Serena Burdick graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in California before moving to New York City to pursue a degree in English Literature at Brooklyn College. Author of the international bestseller The Girls with No Names and Girl in the Afternoon, she lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. Her latest novel is Find Me in Havana and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Find Me in Havana?
Twenty years ago, when I was living in LA, I met Estelita’s daughter, Nina Lopez, and she told me her mother’s sensational story. At the time, I was pursuing an acting career, which led me to write the story as a screenplay. I never ended up doing anything with the script, but the story was always in the back of my mind as one I planned to turn into a novel one day.
How did you become aware of Estelita Rodriguez (does the novel’s epilogue describe an actual event)? What convinced you hers was a story you needed to tell?
The epilogue describes the day I first met Nina, long before I thought of myself as a writer. It’s not often you stumble across a better-than-fiction real-life account of someone’s life. It was too good a story not to tell, but I was also moved and inspired by the love with which Nina spoke of her mother, and the pain she still carried over her mother’s shocking and unresolved death. It was clear this wasn’t just Estelita’s story, but also her daughter’s.
Find Me in Havana is a novel inspired by actual events, as opposed to a biography. How close to actual events is the novel?
All of the events that take place in the novel actually occurred. I had to change the timeline of the kidnapping in Mexico as that originally took place when Nina was a small child, but everything else sticks to the timeline as it happened. Some characters were invented, but everything from the opening of the novel with Nina’s car accident to Estelita’s death at the end, was written as it happened. I, of course, had to fictionalize dialogue, emotions, and the details of the events, as well as change a few names to protect people’s identities.
How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Find Me in Havana?
My research took about four months, which included a trip to Cuba. The first draft took me a year to write, and then edits took another six months.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about Estelita Rodriguez during your research?
It was surprising how much Estelita, this strong, vivacious woman, depended on her mother, Maria, for support. It was Maria who brought Estelita to America, living with her even after she was married (until the 4th husband when she finally moved out.) Maria was the one who encouraged Estelita to leave her music gig at the Copacabana for Hollywood, and instructed her every step of the way with her career. Considering how much Nina wanted her mother to be there for her and wasn’t, I found it psychologically fascinating that Estelita relied so heavily on her own mother.
Do you have a favorite role or performance by Estelita Rodriquez?
I love her in Tropic Zone with Ronald Reagan. She wears the same old lady costume she wore in Mexico to rescue Nina, which helped me visualize how that event went down.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson, and The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Magic for Marigold, by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
My older sister hid Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, and I snuck it.
What is a book you've faked reading?
Boringly, I can’t say I have!
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
The Kept, by James Scott, which appears to have a very simple cover, and then you notice that the small house in the distant, snowy field, is burning…(It’s also a fantastic book).
Is there a book that changed your life?
The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. Her unique use of language and punctuation coupled with an intensely important, and difficult story, made me see how possible it is to step outside conventional boxes and speak the truth.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
The documentary, The Social Dilemma.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I would eat a morning croissant at Poilane in Paris with my children and husband, then hop on a train to London and meet up with fellow cast members at the Almeida Theater where we would perform Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. A cocktail afterward, preferably a Negroni, would top the day off nicely.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
What is your ultimate career goal and do you think it’s attainable?
To write my books into screenplays and have a cameo appearance in them. And I like to think anything is attainable if you keep at it long enough. Time will tell.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a book that will be out in summer 2022. It’s a novel told in dual timelines, the story of a Victorian-era literary scandal alongside a contemporary woman’s desperate search for family. It begins when the wife of a famous Victorian novelist disappears from their British estate, leaving a trail of secrets that leads all the way to 2006 where her great-great-granddaughter is slowly digging those secrets up.