María Dueñas, from best-selling writer to screenwriter and producer in the US

After selling 10 million books worldwide, the author of ‘The Time in Between’ has created the series ‘The Artists: First Strokes,’ an original 10-episode show for ViX

María Porcel
María Dueñas
Writer and screenwriter María Dueñas in a recent photo.CARLOS RUIZ

Almost 15 years have elapsed since María Dueñas, 59, became a literary star, one of those rare and infrequent stories of sudden and phenomenal publishing success that today can be counted on the fingers of one hand. After four successful novels, the late-blooming writer has now taken an uncommon leap: Dueñas has become a creator of original content for television, as well as an executive producer. On July 7, the Miami-based, Spanish-language streaming platform ViX will premiere her first original series, The Artists: First Strokes.

From her summer home in Cartagena, in southeastern Spain, where she has gone to relax after an intense season, Dueñas attends to the global media in a long day of video interviews. She has just a few minutes to enthusiastically explain this new project that, she says, was offered to her by the Isla Audiovisual production company and which she did not hesitate to accept.

The plot of The Artists: First Strokes is fluid, simple, agile and entertaining. Its first episode lays the foundation for what will happen in the other nine. Cata, a specialist in Mexican art who is fed up with her job as a low-paid waitress in Madrid, teams up with Yago, a mischievous and seductive client looking to make easy money by passing off simple paintings as great works of art to the new rich. The stars are Ximena Romo and Maxi Iglesias, a handsome couple with a lot of onscreen chemistry. They are joined by the veteran actor Francesc Garrido, who plays an inspector specialized in counterfeit art who will make life difficult for the duo. As often happens with Dueñas’ characters, however ambiguous they may be, the viewer comes to hope that things will turn out well for them.

Ximena Romo and Maxi Iglesias on the set of ‘The Artists: First Strokes.’
Ximena Romo and Maxi Iglesias on the set of ‘The Artists: First Strokes.’ViX

The series brings the Spanish tradition of the picaresque novel to the 21st century, with much more humor than the author uses in her novels. She wanted, she says, “a lighter feel.” She also wanted the action to take place between Spain and the Americas. As she explains, both she and her partners started from the initial idea of “making a production from Spain with Hispanic ambition.” The scenes were shot in Madrid, Marbella, Toledo and Miami and feature a Mexican character. “I have an enormous fondness for Mexico. It is a landscape that I know well, that I visit very often, where I also have many readers. It hasn’t been strange to me at all.”

The idea of basing the story on the world of counterfeit artworks and commerce was present from the start. “When we started to put it together, to articulate it, ViX stepped up. They liked the idea from the beginning,” says Dueñas, who explains that this project is part of a larger agreement by virtue of which the platform has first pick of the works that Dueñas plans specifically for audiovisual creations. In the case of books, rights are managed differently. “This is an open agreement for a few years. I am generating ideas and they are watching. The truth is that for me it is a very different adventure, very gratifying, and I am delighted with the trust that they are placing in me.”

In other words, Dueñas now has two jobs, or three if you add that of producer. For her, though, they are like “two different lanes” where she tests her way of thinking, writing and managing her time. “It is gratifying for those of us who work alone a lot, because in the end you are with yourself 24 hours a day, sometimes for months. With this line of work it is the opposite, you’re always working as a team, always with people and everyone is rowing in one direction, but each one is contributing their views. And that’s why it’s very rewarding.”

Dueñas, who has a PhD in English Philology and is a professor at the University of Murcia (she was tenured shortly before publishing her first novel, the immensely successful The Time In Between), has a strict method. “As a writer I am very structured, methodical. I come from the world of academia, I worked for a long time with a curricular design, with planning, and I took that with me to the world of literature, of course. To write each of my novels, I have to be clear from the beginning about where I am going to go with it, what is going to happen, always with a margin of flexibility to play with. But let’s say that the backbone is very well drawn from the beginning. I brought a bit of that baggage from the literary world. It fits quite well with my procedures.”

Ximena Roma in her role as Cata in ‘The Artists: First Strokes’ during the filming of the series in Miami.
Ximena Roma in her role as Cata in ‘The Artists: First Strokes’ during the filming of the series in Miami.ViX

In addition, the writer acknowledges, collaborating on the adaptations of her novels for Spanish television (Antena 3 turned The Time in Between into a successful series in 2013; Temperance had 10 episodes on Amazon Prime in 2021) gave her a leg up in the process. She came to understand that audiovisual production does not work like a novel, where you can change the characters, period and setting to the author’s liking. “Literature puts up with it perfectly, of course. Now I know that an audiovisual production must be clear. Now I know that if I’m in one place and I want us to go to the beach and then to a cabin in the mountains, it costs money,” she explains.

As an executive producer, she is forced to take an interest in finances. “It’s part of the agreement,” she acknowledges, “but it’s something that we writers are also getting into, having a broader participation. I think the way in which the industry engages us has changed a lot. Before, we simply sold the rights, but now I think we are more appreciated, because in a certain way we have shown that we can be constructive, that we can contribute something positive, not only in the scripts but in issues related to production. It is not that we are involved in everything every day, but we can have ideas and contributions.”

She is not on set every day, she confesses. For The Artists: First Strokes, she spent only one day on set. She has been “in direct connection” and has made decisions related to the plot, the locations, the props, but from the outside. “I go once and get out of the way, for their own good and for mine,” she laughs. “I like to be controlling. I am always very aware of everything, so you have to have confidence in the team. They have constantly kept me updated, of course, the connection has been very fluid in every way. But my place is behind the scenes.”

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