Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Linda Rodriguez

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Linda Rodriguez is a thriller writer as well as a poet. Her novel Every Last Secret won the Malice Domestic Competition and will be published by St. Martin’s Press 4/24/2012. She received the Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award and the Midwest Voices and Visions Award. Every Last Secret was named one of April’s must-read books by B&N’s mystery expert. In addition to all her other activities, Linda is vice president of the Latino Writers Collective.

She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about plotting and economics behind crime.

What function do you think secrets perform in peoples’ lives and are they linked to the politics of plotting?

I think secrets are vital in both peoples’ lives and in plotting. There are few of us who can live in any comfortable way without some secrets, at least in certain situations with certain people. Writers, in particular—though perhaps I should extend this to all creative artists—walk through their daily lives with a secret world going on inside their heads. Yes, some of it will make it onto paper to be experienced by others, but only a portion of that secret world will ever be shown to others—and that’s as it should be.

Secrets are a creative force in our lives. If we allow them to get out of control, they can also be destructive, of course, but to a certain extent, they are essential if we are to preserve our individuality. When I read about, or watch in real life, one of those great passionate love affairs where the two people usually end up so devastated, I often think it’s because they wanted to know, to be, to possess the other person so completely that there could be no separation, no secrets. Humans have secrets, and that’s healthy.

As far as plotting goes, secrets are a writer’s best friend. Every character has secrets, even when it seems as if he is completely open and frank. Often, the character will have secrets from himself and end up confronted with a resentment that he’d never consciously realized he harbored or a desire that he could never admit, even to himself. Those secrets kept from himself and the secrets kept from others help to fuel conflict within the novel, as well as helping to develop complexity within the characters, their relationships, and the plot.

Who are your literary influences?

I’ve been a huge reader all my life. I suspect most writers are. Many more of these writers than I can mention, or even recall quickly, have left their imprint on me and on my writing. I think literary influence is always hard for the writer to pinpoint. I know who was most important to me as a reader, who inspired my writing, and who I tried to learn from, but a critic might pick out others than these as the influences of which my writing reeks.

For me, the strongest influences are probably Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf. I’ve gone back to them again and again since early childhood, and I always learn more. Fyodor Dostoyevky and William Shakespeare come in right behind them. Of modern writers, the great Chickasaw writer, Linda Hogan, still influences me in fiction and poetry both. Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and T.C. Boyle have had a real impact on me as a writer. Rudolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros have both been important to me. Ursula LeGuin and C.J. Cherryh have been lifelong loves in science fiction. In the mystery genre, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Josephine Tey, John D. MacDonald, Patricia Highsmith, Tony Hillerman, P.D. James, Sara Paretsky, J.A. Jance, Elizabeth George—all are writers I return to again and again. Nancy Pickard is a special kind of influence. She has been a friend for many years, and of course I’ve read and reread her work, but she also leads a small ongoing group at our local Sisters in Crime branch where we dissect different types of successful mysteries in great depth and detail. I learn something new from this every month and apply it to my own work.

Poetry has played a large part in my life and education. I’m a poet as well as a novelist, so poets have influenced the way I think about words and use them in both poetry and fiction. Whitman and Dickinson, of course—and the language of the King James Bible. John Donne. Denise Levertov has played a seminal role in the way I look at language. William Carlos Williams, H.D., the list goes on too long.

When I stop to look at it, I realize I’m just a Frankenstein’s monster made of bits and pieces of all the millions of books I’ve read throughout my life. Just a thread from this one but a larger chunk from that one and perhaps Dickens’ hand, Woolf’s eye, Morrison’s knee, and Levertov’s tongue, sort of like that.

Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?

I think in a simplistic way it’s true. All good writers stand apart from the world and observe to a certain extent. But that’s not (or shouldn’t be) a stance of looking down on the world and the people in it, not even in the name of “irony,” which too often merely masks contempt. That part of us that holds apart and asks how this (or he/she/it) works, how this feels, what does this look like, what memory does this smell bring back, what emotion does this music cause, that part of us makes us writers.

