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Author Interview: Robin Lloyd

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Robin Lloyd, author of Hidden Cargo: A Novel.

FQ: Let’s start with your bio. I’m interested to learn more about your early years spent on the Island of St. Croix. What is one of your most memorable moments when sailing in the Caribbean and what makes this one stand out?

LLOYD: When my parents moved from Virginia to St. Croix in 1953 they started a dairy farm and the island’s first dairy plant, but they also bought an old wooden sailboat. This boat was their escape valve from the constant worries of the business. This was a time when the old West Indian trading schooners were still sailing into Christiansted harbor with their cargoes of fruit. An exciting event was when we’d spot a new boat in the harbor that had made the transatlantic crossing. As a young boy, my parents took me on all their trips from island to island. At the age of three I was knocked overboard and probably would have drowned if not for a life preserver. Over the years there were many rough passages from Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands all the way to Guadeloupe, but the most memorable was a stormy nighttime sail from St Croix to St. Marten across the Anegada passage. I must have been about seven. I was asleep in my bunk when I woke up to the sounds of my father shouting. The boat had started to leak badly and all night long all of us were carrying buckets of water out of the cabin. It was scary because there was no light. We were in the open ocean, and the boat was pitching and heaving. I don’t think I realized at the time how much danger we were in and how lucky we were to make it to St. Marten.

FQ: In line with my previous question, I was impressed to learn you worked as a correspondent covering the White House during the Reagan and Bush administrations. If asked to limit your opinion to one impactful statement toward what worked and what didn’t for each administration, what would that be?

Author Robin Lloyd

LLOYD: Whether you agreed with Ronald Reagan’s policies or not, I believe he restored Americans’ confidence in the country at a time when we were still getting over memories of Vietnam, and Watergate. He projected a sense of leadership which the country needed after the Iran hostage crisis. His administration’s illegal funding of the Nicaraguan contras was a serious mistake, but his discourse with Gorbachev was historic.. The George H. W. Bush presidency may not have had the same sense of purpose as the Reagan presidency, but those were highly significant years in foreign policy. Bush’s vast experience in government and with world leaders served the country well. His handling of the first Iraq war was a huge diplomatic and military achievement, but his inability to manage the economic downturn at the time of the election campaign hurt him with voters. As a reporter who covered both Reagan and Bush, I would say they were highly personable men, who treated the press corps with respect.

FQ: Living in Chevy Chase, Maryland, I have to ask do you still sail today? Chesapeake? Potomac? Both? If so, what kind of vessel do you sail? What is your preference and why?

LLOYD: I sail mostly in Maine now on a 38 foot two masted ketch which I’ve owned for the past twenty plus years. The advantage of a ketch rig is that it has four different sails which give you versatility depending on the wind. When our children were young my wife and I chartered sailboats in the Caribbean and the Chesapeake. I got to know the Chesapeake fairly well, but greatly enjoy the coast of Maine with its generous scattering of rocky islands. You always have a different destination to sail to, albeit one which you might not see because it could be shrouded in fog.

FQ: Without getting too political, Reagan had many quotes, but one that resonates with me is: "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." We are living in tumultuous times both domestically and globally, what would you like to say about this statement as it relates to today’s climate?

Author Robin Lloyd enjoying one of his favorite places

LLOYD: I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who was asked what kind of government would we have in this new country, he replied, “a democracy if you can keep it.” So the fragility of democracy was something the founders were well aware of. I think Ronald Reagan understood that the better angels of this country lay in fighting for free societies and speaking out against those undemocratic governments who repress their citizens. He also understood the need for a free press in a democracy, as well as the value of free and fair elections. He may not have liked his political opponents, but as his successful meetings with Tip O’Neil showcased, he respected them. The problem today is that a respect for democratic traditions has been superceded by hyper-partisan politics laced with toxic discourse. When you start seeing members from one party calling the opposing political party “the enemy” then you have a problem for a functioning democracy. Never mind the attempt to overturn an election by storming the Capitol. Nearly 200 years ago Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about Americans that it will depend on themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or to freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”

FQ: Moving on to Hidden Cargo - Townsend’s character portrayed a wonderful element of both integrity and honor. Was he created with someone you know in real life? Does the person know he was fashioned after him (or is he simply the fictitious hero who wrote a lot of his character for you)?

LLOYD: I don’t think there was a model for Everett Townsend. He just evolved. Headstrong, impulsive, Townsend has some built in Emersonian qualities about achievement, morality and purpose in life. He’s not really a company man. He listens to his own inner voices and that reflective trait sometimes gets him into trouble. I knew he would have a family dilemma that he would need to confront and resolve. In both Harbor of Spies and Hidden Cargo, Townsend struggles to find his moral compass even as events and circumstances create ethical problems and complicate his decision process, sometimes taking him into harm’s way.

