A. It would be simple but, quite frankly, that is exactly what I was thinking when I wrote Mambo Kings and had Nestor writing this song, "Beautiful María of My Alma." It could've been "La bella Cuba de mi alma" [Beautiful Cuba of my soul]. I got that notion from when I was a kid growing up in New York as a son of Cubans, and was touched by this sort of ethereal quality of boleros, and this story of longing they all had. And really, when you come down to it, boleros are about longing for youth, longing for early loves, and a passion for a place, time, and people. In fact, I mentioned to my editor that this new book, Beautiful María, is story of Cuba itself.
Q. The novel has quite the historical sweep, opening in Cuba in 1947, and closing in New York in 1994. Did it require a lot of research?
A. My take on Cuba is partly memory-bound, partly melancholic. I read this interesting thing about the word "nostalgia," which is often used about my writing: that it comes from a term ship doctors used to describe a disease when sailors had been out to sea for a few years and were getting homesick. I've always had that, in terms of writing, this thing that is physical,that makes you homesick. For me it is a home that I never really knew and have always seen partly through literature and the great Cuban writers. My writing about Cuba [is] more like an act of creation. Whatever my Cuba is about, it's my own version. I'm not a cultural anthropologist
Q. In her sixties, María continues to be vivacious, feisty, and sexually active. Do you think this is an antidote to how aging can sometimes be stereotyped in fiction.
A. I grew up around very vital, aging women, but they were very vivacious. My mother passed away four years ago, at 95, and she literally asked me, "¿Estoy poniendo me vieja?" [Am I growing old?] I said, "Nineties? You're probably getting up there." But I think there is a lot of vitality, and it's a cliché that people say you are as young as you feel. But in certain cases, not dwelling on the obsessive morbidities and possibilities helps—and taking care of yourself, as well.
Q. There's an occasional frame around this story with María passing on her stories to her pediatrician daughter, Teresa. Why did you choose this intergenerational angle for the novel?
A. I needed the filter of the daughter to re-imagine her mother's experience. So while the novel is María's story, I think the narrative itself is like the daughter thinking about her mother's existence. If the real María was sitting in this very room, she'd probably say, "What are you talking about? It wasn't like that." You need a point of view in a novel, and the daughter's is the Cuba she never had, and the mother's is the Cuba she once had and misses. But she's also in this new situation. The relationship that Cubans and Latinos have to the past is something I dwell on in my books because, frankly, the modern current life we are living in America today is a little on the cold side.
Q. Have you noticed a difference in how various generations respond to your work?
A. Older Cubans in their sixties and seventies appreciate what I do in trying to recapture the time and the period. I did an event last year with Gay Talese, [a writer] at Columbia University, and a very nice Cuban couple from Havana came up to me and said, "If you ever need any information about Havana, just call us." On the other hand, I'll be in Coral Gables with 20-year-old kids writing sound poetry about Cuba, and they tell me they like the way I write but aren't sure they can get into it, all that old stuff their abuelos [grandparents] are hung up on. The way they relate to it is quite different, and I can't blame them; their Cuba is now Miami. People in their forties, fifties, and onward enjoy the whole world of books in a different way than the Internet-age kids do.