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Q&A with Chanel Cleeton, Author of Next Year in Havana

Q&A with Chanel Cleeton, Author of Next Year in Havana

Chanel Cleeton is the author of 10 books. Originally from Florida, Chanel grew up on stories of her family’s exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution, which help served as the inspiration for the engaging and wonderful Next Year in Havana. That book is a must-read (check out my preview, review and book club questions). Get to know Chanel more with the below Q&A where she talks her favorite novels, key takeaways from Next Year in Havana and gives a sneak peek into her next novel.

Q: What are some of your favorite novels?

This is such a tough question for me! Some of my perennial favorites include The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif, Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire, but there are definitely loads of other books that could easily make this list.

Q: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

A: I started playing around with writing a novel about 10 years ago, but it took me ages to actually finish it. It wasn’t until I started querying agents looking for representation and receiving rejections (rightfully so- the book was pretty terrible) that I realized how badly I wanted to be a writer. Seven years ago, I started working on a new book, learning more about the business side of writing and growing my craft, and I never looked back.

Q: What inspired you to write Next Year in Havana? How is it different from your other novels?

A: Next Year in Havana was inspired by a family story my father told me about the night before my family left Cuba in 1967 after the Cuban Revolution. Because they weren’t able to take valuables and mementos with them, my family gathered in the backyard of their home under the dead of night and buried them for when they returned. As soon as I heard the story, I couldn’t get the question out of my mind—if you were forced to leave the only home you had ever known and had only a box in which to preserve your memories, what would you choose to save? From that question, Next Year in Havana was born.

It’s my first historical novel and I’ve loved the new direction it has taken me in.

Q: How much of the novel was influenced by your grandparents’ stories of Cuba? 

A: While most of the book is fictional, I tried to include some of my family’s stories of Cuba, so things like the mention of El Encanto (which was one of my grandmother’s favorite stores) and things like the box buried in the backyard, and some of the characters’ emotions about Cuba, were definitely influenced by my family.

Q: How did you decide that the story should be told in dual timelines of different generations of women from the same family?

A: My grandparents lived with us for most of my childhood and I had a very special relationship with my grandmother. For me, this was always a multigenerational story celebrating those bonds and also illustrating the effect exile has had on subsequent generations of Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

Q: What do you hope are some of the key takeaways for readers regarding Cuba’s complicated past and present?

A: I hope to offer a perspective on the Cuban Revolution since I know many people aren’t as familiar with the conflict and why it has had such a lasting impact on so many, particularly those in exile. I also want the book to honor the sacrifices and courage of so many families like mine who risked everything to give subsequent generations a better life. I always want my readers to be entertained by my books and I hope they fall in love with the characters as they go along their journey with them.

Q: Very excited that you’re working on a follow-up to Next Year in Havana! Can you give any hints on what to expect in this next book?

A: Thank you! When We Left Cuba is Beatriz’s story (she’s one of the sisters you meet in Next Year in Havana) and is set during the tumultuous Cuban-American relations of the 1960s. I had SO much fun working on this one. The novel is primarily set in Palm Beach and follows Beatriz’s involvement with the CIA in one of many plots to assassinate Fidel Castro and is heavily influenced by the heightened espionage between the two countries. There’s a love story within the political machinations, and Beatriz’s passion for both her country and the man who steals her heart fills the book.

Q: What books are you currently reading and what’s on your to be read (TBR) list?

A: I’m currently reading Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister and The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker.

I’m really excited to read Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh, The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams, The Witch Elm by Tana French, Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter, and The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden.

Thanks for hosting me today!