Teresa Dovalpage interviews Alex Segura as part of a Latino Stories series with Latinx authors. Segura is the bestselling and award-winning author of Secret Identity, which the New York Times called “wittily original” and named an Editor’s Choice. NPR described the novel as “masterful.” It received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.
Dovalpage: Secret Identity has a strong sense of location. It transports the reader to the Big Apple in the times before Google (way before!).
“The New York of 1975 was fraught, menacing, and hopped up on paranoia—where muggings were commonplace and home break-ins a rite of passage.”
How hard (or easy) was it to create that sense of time and space? How did you do it, in such a manner that we lucky readers can get the actual 70s experience?
Segura: It was hard, I’m not going to lie. I think the easy path would’ve been to just write it in a generic way and hope it passed muster, but I really wanted to evoke the anxiety, depression, and sense of danger that permeated New York at the time. It was so different from the NYC of today—we were coming out of Watergate, the city was in financial ruin, and people just didn’t feel safe in “Fear City.” But I knew I had to play that as close to reality as possible without it seeming like a parody or exaggeration. I did a lot of research. I read a lot of books about the music scene in NY at the time, particularly Will Hermes’ fantastic Love goes to a Building on Fire, which talks about all kinds of music happening in the city in the 70s—from punk to Latin music to jazz to the avant garde. I read a great Lou Reed bio, too, by Anthony DeCurtis, that evoked that era really well. So, that gave me a lot of the textural stuff—the tension, the feeling. But then I needed to do factual research to try and make sure I had all the details right. That came as I wrote and was more perfunctory, but still important. The end result was, I hope, an honest evocation of a city that doesn’t exist anymore.
Dovalpage: It definitely was. There is a scene (when Carmen comes out of Alford’s apartment and crosses Grand Street) where I had to stop reading because I was so scared! Bueno, and something else I loved is the Cuban winks, los guiñitos cubanos, in the story, from the Spanish used in the conversations between Carmen and her parents to the Celia Cruz cameo at the end. Could you share your inspiration for Carmen and her Cubanidad background?
Segura: Carmen, like Pete Fernandez, is a friend of mine. Not a specific, actual person, but someone I could see myself knowing in school, or college—Cuban-American like me, but also different. She’s a blend of so many people I’ve known: colleagues, friends, family members, and ideas—that it’s hard to pin down. But I knew I wanted her to be Cuban-American, because I believe strongly in spotlighting people like me, or us, in the stories I tell. I also knew that because it was set in the past, the Cuban revolution would be fresh in her mind, as a relatively recent immigrant. She came over as a young child, but still—it changes you, as it changed my parents’ lives and so many others. I wanted to reflect all of that while still making Carmen feel wholly her own, with a lot of charm and energy and chispa.
I believe strongly in spotlighting people like me, or us, in the stories I tell.Alex Segura
Dovalpage: The chispa is there! And still, on the subject of Carmen, how did you manage to create such a believable heroine? In the acknowledgements, you mentioned Writing the Other by Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl, but I would like to find out a bit more. How did Carmen come alive in these pages? How did you develop the character?
Segura: It was a challenge, but one that I felt was important to the story—and to Carmen. Like I said, she appeared to me fully formed, a queer, Cuban-American woman from 1975. But how to write that? Especially considering that I only share some of those characteristics? It was something I engaged with thoughtfully and with a lot of care. I had a fair amount of sensitivity readers who could nudge me and suggest changes if I was not in the right ballpark when telling Carmen’s story (which they did! And I made the changes, too). I also made sure I wasn’t trying to tell anything close to her definitive experience. We get hints of it and it’s part of who she is, but at the end of the day, it’s a mystery novel and meant, first and foremost, to entertain. I wanted to honor the character that appeared to me by doing the work to tell her story clearly and with care, with the help of many people. I spoke to a lot of women who worked in comics at the time to tell me about their experiences, too, and that was invaluable. It all added up nicely, and I was really happy that the Carmen I first thought of was very close to the one that made it on the page.
Dovalpage: She feels like a friend one would like to share a cafecito with. One of the most adorable features of the novel is the inclusion of scenes from Carmen’s own comic book, The Legendary Lynx, throughout the novel. Now, the comic ends with “The Lynx’s mission isn’t over, it’s just begun…” Will we ever see The Lynx as a full-length comic book as such?
Segura: Yes! We’re doing it. When I created the Lynx, I did all the work I’d normally do to create a hero—crafting her world, her supporting cast, her villains. All for a dozen or so pages in my novel. So it felt like I had all of this backmatter I hadn’t put to good use yet. I always had the idea in the back of my mind, that we (Sandy Jarrell and I) would create an actual Lynx comic, except it would have to be very meta and in-world, so that’s what we’re going to do. Hopefully, sometime next year.
Dovalpage: Pues, I can’t wait to read it. Carmen is the star here, of course, but there is another female character that, despite her few appearances, is significant in many ways. Readers are introduced to Detective Mary Hudson, “a stocky older Black woman followed by a tall, twenty-something uniformed officer,” which totally subverts all stereotypes, more so when we are informed that Officer Idellson “won’t do much.” I’m always curious about the genesis of characters. What can you tell me about Detective Hudson?
Segura: It’s funny because there are two links to the Pete Fernandez books in the novel. The first one, which everyone always gets, is when Detective Hudson mentions “Pedro Fernandez,” a homicide detective she knows. But no one has gotten the other one, and it’s directly tied to Detective Hudson. I’ll be happy when someone gets it.
But as far as the character goes, I didn’t want the sharp, inquisitive detective to just be a sourpuss older white man. I wanted to diversify the trope a bit, and invert it a bit because that entertains me in writing–and often, it works for the reader, too. I liked the idea of Hudson, and she was such a great contrast to Carmen. It was really nice to see them almost become friends as the novel progresses. I’m glad you liked her because she really resonated with me.
Alex Segura is also the author of Star Wars Poe Dameron: Free Fall, the Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series, and several comic books, including The Mysterious Micro-Face (in partnership with NPR), The Black Ghost, The Archies, The Dusk, The Awakened, and more. His short story, “90 Miles” was included in The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories for 2021 and won the Anthony Award for Best Short Story. By day he is the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Oni Press, with previous stints at Archie Comics and DC Comics. His website is www.AlexSegura.Com.