WomensHistoryReads interview: Chanel Cleeton

It has become increasingly clear to me that I’m going to run out of March before I run out of WomensHistoryReads interviews! Again. But, as I said over on History in the Margins, having a Special Month is no excuse not to call attention to great books by and/or about women the rest of the year. And the rest of the year starts, well, next Monday.

But we’ve got one more week of Women’s History Month proper, and I’m happy to kick it off with this Q&Q&Q&A with Chanel Cleeton, whose real-life historical inspiration comes from the women in her family. You’ve likely read her blockbuster Next Year in Havana — read below to find out what you can look forward to next (and soon!) from Chanel.

Chanel Cleeton

Chanel Cleeton

Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?

Chanel: I’ve been really fortunate to have some amazing reads lately, but one that instantly comes to mind is The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. From the first page, I was captivated. The writing is so lyrical and stunning that I found myself swept away. It’s a dual timeline novel set eight hundred years apart in Syria, and is beautiful, breathtaking, and heartbreaking. The modern-day story of a young Syrian refugee and her family and the extraordinary lengths they go to in order to survive is one that has really stuck with me. It’s a tremendously powerful book that I cannot recommend enough. 

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Chanel: My most recent books, Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba, have largely been inspired by women in my family, particularly my grandmother. My grandmother lived with us growing up and we had a special bond. She used to tell me stories of her life in Cuba and she passed on so much of our history and culture to me, and really gave me a great appreciation for where I came from. She was a strong, unapologetic, fierce woman and I’ve injected a lot of her spirit into my characters. My grandmother was pregnant with my father during the Cuban Revolution and lived through a tumultuous time in the eight years she lived in Cuba under Castro’s regime and then her exile to the United States. I was inspired by her strength and courage when writing Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba and strove to honor her legacy with my words. 

Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Chanel: My next book, When We Left Cuba, will be out on April 9, 2019. While it can be read as a standalone, it follows the story of Beatriz Perez (the sister of my heroine from Next Year in Havana) after her family has arrived in the United States following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. Living in South Florida, Beatriz becomes involved in a plot with the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro, and the novel follows the turbulent Cuban-American relations of the 1960s including the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy Assassination. 

Question for you: What characteristics inspire you when choosing a real-life heroine for your books? 

Greer: It’s a bit of a challenge to choose — there are so many more fascinating, untold (or at least under-told) stories than I could possibly tackle! I’m most inspired by women who bucked the trends of their time, but I also prefer characters who aren’t entirely good or entirely evil. After all, that’s not what we’re like in real life, right? Also, sometimes I stick fairly close to what’s known, as with Kate Warne in Girl in Disguise, and sometimes history is more of a jumping-off point, as with Nellie Bly and Woman 99. In Nellie’s case, she was a journalist, so if you want to read about her undercover adventures at Blackwell’s Island, you can already do that, since she documented them. So I took that inspiration and created a character who does one of the things Nellie did — feign insanity to infiltrate an insane asylum — but for her own reasons. That’s where Charlotte Smith came from. And that way I get to draw on a host of different stories to synthesize a coherent story with a satisfying ending. Which doesn’t always happen in real life.