Steven Torres is an East Coast writer who specializes in crime fiction with a Puerto Rican flavor. His books and stories take place on the island as well as the Bronx, NYC, etc. Steven and I talk about several things, such as publishing and the e-book surge; why writers continue to write even when the immediate results are not good, or even in existence; is there an audience for Latino genre fiction; fake funerals; etc. Plus, Steven is offering two of his e-books for free to La Bloga's readers. Can't beat that.
MR Why don't you start with a short history of your publishing accomplishments and how you ended up writing crime fiction.
ST I grew up in the Bronx when it was burning. I didn't do it, I swear. But that gave me a lot to write about. In my neighborhood - I looked it up - there was a murder every two and a half days in the 1970s. When I was eleven, my family moved to Puerto Rico and we lived in a relatively small town. That gave me even more to write about.
So far I'm the author of a half dozen traditionally published novels including Precinct Puerto Rico and The Concrete Maze. I recently self-published a book I foolishly called Lucy Cruz and the Chupacabra Killings. The book is good if I do say so myself, though the title sounds sketchy. I've also published about twenty short stories the traditional way in magazines like Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and in anthologies like Bronx Noir. Most of my work has been based in Puerto Rico, but in recent years I've branched out to write about NYC and urban settings. For those interested, Lucy Cruz is set in PR, The Concrete Maze is set in the Bronx. Both are free on Kindle today. I'm hoping to produce a follow up to the Lucy Cruz novel called Lucy Cruz and the Voodoo Zombie Cannibals. In for a penny, in for a pound.
MR Great titles. I’m taking you up on your offer of free books. I need that Lucy Cruz thing. You know I already have Concrete Maze – as they used to say, I dug it the most. A terrific story and provocative characters. You’ve been in the writing racket for a while now. Can you explain, without too many tears, why you keep at it after all these years?
ST Why I'm still at it... Well, there are the millions of dollars and the adoration of half the globe... More seriously, there are stories to tell. Most often they're Latino stories, but they're always human. I think the real question isn't so much why keep writing - it doesn't cost anything except what would normally be my "free time." The real question is whether I should continue to think my writing can be more than a hobby. That's a question I don't have a firm answer to. It becomes clear that I'll never be quitting my day job. But on the other hand, I have hopes that the rise of the e-book can introduce me to a new (albeit small) readership.
I've been doing the fiction thing for a decade professionally. I'm pretty good at it. I think it would be a shame if I had good stories to tell but decided not to tell them because I couldn't make some coin. It would be strange to think of myself as a former writer. Of course, most washed up baseball players think it would be a shame to retire if they still have a good season in them. It's knowing when you don't have that left in you that should determine when it's time to hang them up.
Then again, a lot of what I write (though definitely not all) is a sort of crusade for me. Sometimes I write stories about people who need to be heard. They need a voice. These are good people, the kind I've met so many times in my life. In one of my stories, I memorialized a woman I knew - Yolanda Flores. Pure salt of the Earth when I knew her, she invited drug addicts and prostitutes into her home for meals; that's pretty rare. And I asked her one day why she would do something so dangerous. She said she was once like them. Since we'd just come out of church on Sunday, I figured she meant she was once a sinner, but she meant she was literally like them - she'd been a drug addict and prostitute. She'd killed her husband while high and spent long years in prison. She died years ago - not good at taking her heart meds - but she deserved to be heard about. So I put her into a story called Early Fall which was published in Bronx Noir. She's just one of many. Hard to give up the fight when the fight is in some small way for people like her.
MR I agree, especially that part about writing about people who need to be heard. Sometimes that motivation causes creative problems. I recently finished a crime novel and an agent is now working it. The agent likes the book but wondered if I couldn't make the main character a little bit more likable, and could I "get deeper into his feelings." I tried but I could only go so far. The character is what he is, warts and all.
ST I have the same problem with a novel I wrote about two years ago and which my agent has gotten no traction on. It's about a professional muscle guy who beats and kills people for a living. His daughter is raped, she won't say by who, and of course, he gets his answers the hard way. Not a nice guy. That guy got away from me - he became a truly bad guy for all the right reasons. There really are people who fit that category, but I should have known that had a snowball's chance.
