Q & a with author Gene Pisasale
By Steven Hoffman
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His nine books and lecture series focus largely on American history. His latest work is “Hemingway, Cuba and the Great Blue River,” which delves into the people, places and things that Ernest Hemingway loved about the island nation and the nearby Gulf Stream. Pisasale has a book signing at Kennett Square Resale Book Shoppe on Friday, June 8 and a lecture presentation at the Kennett Square Library on Saturday, June 9.
Q: What made you interested in Ernest Hemingway?
A: Hemingway was the author who inspired me to start my writing career. I first read Hemingway’s novella “The Old Man and the Sea” in high school, then later got “hooked” when I read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” many years later.
Q: Are you familiar with most of his works?
A: Yes, I’ve read nearly all of his works and also visited his homes in Oak Park, Illinois and Key West, Florida, as well as spots he frequented in Paris, Venice, Cuba and the American West.
Q: What sparked your interest in Cuba?
A: Cuba has been in the news a lot in the last year or so. My wife and I took a Smithsonian Tour of Cuba in April 2017 and toured many sites, including Hemingway’s home—the Finca Vigia—as well as his favorite watering holes El Floridita and La Bodeguita and also the quaint fishing village of Cojimar, the setting for “The Old Man and the Sea.” It was a fascinating trip.
Q: What impressed you the most about the Hemingway sites in Cuba?
A: Cojimar and the restaurant La Terraza were definitely the highlight of the trip. La Terraza is where Hemingway dined after many of his fishing expeditions. It’s a “Hemingway shrine” in itself—with dozens of photographs, paintings and memorabilia about the author. They have his favorite table roped off and we sat right next to it. You definitely can feel his “presence” there. His home the Finca Vigia is also quite interesting, but unless you have a special permit, you can’t go inside. Hemingway’s favorite bar was El Floridita and we were there twice. They have a life-sized bronze sculpture of him standing at the bar. People flock to the site to get their photographs taken with him.
Q: What is Cuba like? Would Americans find it interesting?
A: Cuba is a poor Communist country, very different from anything you see in America. Most of the people live on a subsistence basis—on food rations. It’s a shame that hundreds of formerly beautiful buildings—neoclassical and Art Deco architecture—are in disrepair, some nearly falling apart due to neglect. Yet there are many interesting places to visit. If you’re a Hemingway buff or like traveling to exotic places, you will love it. The unofficial “Hemingway Trail” there is a must-see for any Hemingway fan. You should definitely visit his home, his favorite bars, Cojimar as well as the quaint villages near Havana like Jaimanitas, where they have an artist’s colony. The lovely historic city of Trinidad lies southeast of Havana; it is one of the oldest in the Caribbean, dating back to the 1500s.
Q: What are the people like in Cuba?
A: We found the people there very friendly. Cubans like Americans! We saw one guy wearing an American flag T-shirt. We also saw one building flying a Cuban flag right next to an American flag. Overall, the people there are quite cordial and helpful. You can get a fun-filled ride in one of the many “classic cars”—ones from the 1940s and 1950s which they keep in excellent condition.
Q: Did you enjoy any memorable meals there?
A: Yes, Cuba is trying to develop what they call paladares—formerly private homes now turned into restaurants. We dined in several very good ones. The menus focus on pork, rice and beans, some fish or chicken. Simple fare, but all very good. Our hotel, the Hotel Parque Central in downtown Havana is absolutely beautiful, a 5-star resort comparable to anything you can find in New York or San Fransisco. It is a cut above almost anything else you can find there, but if you go to Cuba with a large group, I recommend you try to stay there. Their breakfast buffet is superb—delicious food served in a wonderful setting of tile mosaics all around you. The food at the hotel is much finer than anything you can get in most of Cuba and it was a delight to be there.
Q: What did you come away with from
Cuba linking you more closely to Ernest Hemingway?
A: I’d wanted to visit Cuba for many years, but since we had an embargo and the country was off-limits, I never pursued it. When we found out about the Smithsonian Tour, my wife and I jumped at the chance to go. The Hemingway Trail was memorable because at certain spots, I really DID feel his presence, especially at La Terraza in Cojimar. It was like we were drinking and dining with him right next to us. You could almost hear his voice, talking with his ship captain Gregorio Fuentes, coming in after a day of fishing out on the Gulf Stream. We connected with him at the bar El Floridita as well, where you can feel the energy pulsing as people dine, dance and drink in his favorite spot. It was these connections to the author I received which I never truly felt at any other place he frequented- which I treasure today.
Q: What’s your book about?
A: The book is titled “Hemingway, Cuba and the Great Blue River.” It delves into the people, places and things he loved about the island nation and the nearby Gulf Stream, which he called “ the Great Blue River.” It goes into the rich history of Cuba, from the 1500s through the present day. The setting inspired two of his greatest works—the well-known “The Old Man and the Sea” and the lesser known novel “Islands in the Stream,” which I consider one of his greatest works. My book highlights the many places he spent time in as well as these two books, going into his life, his experiences, his “mindset” and the settings that helped and inspired him to create his novels. It is a beautifully illustrated hardcover edition with more than 180 full-color photographs, paintings and images of historic artifacts. Hemingway fans, travel lovers and those who are interested in exotic places will all enjoy it. It is available on Amazon.com and on my website at www.GenePisasale.com for personally signed copies.
Q: Do you have any upcoming events showcasing your book?
A: Yes, I’ll be giving a lecture presentation on Hemingway, Cuba and the Gulf Stream at the Kennett Square Library on Saturday June 9 at 10 a.m. This is free and open to the public. It will be family-friendly, and all ages are welcome. I’ll also be doing a book signing at the Kennett Square Resale Book Shoppe on Friday June 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 113 South Union Street in downtown Kennett Square.
Gene Pisasale can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com and via his website is www.GenePisasale.com.