Launch: Stewart Lytle’s Love in War

INTERVIEW BY J. K. KNAUSS

In his study cubicle at Princeton’s Tower Club, Stewart Lytle aspired to follow the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway. He did not become a war correspondent like the young Hemingway, but landed on aircraft carriers, crawled through the mud with Marine snipers and flew in the backseat of fighter jets as a national Pentagon correspondent for dozens of U.S. newspapers. When a man related the story of his parents’ harrowing escape from evil forces in the Spanish Civil War, Stewart jumped at the chance to write Love in War, his own For Whom the Bell Tolls.

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How would you describe Love in War

Love in War is a sweeping historical romance set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.

Humble Martí opens a bakery next to the shoe store owned by Montse’s family so he can get to know the wealthy young woman he’s fallen in love with. But while Montse falls for Martí’s kindness and ambition, her father forbids their romance. An even greater threat to the young lovers is the pompous Felix, the mayor’s son, who tries to woo Montse and capture her affection.

Determined to have Montse choose him, Martí creates a hole in the wall between their adjoining shops, where they secretly pass love notes. But their troubles soon turn national as violence erupts across the country. Their tentative relationship threatens to crumble beneath the weight of the Spanish Civil War as they suffer countless forces that would tear them apart: violence, separation, and perhaps most threatening, the perverse machinations of Felix, whose desire to destroy Martí is turning more and more murderous.

It certainly sounds epic! I understand it’s based on a true story. How did you become interested in this bit of history?

A son of the real Martí and Montse approached me about writing their story. Most stories about parents are rather boring. But when Jaime Sendra told me about his parents, particularly his mother’s cleverness, I couldn’t resist writing about them.

I open the novel when Montse is stopped at the French border because her infant daughter has no passport. She hands the customs agent her child and says her daughter, who is carrying valuable jewels in a sandwich, must stay with him. Like King Solomon threatening to slice the disputed baby in half, Montse knew the guard would not let her leave on a French train without her baby.

That story hooked me, and I hope it will hook the reader.

It must be incredibly complex to live in a nation at war with itself.

The Spanish Civil War, a precursor to World War II, was one of the bloodiest in European history, and this story is a testament to how devastating civil war is. In this conflict, the Republicans were loyal to the government in Madrid, known as the Second Spanish Republic. General Francisco Franco led the Nationalist forces to overthrow the republic and then served as dictator until his death in 1975.

Since Ernest Hemingway fought on the Republican side and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, most fiction about the war has portrayed the Republicans as the good guys and Franco’s revolutionaries as bad guys. The historical reality is that both Nationalists and Republicans killed many innocents and destroyed cities. Love in War has been well received among Spanish readers because its story complicates the usual narrative by portraying a Republican officer as the bad guy.

Interesting. How else do the opposing sides play out?

Bad guy Felix and his father, the mayor of the small town of Igualada, 70 miles from Barcelona, were Republicans. Martí and Montse were largely apolitical, although Martí was drafted into the Republican Army for a stint, where he served as a baker and a soldier. He trained under Franco, who commanded the military academy at the time.

That shows how intimate a civil war is. Every soldier knows the “enemies” he has to kill. On the other hand, your two main characters aren’t political.

The conflict between Martí/Montse and Felix was over Felix’s romantic desire for Montse. It boiled over when Felix killed Martí’s best friends after the baptism of their daughter, beat Martí’s mother, and chased Martí out of the country, trying to kill him.

Martí was forced to abandon Montse and their daughter, who hid from Felix in Barcelona. When Felix found them, he tried to force her to have sex with him in exchange for rescuing her brother from execution in prison. But Montse outwitted him, just as she would outsmart the border guards when she and Martí fled the country.

Montse sounds like someone any reader will want to root for! Is this your first historical novel?

My first novel, Iron City Conspiracy, is about the fictional second bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. Who would do it today? And why? It takes place in modern times, but relies on the complex racial history of Alabama.

How did you go about researching this true story?

I learned about the town of Igualada from Jaime and Isabel, the son and daughter of the protagonists, who have been to the locations many times and taken many photos. In addition, experts on the Spanish Civil War helped me with the war timeline and background. Mostly I had Jaime and Isabel read their parents’ journals to me. They translated them, and I filled several notebooks.

Martí, the practical baker and businessman, wrote his accounts like a report, while Montse, an artist, wrote her journal with a great deal of flourish. I was able to take extracts of her writing and use them in the novel in a way I think readers will enjoy.

Are all the characters in Love in War based on historical people?

There are also a few minor characters I made up to help the story flow who are well received by readers. My favorite is Neda, who knits on a park bench giving play-by-play commentary about Martí’s efforts to woo Montse and to stave off the romantic pursuits of Felix.

What is the best writing advice you have to share?

I taught myself to write first as a newspaper reporter by rewriting stories I found in newspapers and magazines. Read, read, read. Practice, practice, practice. Later, I worked on my skills as a novelist by rewriting pages of authors I admired.

What is the last great book you read? 

The best book I have read and one that inspired me to write my first novel, Iron City Conspiracy, was John Grisham’s A Time to Kill.

 


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