SECRETS OF SPAIN 1 – BLOOD IN THE VALENCIAN SOIL

Spain, March 1939 – the Spanish Civil War is coming to an end. Five young Republicans in the small town of Cuenca know they are on the losing side of the war. History only recognises the winners, and the group know they could die, all destined to become faceless statistics. They concoct a plan to go to Valencia in search of safety, but not all of these young men and women are going to survive…

Seventy years later, bicycle mechanic Luna Montgomery, the granddaughter of a New Zealand nurse who served during the Spanish Civil War, has made Spain her home. A young widow and mother of two little boys, Luna wants to know what became of her Spanish grandfather. He is one of the ‘disappeared’, one of the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who were murdered and hidden away during and after the war. On a quick trip to Madrid, Luna forms an unlikely friendship with an intelligent and popular bullfighter, Cayetano Beltrán, but as Luna presses on to delve into Spain’s history for answers, Cayetano struggles with truths he wished he had never found out. In an ever-changing society that respects and upholds family ties, betrayal by the people that Luna and Cayetano hold dear will hurt them more than they could have realised. There are old wounds that have yet to heal underneath Spain’s ‘pact of forgetting’.

Listen to the author interview on ‘The Book Show’ on Talk Radio Europe 13.12.12

Purchase the first in the ‘Secrets of Spain’ series now in paperback and Kindle

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Hello! A few months ago, I asked for questions to be put to me about my upcoming book, ‘Blood in the Valencian Soil’, or anything writing related. I got a wide range of questions from all over the world.  So let’s start!

What is ‘Blood in the Valencian Soil’ about?

Luna, a New Zealand woman living in Valencia, is the granddaughter of a nurse who was part of the International Brigade during the Spanish civil war. Luna needs the birth certificate of her Spanish grandfather in order to gain her residency permit to remain in the country permanently. With no family, and still hurting after her husband’s death, Luna is looking for a link to the country she lives in. Luna meets Cayetano, a bullfighter from Madrid, who is more or less looking for a way out of his life. Cayetano impulsively decides to help Luna on what should be a simple trip to Cuenca, and step by step, they both figure out who their families really are. Don’t expect a happy ending. The book is the first in a series.

Have you ever been to a bullfight? What is your opinion of the sport?  Why did you choose it for your novel?

Yes, I have been to a bullfight, in Valencia. A few weeks after I arrived in Spain, in June 2005, I was given four tickets to a fight, and they were the all-important seats in the shade. In early July, with a one-year-old and a newborn, there was no way we could sit in the sun for hours. Maybe it was that I was brought up in the country where animals are food (or perhaps that I am especially sadistic), but the element of killing an animal doesn’t bother me in the way it bothers others. People view the performance as a bloodletting massacre, but that is just too simplistic. If you look at the work involved in it, from those who breed the bulls, to the work done by the toreros who compete, it is a massive operation. Whether you defend it as traditional or not, it is something ingrained into Spanish life (well, from Madrid south anyway).

I suppose, for me, it was a foreigner curiosity that drew me there. Did I leave with an appetite for blood? No. Did I leave with an appetite for protest against the proceedings? Hell no. All I can say to those who have not been to a bullfight, yet have strong opinions on the subject – calm down. By all accounts the economy, and modern thoughts on animal welfare, could well deal the death blow to the sport soon enough.

Why in my book? Bullfighting doesn’t feature heavily in terms of details. But like or hate it, it is quintessentially Spanish. It promotes the male pride that I need for my main character, Cayetano Beltrán. If you expect to see him prancing around in his suit of lights killing stuff, think again. There is a personality behind every torero.

 Why do you study Spanish Civil War graves? Where did you get the idea?

Where? The hard way. I can’t go into a lot of detail in the interest of privacy, but I met a woman who knew of a grave in Valencia city, not far from where she and I lived. Until then, I had no idea of the Spanish Civil War. My only connection to Spain was a great-grandfather who fled the country, only to ‘disappear’ when my grandmother was very young. Where he went, no one knows. That was when I started looking for information, and was given a copy of Ghosts of Spain by the wonderful and insightful Giles Tremlett. I had to admit, my life in Spain, while incredible, was not the typical Spanish experience. I lived earning far more than the average Spaniard, given a home, car, people to help out with anything I could possibly need. Once I stopped spending the bulk of time among the expat community, I found a decidedly different Spain.

Another book I read and found insightful early on was Jason Webster’s Guerra, about finding a mass grave in his backyard (as such). After sending a great deal of time in the mountain outside Valencia, you can get a sense of a more traditional Spain than in the cities. I have a particular fondness for the area and the people who live out there. The reality is that people are still digging up graves, despite the time that has past. People are still sitting on secrets. Not all grievances have been settled. No one seems to care, either.