It's hard I think because we both want real live people in our books, and not everyone is nice. And you know something? Making these guys likeable might really just be a matter of a few sentences about motive or giving a scene of vulnerability - a page or two. But those sentences and that scene can be harder than all the rest of the novel put together. There's a scene in Cleopatra with Taylor and Burton where Burton, playing Marc Antony, is on the verge of tears because Taylor (playing who else?) wants him to strike out against Rome. He mocks her: "Pffft, Agrippa! Pfffft, Octavius!" As though it were that easy. Agents are like that. "Can't you make your homicidal maniac lovable?" And I always say "Well, yeah, I guess..."
MR Ha! Exactly. Just a sentence here or there … if only it were that easy. On the other hand, the agent had some good suggestions. I take meaningful advice when it is offered. A writer can’t be too stubborn (or stupid) about these things.
You're based in New York City (NY state at least.) Did that help or hinder you getting off the ground as a writer? I ask because I've heard both points of view - some NYC writers think it's a curse to be stuck in that city where it's hard to get noticed (I surmise.) Others think NYC is the only place to be if you are a creative sort, unless it's Los Angeles, of course. You agree? For myself, I feel lost at times out here in Denver, even though there are dozens of writers from this area that have made an impact, and there really is a reading culture that fosters writing and writers. I just get the feeling that the "culture gurus" tend to look down on anything or anyone west of New Jersey. Is that just me?
ST About NYC, I was born and raised there (except for an ill-fated 18 months in Puerto Rico when my father decided it would be better to starve in PR than go on in the Bronx...) I live in Connecticut now, but I'm a New Yawker for life. Can't help it. I never saw that it helped me, but maybe I'm blinded by my poverty... it has made it easier to meet with publishers and my agent, but it certainly hasn't landed me a big, life-changing contract or anything. I guess I would put the New York influence this way - like a lot of businesses, if you want to make it as a writer, I can't see NYC as hurting you. You certainly will have the opportunity to meet anyone in the business. If you're a wallflower like me, that may not help, but if you're a go-getter, NYC is the place to be. In some ways the same as being in Hollywood if you want to write and sell scripts, but not as rigid. That is, if you want a movie career, you probably face a greater need to be LA centered than novel-writers need to have NYC as a base. Many successful novelists have never set foot in NYC. Not sure the same could be said about screenwriters and LA-LA Land.
MR We all agree that the publishing world has changed dramatically. I know that you are invested in getting your books and stories out to readers in every type of format. How's that working out? Can a writer "make it" with e-books, on his or her own? What role do you see for the traditional publishing houses in the next 5-10 years?
ST I have been trying to get some notice for my writing through the e-book route, but I honestly don't have the energy to do all the formats available or do as good a job with promotion as I should. So far, it's been slow going. They say (and by they I mean Joe Konrath and others who have had wild success with the e-book world) that there are really two tricks to selling well (after having a good book, well-formatted, with a nice cover): a) give copies away like mad. b) have a lot of books out and always keep putting out new material. I would be happy to do the first - I put up a couple of my Kindle titles for free today. But I really can't produce as much writing as seems to be necessary - I have two novels up and three short story collections. I might be able to put up another novel by the end of the year and another by the end of next year, but this is glacial when compared to some writers.
I wish the e-book revolution had happened ten years ago when I had energy and wouldn't fall asleep drooling on the keyboard... I think, however, that traditional publishers will be fine for the next five or ten years. They have enormous resources when it comes to the rights of all the big-name authors out there. They might not be selling at the right price, but they're taking a long view. $2.99 sounds right to a lot of the independent authors, but most publishers are sticking with $6.99 and more. They're making huge profits, and those profits won't dry up until the copyrights run out. I expect the biggest publishers to be around for the next decade. At the same time, I expect that there will be more people using e-readers and independent authors will increase in numbers and sales. Frankly, I think the readers will drive the market and there happen to be many who want the known quality of a publishing house and others who want the low prices. That probably won't change soon.
