Next Year in Havana, New York Times bestselling author Chanel Cleeton’s latest book, about a Cuban-American woman who journeys to Havana to explore her family’s history, has garnered praise from critics around the world—including Hollywood. Actress Reese Witherspoon called it “a beautiful novel that’s full of forbidden passions, family secrets and a lot of courage and sacrifice,” and even named it a Reese’s Book Club x Hello Sunshine book pick. We spoke to this mom about how the book was inspired by her own background, her career, and more. Plus, her favorite female authors to read.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired by a story my father told me about a night before my family left Cuba in 1967 when everyone met in the backyard of my grandparents’ house and buried their valuables to safeguard them for when they could return. Even though I’d grown up on my family’s stories of Cuba, this story was a piece of their history I hadn’t heard before, and as a writer I was left with the question—if you had to leave the only home you’d ever known, what would you save for the day you could return? From that question and my desire to explore my Cuban heritage, Next Year in Havana was born.
Your books deal with Cuban-American identity, history, culture, politics, passion, love, friendship and more. Is educating readers about Cuba something you are aiming to do with your books?
While I love hearing from readers that they learned something new from my books, I really want to take my readers on a journey and give them a literary escape. I also spend so much time working on my books that I gravitate toward writing about subjects I’m passionate about, and Cuba has always played such an important role in my life that I love learning more about its history and my own heritage. It truly is a passion project for me.
Did writing these books make you feel closer to your heritage?
Absolutely. I felt very connected to my family as I researched the Cuba of their memories and it certainly opened a new conversation in my family about their experiences during the revolution. I’ve also had the privilege of connecting with Cuban readers who have shared their stories with me, and that has been an incredible experience as well.
Why do you think this series of books struck such a chord with readers?
I’m not entirely sure, but I’m so grateful that readers have embraced these stories and characters. When you write a book and launch it into the world, you never know quite what to expect, and this has been such an amazing experience.
What was the experience like of being chosen by Reese Witherspoon to be part of her book club? And the NYTimes bestseller list…
I was at the post office when I got the news that Next Year in Havana had been chosen by Reese Witherspoon as a book club pick. I immediately burst into tears. It was completely unexpected and definitely one of life’s “pinch me” moments. It was been such an honor and I cannot ever thank everyone enough for their support for me and Next Year in Havana.
I was on an airplane flying home from book tour when I got the news that When We Left Cuba had hit the NYT list and there were many tears there, too. The past few years have truly been an amazing ride.
Who are your favorite female authors/books (and why do you recommend each)?
For historical fiction, some of my favorites include The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif, The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons, Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams, and The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. They’re all romantic, transportive reads. I also love reading a good suspense, and Tana French is a favorite of mine for her intricate mysteries and gorgeous writing.
Why is it so important for all of us but especially women, to seek out female authors to read?
With so much of history being written and determined by men in power, I love finding women’s voices during these times. Women have been doing such extraordinary things throughout history, and it’s so important to celebrate that and to learn from those who came before us.
Can you share a bit about your book Last Train to Key West, out in June? How does that compare to your other works?
The Last Train to Key West is set in 1935 and features three heroines whose lives cross in unexpected—and dangerous—ways as one of the most powerful and deadliest hurricanes in history descends on the Florida Keys. It’s set decades before Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba, and one of the heroines is Beatriz and Elisa’s aunt.
What’s next for you—what are you writing next?
I’m currently working on edits for my 2021 release, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, which is set in Cuba and New York City during the Gilded Age (1890s) and tells the story of three women who become involved in the fight for Cuba’s independence from Spain. One of the heroines, Evangelina Cisneros, is a real-life figure who became an international celebrity when she was imprisoned by the Spanish.