Spanish radio star Guillermo Fesser is always on the lookout for a story, and after moving to Rhinebeck with his family from Madrid in 2002, he found no dearth of material – starting with the cab ride from the airport. The driver told him about his participation in Reverend Moon’s Unification Church and then segued into his sons’ success as long-distance runners and the benefits of running barefoot.
Before arriving at his house, Fesser had found his métier, and a memoir was born. The cab driver’s story constitutes the first chapter of Á Cien Millas de Manhattan (100 Miles from Manhattan), published in Spain in 2008. The book was a best-seller, inspiring a Spanish TV news program, weekly radio show and Huffington Post blog. It has just been translated into English, so now locals can read about themselves through the eyes of Fesser, whose curiosity is matched by his empathy, friendliness and wry humor.
Fesser befriends practically everyone he meets, including a bison rancher from Texas, a former star of Dark Shadows, sculptor John Corcoran (who created a memorial for the late Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl), New Yorker cartoonist Danny Shanahan, Kermit Love, the late creator of Big Bird, an engineer who works on New York City’s steam system, a house restorer and a high school guidance counselor. In each case he gleans a narrative that unearths the extraordinary from the ordinary and leads to numerous digressions on such topics as the Underground Railroad, IBM computer technology and the space launch, and what to do if you get bitten by a rattlesnake.
Some encounters lead to adventures, including a fishing trip in the Alaskan wilderness and iceboating on the Hudson. The text is sprinkled with observations on the oddities of America: the mania for yard sales; the penchant for private parties (in Spain people party out in the streets); the abundant, amazing, supersized nature (he initially mistakes a hummingbird for a bug resembling a “penguin embryo”); Americans’ dislike of food “with eyes”; the siting of houses out in the open (in Spain they are behind walls and fences, and he explains the reason for the difference).
Fesser had quit his morning radio talk show in Madrid, called Gomaespuma (“foam rubber” in English), to move to Rhinebeck, which did not go over well with his fans: He’d hosted the show for 25 years, and its combination of journalism and humor had attracted a devoted following. But Fesser wanted to expose his three young children to their American roots (his wife, Sarah Hill, is from Rhinebeck) and needed a change.
The one-year sabbatical stretched into two, during which time he and his filmmaker brother wrote a script. Fesser went back to Spain to make the film, returning to Rhinebeck in 2009; he now contributes weekly stories to a Spanish news show, with one foot on each continent. Meanwhile, 100 Miles from Manhattan has prompted invitations from various universities for lectures and workshops on writing comedy and scripts.
Fesser will be signing his book at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck this Sunday, April 27 at 1 p.m. in an event co-sponsored by Oblong Books. He will also read at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock on June 28. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods spoke to Fesser at his Rhinebeck home one recent afternoon:
LW: What made you want to switch from doing radio to writing a book?
GF: What I like to do is tell a story and then figure out the best format. Some have to be told at dinner; some need a big screen; some should be on a radio show, but not necessarily in a book. All my life I’ve been exploring different media to see how they work.
LW: Many times in 100 Miles you reference getting back to writing your script, but I wasn’t sure you were actually writing it, given all the people you were meeting and adventures you were having.
GF: I was meeting so many interesting people that I convinced my brother to spend a sabbatical here the second year to help me write it. It’s called Candida and is about my cleaning lady, who plays herself. Interviewing people for many years on the radio, I thought some of the most interesting people weren’t movie stars or prime ministers, but some guy selling candy on the street. Candida is an example. She was in her late 60s and still cleaning houses. We put her on the show as a radio commentator and she became very famous. She’d talked about how to clean the floor of the Titanic with vinegar and how the silverware on the ship needed to be cleaned. I remember growing up watching Planet of the Apes, and after an hour she told me that the foreigners have a lot of hair. She didn’t know what Americans looked like.
LW: You grew up in Spain under the dictator Francisco Franco. What was that like, and how did that affect your approach to journalism?
GF: I appreciate freedom so much because I’d seen enough of Franco. I was from a family of nine kids, which was medium-sized; Franco would give awards to the biggest family and some had 12, 13 kids. You felt if you got involved in politics, you’d get in trouble. At age 13 I was a newspaper editor at my private Catholic school, and the priests let me publish an article against the death penalty, even though it got me into trouble. Everybody lived in fear.
On the other hand, it was a very friendly country with a lot of human contact. Most people didn’t have much money. In the 1970s, Coca-Cola decided to sell a bigger bottle of soda because Spain was a big consumer of soda, but it was a failure because nobody could fit the bottle in the refrigerator.
Humor was a good vehicle to make a point without hurting anybody. My first show, in 1982, was scheduled between 2 and 4 a.m. on Saturday night. The country was so ready for something different. Five years later, 500,000 people were listening. People would put on their alarms to listen, and the discos would stop the music and air the show at 2 a.m.
LW: You come from a creative family: Two of your sisters are painters, another is a landscaper, you have a brother who is a filmmaker, others are an engineer and architect. What do you attribute this to?
GF: My father was very artist-oriented. He would do puppet shows for us after school, build toys for us. We did a lot of painting and modeling together. He just passed away three weeks ago at age 91, and there were 30 people in the hospital room. The cafeterias in Spanish hospitals are great, and people actually go to eat there. When you are so emotionally sad, you don’t need coffee and cookie from a machine, but a beer and good ham and fish.