Friday, June 21, 2019

Interview -- Christopher David Rosales

This week I interview a writer currently living in Colorado who has racked up writing awards, published three novels, and teaches at more than one university. He's a busy erudite guy who writes noir crime fiction.

Christopher David Rosales is from Paramount, CA. Since 2007 he has taught literature and creative writing at CU Boulder, where he earned his MFA, and the University of Denver, where he earned his PhD, and at MSU-Denver. His first novel, Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper, won him the McNamara Creative Arts Grant. His third novel, Word is Bone, a noir about southern California in the 1990's out now from Broken River Books, is a 2019 winner of the International Latino Book Award.

MR:  Why write? What drives you to create with words? When did you know you were a writer?

CDR:  First of all, thanks so much for these wonderful questions. It was enlightening to sit down and meditate on these responses. As for why I write, it really comes down to habit, or compulsion, though both those words make it sound bad even though I love to do it. I attempted to write my first “novel” in the fourth grade, and stayed up late nights reading with a flashlight under my blanket well past my bedtime. So, without intending to, I guess I groomed myself for nothing but writing. It was the only constant while I attempted too many majors in college to mention and, afterward, more jobs than I can count. My family always encouraged my writing, and were voracious readers themselves. I think this is why some of my most rewarding work has not been with adult students who already want to be writers, but with elementary, high school, and college students who don’t yet understand that being a writer is an option for them too.

I’m driven to create with words for a similar reason. It’s ultimately this profound magic. When one writes a thought, an emotion, a perspective, the reader internalizes that, translates that based on their own heart’s interpretations. For a moment unlimited by time or space, one person’s feelings inhabit another’s being. I think I knew I was a writer all the way back then in fourth grade with that first attempt at a novel. When I first read books and internalized something from outside of myself, a magical experience because I had not worked to call it to me, I knew someone had given it to me as a gift in the form of that book. And I thought, I want to do that. I want to gift my thoughts and feelings to someone else too.

MR:  I’ve seen your writing referred to as California Gothic and surreal. I also know that you have an interest in noir crime fiction. How would you describe your writing? Why is an award-winning, PhD professor writing such stuff? Who is your audience?

CDR:  I would describe my fiction as, yes, engaged with popular genres (sometimes many of them all at once). And there are a few reasons that I’m drawn to writing southern California gothic, the surreal, and noir, in particular.

First of all, I’m from Paramount, CA, in Los Angeles County. Los Angeles is steeped in a noir sensibility. In the Post-War period many minority populations were drawn to make their homes in southern California, and many writers, particularly of crime and noir, began writing both for film and writing fiction in a style that would translate to film more readily. Couple that with a lot of post-war immigration to Hollywood by experimental European directors, and you get this stylistic sensibility that is all at once surreal and gritty, poetic and cinematic—it permeates the voices and stories that fascinate me in books, film, and music.

Secondly, cultural-criminological research often points out how we accept narratives about urban settings from the media while the urban settings themselves have no voicing of, and no influence on, their representations in that dominant media and political sphere. So I feel a calling to write in that voice, and about those places. My audience is anyone who thinks to themselves, sure, this is a story about a crime, or a complicated, perhaps dangerous, setting, or choices that challenge my sense of morality, but I don’t want the made-for-tv-movie version of these stories oversimplifying the humans involved and their struggles to come to a decision under duress. I want the version of the story from the voice of the people who live it, and their rationale for the decisions they make whether I approve or not.

Finally, I think it’s particularly important for academics to study popular culture, and the popular genres that appeal to that culture and reveal the culture’s psychological preoccupations. Almost every American understands the convention of the Detective, Noir, or Mystery novel. That shared understanding of genre convention is a language both writer and a larger audience of readers speak, meaning the readers will remain intensely aware whenever the writer changes something up, changes the vocabulary of the genre’s language so-to-speak. That makes popular genres like crime very ripe for social commentary. What does it mean, for instance, in Word is Bone, when the male protagonists make fools of themselves obsessing over their rivalry with each other, instead of their love for their girlfriend? We wouldn’t get the satire if we hadn’t seen hundreds of white American macho detectives “get the girl,” as a palliative for post-war white-American anxieties of societal impotence, in most films noir and crime novels to hit the scene from the 30s until the 70s. A film’s projector needs the back-drop of the screen the way my subversion and transgression use the backdrop of a defined genre.

MR:  The publicity flyer for your novel, Word is Bone, says that your protagonist brings “violence and mayhem” to everyone he encounters. Why should readers care about such a character, or want to know more about him? How does such a character fit into today’s world of social media immediacy and jaded political apathy, or are those kinds of concepts not relevant to your stories?

CDR:  The “violence and mayhem” in the ad-copy for Word is Bone is a bit of an intentional misdirection. Word is Bone is largely about how reputations can become inescapable. The neighborhood rumors say that the main character June commits malicious acts, but the novel questions those rumors to mimic some of the questioning we should be doing about who gets painted the villains and “thugs” in everyday mainstream America. The novel also questions how easily we let those representations dictate, on the one hand, our own behavior and, on the other hand, our perception of the behavior of others relative to their socio-economic, political, and interpersonal circumstances. Hopefully, by reading the community’s interpretations of the main character, the reader comes to a conclusion about the dangerous community myths (like the “value” of machismo or any other self-destructive traditions) and also the role or lack thereof that certain youths have in repeating patterns that ultimately damage the community they believe they uphold.

