Milena Busquets is bubbly and exudes a laid-back European cosmopolitanism that is irresistible in person. Busquets stopped by Read it Forward HQ to discuss her most recent novel, This Too Shall Pass, which is recently out in paperback. The novel centers on Blanca, a 40-year-old woman whose mother has just died. Reeling from this loss, Blanca realizes that she has no idea how her future will take shape. To cope, she turns to her dearest friends, her closest family, and a change of scenery. Leaving Barcelona behind, she returns to Cadaqués, on the coast, accompanied by her two sons, two ex-husbands, and two best friends, and makes a plan to meet her married lover for a few stolen moments as well. Surrounded by those she loves most, she spends the summer in an impossibly beautiful place, finding ways to reconnect and understand what it means to truly, happily live on her own terms, just as her mother would have wanted.
Milena Busquets sat down with Read it Forward editor Abbe Wright to discuss what in her novel is autobiographical, the importance of sitting down and writing and the blissful freedom summer affords.
READ IT FORWARD: I’m definitely guilty of judging a book by its cover, and I love the cover of your book. How does this image capture the message within?
MILENA BUSQUETS: The book is going to be published in something like 33 countries, so there are many covers. But this is one of the most original. Usually, they picture the whole figure of the woman, or the woman from the back so you don’t recognize her.
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The novel is the story of a woman. It’s not about glamour, but about being free to do what you want while keeping a certain posture of good manners or education. It’s about trying to make the world more beautiful, in a way, which is something I was brought up very much with. But honestly, I don’t think the main character would wear this hat. Or carry that purse. But yes, it’s clear from the cover that it’s the story of a woman, and she’s not ugly, and she’s not poor.
RIF: Totally. And this is a woman who just turned 40 as the book opens, and she’s just lost her mother. Tell us a little bit about the plot.
MB: The novel starts in the cemetery, at the grave where her mother is being buried. Very quickly, you see the characters that surround this woman, which are her two ex-husbands, and there is a lover or two, and then there is another mysterious man. There are her two children. And then there are these girlfriends that are very good friends. The story is how she manages to survive the death of her mother through not spiritual, very deep things, but through life. Through having a glass of wine with your friends, through flirting with someone, through the more physical things that life has to offer, which I think are very important because life offers so much. Like just swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, or in any sea, can be very healing. It can bring you back to life.
RIF: She creates this community around her that might not be conventional; you might not go on vacation with both ex-husbands and your lover and your children—
MB: Well, she didn’t go with her lover. The lovers happened to be there. It’s a coincidence. But with the two ex-husbands, that is rare.
RIF: But she still feels very supported by everyone around her.
MB: We choose the family we want. And I think we have much more freedom than we realize or than we use nowadays. This woman is very much about using her freedom to the limit. To make what she wants of her life. I don’t find it scandalous at all. She has children, and she has a family—it’s a weird family maybe, but it’s a family nevertheless—and these are the people who protect her and love her.
We should learn to use our freedom more because sometimes we just fall into the conventional things. We get married because it’s what’s expected of us, and then we have children with the same man, and then we try to put up with this man for however many years. Maybe there are other ways to be happy and to be more honest with yourself. This is one of the main themes in the book, the search of this woman for truth, for the way she wants to live her life.
RIF: Blanca’s search for that feels very authentic to me. So what was your inspiration behind writing the book? Did you lose your mother as well?
MB: Yes, I lost my mother a year and a half before I started writing, and I started because I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have anything to do. I was totally broke. I had no money. My life was a total disaster. I’d been brought up in a very literary family of publishers and writers and so on.
My instrument of communication had always been writing. I had written a previous novel that hadn’t sold especially well. It had a few reviews, good reviews, but nothing had happened like this. Then one day I had dropped the children at school, and I was in the kitchen just—I don’t know what I was doing—and then I took the computer and started writing. I wrote the first chapter in about 15 minutes, I think.
I used to translate for publisher friends, but I was always late with the translations. They were very well written, but they were like a year late, so I wasn’t getting those translations anymore. And I had this blog; everybody loved it, but I didn’t earn any money because with blogs it’s so difficult. So I started like this because I didn’t have anything better to do. Or anything to do.
RIF: Well, I love the result that came out.
MB: Yes. You’d never know.
RIF: You say you grew up in a very literary family; I know your mother started a small press. What was that like getting a love of reading from your earliest days?
MB: My family was from this high bourgeoisie family in Barcelona. They liked reading, and my grandfather came home one day—he had ten brothers—and he said—my mother was then 15 or 16, and he said to her, “Look, I’ve bought this publishing house.”
