Friday, January 30, 2009

Interview with A.E. Roman

La Bloga has always integrated the old with the new when it comes to literature. We honor the classic writers and books with reviews, award announcements, and other news. We pay respect to those who paved the way. And we get damn excited about the new breed. Our goal is simple: We want to find good writing for good readers regardless of when it was published or whether anyone else has noticed.

If you have been a loyal reader of La Bloga over the past four years you know that we highlighted several writers when they were just getting out of the gate -- Mario Acevedo, Reyna Grande, and Michael Jaime-Becerra quickly come to mind. I’m sure my Bloga comrades can name several others.

Today we have an interview with A.E. Roman, the latest in a long and proud line of New York City crime fiction writers and one of a handful of Latino writers who has dipped his or her pen in the inkwell of murder, mystery and private eyes. Roman joins writers such as Steven Torres, Michele Martinez and the late Jerry A. Rodríguez in giving us a taste of the Big Apple with plenty of the spices of criminal activity, cultural flair and inner city zest. See my earlier post about the NYC writers at this page on La Bloga.

A.E. (Alex Echevarria) Roman's novel Chinatown Angel has already been tagged by Publishers Weekly as "a refreshing debut" with a "nice satirical touch." I liked the book and think that Roman might be on to something with his detective Chico Santana. I plan to review the book closer to its publication date (March 17, 2009) but let me say at this point that Chinatown Angel has an abundance of lively characters; a plot complicated just enough to keep the reader guessing without getting lost; and an authenticity that flows from the pages like the Hudson River pours into the Atlantic Ocean. I'm partial to a good detective yarn that does more than solve the mystery. I want to know who the killer is but I also like relevance, cultural significance, characters that matter, crisp dialog, clean writing, and action. Roman scores an A on all points.

Alex kindly agreed to answer a few questions for La Bloga. I think you will see where that "satirical touch" mentioned by Publishers Weekly comes from.


Give me some basic background information - the stuff that you want readers to know about you before they pick up your book.

Bro, if I knew you were going to be so nosy I'd never have agreed to this... OK, well: I sleep on the left side of the bed.

Too much information, dude.

You've chosen to make your main character, Chico Santana, a private investigator operating out of the Bronx. Why a P.I. and why the Bronx? Why (to get to it) a mystery?

Maybe this goes back to the idea of writing what you know. I was born and raised in the Bronx. I don't know much, but I know the Bronx. And why mysteries? I love reading. I read mysteries. I love writing. I write mysteries.

I appreciated the feel for the city (and the love/hate relationship with the city) that comes across in Chinatown Angel. You infuse the story with cultural and street life details that put me, as a reader, right on the scene with your characters. You reference the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Central Park, various streets and neighborhoods of the Bronx, music (oldies and the new stuff), movies (many movie references that I thought were cool), so on and so on. Was this a conscious effort as you wrote, or did the verisimilitude just happen? And Mimi's Cuchifrito - can I stop by and pick up a papa rellena?

Yeah, I'm all about the verisimilitude. No, there was no conscious effort in terms of what I referenced. I'm a New Yorker. I've read poetry at the Nuyorican. I'm all over Central Park. I love movies, the old and the new. I love music, the old and the new. Mimi is a make-believe character in Chinatown but I can give you directions to my favorite cuchifrito in the Bronx for six papa rellena, and directions to Lincoln Hospital for an angioplasty.

Also, I used to be a teen rapper. I won't tell you what my M.C. name was, but it rhymes with "blue," because during an M.C. battle, the word "blue" goes a long way: "Your rhymes are wack! My rhymes are true! You say champ! I say Blue!" I still wonder whatever happened to my record deal.

Yeah, well - good that you got this writing thing going on.

How much of Chinatown Angel is based on your real-life experiences? Any of the events based on actual incidents; do any of the characters mirror people you've come across - is there an Albert or Tiffany or even Kirk Atlas who might ring you up late one night and ask how the book is doing?

Are you asking for the ingredients to my secret sauce? Chinatown Angel is a novel--it's all fiction. I don't write memoir or autobiography. I do try to write poetry. And I have my suspicions about the poetry in terms of autobiographical information. But that's between me, my subconscious, and my president. And if any of my characters call me up late one night, that's between me, my credit card company, and phone service provider. I have, however, asked my agent if she would be interested in my memoir: "Confessions of a Mystery Man." She said: "Alex, nobody cares where you buy your Bustelo." So, until they do, I just write fiction.

Your characters come across as very real, down-to-earth, actual people I might bump into any day I find myself in New York City. Any thoughts about your representations in your book of the Puerto Rican/Cuban/ Chinese American characters that populate the story?

If you bump into any of my characters in real life, just swallow the little pink pills and follow the nice lady. Everything is going to be all right. However, I think all my thoughts about my characters are in the book.

The mystery begins when Chico is hired to find a missing girl. That is a classic opening used in many P.I. novels from which flow the plot complications and twists and turns. How much, if any, have you been influenced by other mystery writers, especially the private eye writers? Any particular writers stand out for you as models, influences, or people that you love to read?

