Latour’s new life

The WSJ’s Tom Nolan talks to Cuban crime writer Jose Latour about why he switched from writing in Spanish to English, his biggest worries, and how he got out of his native country:

Do you remember exactly where you were on Aug. 6, 2002?

José Latour, the 65-year-old Cuban-born author of
several crime-fiction novels, including the just-released "Comrades in
Miami" (Grove), will never forget where he was: On a plane headed to
the start of a new life. "We left Havana on August 5th, close to
midnight," the writer recalled recently in Los Angeles, where he was on
tour to promote his new book, "and we landed in Madrid at noon on
August 6th."

With Mr. Latour on that 2002 flight were his wife,
their 25-year-old son, and their 24-year-old daughter. "That was, you
know, a real accomplishment: to get a whole family out of Cuba,
legally…," he said. "Very few people have been able to leave Cuba as
I did."

What really fascinates me is how he was able to switch to writing in a second language and do it so well (as attested by the strong reviews, my own included, of his newest book COMRADES IN MIAMI):

By 1994, too, Mr. Latour had made the acquaintance of
writing colleagues in other countries, as a member of the International
Association of Crime Writers, a group he joined in 1988. The American
chapter paid for trips Mr. Latour took to the U.S. in 1992 and in 1998,
the year he was elected the IACW’s vice president for Latin America.
But in Cuba, authorities continued to make things difficult.

"Such an oppressive life," Mr. Latour recalled. "Can
you imagine a writer that for three or four years keeps asking the
Ministry of Culture to please sell him a computer? ‘I am not asking you
to give away a computer. I will pay you $500, $600 for an old computer
that’s not worth more than 250. I am willing to pay the price.’ And
they won’t sell you a computer… And then everything you say is a crime,
and you are constantly under surveillance; and you go to an embassy
because they are giving a cocktail [party] — and there’s an
olive-green jeep following you all the way. I mean you feel like a bug
under a microscope."

He noted: "You write [a novel] here in the United
States about corrupt people in the CIA, the FBI, the police, the
government… nothing happens; it’s just fiction, and nobody questions
the writer’s right… But you do that in Cuba — you’re a traitor; you
are giving weapons to the enemy."

His new friends in the wider crime-novel world —
including the American writers Lawrence Block and the late Ross Thomas
— were very supportive, Mr. Latour said. "But I never asked for any
help, because I didn’t want to incur any loans and debts and things I
couldn’t repay… So I had to first have the money, and then invest it in
immigrating. It was a sort of a difficult problem."

He solved it with the elegance of a skillful
mystery-plotter. Working painstakingly in a second language, Mr. Latour
began writing fiction in English. He’d just finished a book-length
manuscript when a visiting Brooklyn musician announced he was starting
a publishing house and wondered if Mr. Latour had any English work for
him to bring out in trade paperback? Mr. Latour did. His novel
"Outcast" was published by Akashic Books in 1999. It was nominated for
an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America and acquired for
hardcover publication by Morrow.