Mercedes Infante Brudnicki, the third finalist in Good Morning America’s "The Story of My Life" contest, revealed on air this morning her story of hope, love and a father's unwavering desire to reunite his family.
Tim Wendel was the writer on this project, hired to take Brudnicki’s story and fashion it into memoir. In under two months, Wendel wrote The Snow that Burned our Hearts.
Who the hell is Tim Wendel? Other than being The Happy Booker’s neighbor out here in an enchanted place we like to call the surburban land of writers—many of the authors listed on the right-hand side of this page live within a 10 mile radius of this computer— he’s also a first-rate novelist and a nonfiction writer. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire,and GQ. His columns appear on the USA Today op-ed page, where he is on the Board of Contributors. And the man can make a mean bowl of chili.
America begins voting tomorrow. And then it will all be up to you, gentle readers, to decide which story gets published. (The Happy Booker will be waiting online for the polls to open to cast her vote for Tim's, The Snow That Burned our Hearts.)
HB: What made you get on board?
TW: This is such a compelling story. Time after time this Cuban-American family, which escaped from Cuba soon after the revolution, made what seemed to be good decisions only to see their hopes destroyed by world events— Castro, Kennedy, and Khrushchev were all major players in their lives. Because of these events, Mercedes "Mercy" Brudnicki, was separated from her brother for nearly two decades, and her father, Carlos, finally got the brother out of Cuba with a scheme that’s equal parts desperation and James Bond.
HB: Why were you asked to co-write Mercy’s story and how much did you know about her?
TW: I’ve made three trips to Cuba— it’s one of the areas of the world I’m intrigued with. My first novel, Castro’s Curveball, was set there. Since my first visit in 1992, I haven’t been able to get the land or the people out of my head. In fact, I’m working on a rough draft of a new novel Habana Libre that’s set there.
I knew the basic outline, which obviously intrigued me. But as Mercy and I spoke, I realized there was so much more. An aunt in Cuba, the evil Mamaita, loved Mercy’s brother so much that she didn’t lift a finger to help him leave Cuba. She didn’t help even as the family in America spent a small fortune trying to secure the necessary visas and other paperwork to get him out.
A generation before, this same aunt raised Mercy’s father after she helped save his life. A bizarre deal was made with the family where she got custody of the father and then, years later, she wouldn’t let the brother go.
HB: Where did the title come from?
TW: The Snow That Burned Our Hearts comes from a line in a Pablo Neruda poem, "The snow will burn my heart." It speaks to this book because as the family was coming out of Cuba in 1960, first the father and a few months later the mother, they decided to leave the son, Mercy’s older brother, briefly in the care of Mamaita back in Cuba. They did this because that first winter in New Jersey, where they resettled, was so harsh. Of course, that allowed Mamaita to hang on to him. Mercy’s parents couldn’t return to retrieve him because of such world events as the U.S. embargo, the Bay of Pigs.
I’m a big believer in omens. When I was first contacted to do this book, I was reading Jon Lee Anderson’s amazing biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, so I was really thinking about Cuba and the tragedy that is that land.
Then, in early February, as we’re coming down the homestretch for the working draft, Mercy and I flew to Miami to speak with her godfather. We couldn’t understand how her father had gotten her brother out of Cuba and then was caught and thrown in a Havana prison, where he almost died. It just didn’t make sense.
In one of the most intense interviews I’ve ever been a part of, we discovered the remaining skeletons in her family’s closet. Even though her father believed that blood is always thicker than water, the truth in this case was far stranger.