If any writer has paid his dues, it is Richie Narvaez. From men’s magazines to kid’s books, from his award-winning short story collection “Roachkiller” to the buzz of his new novel, “Hipster Death Rattle,” from aspiring student to respected writing teacher, the Brooklyn-born Narvaez has covered a lot of ground in his career. We sat down recently to talk about his work, the landscape for Latino writers in today’s publishing industry and the joys of finally seeing his very first full-length novel hitting the shelves.
Open Mic: I loved “Roachkiller,” in part because of the great writing but also because no matter how grim the circumstances the characters all had a base element of humanity to them. Do you generally develop characters first and then figure out a story for them, or do you focus on plot and figure out characters to match?
Narvaez: Well, it’s funny that you ask that because I teach creative writing, and the way I teach it is to always start with the characters because that grounds a story much more than starting with plot. Start with a character and then plop them in a situation that destroys their status quo. And if you know the character well enough, they’ll move along the whole story for you. So, yes, I’m always focused on character first because that’s more interesting to me with mystery and crime fiction writing. You’re dealing with a lot of familiar tropes, so you know the story is going to end up in certain ways. But what would really make your story interesting or unique are the characters.
Open Mic: Tell me a bit about “Hipster Death Rattle,” which comes out next year? Is it also noir?
Narvaez: It is not, no. I define noir rather narrowly. Noir to me is a very sad ending. It’s a bad ending, a fall from a low height, you know, off the street curb and into the gutter. It’s a corollary to Oedipus falling from a great height and into the gutter. The stories in “Roachkiller“ are for the most part noir; almost everybody ends up badly. But Hipster Death Rattle is not noir. It’s not completely depressing at the end. Though it certainly has violence and crime and mystery flow through it.
Open Mic: In the ’30s and ’40s and the heyday of Raymond Chandler and writers like that, noir had a much narrower audience. Now over the last 20 years or so it has grown popular with a much wider audience. Why do you think noir is so compelling to so many people?
Narvaez: I think it’s compelling because crime fiction tells you that bad people will be punished and good people will prevail. We live —maybe now more than ever — in a time where injustice just seems to go on and be unresolved. The bad people seem to flourish without ever getting punished. So in a sense, crime fiction is kind of a fantasy where the universe is going to work out okay, which is what people are looking for now, that fantasy of mysteries being solved, of the good prevailing and the bad receiving justice.
Open Mic: You’ve also written for an anthology that showcases Latino science fiction writing. That’s interesting because for a long time it seemed Latin writers were essentially disregarded in genres like noir or mystery, etc. How do you see the landscape for Latin writers now in those genres?
Narvaez: You’re totally right. We’ve been sort of marginalized for years, and the ones who were out there were pretty obscure. But in the last few years there have been some writers who have sort of exploded in science fiction. People like Daniel Jose Older or Carmen Maria Machado are doing really great stuff. And in crime fiction there’s a whole bunch of us who are working to expand it. But none of us have become the new James Patterson, that airport book kind of level — yet.
Open Mic: Writers like Cormac McCarthy and Umberto Eco will often have characters speaking for long periods of time in a language other than English with no effort to translate for readers. Several stories in Roachkiller used this convention too. Some critics think this is an unnecessary distraction to readers who don’t speak that language. Clearly you don’t think that, but what is your approach to weaving Spanish into your writing?
Narvaez: From when I first started writing, I knew my characters would speak Spanish, so I had to consider what to do. I remembered T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” starts with this quote at the beginning in Italian. It’s from Dante and Eliot didn’t bother to translate it. You had to know Italian, or too bad for you. But I read “Prufrock” in a Norton Anthology, and footnoted at the bottom was the translation. So my thought was that, oh hey, yeah, when they anthologize my work, maybe somebody can put a footnote at the bottom. But, honestly, when I use Spanish, I try to put it in a context so anyone can get the idea of what is being said. I try not to overdo it with very long passages. I’m trying to be as broad-based and inclusive as possible. And sometimes I do like to have the situation where if two characters are speaking a foreign language and there are no footnotes or subtitles, then there’s that sense of confusion for the reader, that disorientation can be useful.
Open Mic: Some of the stuff in “Roachkiller” is very funny. Does humor come easy for you?
Narvaez: Thank you. I’m glad the humor is getting across to someone. Well, my sense of humor is part of who I am. It’s the way I deal with the world. I’m sure some of my stories get a little glib, but at the same time I think it is important for some stories to have humor because if you are going to do a crime fiction story where somebody is butchered or shot, to have the humorous element gives it contrast and more power. And in general humor can help you understand a character better. If you understand a character’s sense of humor, you get to know them better than if they just babble their biography at length.
Open Mic: Do you envision taking any of your characters from “Roachkiller” into a full novel?
Narvaez: Oh yeah, I have, many times. So “Roachkiller” is the title short story from that collection. I really love that character and I’ve always wanted to come back to him. But the weird thing is he narrates it all in the third person, and I love that device. I just don’t know if it would work for a whole novel. But I would love to see him again. I went a different way with “Hipster Death Rattle” because I wanted to start off fresh with my first book. But I may go back in the next book or the book after that and touch on one of those other characters from “Roachkiller.”
Open Mic: Was your first job really writing for a porn mag? If so, what did you do?
Narvaez: Yes, indeed. My first paying job out of college was at Gallery magazine. I was still living at home and I told my mom I got this job offer at a porn magazine and she thought it was hilarious. Gallery then was a third-tier porn magazine, below Penthouse and way below Playboy. A big part of my job was letters to the editor, like Penthouse letters, the kind that would say,” I never thought this would happen to me but….” I don’t think it is too much of a secret to say that we wrote most of those letters because we did get reader submissions but they would be too over the top and disturbing to use. There were some freelancers we would pay $15 per a letter, but all of the editors had to write at least three of them a month. So I was copyediting and writing porn all day, but it was good practice for being able to ratchet up to a story very quickly.
