Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro: The Interview

Hell or High Water:  Interview with Joy Castro (
by Amelia M.L. Montes (

Saludos “La Bloga” readers.  You’re in for a treat today.  I’m very excited to present a Q&A with novelist, Joy Castro, whose thriller, Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne Press) will be out in just two days: Tuesday, July 17, 2012.  Joy Castro is an award-winning memoirist, short story writer, poet, and now novelist.  Her memoir, The Truth Book was named a “Book Sense Notable Book” by the American Booksellers Association and was also adapted and excerpted in The New York Times Magazine.  She was also named one of  2009’s “Best New Latino Authors” by 

In this Q&A, Joy Castro discusses her writing methods, how she created her characters, paying special attention to “place,” the publishing world, and a few comments on her second novel which will continue to follow the main character’s activities as a reporter in New Orleans. 

Napoleon House, New Orleans (by Diane Millsap)
Hell or High Water takes us to post-Katrina New Orleans.  Cuban American reporter, Nola Soledad Céspedes is at first reluctant to take on an assignment which involves investigating registered sex offenders in the area.  Soon she realizes, however, that this story could be her big break (her dream:  to write for The New York Times!).  Along the way she discovers much more than the sex offenders who disappeared during the hurricane evacuation.
Katrina devastation in New Orleans
A few years ago, when I first read Joy’s memoir, The Truth Book, I was struck by the attention to craft.  She loves language, that is clear.  Her care with phrases, words, and dialogue shape and deepen the complexity of her characters. She also brings “place” alive and now with Hell or High Water, New Orleans figures colorfully and prominently within the story, a story of desire, loss, and endless searching.  It is no wonder that Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club has named Hell or High Water its September 2012 Book of the Month!

Hell or High Water is now available to pre-order via Amazon (click here).  The Official launch date is just two days away:  Tuesday, July 17, 2012!  On her website (click here) Joy Castro also has links to Powell’s Books, Indie Bound, in addition to Amazon.  Happy reading and thank you again, Joy, for talking with “La Bloga.”

Novelist Joy Castro


Montes: Novelists write their novels in various ways.  Julia Alvarez, for example, explores a scene, a thought, and begins to write without any other kind of guide.  She may write for hundreds of pages following one scene.  It is within moving from scene to scene that she later figures out what the story is about.  Others, like Lucha Corpi, are very structured in planning and outlining.  Yet within each of these methods, authors vary.  How did you go about writing Hell or High Water?  And in the planning of the second novel, did you go about it differently?  What did you learn from the planning of the first that you did more or less of in the second?

Castro:  For both novels, I hammered out strong outlines before beginning to draft.  Since I was new to novel-writing, I really needed the security of knowing—roughly, at least—where I was going.  As I was writing, sometimes new elements emerged, and I let the narrative move flexibly into those surprises. 

But I was helped by having a structure, since the genre of the novel was new to me, and since the genre of the thriller, in particular, includes the expectation of suspense and action.  It was helpful for me to have an outline, in order to ensure cause-and-effect relationships among the scenes.

Montes:  In an earlier interview, you explained that Nola Soledad Céspedes is an unreliable narrator.  Tell us more about how creating an unreliable narrator may add to the power of story. 

Castro:  I wouldn’t generalize and say that it always does.  Sometimes stories with reliable narrators are tremendously powerful.  It varies.

In Hell or High Water, Nola moves from being unreliable throughout much of the novel to disclosing more fully and honestly at the end.  She undergoes a change in that regard.  So you might say that she ultimately becomes reliable.  It’s the move that Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” makes, and a move I have always loved:  a narrator with blind spots, delusions, or fiercely held secrets undergoes a transformation, an opening, a new warmth. 

I find that powerful in a story, because it’s powerful in real life.  Those moments when we really, deeply change:  those times are few and far between, and they’re memorable.

Montes:  Nola es una mujer who, at the beginning of the novel, is not only promiscuous (in terms of how society views women who have multiple partners) but dangerous/careless yet always in charge in her sexual exploits.  Then, toward the end of the novel, there is a change. Tell us how the character of Bento was created and how does Nola and her connection with Bento break expected stereotypes of women and sex, of women in relationships.  And how is this in keeping with Nola’s character development?

