Article published on November 9, 2017.
After having read and reviewed (and highly enjoyed!) Maria Dueñas’ latest novel, A Vineyard in Andalusia, Berwyn Peet had a number of questions:
Berwyn Peet: First of all, I’d like to thank you for writing one of the most satisfying books I’ve read for a long while. I love the sort of historical novel that you can really immerse yourself in. As well as being rich in historical detail, it is also a real page turner. Where did you start from and what inspired you – the settings, the main character or the plot?
Maria Dueñas: Thank you so much for reading and enjoying my novel; I was eager to know how this book would be received in its translation into English, so your positive reaction makes me very happy.
Before having a plot or a main character, my original intention was to look back to that splendid city of Jerez in the mid-19th century, when sherry was produced and massively traded both by local and British merchants. I started researching about wine making and wine commerce at that time, and found out that a few prosperous wineries of those years were established thanks to the money brought by returned Spanish migrants who had made their fortunes in the Mexican silver mines.
That was the model I decided to use for my main character, Mauro Larrea. However, he is no longer the wealthy, powerful Indiano he used to be, and in order to reconstruct his former life so that we can understand his present circumstances and purposes, I decided to start my narration in Mexico City, where he faces bankruptcy — then continue in Havana, here he desperately searches for opportunities to overcome his chaotic situation—, and finally take the action to Jerez, where his life will turn completely upside down.
BP: The story is set in the 1860s with locations in Mexico, Cuba and Spain. You must have done an incredible amount of research? Did you visit all the places and which appealed to you most?
MD: I did a lot of research, that’s true, but it’s something that I enjoy tremendously. The documentation process is essential in my writing: I need my stories to be firmly based on a framework of historical accuracy, even though my novels are not purely historical books. I use a variety of sources, from novels to academic articles, newspapers from the time, memoirs and biographies, travel books, etc. I usually know beforehand the places where I’m going to set my stories but, additionally, I always visit them again while I’m writing, on some occasions several times. I revisit spots, talk to people, eat the food, breath the air…
BP: Mauro Larrea is an appealing main character but he is an adventurer and risk taker. What do you see as his strengths and weaknesses?
MD: Mauro is a tremendously attractive man, but with some contradictions. He’s a wilful Spaniard whose wife died giving birth to her second child, compelling him to migrate to Mexico in search of opportunities along with his young daughter and son. He works tenaciously in the silver mines and eventually becomes a tycoon in that profitable business, until some risky investments swallow his fortune and he has to face his own reconstruction almost from scratch.
He’s good-looking, impulsive, tenacious and self-confident, a man of his word, a reliable friend, and the best father for his children. But he has been so consumed by his professional, social and parental commitments that he has neglected his sentimental side. And it will be at the most turbulent, unpredictable time of his life when realizes that he still has the capacity of fall madly in love.
BP: In English, the book is called A Vineyard in Andalusia and while the vineyard is behind much of the story, Mauro doesn’t go there until about halfway through. I believe that in Spanish the book is known by the name of the vineyard – La Templanza – which means temperance. Is this one of the themes of the story?
MD: It was a deliberate game of words: the title La Templanza refers to the name of the vineyard, but at the same time it means temperance, the cardinal virtue which has to do with restraint, self-control, moderation and discretion. These are precisely the assets Mauro does not have in his impulsive effort to reinvent himself, although he constantly wishes he could afford them. It won’t be until the end of the novel that he will find some temperance, along with a new place in the world.
BP: There are lots of twists and turns to the plot and some of the mysteries, such as the reason behind Gustavo’s reckless gamble, are not revealed until near the end. How difficult was it to keep track of all the different threads?
MD: I usually work with a structured organisation of plots, subplots, characters, etc., so it’s not difficult for me to follow an arranged sequence of events. What is hard is to make that skeleton invisible to the readers, so that they perceive the story as flowing and continuous, without being aware of the framework behind it.
BP: Soledad is a great character, feisty and brave. Do you enjoy writing strong female characters? Did you ever consider writing the story from her point of view instead of that of Mauro? Apart from Mauro and Soledad, who is your favourite character?
MD: My two former novels, The Seamstress (El tiempo entre costuras in Spain and Latin America, The Time in Between in the US) and The Heart Has Its Reasons (in the US, not published in the UK, Misión Olvido in Spain and LatAm), both have female main characters, so I was really looking forward to creating a masculine protagonist. Moreover, this particular story of silver mines, billiard games and returned migrants required a male component. But the feminine side is not neglected at all in the novel, with strong, courageous, alluring women as Soledad. Or with intriguing Carola Gorostiza, or the impressive Countess de Colima, or the adorable daughter Mariana…
Besides the protagonists, I’d say my favourite character is Manuel Ysasi, the skinny, rational doctor from Jerez, a close friend of Soledad since their childhood who witnesses how an unavoidable yet risky passion starts growing between her and Mauro, the charismatic newcomer.
BP: If you had been living then and able to choose, would you have preferred to live in Mexico, Cuba or Spain?
MD: That’s a hard question, because the three places were fascinating at that time. Mexico was a young, vibrant republic; Cuba still had its old colonial charm, and Spain, or more specifically Jerez, was bursting with the wine industry and its cosmopolitan trade. I think I would have to draw lots.
BP: You are obviously a terrific story teller. What books did you read when growing up and have they influenced you? I suppose I’m also wondering whether there is any connection to the Spanish picaresque tradition?
MD: Thank you! Obviously, Spanish literature has always been present, including the picaresque tradition of course. But I also remember that when I was growing up I was very fond of some English authors, and particularly of Enid Blyton. I read the whole collection of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, the Malory Towers and St Clare’s series… For a Spanish girl in the 1970s, they were fascinating worlds.
BP: Have you started planning your next book yet and can you tell us anything about it?
MD: I’m currently finishing my fourth novel, it’s about three Spanish sisters in their early twenties who migrate to New York in the 1930s. At that time, most Spanish emigrants used to have Latin America as their destination, but a few thousand chose the US, and that’s a very little known circumstance even in Spain. I have very much enjoyed writing this new story, as I did with The Vineyard.
Many thanks to Maria and Berwyn for this Q&A.
You can read Berwyn’s review of A Vineyard in Andalusia here.
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