TWENTY YEARS AGO, Manuel Ramos introduced lovers of noir fiction to Luis Móntez, a burnt-out Denver attorney, in the acclaimed novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz (St. Martin’s Press, 1993). Ramos’s debut received rather nice notices. Kirkus Reviews called it a “thickly atmospheric first novel — with just enough mystery to hold together a powerfully elegiac memoir of the heady early days of Chicano activism.” And the Los Angeles Times dubbed it “impressive.” The novel wound up being a finalist for the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and subsequently reprinted in a new edition in 2004 by Northwestern University Press with a foreword by Gary Phillips and introduction by Ilan Stavans.
The last 20 years have seen seven more Ramos novels — four featuring Luis Móntez — as well as continued recognition, including the Colorado Book Award, the Chicano/Latino Literary Award, the Top Hand Award from the Colorado Authors League, and two honorable mentions from the Latino International Book Awards. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in many magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Ramos is a co-founder of and regular contributor to La Bloga (www.labloga.blogspot.com), an award-winning online magazine devoted to Latino literature, culture, news, and opinion.
All the while, Ramos has been a practicing attorney in his hometown of Denver. He is currently the director of advocacy for Colorado Legal Services, the statewide legal aid program, where he has also been recognized with the Colorado Bar Association’s Jacob V. Schaetzel Award, the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association’s Chris Miranda Award, and the Spirit of Tlatelolco Award, to mention several honors. Ramos is also the author of a handbook on Colorado landlord-tenant law, now in a fifth edition.
This year has seen the publication of Ramos’s eighth novel, Desperado: A Mile High Noir (Arte Público Press). His new protagonist is Gus Corral, a Chicano who lives in Denver, barely making it after a failed marriage and possessing few prospects at making a living wage. Despite the specifics of his culture and Denver roots, Corral is a finely drawn noir creation: an imperfect man who gets drawn into the sins of others. And, as with all great noir, we root for Corral even as we cringe at his life’s choices. Desperado is, quite simply, a terrific read.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Desperado is your eighth novel and marks a return to noir fiction after publication of your last book, King of the Chicanos (2010), which was literary fiction. What brought you back?
MANUEL RAMOS: It’s more like the genre returned to me. The story that took hold in my head and wouldn’t let go had a serious crime at its core, as well as thriller and detective elements. However it happened, I’m glad because I see myself as primarily a crime fiction writer.
Before I wrote any fiction, I was an avid reader of detective and crime tales, still am, never stopped. And in the last few years I published short stories that one could classify as crime or noir. So maybe I wasn’t really “away” from the genre — but Desperado is a return to book-length crime fiction, that’s true. I have to say that I felt at home as I wrote it.
King of the Chicanos (Wings Press) was a book that I believed I had to write, especially as the years allowed more objectivity about my youthful adventures in what we used to call the Chicano Movement, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I often suggested to old friends that they had to write about those days because the history was being lost. Eventually someone asked why I didn’t follow my own suggestion. King of the Chicanos is the story of the rise and fall of a fictional “heavy” of the Chicano Movement, Ramón Hidalgo. I worked on it for more than 10 years, wrote two other books during that time. When I finally got to the point where I was ready to finish that book, then, yeah, other writing projects took a back seat. But, even so, the impetus for Desperado was in a short story from 2009, before I published King of the Chicanos.
DO: Your best known literary creation, Denver lawyer Luis Móntez, makes a cameo appearance, but he is not the center of Desperado. Rather, you bring us an everyman in the person of Gus Corral, who is down on his luck, employed by his ex-wife in a secondhand store, where he also lives in the back room. What (or who) inspired you to create Corral?
MR: Gus first appeared as the antihero in the short story “The Skull of Pancho Villa,” which was in the anthology Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery (edited by Sarah Cortez and Liz Martinez, Arte Público Press, 2009.) For that story, I did some research into the legend of the 1926 robbing of Pancho Villa’s grave and the disappearance of his skull. Two men were arrested for the theft — Emil Homdahl and Alberto Corral. They were arrested and then quickly and mysteriously released and sent back across the border to the US. These guys were what used to be called “soldiers of fortune.” Apparently, they had been searching for lost gold in the Mexican mountains when the robbery occurred. Or so they said. Over the years, the legend included the creative twist that the skull ended up with the Skull and Bones Society at Yale, under the auspices of one of the Bush elders. When I learned the basic facts and the legend details, the next step was to create Gus, a distant relation to Alberto Corral. It seemed only right that the skull should end up with the Corrals instead of the Yalies. Gus intrigued me so much that I wanted to expand his story. I developed his family, history, attitudes, hometown, bad luck, and failures. When I understood those aspects of Gus’s character, I was off on writing the novel.
DO: You once again place the action in your beloved Denver, but you offer a very non-Chamber of Commerce view of the city particularly with your description of a rather uninviting, creeping gentrification. Are you about ready to turn your back on Denver?