Rebalsadors mountain outside Valencia city, where the book is set.

Do you have a muse?

For the characters of BITVS, I don’t have a muse of any kind. I do find that having a muse can lead to feeling somewhat pigeonholed into what the character may or may not do. That is not always the case, sometimes having a case study to help with detail is helpful, but I don’t have a particular person in mind when writing. All the characters are completely fictional in terms of their personalities, characteristics and looks. Some of the characters (the ones set in 1939) are based on real people, but in the interest of their privacy, I have created entirely new people and fit their histories into the storyline.

My lead character is Luna Montgomery, and she has been literally plucked from the air. If you were to ask who she is like, I honestly couldn’t tell you. If someone wants to read and see if she reminds them of someone, I’m all ears. As the main lead character, Cayetano Beltrán, he is also not based on anyone either. He is by no means perfect, and neither is Luna. To be honest, sometimes they do things that annoy me. Luna can be darned indecisive, a trait I don’t like. Cayetano can be too eager to be perfect, so when he falls flat, he falls exceptionally hard.

 How did you pick the locations in the book?

I must confess that I took the easy route for this first book in the series, and chose places I know. In Madrid, they walk streets that I have walked down, been to hotels and buildings I have been to. The rural settings are  just the same, places I have been to and love. Valencia is my favourite Spanish location, so it will be the main setting for all the books in the series. In the first book, they stick to the more well-known locations, and as we go along, more locations in Valencia and the surroundings areas will be touched on. I love Valencia, it’s a truly unique city.

Valencia old town

Do you get much feedback about your books?

I do! Most days someone will tell me what they think of my writing. I have yet to have anyone tell me that what I have written is terrible, though surely that day will come. It is impossible to please everyone. I did have one ‘friend’ who told me my last book was no good, and that it wouldn’t sell, which I guess is proof you can’t please everyone. But on the whole, I get good feedback. Some is uncommonly good, so much so I hear from those  people every day. They follow everything I do, read the same things, try the same recipes, follow the same people on FB and twitter, regardless if it has anything to do with my work, even following my private friends and hobbies. But it’s only virtual stalking, so I just have to let it happen. On the other hand, I do get messages, speaking as if my characters are real people, and they make suggestions for them. That I love.

Which one of your characters would you like to have over for dinner, and why?

From BITVS, I would like to have Paco Beltrán over for dinner. Paco is Cayetano’s father, and one of the main characters in the novel. Paco is 70 years old and has lived in Spain during a tremendous period of change. He was born just after the civil war, was a child during the years of hunger, and came of age in the late 1950′s while the country continued to struggle to get on its feet. He had a rising career in the 1960′s as the country was again evolving, and also in the 1970′s when the whole nation was transformed with the death of Franco and the building of a constitution. He was there during the ETA bombing of the 1980’s and the political scandals of the 1990’s, and the social upheavals of the early 2000’s. The man is intelligent and secretive, and still has a lot to tell me about his story in the continuing series I am writing.

If I could have a second guest, it would be Scarlett Montgomery. She was a fearless New Zealander, who had no hesitations on sailing to Spain to try and help during the civil war. What she endured was extreme, and while she may seem cold, she is an intensely remarkable woman. Not only did she experience an extreme period on history, it shaped the rest of her life, living on the edge of conventional society.

What is it like being a writer?

Lonely! I spend so many hours researching the subjects I write. I am a mother of four, so most of my day-to-day conversations are child-related. I can easily go whole days without speaking to a person outside of my immediate family. They say the authors live twice – their real lives, and the lives of their characters. It’s very true. I may be visiting my accountant, but I am thinking of bullying in the Spanish police force in the 50′s. I am writing two books at the moment, on two subjects, the second in the BITVS series, and my second Canna novel, Violent Daylight. My mind of covering a wide range of subjects in a day. I love it.

How much of your book is true, and what is fiction?

The characters are all totally fictional. Their jobs, lives, homes,and relationships are all fictional. However, the storyline set in 2009 does follow what was happening in Valencia/Madrid/Cuenca in that time period. I did consider not mentioning the on-going financial crisis, but it’s a part of life at the moment. I feel it makes the characters more real to be worrying about jobs, money and the regional government. The storyline set in 1939 follows real time events, the dates, places and situations were all real, with fictional characters experiencing the upheaval going on in the cities and towns mentioned. You could go to the places mentioned in the book, as they are realistically described. I found that Valencia hides its civil war past better than other cities, but since I spent a lot of time at the port in the city, details did emerge. All the people I interviewed about their lives  in the civil war are not named for their privacy.