FQ: I would imagine there was a process you adopted (be it post-it notes, a flow chart, or some sort of reference) as a guide to keep the characters straight. When you embark upon your writing projects, do you outline first, or do you boot up the computer and let ‘er rip?

LLOYD: I do try to have a basic outline if only to suggest to myself what the story is about and where it might go. Invariably I can create some foreseeable turning points in the plot, but to be honest more often than not I don’t follow the outline. The story evolves. Frankly it usually is a better story when you let the characters and the story take over.

As for characters, I do try to write a basic paragraph or two about their personality, history, looks, and mannerisms. Eventually they each become more real and I can visualize who they are and how they might react in any given scene.

FQ: Right around the 100-page marker, Townsend engages with character de la Cruz and you take the reader on an historical journey with the dialogue between the two as they’re getting the boat ready to sail. They’re reviewing a "...Blunt chart of the Old Bahamas Channel from 1858. When they were getting the boat ready to sail, Townsend had been surprised to find out that de la Cruz was familiar with the northern coast. The Cuban-born sailor had spent his childhood fishing with his father near where they were going. He had grown up in a town not far away from the port of Sagua called Caibarien, another shipping outport for sugar and tobacco..." There’s a melancholic tone to this passage and I wonder if part of this was drawing from an experience that perhaps you had with your father in St. Croix and you used that memory to breathe life into this moment in the story. Is this accurate? If so, can you share your experience?

LLOYD: My childhood in St. Croix is ever present in my writing, and certainly the de la Cruz character could have come from some memory there. But I think de la Cruz was more likely inspired by my days as a foreign correspondent in Latin America. I would usually work with local hires in whatever conflict zone I was sent to. These locals tended to be young and talented, eager to learn about journalism. Principally they were valuable for local contacts, and their language skills. In the case of the character of de la Cruz and his interactions with Townsend, I think I’m dialing into my own past of being a mentor for some of the young aspiring journalists I came across in various countries.

FQ: I cannot believe I’ve asked so many questions before getting to the question of - have you ever been to Cuba? When? What was your experience?

LLOYD: My last trip to Havana was three years ago. Just a short visit for a tour of Hemingway’s house and the old city. I was pleasantly surprised by the restorations being done on some of the historic buildings there. As a foreign correspondent for NBC I was sent to Cuba quite often. I covered Latin America for NBC from 1979 through 1984. I was based in Miami and Mexico City, but I traveled over 300 days a year. Usually we went to Havana, but I also made it to several other places on the island. Matanzas, Mariel, Santiago, Guantanamo, and the Bay of Pigs. As it was difficult to get a visa, we would often spend two weeks in Havana, usually living in the Hotel Riviera which was where the government would put the foreign reporters.

On these trips we knew we were always under close watch by government agents. It was easy to spot them, just by the way they looked at you. Some of Townsend’s interactions with Spanish officials were inspired by my experiences there. I once talked my way onto a Cubana airlines flight and flew across the island from Santiago to Havana without a ticket. I’ve forgotten what ruse I used but I told myself it was justified to get the news story on the air. I was amazed I wasn’t questioned.

One of the last stories I covered there was in 1992 when the Cuban government appeared to be loosening the tight controls on political dissidents. I remember hearing from some of the government’s critics and being astounded at how little freedom they had before they would be thrown in prison. Sadly the Cuban government’s tolerance for freedom of speech and criticism hasn’t changed much. Amazingly the Spanish rulers in colonial Cuba were similarly repressive.

FQ: I had never heard of the play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca from Spain’s Golden Age, La Vida es Sueno (Life is a Dream). I enjoyed how you wove its premise with Townsend’s character when he was sharing his sentiments about his grandmother with Emma "...I intend to find a verse or phrase from that play to put on her headstone. Perhaps something about how all life is nothing more than a dream within a dream. She would have liked that..." This was a memorable moment in Hidden Cargo that had such a natural flow. What made you select this play?

LLOYD: A love of Spanish literature is the simple answer. I read that play as a senior in high school in an advanced Spanish studies course. I had always remembered it fondly. It was fun re-reading it and working it into this story. The delusional thinking of Townsend’s ancestor about the Yumuri Valley as well as his grandmother’s own embrace of a false narrative about her own life are also nods to magical realism and one of my favorite authors, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

FQ: It has been such a treat to talk with you today and again, I applaud you on writing such a memorable book. Are you working on another novel and if so, are you able to share what’s next?

LLOYD: Who knows? I’m reading about the time period at the end of the 19th century when Cuban insurgents are fighting for independence from Spain. This led to the Spanish American war. Who knows if an older Everett Townsend might find his way into a story about this fascinating time period?

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