Castro:  You’re right, of course, but I’d hesitate to use the charged and sexist word promiscuous about my protagonist, or any character, or any woman, because it’s so inherently gendered.  The character Shiduri Collins, late in the book, even unpacks that word.  I’d say that Nola has a lot of sex, and she does so unapologetically, and that she takes safety risks in doing so.  For her, it’s a mode of control to keep sexuality separate from the entanglements of intimacy and the obligations of relationship. 

When she does have emotional relationships, as with her mother, they entail practical and emotional burdens.  Like many protagonists of thrillers, she prefers to keep her sex life free of those.

The character of Bento is different from other men she has met:  he can meet her on her own sexual terms, without judgment, and he’s also kind, decent, fair, and interested in more.  That’s new for Nola, and that newness prompts a change.

Horse Head Hitching Post, Bourbon Street, New Orleans
Montes:  Suspense: This may be connected to my first question regarding planning.  How did you go about building suspense in your novel?  Did this change as you worked through each draft?  What would you tell readers regarding the building of suspense in a novel within this genre?

Castro:  A general principle suggests that in each scene, the stakes should rise.  At the end of each chapter, more should be at stake for the protagonist—and for the reader—than when the chapter began.  I tried to follow that guideline. 

Though it may seem a little counterintuitive, it’s my experience as a reader and writer that action and danger, in and of themselves, don’t create suspense.  For readers, true suspense comes from caring about characters.  When you really care about a character—when that character feels real on the page—then his or her fate matters to you. 

So building strong, complex, well-rounded characters is also key.

Montes:  Nola’s friends are an opportunity to delve into the question of class. Talk to us about “what is lost” and “what is gained” for these characters (Soline, Fabi etc.). 

Castro:  Nola’s three best friends, the ones she sees regularly, are all from more privileged backgrounds than she is.  They’re all women of color, but they haven’t all come from poverty.  Nola has, and that’s a secret she keeps from them, which fuels some of the novel’s tensions.

For example, Nola’s friend Fabi comes from a well-to-do family in Mandeville, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  Her father is an investment banker, and her stay-at-home mother plays golf.  They’re society people—the token Latino family at the country club.  Soline, who is African American, has roots in New Orleans that extend back to the 1700s.  Her ancestors were stolen Senegambian artisans who bought their freedom under French manumission laws, and her parents are both highly educated; her mother is a judge.  They’re solidly upper-middle class with deep community roots.  Calinda, who works at the DA’s, is the daughter of two African American pediatricians from Baton Rouge who sent her to Cornell for law school.  All in all, they’re a pretty comfortable, well cared for group of young women, though they’re politically aware.

Nola has cut herself off from her traumatic background and is trying to pass, both socially and professionally, as a middle-class person.  She’s trying to emulate the images of female friendship that she’s seen on Sex and the City, as she wryly acknowledges, and it leaves her feeling hollow and alone. 

Late in the novel, she reconnects with a woman who’d been her childhood friend in the projects, a woman she does not recognize and cannot remember.  This is a powerful moment of change and growth for Nola.  She realizes that leaving everything behind has steep emotional costs. 

At the same time, she decides to risk disclosing her true past, of which she’s been ashamed, to her well-to-do professional friends.  She takes that leap of trust.

Montes:  In connection to the previous question--- the way “class” movement is mostly revealed is through materiality (shoes, clothes, living quarters) viewed through Nola’s eyes and thoughts.  Tell us about Nola’s discomfort and comfort with her own class movements.  For example:  when she describes Calinda in one of the first scenes, she says:  “There’s a sort of gold aura around her that makes you just want to sidle up next to her and soak it in for a while.”  The word “gold” is interesting here. 

Castro:  Ah, fun!  The use of gold in this passage actually comes not from the class issue, although that’s a viable and interesting reading, but from the fact that I used color imagery from the Cuban religious practice of Santería to characterize some of the people in the book. 

