This interview is part of the Latinx Author Interview series and features Raquel V. Reyes, in which Reyes discusses her two novels, Mango, Mambo, and Murder and Calypso, Corpses, and Cooking.
Dovalpage: Mango, Mambo, and Murder brings a lot to the table—food, culture, family and cubanidad. Speaking of food, how did you experience it while writing the novel? Did you make all the dishes mentioned? Did you cook some dishes especially for the book?
Reyes: Describing food in my books is easy. Living in Miami, I have access to so many cuisines from the Caribbean and Latin America. The hard part is writing the recipes that are in the back of the book. I did not learn to cook from recorded recipes. Mango, Mambo, and Murder is dedicated to Elena, my stepmother. I learned to cook Cuban food by watching and helping her prepare family meals. She was born in Camagüey and she made the best fricasé de pollo. And the best black beans and the best vaca frita de pollo. And her mother made the best croquetas. I miss her very much. I know she would’ve been so proud of me. And I’m sure she would have enjoyed helping me test the dishes and recipes. But it is not only Cuban cuisine that I highlight in this series. Dishes from Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic are mentioned in the first book. Book two mentions delicacies from Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas, to name a few.
Dovalpage: It was a great idea to include the recipes at the end of the novel. This way the reader is not distracted in the middle of the story. I photocopied them so as not to get manteca all over the book when I try them. Now, seguimos with the next book. Calypso, Corpses, and Cooking is the second novel in the Caribbean Kitchen Mystery. Another yummy culinary mystery! Looking at the cover, it seems there is going to be a cat too. (Purring in happy anticipation.) What can you tell us about it?
Reyes: Yes, there is a cat. And there might even be a dog. The cozy mystery genre does demand the mention of mascotas. While chasing a lizard, the cat leads the main character to a clue, but that’s as far as I go. There are no talking or psychic animals in my stories, but there are a lot of bodies in book two.
Dovalpage: I love the way you use Spanish, like “¿Qué carajo am I going to do while you are talking bayfront views and terrazzo floors with ladies that lunch?” This is a topic that fascinates me—groserías, in particular, are untranslatable. What was your criteria to use Spanish throughout the novel?
Reyes: I live in Spanglish. From home to workplace and everything in between, my life is a mash-up of English and Spanish. I, and the people around me, really talk like Miriam and her BFF Alma do in the series. “Pero, like” is a mainstay phrase. When it came to cussing, I knew that some cozy readers might be offended by expletives. And so, I made the deliberate choice to express them in Spanish only. I love the fun of creative cussing. Take carajo, for example. It is the crow’s nest on a ship’s mainmast. So, not really a harsh word, but its meaning, when used as an expletive, is nuanced. And to be honest, I haven’t met a Cuban or Cuban-American that can go more than a few sentences without sprinkling in a coño or two. ¡Y mi ‘ja, los argentinos really enjoy their blue language! For me, it makes the character real and relatable. I think my reader is of like mind. Each author has to make that choice based on their readership. I explored precisely that in an essay for Novel Suspects.
Dovalpage: A very interesting essay. Super bueno. Now, do you plot your novels completamente before you start to write or you let the plot take you where it wants to go? Do you use outlines? What comes first to you, plot or characters? Anything you want to share about the writing process.
Reyes: I make a skeleton plot. I know the beginning, a few key scenes in the middle, and the culprit. Then I let the writing process fill in the rest. One of the things I love about writing a series is that you get to keep your core cast of characters. Miriam and her friends are always talking to me as I write. Sometimes they are even yelling at me to give them a scene in which to shine—like Jorge. He is so much fun and loosely based on someone I know.
Dovalpage: Miriam is a very convincing character. I could see (and hear) her clearly. What, or who, was your inspiration for this feisty food anthropologist?
Reyes: ¡Gracias! I’m so glad you like Miriam. Here’s a bit of trivia. She is named after my very sweet Puerto Rican mother-in-law. (See, not all suegras are like the one in the series.) With Miriam, it was vital that she had vulnerabilities. I don’t think we as humans start out (or end) having all the answers or skills. Often we misinterpret signs and clues. I wanted to bring that realness to my character. She is not a super-sleuth from the get-go. Miriam talks to herself. She jumps to conclusions. She has self-doubt. She has a four-year-old derailing and distracting her sometimes. Another important component and choice in creating Miriam was that she have a doctorate degree. Latinas are underrepresented in academia. And the few that there are are often maligned. So, I want to help normalize a Latina with a Ph.D.
Raquel V. Reyes was raised in oppositional cultures. Her early childhood was not unlike an I Love Lucy rerun with a heavy-accented, handsome Cuban father and a red-headed Southern mother whose smile brightened the room. She has been an avid reader of short stories all her life, and as a writer, her short stories have appeared in Mystery Most Theatrical, In the Midnight Hour, and Trouble No More. She lives in Miami, where she watches the waters for mermaids and leviathan.