The concepts of political apathy and social media immediacy are very relevant to all of my work, because I often represent a version of community in which not much is different from today despite a different setting in time. Our perception is that everything has changed, but in reality those changes only occur in the re-telling of certain fictional mainstream narratives by the media or by academia. In neighborhood streets frequently little changes at all. While Eurocentric academics see reality as a combination of reflexive ‘signs’ and ‘codes’ that have little or no referent to a ‘reality’ other than language, I find that philosophically useful but obnoxiously abstract. I try to point out that while academic work might exist in Baudrillard’s ‘void-like world of empty signs,’ people in the streets find crime painful, sudden, and concrete.

MR:  How would you describe your experience as a professional writer? Satisfying? Frustrating? More than you imagined? What lessons, if any, have you learned about being a writer and writing?

CDR:  Is “all of the above” an appropriate answer? Being a professional writer can be frustrating, as I imagine “any other job” can be. But the satisfaction of creating something out of nothing but imagination far outweighs the frustration. Especially when people take enjoyment from what you’ve created. One lesson that I’ve learned to help me keep that satisfaction in focus is precisely to treat writing like “any other job”.

I like to tell my students this old joke of “As a writer, I’ve never heard a plumber start a sentence with, ‘As a plumber.’” By setting concrete goals and achieving them, much of the frustrations about having such an abstract gig as “Art” dissipates. Maybe I just enjoy structure. I’m always on a rotation in threes. I work on a new novel or set of short-stories, edit a different project, and outline/brainstorm/research a third. To demystify it, I’ve got to think of it as a full-time job, even when I have a different full-time job. So, I say, dive into the writing as with anything that requires effort, without waiting on a flippant muse or rare inspiration. The sooner you dive, the sooner you’re deep under the surface of the text and swimming in the dream of whatever story you’re dying to tell.

MR:  What’s going on in Word is Bone? Who are the people that populate your stories, and where do your story ideas come from?

CDR:  Word is Bone is populated by the people of Clearwater, CA, a fictional version of my hometown Paramount in the 1990s, which I use in my novels and short-stories because it frees me to let the stories tell themselves rather than force me to try to remain “accurate,” which can be quite crippling in the writing of fiction. Word is Bone was fun to write because it’s told in the voices of several different members of the community, as well as a weaving, more cinematic, more traditional voice of an author. I wanted to let those two types of voices, the colloquial and slangy play of a community, and the more elevated diction of the traditional literary voice, exist side by side, to make a claim for their equality and differing strengths. As far as where the ideas come from, it’s a mixture of my own life experiences and overheard stories from everyday people that usually bring a character to mind. And from that point on it’s all about listening to what that character wants most out of their life and what they are willing, and unwilling, to do to get it.

MR:  What is the main reason someone should read your books?

This answer goes back to your earlier question about a PhD professor writing crime. Graham Greene liked to distinguish between his “novels” and his “entertainments.” I think that to him this meant that there was such a thing as a “literary” work and a work of “entertainment.” The main reason to read my books is that I don’t make that distinction between literature and entertainment. All of my books, whether political commentary (Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper), SciFi/Western/Detective Mash-Up (Gods on the Lam), or California Gothic/Crime-Noir (Word is Bone), are meticulously researched and make statements about human relationships to their communities, society at-large, popular culture, and the effects national politics have on even the smallest avenues and alleyways. At the same time, I love pop-culture, I love film and music, and I try to light a cinematic fire to my pages to make sure readers enjoy themselves.

MR:  What are you working on? What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

CDR:  I’ve got two projects in the works that I’m very excited about. The first is a short-story called “Fat Tuesday,” which will appear in Both Sides: An Anthology of Border Noir from Polis Books, edited by Bram Stoker Award Nominee Gabino Iglesias. “Fat Tuesday” is about a professor in Mexico who learns his son has been injured in a nearby fight in California, by a man across the border in the professor’s old L.A. neighborhoods. The professor used to know those streets well as a youth, and wants to take vengeance, but he also realizes that his early life decisions may have caused this crime to flare in his son’s life. In his descent from his calm life in Mexico into the barrios in California, he must make some decision as to how he will handle his son's health, his and his son’s core values, and his own relationship to violence.

Secondly, I’m starting a new novel tentatively titled Sugar Means Azúcar, in which the reversal of American translation there is intentional. It’s an homage to Graham Greene’s novel The Third Man, and the 1949 Carol Reed film noir of the same name. Instead of the original post-war Viennese black-market setting, my novel comments on the human trafficking currently taking place across the U.S.-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana. A reformed convict, Silas, inherits the deed to a business in Tijuana, Mexico, formerly owned by Lola, an ex-girlfriend and partner in crime who has disappeared. Thanks to a suspicious Mexican detective, Viviana, Silas finds himself the only person with information that could save a group of girls kept in hiding across the border in America.

Between those two projects and all of the books I can’t wait to read, it’s going to be a fun and busy summer. 

MR:  Thank you, Christopher, for spending some time with La Bloga.  Your comments have much food for thought.  Your approach to writing is admirable -- good luck with your books and stories, and please keep us informed about what is happening with you and your writing.



Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction.  His latest is The Golden Havana Night (Arte Público Press.)

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