Linda Rodriguez has published one novel, Every Last Secret (Minotaur Books), winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, two books of poetry, Heart’s Migration (Thorpe Menn Award; finalist, Eric Hoffer Book Award) and Skin Hunger, and a cookbook, The “I Don’t Know How To Cook” Book: Mexican. She received the Midwest Voices & Visions Award, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, KCArtsFund Inspiration Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Rodriguez is a member of the Latino Writers Collective, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, Kansas City Cherokee Community, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime.
Her website: www.LindaRodriguezWrites.blogspot.com
As someone who is proud to call Linda friend, my less-official praise poem is this: She is tireless--as a writer, a community organizer, a critical thinker about her craft and the body politic. Both in her poetry and prose is a deep rooted sense of personal justice, of infinite care and a strong belief in the need to do good, be good and walk in beauty. This is our conversation about writing, and her book, Every Last Secret.
When did you begin writing? Why?
I had a childhood that made Mommie, Dearest look like a fairytale, and reading and writing helped me survive it. So I started writing when I was quite young—poetry and stories that I wanted to think of as novels—but I really began in earnest when I was a young, college-drop-out mother and wife. At various times in my life, poetry has taken precedence over novels and vice versa, usually because of time constraints. Novels, I have found, require a longer chunk of writing each day and over a longer period of time. Poetry takes as much work—one poem may go through twenty or more revisions—but that work can be done in shorter bits of time with longer absences from the work in-between.
You began as a poet. When and why did you begin writing mysteries?
I’ve always read mysteries (and science fiction/fantasy), along with the literary stuff. I’m an omnivore when it comes to reading. When I came up with this character, Skeet Bannion, she seemed to belong in a mystery.
I like the premise of the modern mystery, which is focused less on locked rooms and impossible methods of murder and more on relationships among the characters and emotional fallout from those relationships as motive.The great mystery is always “What goes on within the heart of this person to make him/her capable of killing another?”
Do you still write poetry? How do the two genres affect each other?
Yes, I still write poetry. I have a new manuscript I’m about to send out, and I’ve been noodling around with poems to begin another. One impact on my poetry of writing mysteries is that I tend to think in terms of books of poetry focused on a theme or narrative pole rather than individual poems tossed off here and there and gathered into a book later.
I think poetry helps me make my novels tighter and stronger. When I had to cut a lot of words from the manuscript, I treated it like one humongous poem and went over and over, honing the language as I would with a poem.
Tell us about your book and explain the basic idea for your series.
Half-Cherokee Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion thought she was leaving her troubles behind when she fled the stress of being the highest ranking woman on the Kansas City Police Department, a jealous cop ex-husband who didn’t want to let go, and a disgraced alcoholic ex-cop father. Moving to a small town to be chief of the campus police force, she builds a life outside ofpolice work. She might even begin a new relationship with the amiable Brewster police chief.
All of this is threatened when the student editor of the college newspaper is found murdered on campus. Skeet must track down the killer, following trails that lead to some of the most powerful people in the university. In the midst of her investigation, Skeet takes up responsibility for a vulnerable teenager as her ex-husband and seriously ailing father wind up back on her hands. Time is running out, and college administrators demand she conceal all college involvement in the murder, but Skeet will not stop until she's unraveled every last secret.
It’s the first in a series with Skeet Bannion as the protagonist. Skeet, like most of us, has some internal issues she has to learn to deal with. Each book is a complete mystery novel in itself, but I see theentire series as a kind of meta-novel following Skeet’s growth as a person. I like Julia Spencer-Fleming’s categorization of “traditional mystery-thriller”as a description. Every Last Secret is, indeed, a traditional mystery set in a small town, but the small town is right outside a big, dangerous city, and there’s a darker edge to this character, this book, and the series as a whole.
Has your work or life experiences affected your writing?
I spent many years running a university women’s center, and that has translated directly for this series of books into background knowledgeof the university setting and campus politics and procedures. It has translated also in a more general way throughout all my work into a concern for women’sissues and an option for and understanding of strong female characters.
I spent a good deal of time in my childhood with my Cherokee grandmother and aunt, whose influence on me shows daily in how I live my life and in almost everything I write, especially in this series of novels. And of course, I have Latino characters who play major and minor roles in the books, some of whom are new immigrants and some of whom are successful professionals and entrepreneurs. For example, Skeet’s chief investigator, on whom she relies with complete confidence, is Gil Mendez, a detective with an accounting degree, as well as one in criminal justice.
How have you found it to be published? Share that experience.
I’m very fortunate to be with St. Martin’s Press and their imprints, Minotaur Books and Thomas Dunne Books. They value good writing, and writers with a literary background, who might be at a disadvantage elsewhere, are appreciated. I’ve been treated extremely well by St. Martin’s. And I have a wonderful editor, Toni Margarita Plummer, one of the rare Latina editors at a major trade publisher. (I don’t know. She might be the only one right now.)
However, publishing today is very different from what it was in years past in terms of promotion expectations. It’s a balancing act to do all that you need to do to promote your books and write the books at the same time. Even long-established authors are battling that one.
How would you evaluate the separation of "literary" v. "genre" fiction, i.e. -quality of story, audience, etc?
The whole genre categorization—and yes, literary is a genre—is a marketing ploy and a successful one. The current version is Amazon’s “Readers who bought this also bought that” algorithm. In general, I’ve found many writers in crime fiction and in fantasy/science fiction who write extremely well, often much better than many published in the literary genre. And certainly genre writers, especially in crime fiction, are writing more ambitious books that examine segments of society that literary fiction seldom, if ever, touches. As a genre, literary fiction has built its platform by turning inward and excluding much of the reading public.
What are your thoughts concerning the burgeoning interest/contribution of Latino writers to the crime genre?
Latino writers have a long history of writing for la gente and not just for the academy. Many have said, while writing literary fiction or poetry, that we wanted to make our writings accessible to those we loved and knew while growing up and people like them. Latino writers have also had a long history of being politically involved and speaking truth about the corruption and desperation that have combined to fill so many prisons with our own in this broken system we live in. So it seems to me natural that Latino writers would gravitate toward the crime genre, where there is a real blossoming now. We are in a second Golden Age of crime fiction, and writers of color of all sorts are helping to make it shine.
I have another mystery series I want to write that would be centered in the Kansas City Latino, specifically Chicano, community. This is an old community going back a century, which has experienced an influx from not only Mexico but Central and South America in past decades. It has a rich history and culture and a real dichotomy between the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the gente who first settled and the newcomers—graduate degrees versus ESL classes. I envision this series solidly centered in urban Midwestern Chicano culture and food and the struggle between assimilation and la cultura and the many ways people negotiate that.