Latino Latinx Author Interviews

Adding an Accent to the Noir: Jessica Galán Interviews Richie Narvaez

Jessica Galán interviews Richie Narvaez, literary noir author of Roachkiller and Other Stories, Hipster Death Rattle, Noiryorican, and Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco. Narvaez recently wrapped up a series on Latinx crime fiction at The Center for Creative Fiction Brooklyn. The interview is part of a series with Latinx authors.

Galán: Can you finish the sentence, “Literary noir is …”  

Narvaez: Literary noir are moral stories in an amoral universe. They are often filled with disillusionment, despair. They’re often pessimistic. Noir “says” it’s very tough to move beyond your station in life and if you try too hard the universe will snap back at you.

In the crime fiction realm, if you’re too greedy, you will be punished for it—that’s literary noir. What makes it literary I think is it’s written to go beyond the regular tropes. I mean those are the basic conditions: it’s an unfeeling, uncaring universe, right? A writer can play with the language, you can have sentences which are wonderful to read, you can have three-dimensional characters, not just flat characters, but real people who are getting involved in these situations that in noir are over their heads and basically doomed. I find it interesting to write noir stories because I have a partially pessimistic view of the universe sometimes, but I also find it a fun playground to play in.  I find it’s interesting to see what happens when people push too hard. And sometimes a story may come out when it’s a little happy, but a lot of times I‘ll be writing about a character and decide—”Aww, this is not going to end up well for you, I’m sorry.”

Galán: Who are the literary gods of noir?   

Narvaez: The literary noir I like came up after World War II when there was a sense that America had won the war, so everybody, a lot of the people were “full of beans”—Oh yes we can conquer anything!’ But there was a dark undertone to all of this. “Oh yeah, we did this by killing a lot of people, through a lot of murder.” 

America didn’t quite rescue the Jews in time, so there’s a lot of karma that has to get paid. After World War II and I think that’s where noir sort of comes from, this idea that there’s a “yes, we can enjoy our suburban lawns.” But there’s a dark underbelly to everything. You see it in a lot of movies and in fiction—like in James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and in Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black—which is very dark. There’s also Patricia Highsmith. I don’t know if you ever heard of the Ripley books?  They’re very dark. It’s basically a killer. In The Blunderer, you know from the beginning he’s doomed—even though he’s the person you’re following throughout the whole book. She basically makes the killer the hero. It’s a big switch. The thing is it’s not about liking the protagonist, but is the protagonist interesting enough that you want to follow them, even though you’d never want to socialize with them. Or you would immediately turn them into the police. But as a reader you want to see where the story is going to go. And I think that’s a really great technique—or craft—to be able to do that because it shows you had a character that everyone liked.

Galán: Is the genre different when written from a Brooklyn-Born, Bronx-residing man? Are the literary elements and structural frameworks the same regardless of one’s cultural background? 

Narvaez: Yeah, I will say certain tropes are going to be the same. Certain things happen, certain things in narrative that are kind of standard. If you’re writing with a sense of doom; if that’s where the story’s taking you, then it’s probably going to end up pretty badly; if you have someone who breaks the status quo, who robs, steals, cheats, there is usually going to be some punishment involved. But when you’re Puerto-Rican, Nuyorican, from Brooklyn, Generation X—I’m gonna take that story with maybe a lot of the same pieces, but it’s going to have a different flavor to it … and a different perspective. The way my life has gone, I’ve lived it and have seen things from a certain way so the way I’m gonna see a crime is gonna be a little different. The way I see a police officer, an interaction with an authority, is gonna be different. So yeah, It definitely colors—it adds a different accent to be the Latinx–a different accent to the noir. I think that’s what also makes a lot of crime fiction. Noir stuff can be very structured and almost cliché; so putting the ethnic or cultural spin on it makes it interesting again. It’s the way Walter Mosely took the detective books, the private eye books, kind of boring and beaten to death, and by creating Easy Rawlins, an African American detective in the 40s and 50s—oh my god, he completely revived the idea.

Noir stuff can be very structured and almost cliché; so putting the ethnic or cultural spin on it makes it interesting again.

Richie Narvaez

Galán: Since the pandemic, has your writing gotten lighter or darker?

Narvaez: It got darker and shorter. I found it harder to write longer stuff. My routine changed. But since the last three weeks, things have gotten lighter and there’s more humor. I think there was a large anxiety. I was talking to my friends actually. Since the beginning of January 2020, there was a cloud in all of our souls—wondering what the hell was going to happen to the world, it was a like a science-fiction story we were living. So that anxiety colored everything, and I wasn’t finishing that many, just little pieces. Lately, I’ve been getting back and picking up again. I think I’d like to explore beyond noir as well. I’ve done the Noir-Rican book. I’ve been wanting to do it for years; now I have to try something a little different.

Galán: What do you think you’d like to try next?

Narvaez: I’d like to try a crime fiction story that’s more of a thriller than noir. There’s a distinction for me; a thriller can be more “there’s a chase,” a lot of suspense, but it’s not necessarily a doomed character.

I live in the Bronx now, but my wife is from the Bronx so we ended up moving here, Pelham Bay … Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, a lot of Italians, West Indians, there is certainly a lot of cultural clash and classism here. but it’s an interesting area with a lot of characters. I have three ideas: scribble, scribble, scribble: this one takes off, this one has a plot. The one that catches fire—it kind of writes itself. 