MR: Oh, no way. I think Denver is a great city, and so does Gus. And because we have lived in the city for so long, we are entitled to bitch and moan about what is happening to our hometown. That’s what love is all about, right? I can’t see myself living anywhere else. Gus is a Northsider from the get — a homey who lives in the same neighborhood where my wife and I settled more than 30 years ago. He hasn’t seen as many changes as we have, but he is experiencing the most dramatic change. The North Side, venerable home to rich cultures, diverse peoples, and established traditions, is turning into a homogenous hipster haven, a neighborhood of mostly young people who, in my cynical view, have little commitment to the long-lasting viability of the neighborhood. For many of the newcomers, the North Side (excuse me, Highlands) is a trendy place to live and that’s the extent of their community awareness. Not all of them, of course.
The demographic shifting serves as background for Desperado — but I have to emphasize that the book is not a political or sociological tract. I use the gentrification of the North Side in the book because what is happening to the North Side is a human drama, affecting everyone who lives here in one way or another. As such, it’s a natural for crime fiction atmosphere. It’s part of the story, not an aside. That’s one reason I read and write crime fiction. The stories can include references to all sorts of problems, issues, and conflicts, but there is no need, and indeed it is a critical mistake, for a crime fiction writer to hit readers in the face with propaganda or ideology. What I want is a good story — filled necessarily with human mistakes, successes, pain, and joy. I think setting the plot against the realities of day-to-day life is one way to accomplish that.
DO: You set the action in motion with a prologue that describes a rather audacious theft, that of the maguey cloak bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from the Basilica in Mexico City. Our Lady is, of course, an icon and cultural/political touchstone for Chicanos and Mexicans regardless of our religiosity. I am aware that the cloak has survived a bombing, but has it ever been threatened with theft? What convinced you to begin your novel in this way?
MR: I don’t know if the tilma has been threatened with theft. Hope I don’t give anyone any ideas. However, given recent tragic history and that anything a fiction writer comes up with will always be topped by real life; I’m not sure I would describe the imagined theft of the tilma as “audacious.” In Gus’s story, the theft touches on a few things going on with him — not the least of which is the loss of what he perceives as his way of life. I agree that the cloak with Our Lady’s image is a cultural touchstone for Chicanos and Mexicans. The raid and theft by Mexican gangsters and then the violent intrusion of the same gangsters into Gus’s life reinforces his sense of loss. I wanted the reader to be on alert from the beginning for the danger and risk that Gus and his family and friends have to face. I hope it plays out that way on the page.
DO: One of my favorite characters is Gus’s older sister, Corrine, who don’t take shit from no one and has her act together much more than Gus. She also loves to rescue Gus and is very free with advice. As someone who has an older sister, Corrine rings true. Do you have an older sister?
MR: No, no sisters in my family. But I’m pleased that my portrayal of Corrine might make you think that. I have several aunts on both sides of my family. They apparently had a big impact on my life because I see bits and pieces of them in several of my female characters. Corrine and her sister Max hark back, in certain details, to particular members of my mother’s large family. And my father’s older sister is a determined, sharp, and diligent woman who could make Corrine sputter and squirm.
DO: Desperado’s plot includes many classic noir plot points: circumstances beyond the protagonist’s control, a major theft, illicit drugs, violent cops, sex, and blackmail. How do you avoid repeating what others have done with similar building blocks?
MR: Doesn’t every writer have to answer that question with every writing project? Is there really anything new and not derivative? Writers are instructed (commanded) to read, read, and read in order to improve their writing. We are told that we can “learn” from our peers — but isn’t that the same as stealing from each other? (By the way — I do read a lot — can’t imagine life without a book. I don’t disagree that a good writer has to be a good reader.)
At the beginning of a writing project I don’t consciously try to avoid crime fiction tropes. I focus on my characters and their story and, at least through the first draft, let the writing chips fly. Well-developed characters and well-defined settings keep the work fresh. That’s the theory. A good agent, editor, or proofreader helps, too.
Let’s face up to the fact that in US crime fiction, a Chicano protagonist who is down-and-almost out, street-wise but money ignorant, and conflicted about living in a gentrifying neighborhood in squeaky clean Denver, is a rare bird, a Maltese falcon. If I can pull that off, then maybe I can dodge the bullets — or building blocks as you call them.
DO: You are the director of advocacy for Colorado Legal Services, the statewide legal aid program. How did you make time to writer Desperado? Do you have any “readers” who advise and offer feedback as you go?
MR: My first novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, was published 20 years ago (still in print by the way — it can be ordered from Northwestern University Press.) I’ve had at least two decades of sustained writing — non-fiction, poetry, short stories, blog posts, novels, interviews, and more — to play with and finally establish a schedule that works for my writing and that doesn’t antagonize my family or employer. There is always a squeeze of competing interests — but the way I look at it now is that I don’t “make time” to write. Writing is simply part of my routine, like jogging every other day or wine with dinner. Busy people get things done. I’m a busy guy.
