The Winterlings is the first of Spanish author Cristina Sánchez-Andrade’s novels to be published in the UK, and it makes for an intoxicating introduction to her work. It’s a tale of two sisters hiding a dark secret, and magic and enchantment in all forms, from village superstitions to the glamour of the movies. Set chiefly in the small rural parish of Tierra de Chá in Galicia, the story opens with Saladina and Dolores’ return to their childhood home. Sent away during the Civil War amongst the children shipped to England for their safety known as the ‘Basque refugees’, the siblings have been absent from their native land for twenty-five years. Despite what they’ve experienced of the wider, modern world – most notably they developed a keen taste for Hollywood films – life in the village, and the motley crew of residents who live there, harks back to a slower, more traditional way of life. When news arrives that the celebrated film star Ava Gardner is coming to Spain to shoot Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, the star-struck sisters hatch a plan to inveigle their way onto the set as extras.
In England for a PEN-sponsored book tour, I met with Sánchez-Andrade over coffee – she’s yet to find a satisfactory equivalent to the usual café con leche she orders back home, a flat white is next on her list to try – in Foyles bookshop in central London where she was signing copies of The Winterlings.
LS: The novel weaves so many different strands together – the figures of the two strange sisters, the story of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, life in the village, that for the sisters back in the UK, not to mention all sorts of ideas of magic and superstition – where did it all come from and how did you go about tying it all together?
CS-A: Mainly I had lots of little stories that my grandmother used to tell me. I was born in Galicia and there’s a very strong storytelling tradition there. My grandmother lived until I was about 35, so I knew her very well and had heard her stories on many occasions, and at one point I thought it was a real pity that these stories were going to be lost, because of course nowadays children are not interested in listening to stories. So I started to write them down. First of all I thought maybe I could write a book about my grandmother, and I started that, but it was very challenging because in my opinion all characters need to have a dark side, and I wasn’t very comfortable with the idea of finding that side of my grandmother, who was a wonderful person. So then I didn’t really know what to do.
I don’t look for my characters, they find me… It has to do with the unexplored territory of your mind, what Jung called the ‘shadow’ – I’m very interested in this dark side that everybody has.”
Then, quite suddenly, I found the title of the book. My husband and I were driving along some back roads in Spain, and I saw a sign that read ‘Las Inviernas’, which means nothing at all because invierno is winter, but inviernas – feminine, plural – isn’t anything. I had my title! I then thought of two women, and I was taken back to my childhood in Galicia, and I started to write about two sisters in the landscape of my childhood, after which one thing led to another.
I always say that this happens to me when I write: I don’t look for my characters, they find me, and in this case I was waiting for them to come to me. It has to do with the unexplored territory of your mind, what Jung called the ‘shadow’ – I’m very interested in this dark side that everybody has. Because each and every one of us is a mixture of good and bad.
For me, much of the novel was reminiscent of those American Gothic works by the likes of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor. The village you write about is one populated by all manner of grotesque characters, from Mr Tenderlove, the cross-dressing dental technician to Don Manuel the priest who smells ‘brown-coloured’. Was this intentional, are these writers you admire, or am I missing a more significant Spanish tradition within which you’re writing?
I’m so pleased you made this connection. Flannery O’Connor is one of my favourite authors, along with other Southern Gothic writers – Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers. Actually, last year I took a tour around the American South looking for the birthplaces of these writers. O’Connor has a fascinating biography – we’re not going to talk about it now because we could spend the whole afternoon discussing it – but she lived on a farm and reared peacocks and I spent some time there doing research.
Was this for a particular book or piece of work?
No, I was just interested. In America everybody knows about her, but she’s not so well known in Europe. But to go back to your question, people tend to associate me more with the Galician writers, and of course I’ve read them but they’re not what I’m most fond of. I would definitely say O’Connor is one of the writers who has influenced me the most.
Just The Winterlings or your previous novels too?
Not really my other novels so much because I only started to read her quite recently – maybe five years ago – and not so much her novels, I like her short stories.
You were clearly heavily inspired by another source too: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. The inclusion of the real-life detail of the film crew coming to Spain to shoot the feature heightened the contrast between the rather old-fashioned, traditional village community and the modern world.
