An Interview with Tim Wendel

book cover for Habana Libre

When One More Page Books, a local indie book store in Arlington, Virginia, invited me to do a reading in tandem with Tim Wendel, who also writes about Cuba, I don’t mind admitting I felt a little intimidated. Wendel, after all, is the author of 10 books, including Summer of ’68Castro’s Curveball, High Heat and Habana picture of the author Tim WendelLibre His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, American Scholar, Gargoyle, GQ and Esquireand he teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he’s a writer in residence.

High Heat got high praise from the The New York Times. It was even designated “Editor’s Choice,” the reviewer observing that “Wendel’s writing is also all fastballs. Sensitive and scrupulous… [his writing] is a séance with the game’s past, an almost literary fantasy….”

Of Habana Libre, his most recent work, Holly Goddard Jones, author of The Next Time You See Me, describes the characters as acast of dreamers” for whom “America is more of an abstract ideal than a place that can be reached by boat. Wendel tells their story with tender complexity and rich detail.” Fortunately for me, Tim Wendel could not be a kinder, gentler, more salt of the earth sort of soul. The sort of person who immediately puts everyone at ease.


HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

WENDEL: I believe in the power of stories. They can save us, and a well-told tale holds a lot about the secrets of life, especially how to stay at it even when everything seems stacked against us. Richard Ford once said that when you read something that strikes a chord within you, the natural tendency is to try and do it yourself. There’s nothing like finishing a good read and then imagining what you can do.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

WENDEL: In recent years, I’ve tried to let things sit a bit before sending them out to the world. This allows me to see the places where the story could use a bit of polish. In addition, I often do more research during the revision stage. If a scene needs a boost, it can often be found in additional detail or back story that helps with the understanding of the characters. We’re so lucky in the D.C. area, where I make my home, with the Library of Congress and National Archives close by. A trip to them or even the local library can underscore and help emphasize things, especially a pivotal scene.

book cover for Castro's CurveballHUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

WENDEL: Good question. In looking back on my work, a key theme has to be perseverance. I often write about the underdog, whether it is in my novels or narrative nonfiction. I’m also intrigued by group dynamics. Even though my writing usually has several key characters, they are often involved in a group, and how they come together is crucial to their overall success. This is certainly true with the nonfiction titles—Summer of ’68, High Heat, Going for the Gold. But it is also key on the fiction side with Castro’s Curveball and Habana Libre.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

WENDEL: I’m been extremely fortunate to have several great teachers during my career, going back to my high school days, which is saying something because I went to a rural school in western New York state. In college, I studied with a master of long-form narrative, Bill Glavin, at Syracuse University. And since then I’ve been blessed to learn from Nick Delbanco, Margot Livesey, Marita Golden, Carolyn Doty, Oakley Hall and Alan Cheuse to name a few. But I also think it’s important to seek good teachers out. I have attended several summer conferences (Sewanee and Squaw Valley) simply because somebody whose work I admired was teaching there.

HUERGO: How has teaching affected your writing?book cover for High Heat

WENDEL: It means I cannot cheat. What I mean by that is I cannot advise my students to go in one direction and then not pursue the same path with my own writing. Teaching keeps me honest about my own efforts on the page.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

WENDEL: Try to bring some degree of regularity to your craft. Certainly writing is easier when we’re inspired or a story is going well. But some of the best scenes or moments happen on the days when it all seems simply like a lot of work. But if you can put down a few lines, fill a page in your notebook, it can often lead to some effective passages and insights. Writing in this day and age is tough—no doubt about it. Between work, family, etc., finding the time can be difficult. But seize the time. It will be worth it. I wrote my first novel on the D.C. Metro. It was the only time I had back then, but I got a good book out of it.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

WENDEL: I tend to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. It keeps me from becoming stale. So, after the recent novella, Habana Libre, I’m back to writing about sports and history in a new book for Da Capo entitled Down to the Last Strike. It will be out in spring 2014 and includes a slice of memoir, which is new for me. After that I’m back to the beginning, looking through various ideas in my notebook, and I’m thinking the next one could be another novel or even a screenplay.


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Photo by P. M. Korkinsky