Chantel Acevedo // The Cagibi Express Interview

Photo by Susan Stocker

Chantel Acevedo’s latest novel The Living Infinite, inspired by true events, tells the story of the Spanish princess Eulalia, an outspoken firebrand at the Bourbon court during the troubled final years of her family’s reign. It is set in Bourbon Spain, revolutionary Cuba, and fin-de-siécle America. Her other novels include The Distant Marvels, one of Booklist’s Top Ten Historical Novels of 2015; Love and Ghost Letters, which won the Latino International Book Award and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book of the Year; Song of the Red Cloak, a historical novel for young adults; and A Falling Star, winner of the Doris Bakwin Award and the National Bronze Medal IPPY Award. In 2016, Finishing Line Press published Acevedo’s first book of poems, En Otro OzAcevedo is an Associate Professor of English in the MFA Program of the University of Miami. Below this interview is more about her latest novels.

Chantel Acevedo is the fiction judge in the inaugural Macaron Prize.

Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Chantel Acevedo: ​I didn’t travel much as a kid. We couldn’t afford it, and road trips out of Florida, especially when you’re all the way in Miami, become expensive, too. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I went anywhere. These were Fulbright trips—to New Zealand and Japan. It was then that I understood something very profound about changing your vistas. It triggers certain questions of the spirit, questions you didn’t know you had. And it does wonders for the inventive part of my brain, too. When I travel, I nearly always come back home with a novel idea. Of course, this is all so privileged. I haven’t forgotten that I didn’t see snow until I was in my mid-twenties, not out of laziness, or fear, but because I couldn’t afford to go to a place where it snowed. I regard any travel I do now with intense gratitude.

Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Acevedo: Museums. I am an utter fangirl for them. They aren’t distracting to me, however. They’re excursions into knowledge. It’s all one fun fact after another, and I’m a sucker for those.

Cagibi: We are too! A fun fact can be shocking—a micro-explosion of an experience, and it’s the unexpected pop of it that makes it fun. Reminds us of the opening line of your novel, The Living Infinite:

Su Alteza Isabel II, Reina de España, carried ten relics on her person during her last few weeks of pregnancy. These included the desiccated right arm of John the Baptist, which, wasted and ancient, resembled a piece of driftwood…

Is this true? Where in the world did you discover such a fact? You don’t have to reveal your secrets, though we are curious to know! Do you have relics that you carry with you, to see you through the full term of a book?

Acevedo: Isabel had Vatican-loaned relics in her delivery room, though I can’t remember now if I made these precise relics up or if they are historically accurate. That little tidbit came from José María Zavala’s book on Eulalia, La Infanta Republicana. It was an essential read for me. The Bourbons were big on carrying relics around, and as I describe in the book, Eulalia did have secret pockets sewn into her childhood dresses to carry these relics on her person. As for me, I try to acquire a token that represents the book I’m working on! How did you guess? I have a ring from the Colombian Exposition of 1893, which was sold as a souvenir at the fair, and had Isabel II’s name engraved on the outside. It was a physical reminder to me that I was writing about real people, and that I owed them diligence.

Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Acevedo: A warm, small space. I’m very much of the Hobbit-variety of human. It’s no surprise that I do almost all my writing in bed, with the bedroom door closed, and the lights off. It’s probably very bad for my eyes and my back. I have a hard time writing in cafes and at my work desk on campus where I teach. There are too many distractions, the air conditioning is always too cold, there are too many interesting conversations going on around me. I’m a total Bilbo, except I probably wouldn’t go on any dangerous adventures. They’re all in my head already.

Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?

Acevedo: I’m working (in bed, lights off) on a new adult novel, which I won’t say more of for fear of dampening the desire to tell the story in the first place.

Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

​Acevedo: As I said before, I nearly always return from my travels with a book idea. A recent trip to London’s V&A Museum, and some time spent in the magical courtyard pool there, inspired another project in the works.

Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Acevedo: I have definitely traveled with the express purpose of researching a book, but I won’t lie and say that when I go to these places, all I do is work. I can usually get what I need in a few hours. It’s what presents itself serendipitously over the course of the trip that really shapes a book, and so I allow myself that wandering time.

Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.

Acevedo: I have not been to Barcelona, but the first time I read Carlos Ruiz Zafón, it was all I could think about. When I do go, I will take one of his novels with me.

