Friday, May 22, 2009

Visiting Victor Rodriguez

Victor Rodriquez is the author of two books: Eldorado in East Harlem (a partly autobiographical coming-of-age novel) and Ravenhall: Introducing Detective Sid Rodrigo, a murder mystery. Dr. Ulla Dydo, a former professor at Bronx Community College and Gertrude Stein scholar, has used Eldorado in her readings and class discussions. This book was also used as an historical fiction piece depicting Spanish Harlem in the 60s in a college classroom in Germany. It was inspiring for me to meet him and discuss his novels and current projects....

When did you begin writing?

Let's see...let me be brief. I was born in Puerto Rico and moved to East Harlem when I was two, and grew up there. I've lived most of my life in New York. When I was seventeen I suddenly fell in love with reading after being hooked by a murder mystery. This led to an appreciation of classic nineteenth century literature, particularly the works of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville and Mark Twain to name a few. But most of all it was the great Jules Verne who inspired me to become an author. I’m still mesmerized by his Extraordinary Voyages.

Do you like contemporary authors?

Yes, of course. But I’d have to say that the late Howard Fast, with whom I had the honor of meeting and corresponding, held as tight a grip on my psyche as did Verne. From Verne I learned to love adventure, and Fast’s historical novels, Citizen Tom Paine, The Last Frontier, Spartacus and April Morning gave me a deep appreciation of the struggle for human dignity and freedom. Fast was a gifted storyteller. I’ll never forget his words of encouragement.

What inspired you to write?

It began as desire to escape from the poverty of working class neighborhoods like East Harlem and the South Bronx. Not only did reading transport me to intriguing worlds, but it also made me aware of and appreciate art, classical music and other human endeavors.

Do you always write?

I try to write every single day. I’m sixty-five and have been writing since I was seventeen; when you love writing for that long, it must mean something. But getting published is even more difficult than writing. I got married at the age of nineteen and raised a family while working as a laboratory technician. After many years of struggling to get published, Arte Publico Press liked Eldorado in East Harlem and published it in 1992. Arte Publico Press is the foremost publisher of Hispanic authors.

What does the title mean?
Dorado is a Spanish word for gold. When the New World Indians saw how pernicious and greedy their Spanish invaders were they made up stories just to be rid them; virtual legends later woven into American folklore. One of these legends is the one about Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth. The Aztecs told them of a city of gold to the north, which the Spanish later called Eldorado. I used the word as a metaphor for the image that some poor foreigners thinking of immigrating to America had of this country. But once here they found not an Eldorado but a place requiring lots of hard work to overcome poverty. Most of my characters are people struggling daily with life’s challenges. After Eldorado in East Harlem I worked on short stories and kept a journal for ten years. I then wrote Ravenhall a novel about an NYPD detective
named Sid Rodrigo, which was published last summer by PublishAmerica.

How much time do you dedicate to writing on a daily basis?
Five years ago I went into early retirement to devote myself to full-time writing. Now that I have the time I work four or five hours a day. Even If you write just a single page a day, in twelve months you’ll have a book length manuscript. But for me, it's not simple story telling. My love of history lets me enjoy doing research for my novels. For Eldorado I dug into the history of my old neighborhood and read several books about the politics of the early 1960s. And for Ravenhall, which is set in the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, I re-read all of Poe’s works, though it’s not about him, a biography about Poe and numerous books on crime. I also delved into numismatics, jewelry making and the war on drugs. I interviewed detectives, watched TV shows like Forensic Files and, believe it or not, read about cockfighting. Though fiction, it is based on a real case. Poe Cottage is still there on East Kingsbridge Road just as Poe left it in 1849. It’s a museum now. The minute I toured the cottage I realized that its eerie atmosphere was a perfect setting for a murder mystery. Why not? Poe wrote some of his best ones there. Ravenhall is about a Bronx cop who goes on a furlough to relieve burn-out, but after finding a dead body in Poe Cottage he’s forced to go on a hunt for a murderer with ties to the Colombian drug cartel. I had lots of fun writing it.

I've taught Sandra Cicerones, The House on Mango Street and Esmeralda Santiago's When I was Puerto Rican, these writers focus a lot of their work on "The Puerto Rican experience," is this what you do?

I’ve read and enjoyed When I Was Puerto Rican and many other books like it. Although I write for a general audience, it must have a Hispanic angle to it because of my background and the fact that our heritage is a unique element of the American experience. Esmeralda Santiago is distinct in that her story is different from mine. It's a good book involves a young man growing up in a rough New York neighborhood; his sole background. She has memories that harkens back to the island as well as experiences in New York because she moved here during her teens, I think. She was able to describe both experiences in wonderful detail because of this.