That was one of the big challenges of the work because I had this story about the film, and I had my little universe, which was very claustrophobic, and I had to put them together. I realised that these two ladies had to have a connection with cinema or Hollywood, but how was I going to do that? OK, I thought, I’m going to exile them to England and they can make this connection there. It’s what I was saying about one thing leading to another – I decided to send them to England because I needed to. Somebody asked me yesterday whether I had a fixed structure for the book but no, I never have one, it’s always the characters telling me how and why to do things.
The Basque orphans element of the story is another component sourced from real life, and it’s completely fascinating. I’d never heard of these refugees before.
It’s fascinating story. If you’re interested in the subject there’s a documentary, which was very inspiring to me, called The Guernica Children [2005, directed by Steve Bowles], that tells the story of these children from the north of Spain who, after the bombing of Guernica, were sent to England, to Southampton. It’s such a sad story. It features the testimony of people who were sent away, some of whom remained here in England forever, while some of them went back to Spain. There was an old man who told the story of being sent when he was seven years old. Imagine that, with just a label with his name on it and a small suitcase holding two changes of clothes. Imagine the mothers and fathers saying goodbye to their children, maybe for good, they didn’t know if they were ever going to see them again.
It’s similar to city-dwelling British children being evacuated to the countryside in the Second World War, but much more disorientating for the Spanish children since they were being sent so much further away from home, to another country entirely, and one where another language was spoken.
The most interesting thing for me was one man’s story. He managed to get a job, and then to study. He was quite cultured, he had a degree, he liked writing poetry, and then after many years he decided to go back to his village to visit his brothers and sisters. When he arrived, he realised that he had no common ground with his family. They were shepherds, while he was much more sophisticated. And you can hear it in his voice – he doesn’t sound Spanish, but he doesn’t sound English either, he’s somewhere in-between, and this is the case with my Winterlings. I think it must be the case with many immigrants today; not quite fitting in, either in the country you’re from or in the one you’re living in.
So it’s a novel written about a specific historical period, but some of the themes resonate strongly with contemporary life.
I was so sorry when I had to write that poor life for the Winterlings in England.
You describe how much the cinema means to them so well though, the magic and escapism they find there.
Yes, the movies are the place where they can go that’s special to them, where no one else is with them.
This is the first of your novels that’s been translated into English – and beautifully so by the translator Samuel Rutter. Can you tell me a little about what the process was like for you?
I’ve been writing for nearly 20 years, published for nearly 20 years, and from the very beginning my books were translated – into Italian, Portuguese, Polish, even Russian – but never English. I remember asking my agent the question, “Why not English?” and she always had the same answer: “It’s so difficult, Cristina, don’t worry about it, it will come someday.” So when I got the news I was so happy, not just because people here in England can read them now, but because English is such an international language, people can now read me all over the world.
We don’t have the best track record of publishing fiction in translation in this country, though I think we are getting better and I’ve noticed more of a push of late, not least when it comes to acknowledging and naming the work of talented translators.
Maybe it’s because you already have so much literature that comes from places like the States and Australia, you don’t need to look for more. In Spain, for example, it’s only a few very well known writers who are translated into English.
How does your work fit into the Spanish canon? You mentioned earlier that you’re viewed as a Galician author – can you tell me a bit about this context?
Well, I think I’m doing something a bit different in the sense that The Winterlings is a rural novel, whereas the rest of my contemporaries are writing more about the city and their own experiences.
Is this the first time you’ve written a novel set in the past? How does it fit in with your previous works?
I wrote one book that’s set in the Middle Ages – that was very difficult, I swore that I’d never write another historical novel, it’s such a huge effort and nobody appreciates it: you’re paid the same but it’s much more work!
Cristina Sánchez-Andrade has degrees in law and mass media, and writes for various Spanish newspapers and literary magazines as a critic and book reviewer. Her third novel, Your King No Longer Walks this Earth, won the prestigious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz literary prize at the 2005 Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico, and has been translated into English and Portuguese. The Winterlings, was a Herralde Novel Prize finalist in 2013, and is now published by Scribe UK. Read more.
Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne. He has translated contemporary authors including Daniel Sada, Hernán Ronsino and Matías Celedón and his work has been recognised by English PEN. He is based in Nashville, where he is an MFA Candidate in fiction at Vanderbilt University.
Lucy Scholes is a contributing editor to Bookanista and a literary critic and book reviewer for publications including the Daily Beast, the Independent, the Observer, BBC Culture and the TLS. She also teaches courses at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the BFI and Waterstones Piccadilly.