A Discussion with Valerie Block, author of DON’T MAKE A SCENE
Q: One of the main characters in the book has hit “the Age of No,” which for her means “No smoking, no alcohol, no drugs, no fat, no thank you, no parties, no sex, no blind dates.” Had you hit the Age of No when you wrote about it?
A: I hit the Age of No long before I wrote about it. What I was facing when I began writing the book was something else. I was turning 40, and everyday, I seemed to be hitting a limitation of some kind – physical, professional, emotional. I suddenly realized that it was too late to go to law school; I would never live in Italy; I really did need reading glasses; I couldn’t force myself to make small talk; I would probably never lose those last 10 pounds; I was forgetting words in English, so how likely was it that I would retain any of the Spanish I was trying to learn? It was a sobering time! Much tougher than the Age of No, which came in my mid-30s.
Q: Cinema plays a large role in the book. Why?
A: I wanted to explore how the movies shape and haunt us, and what happens when the eternal allure of classic movies collides with the daily indignities of contemporary life. I also wanted to examine how certain films can define the stages of one’s life. In the process, I thought I’d take a look at the movie-going process, everything from waiting beneath the marquee, buying popcorn at the concession stand, choosing a seat carefully to avoid hearing the NY Times review of the film parroted by morons in the row behind you. You would think that people wouldn’t yak incessantly at an art house. And yet, cineastes are often no better behaved than teenagers at the multiplex. Someone needs to call them on it.
Q: How did Cuba end up in the book?
A: I started writing the novel, and although I was enjoying all the cinema business, the story wasn’t moving forward. I looked over at my husband, Alexis Romay, who grew up in Cuba and came to the US as an adult, in 1999. Alexis is also a writer, and we talk about Cuba every day. At any given moment he is cursing in anger, crying in pain or laughing hysterically about something happening in Cuba. There were letters of denunciation from former friends, new laws prohibiting Cubans on the island from speaking to foreigners, Cubans caught by the US Coast Guard trying to escape on tires, sent back to Cuba, where they face, at best, public repudiation, and at worst, prison. Alexis has written editorials that could have been published in 1967 or the day before yesterday. The situation worsens, but never changes.
And at some point, I got jealous. I certainly didn’t envy the repression, the censorship, the privations, the hunger, the anger or the frustration that being born in Cuba entails. But for a writer, Cuba is a never-ending source of great material. I felt sheepish, and wondered if he would call me a colonialist for appropriating his stories, but I asked my husband: Would you mind if I wrote about this?
Q: And did he?
A: No, he didn’t — he was very enthusiastic. He didn’t accuse me of stealing, either. “You and I could write about the same thing, and it would come out completely differently,” he said. So the leading man became Cuban, and that seemed to make the whole enterprise take off. Alexis read every draft. He made sure I got everything right, not just theCubanidad.
Q: Is your husband Vladimir or Javier?
A: Neither, and both. I wanted to write about my husband’s world, which I think any Cuban in exile would recognize, without writing about him. Javier embodies all the delight and confusion that comes of being a greenhorn in the US. Vladimir suffers the frustration and impatience that comes of waiting for change that never comes, and having your own painful experience dismissed by people who know nothing about the subject. But you know that it’s fiction — some might say science fiction — because I’ve written about a Cuban man who doesn’t want to talk.
Q: Did you have a clear image of Diane and Vladimir when you started writing?
A: No. I had a situation, a woman who begins a romance that ends before it has a chance to take off, with a man who has a family in a foreign country. The man’s wife refuses on principal to grant him a divorce. The male character is furious that his wife has hijacked his life, weary of hatred, and simmering in a stalemate. And although he’s attracted to the single female character, things don’t move forward with her. Just because he’s a man and she’s a woman, doesn’t mean that they fall in love, and burst into song on public transportation, the way it happens in the movies. Diane and Vladimir emerged as people as I began to write. I saw their story as the kind of anti-climactic stuff that movies just don’t deal with.
Q: Why did you choose to write about a single woman?
A: I’ve been married for five years now, but for a very long time – much longer than is generally recommended – I was single. At the time I felt under siege from all sides, and I wanted to explore the idea that as a single woman, you have to be very well-defended just to get through your day without advice, criticism, pity, matchmaking services. And although I’d written about the absurdities of dating before (WAS IT SOMETHING I SAID?, SoHo Books, 1998), I discovered that I had more to say.