An Interview with Clara Sánchez

Born in Guadalajara, Clara Sánchez is the author of eight novels including Últimas noticias del paraíso(2000) which won the prestigious Alfaguara Prize in 2000. She is a newspaper columnist for top-selling Spanish newspaper El País and has been an occasional contributor for national television. Her books have all been translated in several languages.

The Scent of Lemon Leaves
Having left her job and boyfriend, thirty year old Sandra decides to stay in a village on the Costa Blanca in order to take stock of her life and find a new direction. She befriends Karin and Fredrik, an elderly Norwegian couple, who provide her with stimulating company and take the place of the grandparents she never had. However, when she meets Julián, a former concentration-camp inmate who has just returned to Europe from Argentina, she discovers that all is not what it seems and finds herself involved in a perilous quest for the truth.

As well as being a powerful account of self-discovery and an exploration of history and redemption, The Scent of Lemon Leaves is a sophisticated and nail-biting page-turner by one of Spain’s most accomplished authors.

1) What is the inspiration behind The Scent of the Lemon Leaves?

Sometimes a writer doesn’t know that he is having an inspiration until something makes it explode. From 1981 until 1987 I lived in the coastal town of Denia (Alicante). I lived in a very nice house with orange and lemon trees near the sea, and soon after I set up there I was shocked to know that the hotel 300 meters from my house belonged to a Nazi who, like many others, had taken refuge there after the World War II. This man had social life, what was even more amazing. I could found him on the street and I met people who were working for him and told me how he was and the parties he organised in the hotel. Following this event, I started to feel interested in a natural way about all the news related to extradition of Nazis, Nazis hunters… And when six years ago I saw in a Spanish newspaper the photo of two elderly Norwegian Nazis living semi-hidden in the Costa del Sol, the novel just appeared. It had those characters that appear to be one thing but they’re another thing. And the young Sandra just came, who was like me when I lived in Denia, and Julian, who’s very similar to my own father.

2) Aging, mortality, and vulnerability play an interesting role in The Scent of the Lemon Leaves. Can you comment on this characteristic of the book? 

Both Sandra and Julian live an adventure fraught with obstacles, including their own physical obstacles: the old age of Julian (pills, lenses, age), the pregnancy of Sandra. Sandra is pushed to have to decide whether to be a heroine, and Julian discovers that while one is alive he is obliged to act, that there is no excuse to halt. I loved writing the relationship of Julian and Sandra, of an old man and a young woman, because one learns through the other, because not only young people learn of the elderly, but also vice versa. In reality, life puts them ahead what Sandra needs to get out of her indolence and make a growth master, and what Julian needs to avoid being overcome by his past or age. In regards Heim, Fred, Karin, Alice and other Nazis of the novel, they insist on maintaining the fantasy that they are different, that they can dominate the old age. And Julian decides to use precisely their old age (which himself knows so well) to exercise his particular personal vendetta. This novel has allowed me to think much about the shortcomings of old age and youth and our fragility.

3) You have presented the point of view of a pregnant young woman and the point of view of an old man in this book. What did you hope to accomplish by bringing youth and old age together in the quest to unravel the hiding Nazis? 

When Sandra and Julian meet, two historic moments meet: Julian who lived those events firsthand: he was a victim in a concentration camp, and Sandra who has only seen Nazis in books and documentaries. I was like Sandra (I was even pregnant) when I met the Nazi neighbour in Denia; it was unreal for me that Nazis really existed. Julian helps Sandra to discover the evil in the form of old Nazis, and Sandra helps Julian to recover some innocence.

4) What do you make of the translated title? It is very different from Lo que esconde tu nombre.

The atmosphere of the novel is deeply Mediterranean: sea, blue sky, intense heat, the perfume of the flowers, which achieve something terrible doesn’t seem so. The English title refers to this atmosphere, and although it is an editorial decision, I think it’s correct. In the Spanish context it was not necessary to do it so explicitly.

Buy a copy of The Scent of Lemon Leaves or read an excerpt here.