MR It is a mixed bag, for sure. Good luck with the e-books; I have only one of my novels available electronically, King of the Chicanos. And you currently can't get it on Kindle because of a contract (money) dispute between the distributor and Amazon. Nook and independent book sellers have it in e-pub format. I've got to make some time and e-book my other books and stories.
Let’s switch gears here. What role should a writer's cultural background have in the fiction he or she writes? And, for example, does pigeonholing someone as a "Latino" author narrow the audience, or does it help to attract new readers?
ST The Puerto Ricans I grew up around were all born story tellers. These are mostly my mother's siblings. In total, there are nine children of Doña Luz, my grandmother, and from time to time I've had the privilege of being with all of them at the same time, and they will tell stories for hours. Mind you, no matter how terrible the circumstances are that they talk about, there's humor at the end. People think I have a wry sense of humor, but I've got nothing on my aunts and uncles. They can crack you up about people dying of gangrene. ("Pues, que se va hacer? Esa es la vida del pobre." Well, what can you do? That's the life of the poor person. - This refrain ended only God knows how many stories.)
I just finished writing a short story about something my father-in-law told me. A man faked his own funeral to try to escape his creditors. (Back when it was easy to fake a death and escape creditors, I guess.) Anyway, there was a fake wake and there was supposed to be a fake burial. His friends and helpers in this scheme, had to carry the coffin (cheapest possible) down a little slope and across a three foot wide stream. Dozens of people came to the wake and later followed the casket and pallbearers. The slope was the tricky part - it was grassy. Anyone could slip. They made it. Then one of the pallbearers tripped on a rock in the stream. He went down and the casket went with him. It opened, and the trickster splashed into the water. Needless to say, he found it difficult to persuade people that the cold water had woken him from a coma. I had to change the end (and a lot of the rest, come to think of it) but when someone tells you a story like that and swears it's true, you've got to do something with it, no?
As for what help (or hurt) being Latino has given me in my career, I'm not sure. Certainly there are Latino authors who are quite successful - your readers will know more names than I can give. But there aren't all that many in the mystery field. With the exception of Walter Mosley, I think most of the names at the top of our genre are Anglo. So here's the thing. We've both been to Bouchercon and other conferences (I hope) and so I think we both know that it isn't hard to get on a panel at these mystery conventions. But must the panel topic always be "The Ethnic Detective"? Usually with a Hawaiian. And an Englishman.
Early in my career, I walked into a mystery bookstore in NYC and introduced myself. I chatted with the sales clerk and was ultimately told that while they have a couple of my books, they couldn't guarantee that they would sell. "We just don't get many Hispanics walking in." I didn't respond to that. Didn't know how, really. For one thing, I hoped they weren't waiting for brown faces so they could try to push my book. But then I had a real question develop in my mind an hour after I left the store. Were Latinos not walking in because they expected there would be no books by Latinos, by people who look like them, have the same problems as them?
MR That’s the kind of question that will keep you up at night, and not in a productive way. There is the question of literary relevance but there also is a literacy problem in the community. We can’t deny that. As writers, I think the best we can do to combat those issues is to continue to write.
ST So there we go, coming (almost) full circle back to the question "Why I keep writing." Every once in a while I get a fan email that says something like "I was browsing in my local bookstore when I saw a title that mentioned Puerto Rico or I saw my own last name or I saw a book by a Latino, and I picked it off the shelf and what you wrote reminded me of my abuelita or of my Tío José or it reminded me of home." How can I stop when I have the occasional reader who tells me they went looking through the shelves at their local library and when they found my book they were startled to find a reflection of the things they know, of their families and of themselves in the words I wrote. Give up writing? No way.
MR Great talking with you Steven. Wishing you the best, and thanks for the free books.
Thanks, Steven, for sharing with La Bloga.
La Bloga celebrates the 40th anniversary of the publication of Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya's masterpiece, the week of April 30-May 6. We will have something special each day of that week to commemorate this literary giant and one of the great American novels. Join me here on May 4 for an interview of Mr. Anaya - and a few surprises.