guillén.

Your first novel?

Let me go back a bit. In the Institute in Santiago, I used to write love letters during recess – all the same, it could be from a boy to a girl or the opposite – and I had a boyfriend who said to me one day, “You like to write so much, I heard that there is a girl in France who wrote a novel.” It was Francoise Sagan and Hello sadness. I bought the book at the Renacimiento bookstore on Enramada Street. One day, the group challenged me to do a novel. And I did, it’s called El dulce enigma, about adolescent love, some 200 pages, by hand, and I haven’t dared read it again.

Do you believe the writer chooses stories, or do they choose you?

In my case, I choose them. This has to do with journalism, which is so varied, that things come to me. I’ll give you an example. When Hurricane Flora hit in 1963, I worked at Revolución. Fidel took a long tour and lots of journalists went along. There was a place we passed called Pinalito, not far from Santiago, in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. There was a landslide there, and Fidel asked who owned the land. They told him that Haitians and some Jamaicans were living there. As a journalist, I mentioned this information, but it stuck in my mind. Time went by, and I did millions of other things; I went to Vietnam (I was the first female Latin American correspondent sent to the war in Vietnam) and all of that. So, the special period came along in the 90s. The newspaper had 16 large pages, plus supplements, but it was reduced to eight small pages. I was head of information, but I also wrote chronicles of 10 to 12 pages, which became 10 lines. I had all the time in the world. I thought about Pinalito again. I started with a story about the Haitians and Jamaicans who had contributed so much to the sugar industry in the first years of the republic. Before I knew it, I had finished a novel, which is El Columpio de Rey Spencer.

Your second novel was Santa Lujuria (translated into German and English) …

One day, I went to the Fine Arts Museum, to an exposition of 19th century paintings, and there was one, El Marino, by Vicente Escobar, a painter they said was born black and died white. I was intrigued and started to investigate. I got to the heraldry, and the divine grace that is the Spanish royal charter. Grace that the king gave white colonizers who had Black, Mulatto and Indian children, and wanted to provide them some economic wellbeing, but to do this, for them to be graduates, etc, papers for whites were sold. In the case of Escobar, he was a portrait artist. A governor took him to the court and the reigning queen gave him papers for whites. He was baptized and registered in the book for Blacks and Mulattos, but when he died, he was recorded in the white one. I went back to journalism. I went to Seville and to the Archive of the Indies, and looked for documents on other papers for whites, and found Francisco de la Santa Rita Filomeno y Ponce de León, the son of the Marquis of Aguas Claras and a Mulatto woman, who was a fourth degree descendant of the discoverer of Florida. I found the rest. Santa Lujuria was born. I always start with something real, something out of the ordinary.

The harem of Oviedo?

One of my favorites. (El Harén de Oviedo) Another interesting thing. It came along while I was studying Political Science at the University of Havana. We read El ingenio (The sugar mill) by Manuel Moreno Fraginals. In one of the chapters, he said that the first Jamaican train for the sugar industry was acquired by Don Esteban Santa Cruz de Oviedo, a rich Spanish proprietor, with hundreds of slaves and a harem of female slaves! It was in Matanzas, I couldn’t find the sugar mill, but, yes, the harem. A tower with a plaque remained, saying Holy Trinidad, the Oviedo home. He had many children and there was an intestate trial in the Madrid Supreme Court. (He died without leaving a will.) I found the case. I already had my harem.

How did you come to Inglesa por un año, the 2006 Alejo Carpentier Prize winner?

I decided to do Inglesa por un año when we had the wedding of a descendent of Albemarle here. (George Keppel, Third Count of Albemarle, head of the English royal forces which occupied Havana) I went, and was wondering what the city was like in that period, when it was taken by the English. (1762 -1763) When I left the wedding, I found a plaque on a building on Jústiz Alley, saying, “The Marquise of Jústiz and Santana. I did the math and said, “This woman was about 26 years old when the English took Havana, she must have seen it all.” That’s why I gave the character this name.

The cover of Las campanas de Juana la Loca (Editorial Oriente) is a detail from the painting La Demencia de Doña Juana (1867), by Lorenzo Vallés, in the Prado Museum. Photo: Jorge Luis González

What about El equipaje amarillo? (The Yellow Baggage, translated to Mandarin)

This one about the Chinese was similar. I devoted it to a Chinese laundry. I had asked my father for space for it, in the back yard of my house in Santiago, that was very big. But within a month it had reached the living room. I had traveled in China after I went to Vietnam, saw the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City. That’s another story, but almost always, the theme, for some reason, comes from my life experience.

