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Monday, 18 October 2010

Rodolfo Peña, Author Interview

Rodolfo Peña’s “day job” is translation of texts from English into Spanish; between translations he writes crime fiction. A native of Mexico, he married his French wife four years ago and is now “forced” to live in the beautiful Basque Country of southern France. Rodolfo has had varied and interesting jobs throughout his life. He has written for television, managed a science and technology museum, and has written software for expert systems. Having lived in several countries and a dozen cities, he has met and has been associated with very interesting people who now populate his books and stories. When he has a bit of time, he also dabbles in painting--mostly watercolours or oil on paper.
Tell us about “An Inconsequential Murder” in a few sentences.
A few years ago, in Monterrey, Mexico, the cousin of a friend was brutally murdered and his body was left on the railroad tracks to be mangled by a freight train in the early morning hours. The perpetrator or perpetrators were never found (or very actively sought by the police) because this was at the start of the so-called “drug wars” and the police were more concerned with the many shootings between the rival cartels. Later on, I was approached by the judicial police, who were trying to track down a fugitive that was known to be sending emails to his sister (I was known then as a very knowledgeable computer hacker). I had also known the DEA associates of Enrique Camarena, one of the first DEA agents to die at the hands of a drug cartel. I put all of these elements together, along with some historical facts about the cartels and corruption in the Mexican government, and that was the basis of this novel.
What qualities do you need to be a successful writer?
Imagination, knowledge of the language, and a heart of stone when editing your own work. Imagination is paramount because you have to be able to "see" in your mind the events you are writing about and to “hear” the characters speak. I often say that a good writer really transcribes what he is seeing his characters do and hearing his characters say as they go about their business. But, in order to transmit the action and the dialog in a clear and interesting way, you have to know your chosen language. I write both is English and Spanish. A story written in English changes substantially when I rewrite it in Spanish. Notice I did not say “translate it into Spanish” but rather rewrite it in Spanish.
What is your working method?
I write a complete, chapter by chapter, outline of the story. I do this as a table with columns for Chapter headings, main action, specific plot points, and timeline. This gives me an idea of how the story will develop and how the characters interact with each other. It also helps me keep my timeline in check because my chapters often do not happen in chronological succession but rather go forward and then retreat to earlier time periods.
I also do a lot of research. For example, the latest novel happens in Paris, a city I know quite well so I can place the action accurately; but, the central character, Inspector Guillermo Lombardo will be working with the French Judiciary Police so I had to research their methods. Luckily, I met a relative of my wife’s who works for the police and he has been a source of information about how a foreign police officer goes about working with his French colleagues.
What is the single biggest mistake made by beginners to writing?
Not using your own voice and trying to "sound" like one of these hack writers that start a novel by saying something like "the doll walked into my office looking like a million bucks stuffed into a small bag”. Also, an ambiguous point of view is a mistake. One has to decide “who” is telling the story. Is it in a first person voice? Does one of the characters tell the story? Do you need a "Marlow" like Conrad or a "Nick" like Fitzgerald who tell the story of someone they knew? Is it a god-like narrator who can tell us what the characters are thinking? I think that deciding “who tell the story” is the most important decision one makes when starting a novel.
How did you come to write this particular book?
I always felt angry that the death of that young man, a computer engineer, had never been explained, or his murderer sought. The injustice and the unexplained cause of his demise bothered me. Then, I met a policeman who was of the old school: never leave a case unsolved, always do the right thing, a case is never closed or so cold it is forgotten. That gave me two things: an incident on which to build the story and a main character.
How can people buy your book?
It is, of course, available for download from my publisher Untreed Reads  ( and from dozens of other ebook distributors such as Amazon, Smashwords, Apple iStore, etc. A long list of them is available at the Untreed Reads site. It is also available in the UK from sites there, such as Amazon UK and other major distributors. Soon it will be available in Spanish because I have just completed the rewrite/translation of it.
To what extent are grammar and spelling important to a writer?
I always explain it to young writers this way: if you work in a specialized field, say medicine or physics, you may be speaking in English but if the person listening is not familiar with the meaning of the words, syntax, context, etc. he or she will not understand you. Writing is a specialized form of language usage. It is different from spoken language. This does not mean it is necessarily more complex, or "high brow"; it means that grammar and spelling are of outmost importance. You have to be clear and concise yet interesting and even artistic. The combination of art and precision is what differentiates literature from common writing, such as a business letter.
So, having said that, it is important that a writer find a good editor/publisher to tell her or him when he is lapsing from one into the other, and to correct that unavoidable mistakes one makes when forging ahead to finish a story. When I finished the Spanish version of “An Inconsequential Murder” I looked for an editor to help me put it into publishing form and to ferret out mistakes in both usage and grammar.
How much revision of your MS do you do before you send it off?
A lot. First there is spellchecking, both automatic and then by re-reading the text. Next is grammar and style. Then comes checking facts, time sequence, names of characters and places, etc. Lastly, weeding out and eliminating truly unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs, even whole chapters. Lastly, reading and editing by a professional or by a knowledgeable "other" with "track changes" on so you can review his or her comments and suggestions. But, there is never enough. I hate reading the published text because I always find things I would change.
