La Força d’un destí (“The Power of Destiny”), Martí Gironell’s novel, winner of the Ramon Llull Prize and inspired by the life of Jean Leon, the winery’s founder, is in bookstores now. We talked to the author to find out what’s behind the book’s more than 300 pages.
This is your eighth book, and it’s received the most important award in Catalan literature. What does it mean to you to have won the Ramon Llull Prize?
I’m really excited that this novel is backed by the award. Like the novel and the story, the Ramon Llull Prize has one foot here in Spain and the other abroad, with a clear international angle. That’s why I put myself forward. It’s a powerful story, deeply tied to something very Spanish (wine), in a land that is known for wine-growing (the Penedès region), and with a desire to head out into the world, to grow, which was what Jean Leon was looking for.
When did you first hear the name Jean Leon?
Here, inside these four walls where we are now, at Vinoteca Torres on Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona. The newspaper El Mundo was preparing a special for St. George’s Day and they invited various writers so we could talk about possible adaptations of literary works to other formats. The round table featured a bottle of Jean Leon and they explained his story to us to get us to see that his life would be perfect for turning into a novel or a movie. I heard it and was blown away…
Did you think it was time to do it?
Totally. I looked at the others and asked them if anyone wanted to do something. No one said anything and that’s when I decided to take it on.
Did you think that apart from a film-worthy life, Jean Leon had to have a novel?
Exactly. I thought there was room to develop the material even more. I got home and the first thing I did was start looking for information, searching for contacts, reading…
Tell us about the process. How did you do your research?
I got in touch with Jaume Rovira, his first winemaker, and Anna Carrión, Jean Leon’s younger sister, who still remembers him very well. I was also in touch with his son, who I met up with in Barcelona thanks to Mireia Torres, the winery’s general director, and Maria Antònia Rovira, the communication manager, both of whom I spoke to as well. I also read the biography Sebastian Moreno wrote a few years ago. I looked at photos, I looked up articles from the 1950s from the USA and Spain, I talked with winemakers, and read obituaries from The Washington Post and The New York Times… A bit of everything really!
There’s also the documentary by Agustí Vila from a few years ago…
Yes. The other thing is that in the documentary, when Paul Newman talks, it sheds light on lots of things about how his relationship with Jean Leon went after the death of James Dean, who was Jean Leon’s kindred spirit. Newman was offered all of Dean’s roles at that time, but he didn’t want to take them. He had a personal and identity crisis, and if it hadn’t been for Jean Leon, Paul Newman wouldn’t have been who he was.
Will the novel be a way of learning about personality traits of Jean Leon that we don’t know about?
Yes. Once the story had enough to it, I let his sister (Anna Carrión) read it. When she read it, she called me and said: it’s him. Of course, when someone so close gives their approval, you think: OK, it’s going well.
Will we find out some things no one knew about to now?
Yes, the novel reveals details of the lives of people who are very well known, details that we didn’t know until now. There’s a bit of everything and some things I’m saving to talk about during the book presentations. There are anecdotes with Marlon Brando, Salvador Dalí, and Alfred Hitchcock – to name a few – and they’re always related to the world of wine or gastronomy.
The way you explain it, it seems like you had fun writing the book…
Definitely! There are characters everyone knows and you have to approach it with lots of respect. The stories have a lot to them. Knowing what to put in and what to take out is an important sacrifice. I’ve picked the most important characters such as Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, and JFK, and from there I wove the story.
Why do you think everyone trusted him so much?
Because he was the great confessor of the stars. He would listen to them, take mental notes, and would always know what each of them wanted. That’s why they adored him. He was patient and a real problem solver, almost more of a diplomat than anything else. I defined him as the “director of the stars in their everyday lives.” Like their spiritual father.
What were you able to find out about Marilyn Monroe’s last dinner? Did he serve her?
I’m sure he did. They had home delivery service at La Scala and with the preferred customers, it was Jean Leon himself who went to their houses. Besides that anecdote, there are others with Frank Sinatra, James Dean, and Ronald Reagan that I was also able to confirm with media like The Washington Post and The New York Times. I really believe it.
James Dean is the star of the novel’s cover. How did you choose that image?
Because it’s an image that invites you to travel to the golden age of 1950s Hollywood. It features the elegance of James Dean because he is a key figure in the life of Jean Leon and in the story in this novel. A story that will get you dreaming while you still keep your feet on the ground.
Which chapter of Jean Leon’s life has impacted you most?
When he decides to leave and tries seven times to get on a ship that will take him to who knows were, and on the eighth attempt he finally manages to do it, as a stowaway, and he reaches the US with the help of a sailor who discovered him in the hold. Given that situation you start thinking, “I don’t know if just anyone would make it…”
That’s just how the book starts…
Yes, because for me it’s the beginning of everything. You have to have a lot of belief in yourself and in what you’re searching for to say, “let’s go!”
What have you learned from him?
Not to give up, to fight tooth and nail for what you believe in. If you don’t believe in it, who will? To convey the excitement of turning dreams into reality and surrounding yourself with a good team, which is what he did. You have to have dreams because if you don’t, you’ll never be able to make them come true.
Do you think he was ahead of his time?
Completely. He was an entrepreneur, which is a word that’s been popping up left, right, and center for a while now. But in the 1940s or 1950s, it was pretty unusual for someone to up sticks and go and try to change their life. There’s also everything he did later with wine in the Penedès – he was a real visionary.
What do you think of the legacy he left behind?
The truth is that making a name for yourself in the world of wine and making your own mark that’s different and having it as a prestigious brand that’s a point of reference – there’s a lot of merit in that. I tip my hat to him.
Do you think that Jean Leon wines capture the essence of their founder?
Totally. In terms of what I know to identify when you taste them, yes. They’re special, unique, they make you feel special, which is how he made people feel.
Do you already have a protagonist for your next novel?
Of course! I’m like a machine that never stops. I’m always paying attention to everything that goes on around me, and there are always stories that come your way, that surprise you, or that you have waiting in the wings. I have a folder of ideas and there’s always three or four in there that I’ve started. Of those, there’s always one that’s moving along, and that’s the one I’m working on. Books, like wine, have a slow, laborious creation process. When I finished La força d’un destí, after a few days I threw myself into the new novel, which will be a reality in two or three years.
Does the fact that you’re a journalist help to create these kinds of novels that define you so well?
Journalism is curiosity. You stop being a journalist the day you’re no longer curious. Or you’re a journalist precisely because you’re curious, which is very different from being a gossip. Curiosity enriches you, it gives you the chance to acquire more knowledge and want to share it with people who want to read, watch, or listen to you. That’s the spark that drives you.