Michael Nava is the award-winning author of seven novels featuring criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios. The Little Death (1986), the first book in the series, completed while Nava was in law school, was followed by Goldenboy (1988), How Town (1990), The Hidden Law (1992), The Death of Friends (1996), The Burning Plain (1997), and Rag and Bones (2001). He is also the co-author of the nonfiction book, Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America (1994).
Nava is a six-time recipient of the Lambda Literary Award as well as the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award for Gay and Lesbian literature. Nava lives in San Francisco, where he works as an appellate lawyer. He kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga to chat about the reissue on February 19th of his Rios novels in e-book format by Open Road.
DANIEL OLIVAS: How has the publishing industry changed vis-à-vis gay protagonists since the publication of the first Rios novel?
MICHAEL NAVA: It’s gone full circle. The first novel, The Little Death, was rejected by 13 publishers before a small, gay press, Alyson Publications, took it on. Several of the rejection letters commended the work on its literary merit but said, in varying degrees of frankness, that a book with a homosexual protagonist was not saleable.
After the first two books, I was picked up by HarperCollins and then Putnam during that brief period in the 1990s when mainstream publishers believed there was a vast gay readership waiting to be tapped. Of course, there was an audience but it needed to be cultivated with skillful marketing, something that mainstream publishing isn’t really geared up for. So when a number of high profile gay books – not mine, by the way – failed to deliver, mainstream publishing basically stopped publishing LGBT books, particularly LGBT fiction, and that’s where things stand now.
I sense the same dynamic at work with Latino/a books and authors. Particularly after the recent election, Latino/as are the hot new thing and I’m sure there are people in New York publishing wondering how to exploit that market without understanding that Latino/a readers, like LGBT readers, like readers of any traditionally underserved community, have to be reached in specific ways and by particular avenues. The mentality of mainstream publishing seems to be: if we build it, they will come. But that’s not how it works. Latino/a or LGBT readers have to be identified and reached and the straight, white, overwhelming female middle-class readers who are the biggest consumers of fiction also have to persuaded that, for example, a novel about a gay, Mexican criminal defense lawyer might have some resonance for them if they would give it a chance.
Fortunately for us writers and readers from “minority” communities, the New York gatekeepers have less of a literary stranglehold than they once did. There are small and university presses that publish our fiction and the internet allows for a kind of self-publication and distribution that was quite impossible when my books were being published in the 1990s. That’s one reason I am so excited to have the Rios novels in e-book format. E-books are the future.
DO: What do you hope will come out of the e-book publication of the Rios series?
MN: My hope is that they will now reach both a new generation of readers, particularly LGBT and Latino/a readers and that older readers who may have missed the books the first time around will have a second and less expensive chance to read them.
Although the last book of the series was published 13 years ago, I know that they continue to have relevance to young and new readers. Rios is a strong, intelligent, self-aware and introspective outsider who when, confronted with society’s condemnation, chooses to trust his deepest experience of himself as a decent and moral human being. That still describes the situation of many other “outsiders” whether they are LGBT or Latino/a or members of any other disenfranchised group. All of us have had our “coming out” experience where we elect to defy the stereotypes and biases of the mainstream culture and stand up for our humanity and our human rights.
Plus, to clamber off my soapbox for a second, I tell good stories with complex and compelling characters and no shortage of snappy dialogue! If I hadn’t hooked readers that way, the books would have long since been out of circulation.
DO: Do you see another Rios book in the future?
MN: No. Henry and I have parted as friends, but we have parted. For the last 15 years I have been working on a massive project that has turned into four novels set in Mexico, on the border, and in Hollywood from 1895 to about 1929. I am still writing about outsiders and the place they make and made for themselves in America. In these novels – I call the series The Children of Eve – I hope to illustrate, again through compelling narratives, how the United States’ prosperity and self-perception has always been in large part the work of the very groups and people who were the object of the various “isms” – e.g., racism, sexism – that have permeated and continue to permeate the culture.