Gold is linked to Oshún, the orisha upon whose qualities I’ve patterned several of Calinda’s.  For example, Calinda wears a yellow silk suit, her voice is like honey, she’s a healer, she’s connected to sweet waters, and she’s the embodiment of love and fertility; the “gold” and the “soak” in this passage are connected to that pattern of traits and powers.  Other characters in the novel, like Soline and Bento, have qualities patterned on other orishas.  I liked using the symbol system of Santería as a structuring principle as I developed the narrative.  I thought it would be a rewarding extra layer for readers who are familiar with Santería, and I wanted its syncretic energy to infuse the novel.

But yes, to return to your question, Nola certainly experiences discomfort with her class mobility.  She’s tremendously bright and ambitious, and she wants it all.  Through hard work and sacrifice, she’s gotten some of it.  But she can’t help chafing against what she sees all around her:  the waste, the privilege, the class prejudice, the casual assumption of entitlement.  But she desires the good things she sees, too, and she sometimes resents her friends for easily being able to acquire luxuries that are beyond her reach.  She’s definitely a product of late capitalism.  

Hell or High Water is just a thriller, so I don’t want to make any grand claims for it, but it’s definitely interrogating the American Dream.

Montes:  In his book, Brown Gumshoes: Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicana/o Identity, Ralph E. Rodriguez writes about Lucha Corpi’s narrator/heroine Gloria Damasco.  He says, “In coming to recognize the fluidity of identity, Damasco grows increasingly ambivalent about her cultural identity because as she tries to construct a historically causal chain to solve the novels’ mysteries and understand her identity formation, she finds herself bumping up against the discontinuities of the past and the present, as well as against her own nostalgia for the [Chicano] Movement.”  Nola is not Chicana.  She is Cuban American—but without the kind of “in the community” upbringing that Damasco experiences because she is not in Miami, not in Cuba.  Yet Nola has a map of Cuba on her wall, she has created a Yoruba altar.  While Damasco grows increasingly ambivalent—is it that Nola is doing the opposite? 

Castro:  Well, ambivalence and ambiguity about her cultural identity are what Nola begins with.  Lack, absence, and emptiness are her starting point.  She has to invent a sense of cultural home, something she patches together.  It’s insufficient, but it’s what she’s got. 

Some Latinos and Latinas grow up in places where they’re “the only one”—in their school, at their job, et cetera.  Culture inheres in their parents, in what they can glean from the news, in books and movies and music, in trips to see their extended family “back home,” which isn’t really home for them.  Being the only one is an odd situation, especially when community bonds and extended family typically form such a large part of Latino identity.  There’s always a hunger, a yearning, a sense of loss and displacement, and yet a reluctance to pose or appropriate.  It’s complex.  That was my own experience—in places like England and West Virginia, once we’d moved away from Miami when I was two years old and then again at seven—and I wanted to explore that kind of situation on the page. 

I’m not sure Nola’s “doing the opposite” of what Damasco does, precisely.  She’s clear-sighted; she’s not indulging nostalgia.  She knows she has to pick and choose, and she has to come to terms with the fact that, for her, cultural identity will always be a choice rather than a given.  She has to be honest about which elements of her cultural heritage are real for her.  She’s trying to restore something that never was, and that’s a paradoxical and hazardous venture. 

Montes:  This novel is also about understanding the mind of rapists/pedophiles/murderers.  How did you conduct your research regarding the New Orleans police department, the Times Picayune, and the data on these sex offenders? 

Castro:  My research into sex offenders was extensive, and I was really helped by a couple of great research librarians.  All of the statistics and profile information in the book are accurate and drawn from current scholarly research.  It’s helpful that the Times-Picayune is available online, and I also toured the Times-Picayune building so that I could nail the descriptions and spatial relationships in Nola’s workplace. 

Montes:  How is this novel “Noir”—“black filmic” in either its scene settings/main character . . .

Castro:  Noir is a subset of the hard-boiled detective genre, and Nola certainly shares some of the hard-boiled characteristics of such classic detective figures as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.  She’s a wiseguy.  She’s tough. 

But a key element of classic noir, whether on screen or on the page, is that the protagonist is also the victim of, the perpetrator of, or a witness to the crime.  Rather than being hired to come in from the outside and solve a mystery, the protagonist of a noir novel is integrally engaged in the crime from its inception.  So Hell or High Water partakes of that traditional characteristic of noir.  I can’t say more without spoiling it! 