Where and when is your novel set and why did you make these specific choices?
“An Inconsequential Murder” is set in Mexico and most of the action happens in two cities, Monterrey and Mexico City. There are scenes set in near-by San Antonio, Texas, and an Epilogue that is set in France, but the heart of the matter is in Mexico. Why? Because the model characters and situations I used are Mexican and because I wanted to comment on the causes and consequences of the so-called "drug wars", and those are happening in Mexico.
To what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?
In today’s world where we are bombarded by information at every turn there is a need for classification as never before. We don’t want to navigate through 10,000 books to come to that mystery novel that intrigues us. Unfortunately there is also a negative side to this. I would hesitate to classify "An Inconsequential Murder" as a mystery/thriller/detective fiction. I think that the genre is growing into more than that. The social and historical comment necessary for novels like “An Inconsequential Murder” make it more than just a “thriller” or a “mystery” novel. I have tried to make the reader understand the social, economic, and political circumstances that have lead to the present terrible situation in Mexico; but, I have tried to do it without being heavy-handed or preachy.
What are your writing habits?
If I have no translations to do, which is how my wife and I earn our bread and butter, I write between 1500 and 2000 words a day when the going is good. I try to keep up a steady pace so the storyline does not grow cold and I can hear the character's voices clearly. If circumstances keep me from writing, I revise, review, and rewrite (my three "r's").
How do you know where to begin any given story?
I think of an “establishing shot” in a movie: what would tell the reader not only “what, where, when, and who” but also engage him or her and create interest in the story. Remember those wonderful establishing shots in those black and white movies where the camera would track through a city to tell us where it is, then a street sign or plaque to establish location, and then fly in through a window where a detective is standing over a victim? That’s the sort of thing I like but without being to obvious or dogmatic about it. Then there is the type of scene that establishes a "historical" precedence: in the novel I am presently writing, the round-up of Jewish French citizens on the 17th and 18th of July, 1942 in Paris, establishes a motive for what is going to happen in present-day Paris, so the novel starts with German soldiers and French collaborators coming to arrest a family in the early morning hours of the 18th of July.
What sort of displacement activities keep you from actually writing?
Mostly email and, of course, having to do translations to earn my keep. Also, we live in a wonderful part of the world, Biarritz, France, so the sea is near-by, a wonderful golf course is just a block away, and there are friends and family that drop-by or invite us out. But the worst is television and movie houses. I am a film freak so I have to watch at least one movie a day. I don't care for series or game shows or anything like that, but movies are a must. I also like to watch good documentaries. I also read a lot: The New Yorker, French newspapers, and novels, of course.
Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?
No, my one and most solid support is my wife. When I have no translation work, she takes up the slack most handily. She also encourages me not to “shilly-shally” or waste my time.
Is presentation of the MS as important as most agents and publishers suggest?
Yes, absolutely. Even today when anyone can “publish” an ebook, presentation is important, not only to interest a publisher or agent, but also the reader. With so much material available, why would anyone slog through a book full of typos, misspelled words, and badly constructed or awkward sentences?
How long does it normally take you to write a novel?
About six months for the first draft, about three months of revisions and rewriting, and about a month of fact and style checking. That does not include the research and outline construction.
What are your inspirations?
People I have met, things I have seen, experiences I have had. My wife says I start too many conversations with, “In 1986, when I was working in Madrid I met a man who...” and similar phrases. Also, movies: my idea is to write a book in such a way that the reader can “see” the action and “hear” the characters. It wouldn’t take much to turn my novels into film scripts.
If there’s a single aspect to writing that really frustrates you, what is it?
The worst thing is re-reading the thing over and over. It gets to the point where you get sick of it and want to go do something else. I wish I were one of those rich, successful writers with a staff that could check facts, name consistency, time line consistency, etc.
Do you think writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?
A mixture of both: there has to be a part of you that needs to write, tell stories, excite someone else with what you know. But, as Henry James said in his prefaces, writing is a skill that has to be learned and honed and perfected, just as any other.
What are you writing now?
Guillermo Lombardo, the Inspector that is introduced in “An Inconsequential Murder” travels to France and is involved in a murder case there. He is both an investigator and a suspect of the murder. It involves something I am very interested in: the art that was stolen and confiscated by the Nazis in WWII and which has been variously claimed and restored to their proper owners, although not in the numbers one would hope. European museums are full of the art that was taken from victims of the Holocaust.
Is there any aspect of writing that you really enjoy?
Yes, the description of things I love and know well. In my present novel, I describe the nooks and crannies of Paris which have some sort of meaning for me and which I remember with fondness. I usually go there and write the description while I sip a beer or coffee.
Do you have a website or a blog that readers can visit?
I am working on getting one up soon. There is a distraction for you.
Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?
Strangely enough, Neil White in this blog describes where I live. “ [near] sea on the French coast, close to the Spanish border”, and we do have a nicely filled “wine rack”. My problem is not that, it is having to dedicate time to other pursuits such as translating.
Where do you actually write?
In our small studio, back to back with my wife who quietly goes about her business of translating. We live in a very quiet street and the studio is comfortable and cheery with a large window that provides plenty of light.
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