Let’s move to Las campanas de Juana la loca…

That was an unusual case, too. In Santiago, as I said at the beginning, there are many strange surnames, the majority from the French, after the Haitian revolution, and many English ones, from Jamaicans, and others - unknown.

The copper mines were the first discovered in the Americas, and they exploded. There was an irregular war that lasted 140 years, waged by the copper miners who never accepted being common slaves. They said they were the king’s slaves. How did this novel occur to me? I went to Belgium, to Antwerp and Brussels for a university conference. One morning they took me to see Antwerp and a building caught my attention, specifically because of its name Fugger and Weslin. They explained to me that the first mine masters in El Cobre were German, and when I returned I started looking for different surnames in Santiago. But then I went back to Spain for another journalistic assignment. I was in Córdoba, and I had already been to the Archives to look for things related to Juana la loca. Why? It was the Roman Germanic Sacred Empire, she was the regent; her son Carlos I was later the fifth Emperor. I went to investigate this period, to see how these Germans in Cuba ended up. Looking for the dates when the mines were discovered, I find a royal charter, in which she tells them not to send her any more golden mud, that this was not gold. But she was not that crazy, she called a silversmith to ask what it was they were sending from “that island they say has my name,” since the first name they gave Cuba was Juana.

They tell her that it is copper with iron components. She writes another document saying that it is important to continue exploiting the mines to make bells for churches in the new world. This was enough for me to weave the other stories. The question was: Who is going to narrate this, from the 15th century until the 18th? Cigar factory readers occurred to me - the great novelty of this novel. The cigar factory reader receives sheets of paper that appear, and thus I incorporate the context. Until the final paper … you have to read the novel.

How do you proceed to write a novel? Do you edit very much? Do you have a re-writing process?

There are writers who need to be alone; it’s a question of temperament. I need connection with the world. When they invented flash memory sticks, they saved my life. At first I had thousands of notebooks. Now I can save it all. All my life, I have gotten up very early, always taking advantage of the mornings, although I can write at any time. Every day, I come to the newspaper, write, revise the culture page - something they asked me to do – I’m sitting here and writing on my memory stick, just like that. I need communication. Of course, when I’m doing the final revision, I need more time. I have printed things up to six times. I write on the computer, but I like to read it on paper, correct and edit on the paper.

How do you construct your characters?

I enjoy myself a great deal when I’m writing, it doesn’t make me anxious. I am all of the characters. I put myself in the character’s place, what I would have done in such a situation. I study details, the food, the clothes, which I additionally draw, since there were seamstresses in my house.

What are you investigating, writing now?

It doesn’t bother me to say, since no one else is going to write about the idea I have inside me. I go to topics that are not known to many. For example, the Spanish-American-Cuban War. The history is known, but what has not been recreated is what it was like in Santiago, with its people under siege, or the technological elements the U.S. brought. Have you heard of the captive balloon? Satellites didn’t exist, but they put reflectors on a balloon and they knew where the Spanish trenches were. But how they lived, what they ate, how they moved from Santiago to El Caney, has not been said. That it, life during this war.

In the prologue to your book on the Moncada trial, which you witnessed, Alejo Carpentier describes you as an instinctual novelist….

My book on the Moncada does not begin as a summary, I didn’t do it for the book; it was the newspaper’s note of the day. I knew that they weren’t going to publish it the next day, because of the censors. I gave it some distance, to give an image of what could not be seen. That’s why I describe how they entered handcuffed, the metallic sound of the handcuffs. I began this way, outside of the moment. I asked Carpentier once why he said instinctual. And he told me, “Because this book doesn’t read like a summary of a trial; you go along incorporating elements, and it has coherence.”

Are your titles hooks?

Journalism is always present, in my case, I don’t call it inspiration. Life experience and knowledge are important when it comes to writing, to selecting, describing, and the title must capture the reader.

It is not possible to write a better description of Marta Rojas than that of Carpentier in the prologue mentioned above: “An agile, talented writer, with a deep vocation for journalism; a wise point of view; a precise, direct style; and the gift of being able to show many things with few words.”

Journalism and life experience have led Marta to the magical world of fiction. She is now sharing her amazing historical novels Inglesa por un año and Las Campanas de Juana la loca at Havana’s International Book Fair.