One of the things I love about historical fiction is the genre’s capacity to teleport you back to a particular era of history. Mark Whittle’s The Jacarandas does precisely that with Argentina’s Dirty War, which took place between 1976-1983. This was a time when the country was ruled by a military dictatorship and right-wing death squads hunted down political dissidents believed to be associated with socialist, communist or anti government thought. 9,000-30,000 People were killed or “disappeared.”
Mark Whittle does a great job of depicting the confusion and moral ambiguity of this time. The story follows Daniel, a university student who joined the federal police force in order to serve his country and stop left-wing terrorism in Buenos Aires. Yet Daniel soon discovers that the moral boundaries of this conflict are much murkier than he originally thought. And that besides fitness and hate, the military regime requires loyalty, batons, and electric prods.
The novel is also based off a true story!
Below I have included an interview with Mark Whittle about his process for writing this book. I also have asked him about the self publishing process, for anyone who may be interested in pursuing that road.
JBJ: I see that The Jacarandas is a true story. How did you learn of this story?
MW: I met the real “Daniel” over 10 years ago when he was a guest speaker at a charity event focused on marginalized and underserved communities. Daniel works with prisoners and their families in Argentina. He told his story of joining the federal police as a young man during the Dirty War, and how he became extremely violent and just this whole awful experience he went through. His story haunted me for years. We became friends and have been so ever since. I had once lived in Argentina and knew quite well all about Argentina’s tragic history in the 1970s.
JBJ: Did the real Daniel get to read the book? What did he think?
MW: Great question! Well, the real Daniel speaks very poor English, but I wanted him to read a draft. So I knew it would be way too much work to translate the draft myself so I tried various automated translators and, in the end, selected Google Translate. I painfully entered page by page, copied it out and formatted it to send to him. He did read it. Even today, almost 50 years later, there are still some sensitive issues so he was looking out for that. But he enjoyed it a lot. It’s worth noting that The Jacarandas is not a biography but rather historical fiction where the real Daniel is the protagonist, but I wanted to include some other historical events and themes that were not part of his experience, but absolutely part of the Dirty War.
JBJ: Do you think Argentina today is still affected by the events of the Dirty War?
MW: Yes, it is. It’s a black stain on their past that they just never seem able to get away from. Argentina has had difficulty recovering and seems almost condemned to lurch from crisis to crisis. It’s the political class has failed Argentina. It’s such a rich nation in culture, intellect, education, and natural resources but politics have been ruinous. They just can’t find a good healthy balance.
JBJ: Tell me about your experience in Self-Publishing:
MW: Well, I don’t know any other kind, so I don’t know if it’s good or bad. The Jacarandas is the first novel I’ve written. I thought I would try to traditional route but after querying about 100 agents and getting little traction, I started exploring other options. I read about writers like Andy Weir (The Martian) who published on Amazon KDP. My writers’ critique group had a guest speaker who has made a living publishing on Amazon KDP. And then hearing the experience of some writers who have had less-than-optimal experiences with agents, I decided to give it a try. I found Amazon KDP extremely easy to use. I’ve been super happy with the process and the control I have.
JBJ: What have been your greatest challenges?
MW: Probably the whole marketing of my book. I don’t do a good job of social media presence. My advertising has been limited to trying KDP’s advertising, which I am still trying to learn and perfect. There’s been good word-of-mouth spreading of The Jacarandas, for sure, but getting it to the next level is a challenge with self-publishing. I’ve been told that the best marketing of your book is to write another book. Get that read-through rate. I would say a second challenge is getting those initial reviews on Amazon. Don’t underestimate the work involved with getting a core group of readers to read your book and post a review.
JBJ: What was the most rewarding about this experience?
MW: Definitely it’s having people tell you they loved your book – either through an email or social media or in person, or simply seeing a new review pop up on Amazon. Having people say how they’ve been impacted by what you wrote, and how they liked this scene or character or how I handled x or y. Very satisfying, to be honest.
JBJ: What would you tell other people who are looking to self publish?
MW: Read everything you can about it before deciding. And if you are going to do it, do it the best you possibly can. For example hire an editor. Hire a professional cover design artist. Polish and polish and polish your manuscript so it’s perfect.
Thank you, Mark Whittle!
For those interested in checking out his novel, buy it on Amazon at the link below.