By Barbara Adams
Special to The Journal
Novelist and retired Cornell professor of creative writing, Lamar Herrin recently wrote about Spain in his 2005 novel, “House of the Deaf.” The story describes an American father who disappears into Spain in search of himself and the memory of his daughter, killed in a bombing by Basque separatists. But Herrin's newest work, a memoir, strikes a much lighter note. “Romancing Spain” lyrically unfolds the author's passion for both a woman and a culture.
In 1969, Herrin first arrived in Spain at the age of 29, disgruntled with the Vietnam war and ready for adventure. On the ship over he met a charismatic young artist from Valencia who later introduced him to his lovely sister, Amparo, then 22. The lanky Southerner and the young woman, the treasure of her traditional Spanish family, fell in love.
But as he'd been previously wed and divorced, Spain's Catholic culture imposed endless obstacles to their marriage.”Romancing Spain” describes their roller-coaster courtship, with Herrin crisscrossing both Spain and Catholic bureaucracy in search of a loophole that would permit them to marry. His Quixotic journey for his Dulcinea is interleaved with a contemporary narration of the couple, now married 30 years, travelling through rural Spain, looking for “theperfect town” that sums up the best of the culture.
On Saturday June 10, Lamar Herrin read from “Romancing Spain” at the Dewitt Mall Atrium in an event sponsored by the Bookery.
Ithaca Journal contributor Barbara Adams spoke with him about his work.
BA: This is your first published memoir. How long has the book been brewing?
LH: I wrote the first version about six years ago, before I wrote “House of the Deaf.” I'd always wanted to write the story of our struggle to get married. In 1999 my wife and I decided to travel around Spain for three months - we knew the cities but wanted to see the small towns. Amparo is a late sleeper and I'm an early riser, so I'd write every morning from 8:30 to 11:30, with a laptop on my lap, looking out of a hotel window. I'd feel liberated by midday, with a day's work behind me. It was the first thing I've ever written at a computer - I usually use a manual typewriter.
I took a delight in writing about the towns, with Amparo sleeping at my back. I was only about three or four towns behind where we'd just been when writing about a place. Then I began to write about when I first came to Spain in 1969, and the idea of combining our search for a perfect town in the present and the story of our marriage came out of that trip. The plot was just there, of us trying to get married - it's all real. And the deviousness of the church - I didn't have to make that up. I've written a few versions, kept taking towns in and out. I once had a lot more about Franco in the book.
At first I'd thought I might do the love story as a novel, but then somehow it began to come out the way it did. It was a bit ticklish, with certain family members still alive. But I liked the way those two stories [our original meeting and our trip as a married couple 30 years later] came together.
BA: You've written fiction set in Spain. Do you get a different sense of the country each time you write about it?
LH: Yes, but I'm oversimplifying it tremendously, both dark and bright sides. You get the dark and violent aspects in “House of the Deaf.” Here, in the memoir, it's obviously a lyrical treatment of Spain. I respond to the country in both ways. I've been tremendously impressed with Spain since Franco's death - there have been some very progressive steps in education, culture, the environment, labor, immigration, and civil rights especially. But Spain is still this very ceremonial place, a theatrical country - you stop out onto the streets and you're on stage. Amparo knows I'm being a bit innocent about this - there's deviousness behind the theatricality, but I choose not to concentrate on that.
As a young man, I lived in Spain for three years and eight months, until the Franco thing got to me. Still I'm drawn to that Spanish way of life, the ceremonial and familial. But when she was younger, Amparo felt that culture closing in on her. She's a U.S. citizen, and her allegiance is here now - she's very fond of Ithaca, of what's open and green and wild.
BA: What has been your wife's response to the book?
LH: Oh, she was very embarrassed by all the flattery, of course. Our children seem to like it very much. My son, who's 34, wasn't even bothered by the line where I described him “as lean as a skinned rabbit.”
BA: All memoir is partly fictionalized - how does that happen here?
LH: I can simplify by saying that it all happened some 30 years ago. The dailiness is kind of gone...sometimes I'd ask Amparo about specific details. I can remember going into a certain office to see a certain man about a certain issue. But I can't remember the man in particular - rather the outcome. I fall back on my tendencies as a novelist; my main trust is to bring the scene to life. So I'm forced to make it up - where the memory doesn't reach the imagination has to take up the slack.
BA: What proved surprisingly difficult?
LH: I wrote it with a novelist's naivete. Even at readings, novelists can always hide behind their characters. But in a memoir, there's this sense of exposure - not in the first half of the book, but I eventually realized I'm telling a lot about myself, things people won't necessarily like. But I don't see how else to do it.
BA: Is there any connection between the fictional protagonist, Ben, in “House of the Deaf” and the young man seeking his bride in “Romancing Spain”?
LH: Well, a little bit. In Madrid, Ben sees the intricately coded behavior of the Spanish. He resists, his guard is up -- he's never been out of his culture. Catholicism in Spain is a rampant cultural force, permeating everything. I found it colorful, interesting, but it was a culture sealed off from me, complete unto itself. I had no way of penetrating it - either the church or Spanish history. Yet unlike Ben, I wanted to participate from the inside out.
As a cultural phenomenon the church fascinated me; as a codified system of beliefs it bothered me. There was that ostentatious display of wealth in Baroque churches, and the sight of poor peopledragging themselves in to worship before altars drenched in gold. It's fascinating stuff but you can get stuck in it - there are no clean lines, no avenues of escape.
BA: What are you most trying to do in this memoir?
LH: It's a love story - I'm writing it both to Amparo and to her country. And it's a search for home in some ways, a place to be. The story eventually hones in on the little town Amparo came from. We visit there all the time, but we'll never live there. Yet the book, for me, is a search for home. In 1969 when I arrived in Spain I was a sort of expatriate, yet I already felt accepted. Of course, when I began to court their prize possession, that put a slightly different cast on it.
Back then, I didn't think it was possible to make one unprescribed move in that country, and if you stepped beyond you were violating some ancient code of behavior. Years later, going back to Spain, I appreciated that all more. One reason I wrote the book was to leave something for our son and daughter. But mostly it is my homage to Spain - repayment for what Spain has done for me.
This article was reprinted from THE ITHACA JOURNAL of June 8, 2006, with the permission of the author. Thank you for logging on. Please check back again. While most of our material is invited, you may send submissions to OnagerEditions@aol.com.