Juggling the various balls of life was difficult at the beginning of my writing career. I was a legal aid lawyer in the trenches. I faced court appearances every week, a very high volume of desperate clients, and a lack of resources to help with efficiency. (One of my early short stories was about a burned-out legal aid lawyer — that character later became Luis Móntez in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz.) I was also building a family. But I was young — I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. I wrote at night, early morning, weekends, on vacation. I took a six-month sabbatical from work to finish my second novel (The Ballad of Gato Guerrero, also still available from Northwestern University Press), because I was up against the publisher’s deadline. When I returned to work, I set up an annual month-long leave that gave me room for writing. I had to do those kinds of organizational things as a beginning writer. The organization is simpler today (not necessarily the writing).
I don’t like to talk about works in progress or show them to anybody until I am fairly confident about what I’ve done. My first reader is always my wife, Florencia — she can kill a project. Occasionally, I talk with her about a work in progress. She’s a tough critic whose judgment I respect. She has offered concrete suggestions for my work that I’ve used. If the work gets past Flo then it goes to her sister Mercedes for comments. Then I start the business part of writing — agents, editors, as so on.
DO: Who are your favorite noir authors? Can you remember the first noir novel you read?
MR: Literary noir (as opposed to movie noir) has been defined as fiction where the protagonist starts out screwed on the first page and goes downhill from there. I like the classics: David Goodis, Georges Simenon (his roman durs), Jim Thompson. I’d put Patricia Highsmith in this group though I may get an argument from purists. My pal Max Martínez, now deceased, wrote two excellent noir-ish crime novels, White Leg and Layover. And how about Juan Rulfo’s masterpiece Pedro Páramo? The first mystery I remember reading was The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett. But my favorite is James M. Cain. The Postman Always Rings Twice had a profound influence on my reading habits when I was a kid and so must have influenced my writing also. There are several current writers who are turning out excellent noir, hardboiled and pulp fiction — I read as many as I can and I admire and envy what is going on with this type of writing in today’s publishing world. That includes the amazing stuff in graphic novels.
DO: How did Arte Público Press come to publish Desperado? Did you have a hand in choosing the wonderfully lurid and pulpish cover artwork by Adan Hernández?
MR: Arte Público and I have been trying to connect for years. I’ve been included in anthologies published by AP, but the stars never lined up for us to do a novel together. That’s now changed with Desperado and I am very pleased with the results. I can’t say enough good things about the hardworking people at AP and the attention they’ve given me and my book. They are a committed, professional staff devoted to Latina/o Literature.
This may surprise some readers, but AP has a strong history of publishing crime fiction: mystery, detective, suspense, and thriller. AP published Latina/o crime fiction decades ago. AP authors include several who have written in this genre: Rolando Hinojosa, Lucha Corpi, Max Martínez, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Carlos Cisneros, John Lantigua. These award-winning authors, and others, have established AP as a reliable source for good crime fiction. I’m happy to be part of the family.
As to the process of getting to publication — it’s a traditional tale. My agent made the query, she and AP staff talked, they worked out details (including a fairly quick publication date that we wanted and that I know caused extra work for AP), and in a matter of a few months I was looking at copyedits and galleys. Desperado was included in the spring 2013 catalog with prestigious works such as Daniel Chacón’s Hotel Juárez: Stories, Rooms and Loops and Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence, edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso.
Adan Hernández is one of the great ones. We used his painting La Sad Girl for the cover — it catches the novel’s vibe with color, action, tension, and a hint of evil. All of which add up to a good representation of the character Misti from the novel. At almost every event I’ve done for the book I get asked about the cover — it is eye-catching, which is exactly what I wanted of course. We looked at several of Adan’s paintings. His style probably can be described as Chicano noir, a natural fit for my books. When we saw La Sad Girl, the choice was unanimous. Everyone from Nicolás Kanellos (Arte Público Press’s director) to my wife Flo thought it was the right one for the book.
DO: What’s next for Gus Corral?
MR: I’ve started on an idea for the next book. Will it see the light of day? Always the question with a writer like me whose career inches along, book to book. I assume the answer depends partially on reader reaction to Desperado, and partially on how good of a job I do on the follow-up. I’d like to continue with a “Mile High Noir” series, but sooner or later we (the publisher, me) have to look at the economics of the situation. These days writers spend more time marketing books than writing, and it costs me money, time, and reduced output on new projects to publish a book. On the other hand, we want to take advantage of the different publishing opportunities that are now crucial segments of publishing. I’d like to see a quick transition of Desperado into the digital world, as well as any new books. I’d also like to make my backlist available as ebooks. Again, time and money.
Daniel Olivas is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.