Open Mic: You’ve been a writing teacher for a long time too. What is the biggest mistake you see newbie writers make?
Narvaez: With beginning writers I find a lot of them are telling the story instead of showing the story. They just rush through the whole thing. I have to tell them to slow down because we don’t know anything about these characters. Sure, the story is interesting in and of itself but we need to see that characters’ journey. Yes, that’s a lovely twist in the end where the killer is really the patient hidden in the secret backroom, but we don’t care enough because we never found anything out about that person and we need to in order for that story to have weight.
And I think a lot of new writers think publishing is still the old way of doing things where you send your manuscript to an agent, an agent loves it, and within weeks a publisher has picked it up and you’re flying all over the world signing books at stores filled with your fans. People still fantasize about that and don’t realize the reality of the business. You’re likely going to have to be your own agent and publicist and travel agent and coffee-getter. It’s tough and a lot of the work to get any attention is on your shoulders. So I think a lot of new writers don’t realize how much work they’re going to have to do besides just getting the god damn story finished.
Open Mic: Every writer, even those with a lot of natural talent, basically has to learn how to write words that people will actually pay for. What has been your biggest challenge as a writer?
Narvaez: I’d say: Learning how to do it right. I was very lucky because I got several short stories published right out of college, and I was full of piss and vinegar. I was going to conquer the literary world! And then I started getting rejections and that completely discouraged me. The thing is, I had the idea of how to do write, but I had to learn to understand that I had to constantly practice and constantly work and constantly read. So I think the biggest challenge, the thing that’s gotten in my way the most as a writer, has been me. Sometimes it’s my own arrogance, sometimes it’s my own laziness. I think that’s the case much more so than the industry itself, which is a whole another gigantic challenge.
Open Mic: Like most writers, you have a regular job. How do you make the time to write? Do you have a set time or day that is all yours? And what is your writing space like?
Narvaez: I wake up every day at 5:00 AM essentially to write. Unfortunately, that turns into tweeting for about a half hour. But I do try to write every day. Just 250 words or even 50 words and I’m a little happy. I can write on the subway on my phone, for example, and I’ve written short stories that way little by little. I would love to say that I was regimented, but really it’s all piecemeal here and there. I have a whole bunch of different stories half-started, so there’s always something for me to do. I am never bored and I am never not busy. So I can always open up a document or take out a draft of something and go through it. One thing I sometimes still do is write in bars. There’s a bar in the city called Shade, and on a Friday afternoons it’s quiet and I can sit in there with a manuscript and do solid work and have a few beers and it’s a great day.
Open Mic: There has certainly been big debate over people from one cultural group writing characters from another cultural group or men writing women. What’s your perspective on this? Are there rules that we’re all living by now?
Narvaez: That’s a fantastic question. There’s a large movement for the voices that write stories to be genuine, or for people to write their own voices. Now I might find that a little limiting because then I could only write from a male, slightly middle aged, geeky Nuyorican voice. But what I think is important really about that debate is not so much that people shouldn’t be allowed to write in other voices that are not theirs, but that we give space to the people who are actually coming from those places. Do you know what I mean? That’s the real issue. There are people, for example, from the LGBTQ community who maybe want to write a mystery story and maybe nobody’s letting them write that story, nobody’s publishing that story. And we need to give those people space so we can hear from their point of view, directly from the source rather than indirectly.
Open Mic: Some writers these avoid any mention of politics in their writing and in their presence on social media out of concern anything they say will alienate half their audience no matter what they say. Others not only do not avoid politics they make it a focal part of their writing. What’s your perspective on this?
Narvaez: I’m fairly straightforward about my politics and I try to keep as informed as possible. And I’m not shy about how I feel in my own online presence. I don’t mind putting it in my work either, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story. But crime fiction is a weird thing. Crime fiction is a world in which guns are heavily used, heavily part of the climax. Detective shoots the villain so it’s okay. So it’s kind of a weird advocacy of the idea that guns are good, that shooting people is good, violence is good. But that’s part of the fantasy world that crime fiction inhabits.
I do try to consciously not go always with guns and violence as a solution. If somebody does something bad, something bad is going to happen to them. For example, in the “Johnny Albino” short story that opens up “Roachkiller,” the pregnant wife goes after her cheating husband. But at the end there’s ambiguity as to whether she’s really been rescued because now she’s made a bunch of enemies and the story ends that way. So violence begets violence and it’s not a good solution for anything. And I touch on social issues but I try not to beat you over the head with it. In “Hipster Death Rattle,” there’s a critique of the hipster mentality, which might be seen as a critique of liberals, but also there’s a theme about the evil of developers and class and consumer culture in the United States, so maybe I do beat everyone over the head with this book.
Open Mic: I like to end with what I hope is a fun question. Let’s say I could put you together for dinner and a conversation with just one of the following three people. Who would you choose and why? Your options are: the astronaut Joseph Acaba, comedian Jerry Stiller, or crime fiction great Jim Thompson.
Narvaez: It would be Jerry Stiller. I should probably say one of the other ones because one is a heroic, Puerto Rican astronaut and one is a writer I admire and I love. But I grew up watching Stiller and Meara on The Flip Wilson Show. I would love having dinner with him with some drinks. I think we would have a hilarious time. I’d have so many questions. The other two, bless them, maybe I would catch them at the bar later, but I want to have dinner with Jerry.