American History Y(bor): Mick Parsons, TSP Cigar Editor, Talks to Mark Carlos McGinty, author of The Cigar Maker
It would have
been nice to sit down with Mark, smoke a nice cigar, drink a nice single malt scotch, and talk the way writers are supposed
to sit around and talk. After reading The Cigar Maker, I certainly wanted to sit
down and talk to him about the book … and for a couple different reasons. Besides the enjoyable read – which is
increasingly rare for me these days – the student of Zinn in my head was intrigued by McGinty’s focus on a little
known, little understood, and little appreciated part of American history. As a cigar aficionado, the novel was topically
The other thing
about the book, though, that attracted my attention was the manner in which it was published. In spite of having published
a successful novel, Mark McGinty decided to go out on his own and publish this epic himself – an undertaking that embodies
the revolutionary spirit of his characters and the independent nature of the true artist.
And, of course,
I was excited to find out that Mark also went to school in Cincinnati (at Xavier, a university where I was once an adjunct),
my old stomping ground. After a few years out in the desert, it would have been
nice to talk to somebody who has compelling opinions on the difference between Skyline and Gold Star Chili, the sale of the
Reds to the Castellini Brothers, the “gentrification” of Over the Rhine, and the debacle over Paul Brown Stadium.
Like I said,
it would have been NICE to sit and chat with Mark; but I’m in Midwestern corn and god country, and he’s in Minnesota,
and we both have deadlines to meet. But receiving his answers via email, while I’m smoking the first decent cigar I’ve
been able to afford all summer (it’s August), and drinking my morning coffee was nearly as enjoyable.
Mick Parsons: To
begin, talk some about the gestation of The Cigar Maker. Was this a
story that you had wanted to tell for a long time?
Mark Carlos McGinty: The story had
been in the back of my mind for awhile and I really got serious about it when I sat down to have dinner with the editor of
my first novel, Elvis and the Blue Moon Conspiracy. We were celebrating the release of that book when I told him
about the idea for The Cigar Maker, which centered around the kidnapping and deportation of 12 cigar industry labor
leaders, an event that had actually happened in 1901 but was rarely covered in the many books I had on Tampa history and the
history of the cigar industry. He told me to tell the complete story, to make it a 600-page epic with maps and photographs
and to make it the book on the subject. I knew it would be a long story, but I didn’t hold back because it is a story
that has never been told.
clearly spent a significant amount of time researching the history of Tampa and Ybor City, and you are careful to clarify
things in the back of the book, after the story. Was this history easy to dig
up? Were you able to get any family accounts, other than your own, to help develop the story?
Mark Carlos McGinty: Most of the history was fairly easy to find. Mormino and Pozzetta’s The
Immigrant World of Ybor City is perhaps one of the best non-fiction books on Ybor City during the height of the cigar industry.
I did find a few old newspaper articles that had a lot of good information, including an account of the 1901 deportation and
the deportees’ grueling journey back to Tampa. Most of the anecdotes, the day to day events of the story, came from
family legends and interactions I’ve had with my relatives from Tampa. Ybor City also has a great museum dedicated to
this time period, with a block of actual cigar workers’ houses restored, furnished and decorated to appear as they would
have in the early 1900’s. The best part of taking the museum tour is that often there will be locals in the tour group
whose grandparents lived during that time. They will share their stories and memories of day to day life in Ybor City.
the content of the worker’s newsletters and Tampa newspaper articles based on actual articles you were able to find?
Mark Carlos McGinty: Yes. The Anglo newspaper articles in the book were based on actual editorials.
Some of the dialogue in the book came from old newspaper articles too. The articles by Mendez, a radical pro-worker writer,
were based on the rhetoric and ideology of the radical culture that grew from Cuba Libre and the desire for revolution against
it’s clearly a riveting cultural and political story, you are careful to point out that this is a family story. Why
is this such an important distinction?
Mark Carlos McGinty:
In my mind it was a family story because so much of The Cigar Maker is based on what I had learned from my family.
Even though cultures and political views differ, people can relate to family no matter where they are in the world. People
of every culture want to protect and care for their families and to make things better for the next generation. That makes
it a human story and not just a Cuban story or a revolutionary story.
Ortiz, the patriarch, goes through an interesting development: from rebel outlaw to respectable citizen, back to rebel outlaw,
and finally, a man who is at relative peace with his past, his present, and his future – as well as the future of his
family. In every situation, he seems to simply want to do the right thing, regardless
of how it actually works out, and he’s also the character that keeps the narrative tied together. Also, my reaction as a reader to Juan Carlos was mixed – not because he’s not interesting, but
because I wasn’t sure whether I should root for him or not. At times he seems on the outside and other times he is almost
an ethical (though not necessarily moral) center. He is really only in his prime
during violent times – a product and progenitor of violence. How important is it to balance a work of fiction on an
ethical or moral fulcrum? Is this simply about dynamic versus static characters or something deeper you want to accomplish
when you’re writing a complex narrative?
Mark Carlos McGinty:
Sometime the most interesting characters are those we are not sure about. Boromir from Lord of the Rings immediately
comes to mind, an ambivalent character who the reader cannot trust yet can completely understand. Juan Carlos feels that he
is acting for the good of his people yet his actions are ultimately damaging because they perpetuate a cycle of violence.
