I would like to welcome Peggy to my blog, and thank her for taking the time out of her very busy schedule to answer some questions about The Beggar’s Opera.
SR – In The Beggar’s Opera, the book is situated in Havana, Cuba. What is about Havana that mesmerized you so much to write a book based on this location?
PB - I’ve traveled to quite a few countries that were once communist dictatorships. I was an election observer during the “Orange Revolution” elections in Ukraine; I monitored elections in Kiev and also in towns very close to the Russian border. I did human rights work in Serbia with the UN Development Program, training judges and mediators in dealing with human rights violations, and I have visited the Czech Republic several times as well.
Cuba is different from anywhere I’ve ever been. It has a dictatorship with a charismatic leader who is larger than life, and the subject of over six hundred assassination attempts by the American CIA, who even poisoned his cigars. It’s a country that is desperately poor, thanks to the American trade embargo, but has one of the most educated, literate, and healthy populations in the world.
I watched the police in Havana closely when I was there – I was a criminal defense lawyer and Crown prosecutor for decades – and I wondered how on earth they could investigate crimes with such limited resources. You can’t even find pencils or batteries, and there are constant fuel and food shortages. Meanwhile, thousands of tourists wander around, completely oblivious to the harsh reality of the daily lives of most Cubans. I thought that was something worth writing about.
I also visited the Callejón de Hamel (the inspiration for my fictional Blind Alley) with a pair of hustlers, or jineteros, as they’re called, who were quite happy to rip me off. It was incredible– the centre of Havana’s Afro-Cuban community, bursting with music, art, and Santería, the religion brought by slaves from Africa. (As in the book, there really was a plastic bucket with these poor turtles trapped in it so that people could collect and drink their urine in the hope of living a long life.)
Put all of that together with gorgeous, crumbling architecture; feral dogs and cats, crazy anti-American billboards, and music everywhere, and setting a story in Havana was irresistible.
SR – On the back of the galley I received as part of the Blog Tour for your book; it states that you have been a lawyer for many years, as well as selling houses in the Ottawa area. I have noticed in the few years that many lawyers who have made the transition to writing books. What was it for you that you wanted to hang up your robes for more of a literary pursuit? What is it about selling houses that you like about it?
I was a lawyer for thirty years. For the first ten or fifteen of those, I was in criminal law, and then after winning an important case that involved a treaty rights defense, I kind of fell into the highly specialized area of Aboriginal and human rights law. ( I actually have a PhD, or LLD, as they call a doctorate in law in this area. Most of these are awarded honorarily to retired politicians at university convocations: I’m one of the twits who actually earned one.)
I ended up involved in long-term negotiations over fisheries and when we finally resolved those issues, I moved into the Indian residential school claims process. I heard claims of serious sexual and physical assault involving children as a senior adjudicator, and then as a Deputy Chief Adjudicator. I finally hit a point where I knew I had to stop – I was starting to feel the effects that they warned us about going into it.
After that, I got back into land claims business and quickly realized I could end up sitting around the same negotiating table for the next twenty years, discussing the same files with the same government negotiators, and not have anything resolved. At that point, I realized the time had come to do something else.
The Beggar’s Opera was actually written while I was working on my realtor exams.
I’ve always loved renovating houses, and I knew my background in law and negotiations would be an asset to me as a realtor. It’s one of those things that, looking back, I wish I had done ten years earlier. I love my office and my colleagues and I really like working with clients. Unlike law, or writing, which can be quite isolating, the real estate community is surprisingly supportive. I’ve enjoyed every file I’ve worked on.
SR - Do you think Cuba in the future would be better off staying as it is, or becoming a democratic community like Russia and other countries have?
I don’t think the current status quo is sustainable, frankly. I think most Cubans are willing to wait to see what happens when Fidel Castro dies. But they are a highly educated, bilingual population (English second-language training is required in the schools) watching economic development take off in South America while they struggle to get enough to eat and live in atrocious conditions.
I think they are apprehensive about what the future will look like without Castro, particularly given their proximity to the U.S., but they are ready for change. That said, there is a real fear that American money will flood into the country and turn it back into the kind of place it was under Fulgencio Batista – a sort of Las Vegas of the south — with a government even more corrupt than the current dictatorship
SR – Who is your favorite character in the book and why? Mine would have to be Ramirez – the detective who is suffering from dementia, who still believes that the truth is out there and strives to find the truth before time runs out.
PB – It’s funny how many readers have that take on Ramirez. I always think of him as balancing on the knife-edge of corruption, not quite sure which way to go. I’m glad you like him. I’m quite small and therefore I probably identify the most with Apiro, who may be short but is much larger than he appears.
SR - Can you give us a hint of what to expect in book two, or am I being a bit too anxious?
The King’s Indian is the name of the second book and it picks up the story right where The Beggar’s Opera leaves off. Inspector Ramirez goes to Canada and while he’s away, women start dying in Havana, prompting the Canadian government to consider issuing a travel advisory warning tourists against going to Cuba. Needless to say, there are ghosts. I have a big crush on Charlie Pike, a new character. He’s the Aboriginal detective who escorts Ramirez around Ottawa. (Charlie Pike appears in Book Three, Hungry Ghosts, as well.)
So thank you Peggy so much for doing this. Below, is a list of the other blogs that are on the blog tour for Peggy’s book, so make sure that you check out what they had to say, what they asked Peggy, or if she just wrote something. It is bound to be interesting regardless the topic!
Blog Tour Hosts and Dates