Calle de las Platerías. Ruzafa, Valencia ca. 1939

How many books will be in the Luna Montgomery series?

It will be a trilogy. BITVS is the first book, set in present day, and in 1939 at the end of the Spanish civil war. The second book is set in the continuing present-time story of Luna and her bullfighter friend, Cayetano, alongside with a storyline set in 1957, about the fate of baby-snatching plan during Valencia’s famous deathly flood. The third with be set alongside present day and a story set in the 1970′s, as Spain changes after the death of Francisco Franco. You will know Luna inside out by then!

How long are you planning on writing for?

As long as I can! I have three books in the Luna Montgomery series, and two books in the Canna Medici series. I also have another book brewing, based on the battle for Madrid in 1936, and another quietly working itself out in the back of my mind, another social convention challenger, a bit like the Canna series. Once those seven are written, I will see what else I can come up with.

Do you write yourself into Luna or Canna?

That is a tough question. Is Luna me? No. Canna? No. But they do encompass attributes that I like. If I had to pick which character is more like me personally, I would have to say Canna, in that she is ‘bold’. She is dark, and I am not afraid to say that I am, too. She is a character fully made up by me, and I am happy to back up her behaviour and motives. Life isn’t always pretty (or legal), and that doesn’t get written often enough (in my opinion).

Luna is a mother-of-two, so to write that is easy for me. Solo mothers aren’t normally lead characters in books, so I thought I would make her a mother. As soon as the character first came to me (three years ago), she always seems to be a mother of boys. So wherever you see her, you will see that she has made sure her children are safe and under control. She is extremely over-protective, but she has good reason. Luna is fragile, though she is doing her best not to act like it. You won’t see her crying over her lot on life or asking for help, despite what is going on.

Do you have a favourite character in BITVS?

Hmmm… if I had to pick one, I would say Scarlett, because I am a sucker for strong female characters. Scarlett is strong because she needs to be, and I find her to be the most practical person when faced with grief or trouble. I’m sure she does break down at times, but she never gave me the opportunity to write them, the war was dictating the storyline. My characters aren’t perfect, so whether you like Luna, Cayetano, Darren, or any of the others, they all have flaws, big and small. They wouldn’t feel real if they didn’t.

Women played a huge part in the Spanish civil war

Who are your target readers with your new book?

Good question! Obviously I would like to appeal to as many people as possible. I have worried throughout the whole process that it would appeal more to women than men, which is not what I wanted. I would like it to appeal to male readers just as much as female. I have taken a lot time to get the finer details of the story correct, so it is not a throwaway holiday romance novel that you leave in the hotel room (well, you could… my husband accidentally left a copy of Night Wants to Forget in a luggage trolley at Paris airport in July), it is a book for you to read and come away feeling as if you learned something. If you live in Spain or have spent a lot of time there, the detail may not seem like much, because you will know the locations, habits, language, weather, food etc., but if you don’t know Spain you can read and understand without feeling overwhelmed. I didn’t want it to feel like a series of facts and details thrown at people who have sat down to read fiction. I have tried to balance detail with entertainment. In the end, it is novel, so if you are looking for war history, it may not be what you are looking for. Read Paul Preston or Gerald Brenan for that.

Which writer is your mentor? Does anyone help you write?

That’s a tough one. I can’t say I have a mentor. I don’t have another writer who I talk to about my writing. There are authors that I draw some inspiration from, but I couldn’t go as far as saying their books are written in a similar style to my own. I don’t know of another author that has a similar style to what I produce (if you have a suggestion, readers, I’m all ears). There were certainly points in writing BITVS that having someone to bounce ideas off would have been helpful, but not the other hand, I like that I did it all solo. I love anything written about Spain – I am currently reading The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield (when I have the time), and that is a book whose style inspires me to write. Any time I read Jason Webster I feel like writing because his fiction work is based in Valencia, and I find my mind drifting to my own settings and storyline when I read. I read while on the spin bike so I can can’t stop reading and pedaling, and start writing.

Did you have any difficulties writing BITVS?

I know all the characters really well, and find writing them easy. However, this no fairytale love story, so there is no happy ending. It is tempting to write everything working out, everyone making it to safety, everyone redeeming themselves. But that simply isn’t me. There  are a few chapters towards the end that were hard. I wanted to give them alternate outcomes, but I had to stick to what the story needed. The story revolves around what happened to Cayetano Ortega (that isn’t a spoiler, by the way) and writing his life wasn’t as easy as I thought. The same goes for all the characters in the 1939 storyline. Also, in the 2009 storyline, I felt the need to keep changing the character of Darren, but it would change the story too much. At least my main characters stuck to the script! In the end, I wrote as the story needed it to be, regardless of how sad I felt about it.