Cagibi: When I read your books, I experience occasional moments of exciting, perchance discovery, the startling sense that I’ve discovered a secret drawer in your cagibi (for a cagibi can be a writing desk!). Or like in the latest work of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Labyrinth of the Spirits, discovering a secret library in Barcelona. One moment I’ve thought a lot about, in reflection, is the end of Chapter 10, Part 1, of The Distant Marvels, when María and her mother are prisoners at the inn, and María tells us that she would stare at a painting of a Spanish infanta, a Spanish princess… When you wrote this section, did you have any inkling that you would go on to write The Living Infinite, about Infanta Eulalia? I feel that these paragraphs leading to the end of this chapter in The Distant Marvels are a hidden drawer of relics to your current and future works…

Acevedo: I’m so glad you discovered that! I like to put these little Easter eggs in my books, and I do love the term cagibi for that! When I wrote the painting into the inn, I had just learned about Eulalia at a dinner party, so she was on my mind. I wasn’t sure yet that the next book would be about her. Maria Sirena and her mother make an appearance in The Living Infinite, too. Imagining that all of these characters live on the same plane of existence across time pleases me. It’s utter vanity, I know, but it’s also the kind of thing that serves as a sweetener for me to think about when the writing is hard or the ideas aren’t particularly flowing.

Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Acevedo: I can’t say I’ve had to hide in order to write. Usually, closing the bedroom door is enough if my family is home and being noisy. I do recall skipping class my senior year, however, hiding in a one of the stalls of the girls’ bathroom, and writing poetry. Does that count? How nerdy is that, by the way? Skipping class to write poems in a bathroom?

About Chantel Acevedo’s The Living Infinite

Chantel Acevedo’s latest novel The Living Infinite was published in 2017 by Europa Editions. From the publisher:

The Living Infinite is based on the true story of the Spanish princess Eulalia, an outspoken firebrand at the Bourbon court during the troubled and decadent final years of her family’s reign.

After her cloistered childhood at the Spanish court, her youth spent in exile, and a loveless marriage, Eulalia gladly departs Europe for the New World. In the company of Tómas Aragón, the son of her one-time wet nurse and a small-town bookseller with a thirst for adventure, she travels by ship first to a Cuba bubbling with revolutionary fervor then on to the 1893 Chicago World Fair. As far as others are concerned, she is there as an emissary of the Bourbon dynasty and a guest of the Fair. Secretly, she is in America to find a publisher for her scandalous, incendiary autobiography, a book that might well turn the old world order on its head.

Acevedo’s new novel is an atmospheric and gripping tale of love, adventure, power and the quest to take control of one’s destiny. Bourbon Spain, Revolutionary Cuba, and fin de siècle America are vividly rendered and Eulalia’s personal rebellion will resonate with many readers.

About Chantel Acevedo’s The Distant Marvels

Chantel Acevedo’s novel The Distant Marvels was also published by Europa Editions. From the publisher:

The story of a lifetime told in the eye of a hurricane. Maria Sirena tells stories. She does it for money—she was a favorite in the cigar factory where she worked as a lettora—and for love, spinning gossamer tales out of her own past for the benefit of friends and family. But now, like a modern-day Scheherazade, she will be asked to tell a story so that eight women can keep both hope and themselves alive. Cuba, 1963. Hurricane Flora, one of the deadliest hurricanes in recorded history, is bearing down on the island. Seven women have been evacuated from their homes and herded into the former governor’s mansion, where they are watched over by another woman, a young soldier of Castro’s new Cuba named Ofelia. Outside the storm is raging and the floodwaters are rising. In a single room on the top floor of the governor’s mansion, Maria Sirena begins to tell the incredible story of her childhood during Cuba’s Third War of Independence; of her father Augustin, a ferocious rebel; of her mother, Lulu, an astonishing woman who fought, loved, dreamed, and suffered as fiercely as her husband. Stories, however, have a way of taking on a life of their own, and, swept up by her story’s momentum, Maria Sirena will reveal more about herself than she or anyone ever expected. Chantel Acevedo’s The Distant Marvels has the epic scope of a contemporary Gone with the Wind and a faith in the power of storytelling equal to Martel’s Life of Pi. It is a family saga, a love story, a stunning historical account of the struggle against oppressors, and a long tender plea for forgiveness. The Distant Marvels is, finally, a life-affirming novel about love that lasts a lifetime and the very art of storytelling itself.

Appears In

Issue 5

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