Galán: What’s on Richie Narvaez’s writing horizon? 

Narvaez: I’m turning out some flash fiction stuff, 500 to 2K tops. Flash fiction is to get the feel where you’ve told enough of a story in a small space. Sometimes it’s like clearly this needs to be a long story—there’s not enough meat here, just really an anecdote, there’s nothing deep here. So yeah, that balance, it’s weird, it’s good practice, just to play with craft. Like poetry.

Galán: I learned that LeVar Burton read one of your short stories entitled “Room for Rent.” How was that experience for you?

Narvaez: It was a big highlight of last year. I had done a short story for Latinx Rising. Somehow LeVar and his people got wind of the reissue. And then they sent me an email out of the blue—”Hi, I represent LeVar Burton, he would love to read your story.” I was near tears, I will confess. I was like, this is not—no! I had to reread it several times. I was like oh-my-god. I felt tremendous joy. I love LeVar Burton, I know him from Roots, I watched him when he was a kid. He’s not much older than I am. He did say he loved my story on Twitter.

Galán: You’ve held writing workshops through the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn. What have you learned from your attendees? Tell me about that?

Narvaez: They came to me to do something about Nuyorican Lit. It’s more of a reading group. I resist teaching. I had to pick books; It was an interesting progression from Piri Thomas to Esmeralda Santiago to Lilliam Rivera. Because you sort of saw the gruff, almost what they might call poverty porn of early Nuyorican writing—a lot of anger, and it’s a tough book to read now because it’s laced with machismo and colorism and sexism … And the last book we read, We the Animals by Justin Torres—a wonderfully, lyrical book, readable on a long afternoon. A LGBTQ perspective and then I needed a contrast to Piri Thomas, who was so homophobic! I wanted something more modern and popular. I think it’s the best written, page to page of those four books—though it’s probably the least Nuyorican, cause he barely deals with that.

Galán: I think Torres’s mom is Anglo, right?

Narvaez: Not fully, that’s the interesting part, I think one of the progressions of the characters—we’re going to be spread out, mixed with others, not just this New York and Puerto Rican combination because there’s all these other combinations of what “Nuyorican” is or what it means. So I thought, that moment where the father says, “dance like a Puerto Rican,” and he’s making fun of that. We saw this in all the books: that the father represents the ultimate Puerto Rican and always elusive. What will they conclude? What are they seeing? Clearly there are large voids, there are things that aren’t being written or told. If you want to be a writer—these are the areas that are missing. And this is all people know about us. What are they not finding out about? I think it was an interesting study in that way. The writers are mainstream in that they’re through big publishers—they “rule” and they help “control” everyone else’s view of us. There’s a hunger for this literature. It’s really nice to see—Nuyorican poetry gets a lot of attention but not Nuyorican prose—you know like Pedro Pietri.

Galán: Have you written characters beyond your ancestral background, if so, what is the experience like?

Narvaez: ­­I have because when you write Latinx characters—[you have] a responsibility, it’s heavy. I try to do the duty-or the check. This way you know I’m Puerto Rican. I just to write about the normal guy. If you don’t give the character an identity, people will be like: people often assume it’s a white character, but sometimes I just want to write about a guy named Joe…and I don’t want to say what Joe “is.” Because I don’t want that to be a subtext. I just want this to be a plot-driven thing. I don’t do it as much as I used to because I realize that If you read Hipster Death Rattle—every character is a different POV. And only some of them are Puerto Rican. I have an Indian American POV, and Italian-American POV, Dominican-Jewish POV. Hasidim POV, it’s important to get into their heads as long as you avoid stereotypes. and you try to make them as 3D as possible. I know this whole thing about #ownvoices, but I worry that that can stifle the artistic voice. The notion of identity—who sets the standard. We are different animals. Mutation. Evolving. Who the hell am I?  He’d make a bucket of coquito—taught me not to be a machismo. No need to fight. Let’s not fight. Straight up literary stuff.

Galán: They say elements of truth will always find itself on the pages of fiction. What are the ethical dilemmas which separate or incorporate fact from fiction? When do you draw the line? How much of you is in your work?

Narvaez: I grew up in the disco era, I would say I was a little young for it, but my brother wasn’t, so Roach Killer is based a lot on my brother. But a little cooler. You know, it’s sort of that idea: you know the DA haircut. Going to the disco, he wasn’t a drug dealer, you twist it, spin things around, change genders. If this person was a woman in real life, let me make her a man or vice versa. So it doesn’t feel like I’m stealing someone’s life. It can feel unethical, too close, I like to take the general idea and take it somewhere else. Sometimes some put their diaries all the way—Joan Didion—writing about herself. Creative nonfiction. And her whole family and those who knew her. I can do it the way I want it to happen, in fiction. I can put a different plot element—because real life doesn’t just sit on the page. Writing for the publication Boricua en la Luna felt like a fun playing ground.

Galán: What’s on your shelf right now? 

Narvaez: I’m prepping for another reading group class at The Center for Fiction Center. For Fiction: Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quiñonez, A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñero, Bloody Water by Carolina Garcia Aguilera and Four Hands by Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

Richie Narvaez‘s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Latinx Rising: An Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery and You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens. He served as president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, Artist in Residence of the Bronx Council on the Arts and a judge for the 2019 PEN America’s Open Book Awards. He teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and lives in the Bronx. Follow him on Instagram @rnz1000.

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