The clock tower building in Valencia port, damaged after a civil war bombing. BITVS has life-altering decisions made right here

What was the first piece you wrote?

I had to think about this one! I found the answer in a box of things that my mother left me when she died. There was a short story that I wrote when I was 14, and I had forgotten all about it until I found that my mother had kept it all these years. I see from the teacher’s notes that I scored 100%, and that is probably why my mother kept it. It would have been the only time I scored well in school!

The story is about a woman working on an America’s Cup team in the United States. It was the night before a big race, and she was working alone in the night, taking in the silent area around where her team’s boat was moored. I loved reading this, not just because I could see my own early style in it, but also because it held so many dreams that I had for my own life. It is amusing to look back and see that I have achieved what I have set out in my life, and didn’t let go of the dreams I had as a kid. Don’t them go, otherwise it’s all job, mortgage, stress. Screw that!

Will you put a timeline of the war in your book? Or perhaps a pronunciation list for Spanish names and words.

I have no need to put a timeline in the book. In the end, BITVS is fiction, and not a book about the civil war in its own. The timeline wouldn’t help to understand the story. As for pronunciation, I think if the reader is having trouble with something, they are free to use Google to help themselves out. The reader doesn’t need to know Spanish to read this book, and the Spanish words used will not leave you feeling as if they missed something. As for the characters names, if you want, please Google them to see how they are said, otherwise let your mind make some up and just enjoy reading. The pronunciation does not need to perfect, as it adds nothing to the story, or level of enjoyment. The story is based in Valencia, and many can’t even pronunciation that properly. (It’s Ba-len-thia, by the way.)

If you had the chance, is there anything you would change in the book?

I don’t think here is any part I would like to change. The storyline flowed remarkably naturally for me, and I never got to a chapter, or part in the storyline, where I felt stuck. I could always see what was coming next, and why the characters were doing what they were. Nothing feels out of order or forced. These people are intensely real to me, and they stumble through life just like everyone else. It would be easy to fix their mistakes for them, but sugar-sweet people are rarely stimulating.

 Often, just a glimpse at something will help a whole chapter unfold all in one sitting.

Do you consider your characters to be real people?

Absolutely! If I don’t think them real, then no one else will. When I am writing, I say that I have a visitor (or visitors), and I am just recording what they are telling me. Different characters speak to me at different times. Some are in my room in the night, some talk loud while I vacuum, some will come storming in the door while I am sitting at my desk, some talk while I’m driving. This year I lost my beloved father, and none of my characters spoke to me while I was nursing him, or doing my daily four hour drive to and from his hospital.

How many edits have you done on the manuscript?

Six! Six bloody read through headaches (which took about a week each, given my timetable). The first two were changes on every single page, the third was a read to check for edits and commas, italics,  etc. (and the very helpful read by my editor, Sabine Kern), and the other three were my own neurotic mind desperately holding on to my baby. Though, on my sixth reading, I did get sent come info that meant I needed to make a last minute change. I was so mad that I had made such a mistake in the storyline that I wanted to throw the whole thing away. Then I calmed down and felt grateful that I had received the information.

Edit one – and yes, I always edit in pink

If you were writing a book about your life, what would be about and what would you call it?

What would the story of my life be like? A horror! LOL no… but it wouldn’t be a happy fairytale. I learned a lot about life pretty young. Divorces, desperation for a relationship, death at a young age, loneliness, depression, attempted rape, self-harm… and then I finished being a teenager! But also I know about realising your dreams, not veering off life’s course and sticking to what you want. I understand relationships and have held down marriage for 11 years (so far). I know all about the love of children, the grief of losing one, and the fight to save another. I have travelled the world and met the most colourful people, from homeless people to billionaires. Could I write this? Maybe, but not yet. The title – Love Displaced.

Did you learn anything while writing BITVS?

I learned a lot! As I was writing away, I was constantly asking people around (okay, on twitter) about little bits and pieces. What I thought as minor details about life in Spain were foreign (excuse the pun) to others I was talking to. That made me realise that I didn’t need to go into too much detail in the first book about Spain without it sounding over-complicated, or that I was trying too hard with detail. The reality was that many people didn’t know where Valencia is, let alone Cuenca. Many have no idea at all that there was a civil war in Spain, who was involved, or the fallout of it all. So, for the first book in the trilogy, I didn’t get too detailed and instead have kept it light. The plan is for you to learn things without feeling overloaded.