He bought it from one of his brothers who didn’t have much money at the time, or he was in trouble. So my grandfather did the typical thing that a brother would do and said, “I’m going to buy the business.” And then my grandfather arrived home and said, “Well, now we have this thing—this publishing house.”
RIF: What are we going to do?
MB: Yeah. He said to my mother, “Well, if you want to do one or two books per year, you are the literary one—you think about it and you do it.” Two years later, the whole family was involved, as it happens with this business and with books. Everybody was dropping everything, all the other businesses that they had, and so on, and everybody was working in the publishing house.
But growing up in such a family, I think it was like any other family. For me, it was my mother, it was my father, it was the people who were around. It wasn’t until much later when I studied literature that I realized who these people were. For me, they were just people. They were fun. I loved them. They were my family, but I would have loved them the same if they were selling fruit in the market. We weren’t talking about literature all the time at all. We talked about silly things; we watched TV like everybody else.
RIF: Yeah. Homework, dinner.
MB: Right. My mother was very anti-snobbish. She hated all snobbism and she thought that if you thought you were superior to anyone because you read, you were very mistaken. So it was a very liberal background. But the woman who took care of me because my mother worked so much—my nanny—she was the daughter of a military man; totally right-wing. My parents were communist and so on, but we all talked and got along. No one was like, “Oh, he’s the writer. He’s the poet. He’s the famous person.” No.
RIF: Equal footing, yeah.
MB: Equal footing. The main thing was to have fun and to have a good time together. Nothing else. Like everybody else.
RIF: Exactly. So the location in the book is remote and totally enticing. How did you decide to write about this location?
MB: Cadaqués—this is very biographical because I grew up there. I was born in Barcelona, but this is the small town where we have our summer house. It was in the Mediterranean Sea, very close to France, but still in Spain. It was a small town where Dalí, the painter—the surrealist painter—was born. He was still alive when I was small; I remember him. It is a very beautiful town, and somehow he dragged a community of people around him because he liked very much young artists and younger people. So slowly, these architects and poets and photographers and models and so on from Barcelona and from abroad—Germans and Americans, many people from the 70s—they started going to Cadaqués for the summer.
When I was young, I remember these hippies. I talk about it in the book a little bit. These very handsome, very glamorous people that I was fascinated with because I came from Barcelona from this very strict French school. So this is where I grew up, really. Because you know, in Barcelona I was much more controlled, but in Cadaqués, I was totally free to do whatever I want. I would be left there with my brother and this nanny, Marisa, and her daughters for like three months.
I really discovered what freedom was, and also everything—like the first time I got drunk was in Cadaqués. I did drugs in Cadaqués. I lost my virginity in Cadaqués. You know, it’s the place where everything happens, because, in the summer, you’re finally—well, it comes back to this theme of freedom, which is something that interests me very much. Cadaqués was where I found my freedom.
RIF: So the town represents what Blanca’s looking for.
MB: Yes, the town is like her home. It’s where she feels safe to live the way she wants to live. Maybe it’s because there were other people there trying to decide what they wanted. It’s not about being outrageous; I’m not outrageous at all for the sake of it. I find it very boring, people who are outrageous just because they want to scandalize because we are not scandalized by anything anymore. We have seen everything more or less, no?
RIF: Yeah, totally.
MB: You have to just decide what you want and what’s going to make you happy or less unhappy.
RIF: So, the loss of the main character’s mother, it’s raw and beautiful. Is it hard to write about these emotional moments in the book? Especially having lived through it yourself?
MB: It was very hard, but it was hard in places I didn’t expect. I had everything very much planned. Chapter by chapter, I knew what I was going to say. And there were moments that I feared, and then when I got there, it wasn’t so hard.
Then there were moments that unexpectedly startled me. I had to just walk out of the room, and it was very emotional at times. There were times I thought, oh, this is really writing something good. And then there were other times I thought, I have to throw this in the dustbin because this is so disgusting. It’s not easy. But I think that writing anything is difficult.
RIF: Yeah, understandable.
MB: Even when it’s something that seems more distant from you, in truth we are always writing about ourselves. Even if you’re writing about the Medieval Ages, or about life on Mars, if you’re doing it in an honest way, I think you’re working with your raw emotions and with what you are. I’m always surprised that so many people write and want to write, because it’s such a difficult job, and it’s such a painful thing to do. I don’t know how you can do it lightly.
RIF: Well, we are glad that you do. Because then we get this beautiful book at the end. The opening line of the book cracks me up. The main character says, “For some reason, I never considered what it would be like to be 40.” So what did you imagine life at 40 as, and how has it surprised you?