Noir also typically has a bleak, pessimistic worldview.  While I do mobilize that rhetoric in Hell or High Water, the novel puts it into conversation and competition with a much more optimistic, hopeful worldview.

Montes:  There are other sections as well regarding the history of the area (Tulane history, Katrina stats, etc.) as well as Cuban history (slavery, Fidel Castro).  Tell us about the importance of “place” and history in this novel.

Castro:  The gorgeous, troubled city of New Orleans and the larger ecological setting of southern Louisiana are foregrounded in the novel.  It’s a complicated, multilayered place that was colonized by three foreign powers (France, Spain, and Anglo America), each with its own unique slavery regime, and I’ve been fascinated with the area, its history, its ecology, and its people since I started spending time there twenty years ago when my husband first took me to meet his family.  I wrote Hell or High Water with an outsider’s respect and affection.

My own childhood and young adulthood were peripatetic, and even now, I’ve only lived here in Lincoln for five years.  Though Nola and I have some things in common, I also wanted to write about a character who, unlike me, was rooted in one place.  Nola is so deeply identified with New Orleans—she’s even named after its acronym—that she feels trapped.  She chafes against the city.  Yet it’s part of her.  She’s part of it. 

She has to come to terms with what it means to have a home that doesn’t feel like home.  She has to figure out how her personal history fits into the larger history of the place.  She’s a bit obsessed with history, actually, and by the end (no spoilers) she identifies deeply with two of the ways that New Orleans has been marked by its history.  I liked writing a protagonist that experienced real, positive change over the course of the book.

I heard renowned thriller author Dennis Lehane speak earlier this week, and he talked about having taught a class on noir.  They read about ten noir novels, and he realized by the end of the term that all of them centered on one thing:  the longing for home.  So maybe Hell or High Water is noirish in that way as well.

Montes:  Marisol is an interesting character who helps us further see Nola.  How did you come to create this connection?  And how do you feel this relationship adds to the novel’s suspense? 

Castro:  Nola longs for closeness at the same time she fears the vulnerability that relationships bring.   Just as Nola is very controlling around sexual intimacy, she tries to control her maternal yearning.  She chooses to mentor a young girl through Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national mentoring organization that strictly limits the amount and the nature of the contact.

I chose Big Brothers Big Sisters because it was something I’d participated in myself (after raising my own child, that is; I don’t share Nola’s fear), so I was familiar with its structure and rules.  It’s a terrific organization, and I highly recommend it to adults who have a little extra time to mentor a young person.   

Nola comes to care emotionally for Marisol, so when one of the pedophiles seems to be stalking her, it does add suspense to the story.

Montes:  Not to give anything away, but I must ask:  “Some” of the perpetrators in the novel cross class lines and this is true of many detective/thriller novels:  you have a David Lynchian world of “respectable people” (due to money/community standing), but look further into the gated, vine-covered walls and you find something else.  How are these individuals in your thriller different from other thrillers?  What did you want to achieve? 

Castro:  As you say, it’s not a new or original idea, so I’m not sure they’re different from such characters in other thrillers.  Plenty of thriller writers probe the depredations of the rich, and TV shows like Desperate Housewives and Weeds have fun lampooning the notion of respectable suburbia. 

One of Nola’s aims in interviewing specific sex offenders for her feature story for the Times-Picayune is to demonstrate that sexual predation crosses lines of class, which is simply a fact.  She interviews four perpetrators:  one person who’s unemployed and poor, one working-class, one comfortably middle-class, and one quite wealthy. 

For her story, they make a political point.  For readers, it’s more interesting to go into different homes in different neighborhoods.  You get to see more of the city.

Montes:  Tell us about craft in dialogue.  How did you work through the dialogue in this novel.  For example:  the interviews, conversations with the boss, intense and suspenseful scenes . . .

Castro:  I set the scene very vividly in my mind, so I can see it.  I position the characters in relation to each other.  I get their personalities and their motivations very clear in my mind.  Then I just listen for what they say.  And they usually do start talking, and I hear it in my head, and I just write it down. 

After I have a draft, then I revise and revise and revise, polishing away anything extraneous, repetitive, or unnatural sounding.  I read the whole manuscript out loud during the editing process, but I read every scene with dialogue aloud multiple times.

