In his new novel, Cervantes Street, Jaime Manrique reimagines the life of author Miguel de Cervantes, who lost use of his arm in a duel, fought in the Spanish Navy, and was kidnapped and sold into slavery all before he wrote his masterpiece—Don Quixote.

Why write a novel about Cervantes now?

Even though I had been an admirer of Don Quixote since I’d read it at 15 years old, I had no idea about Cervantes’ life. I started reading about him and traveling to places he’d lived. I learned where he was born, where his family lived; I learned about his time as a soldier and a slave. But many specifics of his life remained unknown. I wanted to fill in the emotional spaces between the highlights. I had to find out who this man was.

Was it intimidating to write about such a personally and canonically influential writer?

It was terrifying in some ways. The Spanish language agent for the book asked me, “You’re aware of what you’re doing, right?” Meaning, Cervantes is a holy cow. Anything you say about him, people are going to come at you. There are so many Cervantes scholars out there. But I was like Don Quixote in that this book was my madness. I had to do what I needed to do, to write this book no matter if it killed me. It’s already come out in Spanish in South America, and the reaction has been good. People think I am bold to take on the subject, but they have embraced the story and the character.

What’s the attraction of fictionalizing historical stories?

I’m not a biographer, though I do love to read bios. I don’t have the patience to research and write that kind of book. It’s too precise. My last two novels [Latin Moon in Manhattan and Our Lives Are the Rivers] have been about real people I admired. I had heard about them and wanted to learn more about them in a way that satisfied me as a writer. The person interests me as much as the history, for both Cervantes and Manuela Sáenz [the revolutionary South American heroine featured in Our Lives Are the Rivers].

How is writing a novel different from writing poetry?

Poetry is more private and intimate. When I write a poem, maybe no one will ever read it. It’s almost like a secret. The novel form gives me a reason for living. It will sometimes take five years to write a novel, and it keeps me looking forward, working into the future. Writing a novel is like building something big, like building a house. Physically it takes a lot out of me, in my back and neck. A writer needs a strong back.