Nuyorican writer R. Narvaez was born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His mother came from Ponce, Puerto Rico; his father from Naranjito. Narvaez received his master's degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and later attended the Humber School for Writers on a scholarship. He has taught at the high school and college levels and worked in magazine publishing and advertising. His fiction has been published in Mississippi Review, Murdaland, Street Magazine, Thrilling Detective, Indian Country Noir, Long Island Noir, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, and You Don't Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens. He blogs at Nuyorican Obituary. His latest is a short story collection, Roachkiller and Other Stories (Beyond the Page Books, 2012), which I recommend to our readers. Check it out.
Manuel Ramos: For readers who may not be familiar with your work, how would you describe your writing? Why should La Bloga's readers pick up one of your stories? What can they expect?
R. Narvaez: I like to think my style changes to suit the story. In this collection (Roachkiller and Other Stories), for example, you can expect to meet a variety of characters, desperate people in desperate situations, each told a different way. “Roachkiller” is told in first-person perspective by an ex-con who refers to himself in third person. “Unsynchronicity” is my attempt at postmodern noir, whatever that is. “GhostD” is a fairly straightforward detective story. You get crime, mystery, action, humor, and there are a lot of dogs—especially in “Juracán.” I love dogs. I think your readers will enjoy the variety of voices and genres. And the dogs.
MR: Something for everybody. I agree, I think our readers will enjoy Roachkiller. This collection is a wild group of ten stories that are difficult, if not impossible, to categorize. You've got noir, hard-boiled, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, crime fiction – all covered with black humor and bitter, almost relentless, poignancy. I think it is an excellent collection. Some of the stories I've read before, and others were new to me, but each one was special. I've got to say that I could not shake some of the images you created. The writing is that intense. What's the story behind this collection? How'd it come about?
RN: Thank you! I appreciate that! Well, to be honest this collection came about because I should’ve been working on a novel. But out of procrastination and the itch to finish something, I gathered a bunch of short stories involving crime that I thought went together well. These were written over the last five or six years and had been published—except for “Zinger,” the body-swap horror piece I wrote just for this collection. The stories are in a variety of genres, as you point out, but there is a criminal element—murder, larceny, gambling, fun stuff like that—in each. I looked them over, revised them—I couldn’t help myself—and then I pitched them to a couple of publishers, and one of them bit.
MR: For me, character is where the story starts. The best plots start with the best characters. When I think of your characters, the word precision comes to mind. Each nuance, flaw, or quirk is carefully drawn out, with a purpose. For example, Xander Herrera and Holly Hernandez, from your story “Hating Holly Hernandez” in You Don't Have a Clue. These two meshed perfectly with their teen-aged puppy love/hate set against a murder mystery. Each one was tripping through the familiar teen wasteland of petty jealousy, envy, insecurity, and emotions on the sleeve, but each one was unique, clearly an individual with his or her own story. How much of that story, and those characters, is from your imagination, and how much from people you know, maybe even a little bit of yourself?
RN: Never make friends with a writer if you don’t want to be part of a story! That’s the deal with us. If you don’t like being fictionalized, and I say, “Hi, I’m a writer,” you should immediately back away, and you won’t have to worry about my getting any more than a description of your backing away.
So, yes, a lot of my characters are from people or situations I know or have known, filtered through my perspective and imagination. Eulogio in “GhostD” is based on a security guard I knew. “Juracán” was inspired by a wedding I attended in Puerto Rico years ago, and I actually witnessed a hurricane when I was there. The main characters in “In the Kitchen with Johnny Albino” are based on my parents. Don’t tell my mother that. And certainly I’m in the stories, too. For example, Xander and Holly are based physically on people I knew in high school. Xander, however, has a lot of my snarky DNA.
MR: You obviously enjoy the format and the challenge of short fiction. What attracts you to the short story form? Are you working on a novel? If so, care to talk about it?
RN: Well, some might say I write short stories because of fear of commitment—I have serial monogamous relationships with short fiction but can’t seem to commit to a long-term novel. But honestly I love the short story form because I get to inhabit many worlds and many voices. Or maybe it’s just because of my short attention span. What were we talking about? I am working on a novel, but if I could talk about it, I wouldn’t want to write it. I don’t like talking about something until I’ve got at least a full first draft.