Dialogue was never one of my strengths as a writer, so I knew I’d have to work really hard at it, and I did.  I gave it a lot of time and attention.  It’s so rewarding to see reviewers and readers praising the dialogue now.  I never expected that.

Montes:  There are moments in the novel when Nola will suddenly say a word in Spanish (not a complete sentence, just a word).  She will say “hijole” or “verdad”— and “hijole” is Southwest (Los Angeles), more Chicano than Cuban.  Why choose those specific words or have Nola speak them at all?  What more does that tell us about Nola. 

Castro:  Nola actually almost never speaks Spanish.  Spanish crops up occasionally in her interior monologue; she thinks Spanish once in a while.  I think there might be only two moments in the novel when she speaks Spanish, and they’re moments of great emotional intensity for her, having to do with power, fear, and family. 

I gave Nola an interior monologue that occasionally uses Spanish, like my own does, because, like Nola, I was raised by a parent whose own first language was Spanish but who largely chose not to speak Spanish at home.  My father said Óye, chica, and verdad, and a few other things, and those are in the novel.  I have aural familiarity with some common Spanish phrases and idioms, and some words come to me in Spanish first when I’m thinking, but I don’t speak Spanish aloud.  When I have done so around Latinos and Latinas, sometimes they start speaking Spanish, assuming I’m fluent, and then it’s an experience of letdown and embarrassment, since I’m not.  I’ve also met a few Latinos and Latinas who like to police the borders of latinidad by using Spanish fluency as a kind of identity test.  I’m sure they mean well, but it just feels uncomfortable and sad to me.  It’s a test I’m always going to fail.   

I used híjole because when I lived in San Antonio for six years, from the age of sixteen to twenty-two, I picked it up.  I lived in a predominantly Mexican American barrio, and I worked every day with three Chicana waitresses, who were older and who mothered me when my own mother had cut me off (for leaving her religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses).  In Texas, I probably heard híjole ten times a day.  It’s in my head.  Nola’s a cultural amalgam, like I am. 

I actually thought about also using coño, which my cubana grandmother always said when she was irritated.  But my grandmother used it to mean something roughly equivalent to damn, while in some Latin American countries it refers to a woman’s sex, and the connotations are crude.  I didn’t want Nola to seem to be quite that foul-mouthed.

Montes:  In previous interviews, you have noted that you have transitioned from a Modernist scholar to a writer of thriller novels.  What writers in your scholarly research have influenced you where you could see connections to the writing of this novel.  (For example, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening shows up here.) And you do quote a number of literary authors in the novel—talk about the importance of doing that. 

Castro:  Great question!  Probably the most significant way in which Hell or High Water is influenced by my scholarly training in Modernism is the way in which it uses archetypal patterning as a structural framework.  Hell or High Water uses three narratives of the spiritual or supernatural to structure the action and characters:  the Cajun legend of the rougarou, Santería’s orishas, and the story of Cuba’s Virgin Mary, la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.  A pivotal character in Hell or High Water, Shiduri, is also named after an equally pivotal character in the ancient epic Gilgamesh, and this gestures toward the fact that Nola is on a hero’s quest journey.

La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre
 This use of archetypal patterning as a framework is something that many of the modernists did—most famously, I guess, James Joyce with Ulysses, which is based upon The Odyssey, a story of gods and heroes, and T.S. Eliot with The Waste Land, which employs the structure of the Grail legend, among other thingsSo the mode of the book partakes of a traditional modernist strategy.  And yes, the book also includes several allusions to literary texts, and that’s a characteristic of literary modernism.

But I wanted all of those elements to be subtle.  I didn’t want them to obtrude.  I wanted the book to work as a fun beach read.  If readers notice and enjoy those layers, great!  If not, no worries.

Montes:  And to continue the “Kate Chopin” note—Yes it’s a novel set in New Orleans—but it has been discussed as a naturalist novel.  How are some of your characters possibly “naturalist” but with a contemporary twist?