Why is there such a recent surge in the marketing of Hispanic work?

I believe that by the 1970s American and European readers, tired of reading traditional novels with familiar settings and situations, turned to the more imaginative and highly original Latin America writers such as the Colombian Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He perfected that literary movement know as magical realism, wherein he mixes reality with fantasy in such books as his dazzling One Hundred Years of Solitude, which gave new life to the modern novel. I strongly believe that Garcia Marquez and his contemporaries have also sparked the current trend among today’s youth for books like the Harry Potter series. It’s a wonderful thing seeing young people eager to read, learn and imagine enchanting worlds.

I agree. I remember reading Marquez in this great contemporary literature class I took at Manhattan College and it was difficult but I really liked it.
Even some major publishers, like Simon and Shuster, have an imprint which focuses on publishing Hispanic writers. However, I think general readers always keep an open mind and know a good book when they read it. I’ve read somewhere that countless bibliophiles, regardless of their ethnicity, have read, wept over and loved Angela's Ashes.What are you reading now?
There’s a wonderful Spanish author named Arturo Perez-Reverte, whose historical adventure novels are as exciting, enjoyable and informative as the classics of Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini. Perez-Reverte’s hero is a seventeenth century Spanish soldier named Captain Diego Alatriste who lives as a swordsman-for–hire in Madrid. Captain Alatriste is the first title in the series. And because I’m a New York history buff, I’m enjoying reading Victoria Thompson’s mysteries set in late nineteenth century Manhattan: Murder in Astor Place, Murder on Mulberry Bend, etc.

Are your novels intended for Young Adults?

Not in particular; I always aim towards the general reader. However, I was surprised that Eldorado in East Harlem did attract adolescent readers because its hero is a seventeen-year-old who gets into sticky situations with which they can relate. Several years ago I was invited to the public library at Newark, New Jersey. Many of the local high school kids, and their teachers, had read my book. After my speech and an answering session I signed so many copies of Eldorado that it numbed my right hand. But I was thrilled and surprised that so many young people had read it!


I think some scenes in the book are unintentionally racy and have some spicy street language.

That's probably why they loved it so much.

Well, I like to think of myself as being as much of a naturalist and realist as Jack London. His books depict life the way it really is, and not colored by the romantic sentimentalists that preceded him. Good blokes like Charles Dickens for instance. When London wrote about two animals in a life and death struggle you can almost see and hear them tearing each other apart. That’s the reality of life. I like to write about life the way it really is, warts and all. But one should always bear in mind readers’ sensitivities and not overdue it by sickening or offending them.

Is there a typical theme/message your characters portray?

I’m not a philosopher or moralist. One is a straightforward coming-of-age novel and the second one is a police procedural; a crime drama wherein a homicide is committed and solved in the end. I leave it up to readers to draw their own conclusions about what motivates my characters. What I'm working on now is a historical novel set in sixteenth century Puerto Rico and Spain. As you can see my interests vary.

What will that be about?

At this stage, I've finished two years of historical research and am working on the novel’s outline. It’s like constructing a house: you draw the plan, start with a foundation and work yourself up. I'm very very careful with the research and can back up all my sources. It may take several years to complete because the subject is a very broad one. Generally speaking it’s about the Post Colombian period and the devastating affects the Spanish conquest had on the Taíno Indians. Its main character is a mestizo.

What is that? I'm sorry...I should know this.

A mestizo is a Hispanic person with mixed ancestry, especially someone of both Native American and European ancestry.

What inspired you to write on this topic?

While a student at Bronx Community College I wrote a term paper about a Spanish Dominican monk named Bartolomé de Las Casas, who devoted his long life fighting for the rights of the New World Indians. He sought to have them recognized as rational human beings with souls and that their lives and property should be protected. He called for the abolition of slavery and condemned the cruelty, hunger, hard labor and diseases that were rapidly killing them by the tens of thousands.

That's very fascinating. What is your philosophy on life?

When the late great cellist Pablo Casals was in his nineties he was asked, because he was considered a musical genius, if he still leaned anything. His answer: “Yes. Every day. I never stop learning; I learn something new every day." I try to live by that same philosophy. Life is too wondrous to waste on trivial matters.

Describe one of your most memorable experiences you've had as a writer?

That visit I made to the Newark Public Library was in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. I was deeply moved by everyone’s interest in my life story and the impact it’s had on my writing. I think some of those young people may’ve identified with me and, hopefully, learned that the power to change their lives is deep within each of them.

That is very inspiring. I'm looking forward to reading your books. I think I'll start with Eldorado...I love books that takes place in the sixties. I love reading about how much New York has changed.

Thank you very much. Yes, New York has changed. But one thing will never change: it will always be the gateway to America.

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