As for writing, I learned a lot again about the process, which made writing the book rather seamless. I wrote the whole thing in about six months. I learned a whole lot about editing. Instead of just writing and writing, and then cutting out the fluff, I can concentrate on the story and not bother with the fluff to begin with. For my last book, I had no idea about editing, and every time edits came back to me, I felt crushed. Not the case this time. As a result, my own writing style has remained intact, whereas I felt it had been squeezed out of my last novel (as much as I like the story, there are changes I don’t like in Nights). From pronouns, to verb form use, to faulty parallelisms, to passive and active voices, to modifiers, to qualifiers and quantifiers, you name it, I have worked on it all. Writing is easy compared to editing. That being said, I like editing.

Why is Luna Montgomery a bicycle mechanic?

That idea came to me early on in the process. I imagined her husband to be a pro-cyclist and I needed a way for her to meet him. Luna is not a girly-girl, and a bike mechanic seemed like a great job for her. She is very much a ‘live your dreams’ kind of girl. She doesn’t yearn for a normal life. She wants a stable family for her sons, but that involves a life a nomadic whim-filled life. Luna is a woman prepared to take risks. Cycling is a big part of Luna’s life and relationships, not unlike my own life.

The cycling in Valencia is fantastic

Is there a part of your book that you didn’t want to write?

There is, but I can’t say too much or will be a huge spoiler to the story. I got to a point in the story where I could have written a very lovely chapter where everyone came together and it was filled with love and blah blah blah, and that was predictable and boring. Instead, I finished that part of the storyline with something that really broke my heart. It was an issue very close to my life and I still feel bad for writing it. The reality is that life doesn’t have a happy ending, and I had to follow the story the way it had to be written. Let’s see if anyone can read the book and see what I’m talking about.

What has been the toughest criticism of you book…If any…?

Fortunately, I have no faced criticism for my work. I’m sure that day will come, but it hasn’t yet. The only negative thing I have faced about my writing is a couple of my friends getting all weird and jealous when I put out my first book. Needless to say, I let them go and kept writing anyway. That was just… mean.

Why do you write about the Spanish civil war?

I come from New Zealand, which is easily one of the most relaxed countries in the world, in all respects. One of the news items tonight was about a cow-milker who tweets while collecting the milk. Seriously. I won’t be walking down the street which is a site that has been the centre of a war, or, in fact, any major historical moment. The country hasn’t really existed all that long. So when moving to Spain, I was presented the opposite, a land with thousands of years of history. I’m a bit of a nerd, so that appealed to me. I first started studying the war after learning about war graves in Valencia, and the injustice of the process of moving and respecting the dead. It made the history of it all more real. With Spain, the stereotypes of the country and the reality are quite different. I’m not a fan of stereotypes.

Do you read fanfiction?

No. If I want to read about characters, I will read the original piece of work by the author that made up the characters and plot to begin with. Now, before fanfiction writers pick up their torches and pitchforks, I’m sure some of them are coming up with readable stuff… but still no. I don’t read much fiction as it is. I can’t think of a book that I would like to read fanfic about. Maybe it’s just me. Just today I saw someone mention fanfiction about tennis players… that is out there? I had no idea. My reading is taken up by study and research anyway.

Are you scared of anything?

Failure. And rollercoasters (what if my hair gets caught in it and it rips my head off?)

Do you have any pet hates?

People who park in disabled spaces, when their only disability is laziness and/or stupidity. Get a pass to park there, or piss off. People need those spaces.

What do you love?

Sunrises… and missing them because I got to sleep in.

The sun over Albufera lake in Valencia. I saw the sun rise over it every morning,                                                                                         because my kids never gave me sleep-ins.

How did you get your character names?

Luna is a favourite name of mine, Cayetano is friend’s name, Paco is the guy in Valencia that my husband buys suits from, Scarlett was a suggestion from my eight year-old, Alejandro and Ines I just like, Sofia was what my mother wanted me to name my daughter (never had one, never wanted one!), Darren was random… they just come to mind and are stuck there.

What is the next book in the series about and when will it come out?

The trilogy of books (Secrets of Spain) continues in book two, called Unrestrained Vengeance, and is set in two times – Valencia in 2010 and 1957. The storyline is the continuation of Luna Montgomery and her discoveries about her family, and the history she is digging up. 1957 centres around the flood that swept through Valencia, killing hundreds. The flood is going to disrupt an illegal activity and Franco’s visit to the flooded areas is going to hurt a lot of people – people who deserve it. There are plenty of clues in Blood in the Valencian Soil as to the main characters of the second novel. I will have it out in November 2013. So you can enjoy BITVS until then. I am also working on Violent Daylight, my Night Wants to Forget sequel, so I am pretty busy.

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