Castro:  What an interesting question!  Insofar as I understand it, Naturalism was a literary movement that emerged in response to Darwin, and it posits that characters are motivated by only two factors, heredity and environment.  Merely biological animals, they’re driven by the needs for sex, food, and security, and they contain no impulses that we might label spiritual.  Naturalist novels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to be grittier than the literature that preceded them, and they usually had unhappy endings, since brutality or despair won out.

I’m guessing you’re suggesting that some of the sexual predators in Hell or High Water  are naturalist characters, since they seem driven by the desire for sexual gratification at the expense of decency, empathy, respect, and community.   You might say that other characters, like the wealthy Andersons, are driven by the need to accumulate material objects—also at the expense of empathy and community.  To say that these particular characters are naturalistic is probably accurate.

The novel as a whole, though, doesn’t seem to me to be working in a naturalist mode, even though it’s relatively gritty.  There’s too much hope in it, and too much spirituality of one kind and another.

Montes:  And on this literary note, Professor Jimmie Killingsworth has written that your novel “sneaks a literary novel past the censors in the guise of a bestseller.  Her sentences and especially her tension-laced dialogue are incomparable.”  So true!  Tell us what you believe is the difference between a “literary” novel and a bestselling thriller.  What do you hope your readers come away with?  

Castro:  Jimmie Killingsworth!  Yes, so kind of him!  I loved that.  Thank you.   I guess the traditional answer would be that a genre novel (such as a thriller) is supposed to purvey predictable pleasures that fulfill audience expectations, whereas a literary novel is supposed to work in original ways to challenge and explode such expectations.  (However, many literary novels, in my opinion, fail to explode much of anything; they just play to a different set of expectations.) 

Other differentiating markers have to do with how accessible the syntax and vocabulary make the prose, and how layered the story is—whether it’s working at levels beyond the obvious or not. 

I’m not tremendously invested in those boundaries, but I think that’s probably where they’d fall.

What do I hope my readers come away with?  Pleasure, excitement, satisfaction.  I want them to feel like they’ve just encountered something serious and thought-provoking that was still effortlessly fun to read.  I want them to feel blown away and hungry for more.

Montes:  Would you call this novel a feminist novel?  Why or why not? 

Castro:  Sure.  The main characters, Nola and her friends, identify as feminists, and the need for gender equality and women’s sexual freedom and safety is prioritized in the novel.  The long-term aftermath of sexual assault, which is germane for both men and women but is often construed as a women’s issue because of the vast numbers of women it affects, is explored at length.  The female characters in the novel exhibit tremendous strength in a variety of different ways, yet they’re also real, human, flawed.  No one’s on a pedestal.

Montes:  How is this novel Latina? 

Castro:  One of my favorite things the book does is to explore latinidad across difference:  class difference, in the case of Fabi and Nola, and difference of national origin, as when Nola and Marisol talk about U.S. relations with Cuba.  There are so many complexities within the Latino community, and it was fun to have a chance to illuminate those a little bit for a broad readership.  Latinas and Latinos are well aware of these complexities, but many other people aren’t.   

Several of the characters in the novel are Latina or Latino:  the protagonist Nola, three other main characters, and several bit players.  Yet the book’s cast isn’t exclusively Latina/o; there are several important African American characters and several key Anglo characters as well.  That seemed to me to be how many people live now:  engaged, both socially and professionally, with people from different backgrounds.

I was really excited when the Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club folks chose it as their September book-of-the-month.  I profoundly hope that many Latinas and Latinos will read and love the book and feel a particular affection for it.  I wanted to tell a little piece of our big story.

Montes:  The publishing world:   It is so exciting that Hell or High Water will also be translated and available in France and Germany.  Will Spain also be translating and publishing your novel?  Tell us about the experience of publishing at this level.  How much did you have to change the novel for a larger press as opposed to the editing that was asked of you for your memoir?  How do you know when to trust an editor’s advice and is it worrisome—thinking that if you don’t change it, it won’t be published? 

Castro:  It is exciting!  Thank you!  Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag will publish it in Germany, and Gallimard will publish it in France in their Série Noire line.  We haven’t actually heard from Spain yet, though, and it doesn’t look promising, because the economic situation there has hit publishing really hard.