I've been influenced by so many writers. The list would be too long and I'd leave someone out and feel bad about it in the morning. I don't want Alice Walker calling and complaining again how I didn't mention her in my list. OK. I'll name three mystery writers: Dashiell Hammett. Chester Himes. Patricia Highsmith.

Hammett, Himes and Highsmith - that's quite a trio of H's. Some of my favorites, too.

You inject a three-part story written by one of your characters into your plot, and the story plays a major role in the detective's deductions. The story sections are separate chapters of the book. Did the story come first, before the novel, and so it led to the overall plot, or the other way around, i.e., the novel's plot morphed into the three-part story? I've done the same thing: used a character to write poetry or a short story, but I wonder what the thinking process was
for you when you decided to include the story in your book?

I'm not sure that I fully understand the question but I'll give it a shot. There are three stories in the novel. The three stories play a part in Chico's deductions. The stories are the novel and the novel is the stories. I can't think of one without the other. (And stop plugging your books during my interview. Heh.)

I hear that you have a story in the upcoming Hit List, the anthology of Latino crime fiction set to be published also in March by Arte Publico. What can you tell us about that story; do you have other stories published or in the wings? You prefer the short form or writing the longer novel?

I do have a story in Hit List. It's called Under the Bridge. I had originally attempted to write a short story for The Thrilling Detective, but it wouldn't finish for me. By the time Hit List came along, I guess that story had been brewing in my subconscious, and I finished it. Under the Bridge is a Chico Santana story. Someone has already called it a revenge story. I think it's also a love story. I also have a short [on the Web site] Thuglit called Let's go talk to Willie. It's also a love story. I'm most comfortable in the longer novel but I'm in awe of poets and short story writers.

What are your plans for promoting Chinatown Angel? La Bloga readers like to meet and greet and party with authors. What is your book signing or public appearance schedule for the book?

In terms of promoting Chinatown Angel, I will be doing an interview with La Bloga, and by the time you finish reading this sentence you will realize that this is that interview. I may also be reading at the KGB Bar in April. The writer Junot Díaz, who is Dominican, read at the KGB Bar and then he won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. So, if I learned anything from my amateur studies in logic, I know that: A. People think I'm Dominican all the time. B. I'm a writer. C. I'll probably be winning the Pulitzer. And on top of that, I'll be appearing at my mother's house for arroz y abichuelas and at the Supreme Court of the State of New York in February for some kind of JUROR award. I'm not sure what this JUROR award is, but they promise to pick me up if I don't show. Flattered? You betcha.

Other than that, the signing and public-appearance schedule for the book is a work in progress. I am open to suggestions and invitations and also open to being invited by La Bloga readers to a meet and greet and party at their houses. I like to drink, so keep the plastic slipcovers on the furniture...

We never take off the plastic at our house. Makes for a clean, lean scene.

What are you working on now, and what else do you have coming up soon for our readers?

I'm working on more Chico adventures. I also have a young-adult novel called Sweet 15 that I co-wrote with my friend and writing partner Emily Adler coming out soon. There are more projects in the works, but they're a matter of national security. Thanks, Manuel and La Bloga and La Bloga readers, and I'll be waiting for those party directions. Who's got the wine coolers? Call me.

Thank you, Alex. Good luck with the book, and ease up on the wine coolers, man.


Speaking about Hit List, the upcoming book has been reviewed by Publishers Weekly. As far as I know, that's the only review so far. The PW review is a mixed bag: on the one hand the reviewer says that "the volume will disappoint readers looking for fiction examining distinctively Latino themes." Not sure what that means, frankly. On the other hand, the review has some nice things to say about A.E. Roman's story (mentioned in his interview, above), Under The Bridge, and my contribution, The Skull of Pancho Villa. The entire (short) review is here. The reviewer points out that the collection includes stories from established writers in the genre such as Mario Acevedo, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Lucha Corpi and Steven Torres. Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery is edited by Sarah Cortez and Liz Martinez and is set for a March publication by Arte Público.


I'm going to take a short break from all things other than finishing my current novel. That means that you won't see my byline here on La Bloga for the next several weeks (four at least). My Bloga comrades and pals have agreed to fill in so you the reader won't notice any bumps on this literary road we all love and appreciate, La Bloga. Look for upcoming articles from RudyG and his guests, and a few other surprises. Whatever you do, don't forget La Bloga and your daily dose of the best in reviews, news, and views.

Final Thoughts

So long, John Updike. I'm one of the many who benefited from your great ride. Thanks.

Current best three-word phrase in the English language: Former President Bush.



Charli Henley said...

Thanks for this interview. Funny. Informative. Aboslutely tantalizing. I'm just about to pee my pants in anticipation of 3/17.


Anonymous said...

Profound interview you got there. I always love his novel Chinatown Angel in fact I include some parts of his novel in my essay.

concerned blogger citizen said...

You should delete Gregory Flippant comment. It's spam. Click on "essay" and you'll see. I genuinely love A.E. Roman and his work, I hate spam.

Unknown said...

Great interview! I loved the questions, loved the answers. A.E. Roman comes off as real funny, easy going. I could feel the synergy between you guys and the interview was really a pleasure to read. I want more!

My only complaint is that the interviewer was unsuccessful at getting some personal stuff from Roman. Quirks and things. Maybe next time!