MB: This is also autobiographical. I didn’t consider ever getting to 40. It was unthinkable. I remember when I was at school my friends and I would talk about when we’d arrive at the year 2000 and we would say, “What a pity that in 2000, we will already be old people.”
I mean, in 2000 I was like 27 years old, but for a teenager, 27 is already old age. Like what a pity—everything will be done and finished by 27. No, 40—I never thought about 40. And in my case, it was a coincidence to arrive at 40 and then to have my mother die at the same time. Because it was just like waking up suddenly, no?
MB: I always knew I would have children, because it’s what I like most, and I thought I would find some job, because I’m not especially stupid. So I thought I would find something to do. But I didn’t have any plans. I’ve never wanted to be rich. I’ve never been very ambitious. I’ve never made plans for any age, really. I think things happen, and you take advantage of the ones that seem like they’re going to bring you happiness, and you leave the others behind.
I didn’t arrive at 40 and say, oh, I’ve achieved something. Or on the contrary, I’m a failure. Because also, the thing is, one year you’re a failure, the next you’re success. Success and failure don’t really mean anything. They mean very little, and they pass. So it’s not something that you should judge yourself by, because there are very good books that never are published, there are very bad books that sell millions.
RIF: Right. To plan is foolish, almost.
MB: Success should be taken at a distance, because it doesn’t mean really anything.
RIF: One of the things I love about Blanca is that she’s totally unapologetic about the sex that she has, and she’s passionate. What’s different about sex in your 40s than when you’re younger?
MB: Oh no, it’s the same.
MB: Well, if you’re wise and if you’re lucky, it should be the same. It should be like sex in your 20s or whenever. No, I don’t think there’s anything—I don’t think anything changes. But it depends on the people. I think some people say that, yes, that they calm down, and that it becomes something else, and that love turns into friendship. I’m not interested. I would love to be loved like Romeo and Juliet.
RIF: Yeah, exactly.
MB: Because the other things—they’re good, but it’s not love; it’s something different. I’m the same about sex; I don’t distinguish very much between sex and love—no. Every time, whenever I have sex, I think I’m in love. It might be for half an hour, and then I’m not in love anymore, or whatever, but you know, I take sex very seriously. Like, okay, there’s a little bit in the book, but I don’t like to trivialize it. I don’t like this way of taking sex lightly. For me, it’s something important—one of the main subjects I think, as a writer, and as a person too. But it’s very personal. In this case where Blanca is a very passionate person.
RIF: She is.
MB: I think one of the ways to experience life is through touching people. It’s something that for me comes so naturally. I like to know how things feel. When I see the sea, I want to jump into the water. It’s a temperament thing.
RIF: And especially when she’s in so much pain, she sees it as a way to have a little bit of healing in that moment.
MB: Yes, it’s a way of beating pain, I think—sex and love.
RIF: So where do you write, Milena? Do you have an office?
MB: At my kitchen table. I live in this house where everything’s together—the kitchen and the TV. I wrote at the kitchen table with my computer, with my small child watching the cartoons on the TV. I don’t have the luxury of—you know, like Virginia Woolf said that you need the room of your own?
MB: I don’t have it. I think she meant it more in a metaphorical way. But I think when you want to write, you write. These people that give me excuses or that say, “I have a whole novel in my head,” or “I will write when,” or “I will write if.” If you want to write, then it’s the moment to write. Because maybe it’s not the moment—it’s not always the moment. When you want to write, you write, even if there’s noise, if the children are around. Otherwise we have to wait for the moment.
RIF: What are you working on now?
MB: Well, I’m trying to write—I have it all in my head.
MB: I have the next novel in my head; the third one. But I need to be at least in Barcelona for a while, and I need to be a little bit bored. You cannot be overexcited to write; you have to face emptiness a little bit.
RIF: And patience.
MB: That’s why it’s so hard because it’s much easier to be here in New York; it’s wonderful.
But I know in a way, it’s lying. It’s deluding yourself. All these busy things are all—like writing articles I write—before I said no, no articles. I don’t want to do any articles. And now I’m saying yes to them all, and I know it’s just an excuse not to face the real article, which is the novel.
MB: And I know I’m safe in an article. It’s going to be good or bad, but even if I leave a little bit of me, it’s not my heart. In my next novel, I know I’m going to have to leave my heart there again. And it’s a job. It’s wonderful, but it’s terrifying.
RIF: Yeah. It takes time.
MB: Sì, yeah. It takes time. And work, too.