The most frustrating part of preparing Hell or High Water for a large commercial publisher was that my editor wouldn’t let the character who’s abducted from the French Quarter in the first chapter be a child, as she was in the original version.  The editor insisted that readers wouldn’t want to read about child victims of sexual assault—that such material was “too dark.”  Since children are sexually assaulted almost as a matter of routine, this prohibition really frustrated me.  It felt like a willed blindness about one of our most serious social problems.

But if I wanted the book to be published by a Big Six publisher, I had to make the captive into an adult woman.  So I did, and I still think it was unnecessary. 

But I could be wrong.  Maybe Hell or High Water wouldn’t be getting the warm reception it’s currently getting if the abductee had been a little girl. 

It’s weird, though.  Why is it more palatable to the popular imagination for a twenty-five year-old woman to be abducted and killed by a sexual predator?  Why isn’t that “too dark”?  Why are we, the reading public, inured to that?

Montes:  What did you learn from your editor that you have taken to the next novel?  And was the second novel in the Nola series easier to write or did it have its own set of new challenges? 

Castro:  My editor, Karyn Marcus, was great at tightening the pacing, and I really did learn so much from her that drafting the sequel was a much faster, cleaner process.  I loved it. 

Montes:  How do you go about proofreading your work? 

Castro:  For proofreading, I just watch for errors each time I take the manuscript through a revision.  St. Martin’s also had a great copyeditor, Edward Allen, who did the final scrupulous clean-up.  He’s thanked in the acknowledgments at the end, because he did such a great job!

In terms of the larger issues of editing and revision, I take the manuscript through multiple drafts at various stages, sometimes responding to comments from my agent, my editor, or other readers, and sometimes in response to particular concerns that have emerged for me.  While I typically have a focus in mind with each new revision (deepening character, perhaps, or heightening the suspense), I also watch in a general way for anything that juts or jars.

The final revision is a set of marathon sessions of reading the whole manuscript aloud.  Sound and rhythm are so important, and reading aloud is, for me, the only way to get at those elements.  It also helps me make sure the voice is consistent.

Montes:  What was the most challenging part of writing this first novel and what seemed to flow easily? 

Castro:  The greatest challenge for me was learning to plot; I’ve written about that elsewhere < >, vis-à-vis the modernism scholarship issue and the emphasis that modernist literature places upon lyricism, ephiphany, imagery, and psychological exploration rather than upon cause-and-effect action.

It also took me a while to find Nola’s hard-boiled voice.  But once those two things came together, it was butter.

Montes:  The novel ends with Nola and her friends.  Nola tells them “I never told y’all where I grew up.”  Comments? 

Castro:  Well, this goes back to the really interesting issue you raised in an earlier question about friendship, class-passing, secrets, and self-disclosure.  The fact that Nola is ready, by the end of the novel, to be open with her friends about her past—at least, some elements of it—is a huge change, a huge transformation.  Nola is coming more fully into community. 

We usually prefer our protagonists to be dynamic, and this change was a natural one for Nola.  Having taken care of business, she can afford to be more vulnerable.

You might be interested to know that in earlier drafts, the final chapter put Nola at K-Paul’s restaurant with Bento, the love interest, rather than there with her friends.  That choice kept seeming not right.  Yes, she does experience the beginnings of a transformation in the realm of sex and intimacy also, but the primary change occurs in her friendships with other women. 

Eventually, I changed the ending to reflect that, and she goes out to dinner at K-Paul’s with her friends, where she utters the line you quote above.

It’s not a marriage plot.  It’s not a romance.  It’s something different.

Montes:  Anything you’d like to add? 

Castro:  These were awesome questions!  Thank you so much for paying so much time and attention to my work!  I’m really grateful. 

I would add that sometimes characters get under your skin.  When I finished Hell or High Water, I knew that Nola’s story wasn’t over.  The second book in the series, Nearer Home, will come out next year, and it’s even more political.


Hell or High Water is now available to pre-order via Amazon (click here).  The Official launch date is just two days away:  Tuesday, July 17, 2012!  On her website (click here) Joy Castro also has links to Powell’s Books, Indie Bound, in addition to Amazon.  Happy reading and thank you again, Joy, for talking with “La Bloga”

1 comment:

Linda Rodriguez said...

Great interview, Amelia! I'm so looking forward to Joy's book, especially after reading this!