MR: I feel the same way about anything I'm working on. I won't talk about it or let anyone read it. Not until I want everyone to read it. Talking about it can kill it. Your remark about commitment reminds me of what Lucha Corpi, a friend and writer from Oakland, once said about how a novel is like a marriage (long term commitment, waking up to the same story every day), but a poem (she's a wonderful poet as well as a novelist) is an affair (short, sweet, and passionate.)
Our readers like to hear about the actual writing life that writers live. What's a writing day like for you? How does your writing fit in with other parts of your life – family, day job, other creative urges?
RN: I get up at 5:30 every morning and try to stay away from social media and turn out a few pages, something, anything, even just a few lines, so that there’s always progress. During the rest of the day I give my attention to my girlfriend, my job, my friends, and my bartender. But that private time, carved out at a cruel hour of the day like a punishment for my selfish devotion to writing, is all mine.
MR: Private time, eh? Lots of that for writers. Solitude, and no such thing as immediate gratification. What a great way to live.
Back to Roachkiller for a minute. Am I right that so far the book is available only as an ebook (Kindle, Nook, etc.)? What's that experience been like? Are you satisfied with the reception your book has received in this format? Are you spending all of your time marketing, or have you figured out another way to crack the ebook market? Would you recommend this route to other writers?
RN: Yes, for the moment it’s only out as an ebook. Honestly, I didn’t feel this work would past muster in the rarified world of print publishing, since short story collections are not commercial and because I have little to no street cred. So I went with the epublisher Beyond the Page, first, because in the past I’d tried epublishing stuff on my own and the result was sickening silence and, second, because I met the editor Bill Harris in a bar and we hit it off. Networking is important!
As far as the ebook experience, I love the fact that I get a lot of attention and that I get directly involved in design and promotion. Yes, I wish my publisher could send me on a worldwide book tour and get me onto Charlie Rose, and I do spend a great deal of my own time marketing via social media. That’s the trade off. But they’re a new company and I guess I’m what is called an emerging writer, so we’re in similar boats and it feels right to work toward success together.
I would recommend this route to other writers who are having trouble getting published in print and who are comfortable using social media. You can spend 10 minutes promoting yourself and then stop and play Draw Something or Words with Friends for 5 minutes. It’s better than sitting at home with your manuscript como la gatita waiting for HarperCollins to knock on your door and recognize your genius. Get your work out there! Any damn way you can!
MR: You know Steven Torres (Concrete Maze, Precinct Puerto Rico, etc)? He said here on La Bloga not long ago that giving away books and stories was an important part of the ebook marketing strategy. He also said a writer had to have a lot of stuff "out there." You agree?
RN: I’ve met Steven, and I love the Precinct Puerto Rico books—Gonzalo is a solid, three-dimensional character. I agree: you have to get out there. In the world we live in now, with so many distractions thrown at us, and so many other authors to choose from, you have to work hard to get attention. But at the same time, it’s never been easier to get your stuff out to a mass audience. But it’s up to you, and it’s time-consuming work. Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, blogging. You may have to miss an episode or two of Dancing with the Stars.
MR: The one question I seem to ask every writer I interview is "Why do you write?" I know, it's a cliché question, but it's one of those questions that can produce clever, even profound answers. So, go for it.
RN: First, I’ll give you a cliché answer: I write because I need to. That’s the philosophical or rather psychological answer, though it’s true: Writing fulfills a need in me—it’s like therapy, it’s like being possessed by a demon. But the practical answer is that when I was a kid, my older brother, Ray, was a great athlete and a great writer, and I competed with him in everything. Eventually, he gave up writing, which was good because I wasn’t really very good at baseball.
MR: Demons and sibling rivalry – good foundations for a writer, and for a story, by the way.
Finally, what's next for you? What are your current projects? What's on your list of challenges you hope to tackle in the near future?
RN: Commitment! My biggest challenge is to finish the novel I’m working on. I also have a novella and another short story collection cooking. I’d also like to write more in other genres, including horror, sci fi, and maybe even literary, if they will have me.
MR: Thanks, again; this has been fun. Hope Roachkiller kills.
Next time - something a little different.
Next time - something a little different.