Juan Carlos is always certain that he is doing the right thing. He has no internal conflict, which adds a certain irony to
the story since the reader can see where he has crossed the line. His volatile nature makes his a very good foil for Salvador.
He is very unpredictable in contrast to Salvador’s stability. Because of these things, Juan Carlos was the most enjoyable
character to write.
of the things about the narrative that resonated for me was the relationships between Salvador and his children; the dynamic
is one that seems to be consistent, regardless of culture or heritage. There’s
something fundamentally American about the story – this cycle of poverty, failure, and success through hard work. The
other thing about this story that feels fundamentally American is the struggle between average people and those who consolidate
power at all costs; these themes crop up everywhere … in literature, movies, TV shows.
What is it about these themes that still make them relevant in 21st Century America?
Mark Carlos McGinty: It’s the classic tale of the Haves vs. the Have-Nots and that story is
still being told all across the world today and will probably continue to be told for generations not just in literature or
movies but in everyday life. This is not simply good guys vs. bad guys. The Haves and the Have-Nots are motivated by similar
problems. Fear of not having enough, fear of not being able to provide, or survive. For the most part, both sides ultimately
want the same thing: a better life for themselves and their families.
real bad guy here is Armando Renteria. How did you come up with his character? What kinds of influences went into creating
him? And what about those influences resonate with you as a writer as well as a reader/viewer (in the case of movies, if that’s
Mark Carlos McGinty: In the movie “Coming to America” with Eddie Murphy, the antagonist
is a guy named Darryl, the arrogant heir to the empire of Soul Glo. I hated this character every minute he was on screen.
He didn’t need to say a word, his mere appearance drove me crazy. I wanted the reader to experience this same feeling
with Armando. I began to wonder what made me hate Darryl so much. He is not a villain in the traditional sense but he fills
the role perfectly because he is the exact opposite of Eddie Murphy’s character. He wants exactly what Murphy wants
but for all the wrong reasons and he goes about it in all the wrong ways, which makes you hate him since you like Murphy’s
character so much (unless you hate Murphy’s character – but that’s impossible since his character is so
likable!). I tried to do the same thing with Armando and Salvador.
Some other memorable villains that I thought of were Amon Goth from Schindler’s List, Darth Vader,
and Claudius from Hamlet. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a scene with Armando in
The Cigar Maker that was inspired by the prayer scene in Hamlet. Ask me about it after you’ve read
Mick: The Cigar Maker
is a very different kind of book from Elvis and the Blue Moon Conspiracy; but at
the heart of both of them seems to be this idea that the stories and myths we hear as children remain important throughout
our lives. Why do these kinds of stories – fake moon landings, Elvis, El Matón, headless roosters – resonate throughout
our private and communal lives? What do they say about us?
Mark Carlos McGinty: That’s a great question and there are probably dozens of valid ways to
answer it. One way of looking at stories like the ones you mentioned is that they are things that seem barely possible. They
stretch the limits of imagination. Perhaps these mythical stories feed some innate desire to see and do things no one else
has done. Experiencing them vicariously gives people a way to take ownership of them.
like to hear some about why you decided to go out on a limb and put this book out yourself – under the banner of 7th
Avenue Productions. Is this kind of approach – a kind of DIY approach –
crucial to the survival of literature, given the limitations of trying to get published by either large publishing houses
that are focused on marketability rather than quality or by smaller publishing concerns that lack the resources to allow writers
to simply write? What all was involved in getting this book out, besides the
research and writing – which was, in and of itself, such a big task?
Mark Carlos McGinty: I spent a lot of time with this decision and consulted several people, including
both authors who have been independently published and traditionally published. There were enough advantages and disadvantages
with each approach to make this decision one that needed careful consideration. In the end it came down to one question: how
do I want to spend my time? I started by sending query letters to agents, which is a very time-consuming task. You have to
spend time writing an excellent query letter, spend time researching the agent marketplace to determine which agents to target
and then there’s the act of physically sending the queries. Whenever an agent requested to read the manuscript, everything
stopped. I had to sit back and wait – in one case I waited for 4 months to hear back from an agent. During those four
months you can’t really move forward. You’re stuck. It’s frustrating. After a few go rounds in that world
I decided that I did not want to spend my time writing queries, I wanted to spend time producing the book, setting up the
publishing house and marketing the final product. I find that process, the process of creating a book much more rewarding
than the great agent chase, a process of trying to stand out from a crowd of thousands by convincing one person that you have
a marketable product.
The average reader has demonstrated time and again that he is not
concerned with the publishing house that releases a book, he is interested in a great story. The same thing happens in movies
and television – we have proof of that in the rise of indie film. Do people really care that a movie was released by
MGM vs. Paramount? It doesn’t really matter as long as it tells a well-executed, interesting story. And in the age of
reality TV, we’ve learned that the general public takes a great interest in the average person. The general public understands
that it is a large, competitive world, and they don’t like their entertainment spoon fed. They know what they like and
sometimes the average person has a book, or a movie, or a singing voice that it outside the mainstream and is actually more
appealing than “the garbage everyone else is putting out.”
Whether this is crucial to the survival of literature remains to
be seen but the time is ripe for the independent artist!
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