Please join me in welcoming first-time published author Agustin D. “Gus” Martinez to the TPTW lounge.
Gus’s debut novel The Mares of Lenin Park was published by Hollywood Books International and won the Prize Americana for Prose 2012. It is available today in Kindle format and will be released in hard copy within the next few weeks.
Hi, Gus! Tell us more about you. Where are you from? When did you first get that desire—the calling—to write?
I was born in Panama after my family fled Cuba after the Revolution. They lived in New York for a short period, but they just couldn’t acclimate to the cold weather, so my father found work in Panama, where they lived for five years before finally moving to Miami. I went to Miami as a baby and grew up there. I was lucky to have grown up in a bilingual home where stories of Cuba, past and present, were common. Having family that still lives in Cuba gave me great insight into the challenges that post-revolution Cubans experience. I was an English major at Florida State University, after which I became an English teacher in Miami. After moving to the DC area, I became a translator for a short period before returning to school and returning to teach High School English and Creative Writing. I received my Master’s from Johns Hopkins University and began my career as a school administrator. I became a high school principal and now work as an educational administrator in suburban VA (just outside DC).
I guess I’ve always wanted to be a writer. My sister Maria used to buy me books when I was a kid. She bought me everything from Sidney Sheldon to V.C. Andrews to Stephen King. We would discuss those books, which we devoured as if they were potato chips, for hours. My family is a family of storytellers. No matter when or why we get together, tall tales are told! So I guess I was born into the tradition of oral storytelling.
This is probably why I started my writing career as a playwright. I just loved dialogue, and I loved seeing my characters come to life on stage. That was a magical experience for me. I went on to write short fiction which focused mainly on life in Miami, specifically the unique experiences of exiles. The Mares of Lenin Park is my first novel.
What inspired you to write The Mares of Lenin Park? Was any part of the story written from your own experiences?
Although the novel is fiction, I made sure to dedicate time and effort in portraying the realities of Cuba today. Told from the eyes of a 14-year-old boy named Uli, the novel incorporates many of the stories I heard from family, friends, and students who had just arrived to America, fantastic stories that oftentimes seemed unreal. I just knew I had to write all those details down, and the product was my novel.
The Mares of Lenin Park seems like a heavy, emotional, and serious novel. What was it like writing it and how long did it take?
There are certainly parts of the book that are emotional and very serious; however, because the narrator is a 14-year-old boy, I couldn’t help but include some humorous details as well. That’s the beauty of the novel. It depicts how Cubans today, no matter how much they struggle, still find time to laugh, still have time to celebrate. At times, it was difficult for me to write because I continued to interview my father and siblings, as well as my family who still lives in Cuba. The stories they shared with me were sometimes heartbreaking, but I knew in order to be honest with readers, I had to make sure to include these details. At other times, it was quite easy, especially when it came to Uli’s and his cousin’s mischievousness.
The novel took me several years to write. I went back to edit the novel several times, making sure the themes I intended to make up the novel were well structured. Developing characters takes a long time, but I think the book is the better for it. If I had any advice for a writer is to walk away from the book or story for several days, even several weeks before going back to the editing process.
What is your favorite part of the book? What was the hardest part for you to write?
My favorite part of the book is when Uli and his cousin, Nestor, visit the compulsory work camp known as “trabajo voluntario.” It’s ironic that the compulsory camp is known even today as “voluntary.” That part of the book shows boys just being boys, regardless of the politics and philosophies that ensnare their daily lives.
Without wanting to give too much away, the most difficult part for me to write was when Uli finds himself alone on a boat at night, the fog engulfing his small boat. I wanted to make sure that the themes of lonesomeness and death and illusion v. reality were well crafted and infused with the plot. Uli’s loneliness and confusion in this part of the book was painful because it reminded me of all the stories my students told me about when they lunged out to sea just for the small chance that they’d make it to Florida, some of their families not even making it across safely.
How long did it take you to get published? What was the experience like for you?
That was an arduous process. I wrote literary agents and small publishing houses for over a year. Luckily, after winning Prize Americana for Prose in 2012, Hollywood Books International offered me a contract. I thought I would need an agent to get my book published, but the publisher worked directly with me. After signing the contract, the editing process between my publisher and me took about eight months. That was a rigorous and worthy experience. My editor pushed me to really take a look at the story I was trying to tell and made sure we had the best book possible before it went to print.
If you weren’t a writer, what could you picture yourself doing instead?
If I wasn’t a writer, I could see myself teaching again. I loved being a teacher, especially an English teacher. I was very passionate about teaching literature, and my students saw that. I can’t really see me doing anything else – other than being a world traveler! 🙂
Do you have any current projects that you want to share with readers?
I’m currently working on the sequel to Mares. The setting of the second novel takes place in Miami after Uli makes it across the Straits of Florida alone. This novel explores Uli adapting to a new life, to a new world. He struggles to fit in an American school yet, like so many immigrants, overcomes these challenges. Uli feels like an “in-betweener” in America, especially at school, but he learns to adapt as best he can and learns that he doesn’t have to give up that part of him that is still Cuban.
For those who may have questions or just want to follow your successes and progress, how can you be contacted?
Readers can contact me directly at gusmartinez67 (at) cox (dot) net.
Do you have any final words for your dedicated fans and prospective readers? Anything I may have missed that you feel the reading world should know about Agustin D. Martinez, the author?
I hope my fans love the characters, the themes, and the story itself. I think that no matter where the reader’s from, no matter what background he or she comes from, they will relate to the protagonist and to the challenges he faces. I would love to hear from fans, who can reach me at my personal email. The book is currently out on Amazon.com for Kindle and should be out in print later April/early May. Some readers have asked if they could have a signed copy of the book. I can give them details on how to receive one if they email me.
Thank you, Gus, for allowing me to interview you. It’s always refreshing to see a writer make his/her debut with the talent and ambition to excel. I, as well as my blog followers I’m sure, appreciate you sharing your heritage within your works and giving us insight as to how you got published, something many writers strive for daily. Many wishes of success to you, Gus, and thank you again!