On the other hand, I think good writers have to have an affinity for people in their hearts, as well. I don’t mean that they have to like people, but they must be able to empathize with very different people and understand what things might look like from the perspective of these different folks. It’s only with such empathy or affinity that writers can create characters who aren’t all Mary Sues or cardboard cutouts and cartoon creations.

Do you think the West has different notions of death and therefore drama to the rest of the world and why?

None of your questions allow simple answers, do they?

I think that, if a society and culture believes in rebirth on the wheel of life as we learn and progress, it will be a fundamentally different society and culture from one that believes that one shot is all we get and there is a scorekeeper in the sky who decides at the end whether our deeds have earned us everything we could want in the skies forever or everything we most fear in the dark, fiery bowels of the earth forever.

I think in the West we have a simplistic, linear concept of death and life and drama. This constricted paradigm is why death of the individual becomes the ultimate tragedy in too much Western drama. The best of our writers overcome this limited view and move beyond into complexity and paradox and unpredictability, but it’s definitely a limitation that Western writers have to transcend.

Tell us about Every Last Secret.

'Every Last Secret' by Linda RodriguezHalf-Cherokee Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion thought she was leaving her troubles behind when she fled the stress of being the highest ranking woman on the Kansas City Police Department, a jealous cop ex-husband who didn’t want to let go, and a disgraced alcoholic ex-cop father. Moving to a small town to be chief of the campus police force, she builds a life outside of police work. She might even begin a new relationship with the amiable Brewster police chief.

All of this is threatened when the student editor of the college newspaper is found murdered on campus. Skeet must track down the killer, following trails that lead to some of the most powerful people in the university. In the midst of her investigation, Skeet takes up responsibility for a vulnerable teenager as her ex-husband and seriously ailing father wind up back on her hands. Time is running out, and college administrators demand she conceal all college involvement in the murder, but Skeet will not stop until she’s unraveled every last secret.

Linda Rodriguez’s debut novel introduces a unique and capable heroine. With its intriguing cast of characters and complex mystery, Every Last Secret is sure to delight traditional mystery fans.

That’s what the jacket copy says for Every Last Secret. It’s the first in a series with Skeet Bannion as the protagonist. I like Julia Spencer-Fleming’s categorization of “traditional mystery-thriller” as a description. Every Last Secret is, indeed, a traditional mystery set in a small town, but the small town is right outside a big, dangerous city, and there’s a little darker edge and suspense to this character, this book, and the series as a whole.

Is there an incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?

Well, two things that have happened to me in recent years have certainly changed my life and influenced my writing career. In 2009, I met and became friends with the great writer, Sandra Cisneros and she talked very seriously with me about how she respected my many efforts for the literary community in my home city and elsewhere in the country, but she thought I should cut back and concentrate on my own work for a while. I went back to an unfinished novel and completed it. Then, in 2010, I received the Midwest Voices and Visions Award from the Alliance of Artist Communities and the Joyce Foundation. This consisted of a one-month residency at Ragdale, one of the oldest and most famous of the American artists/writers colonies. It also included a $4,000 unrestricted stipend. During that month at Ragdale, I not only completed the proposed book of poetry that had won me the award but did all the revisions on Every Last Secret and sent it off. Of course, the results of those two events have changed my writing career completely.

If you’re talking about something that has truly influenced my writing itself, I would have to go much further back—into my childhood. I normally like to pass over my childhood with a joke that it made Mommie, Dearest look like a fairy tale. That usually stops any further questions. The truth is that my childhood was a nightmare of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of a father who was a sociopath (he would go out and rape women, get arrested, and the U.S. Navy would move us to another state overnight so he wouldn’t be prosecuted–repeatedly) and a mother who had a complete breakdown from the strain of living with this man twice her size who slammed her into walls and beat her during her continuous pregnancies. I was the oldest of six children and filled the parental role that neither of our parents did, thus having no childhood of my own. When I was twelve, both parents had deserted us, left town. I kept us going for about a month until the authorities found out, and we were placed with relatives. Books were my salvation throughout my childhood.

I have seen real evil, though. I’m the daughter of a monster who both loved me and gravely injured me. I find that the common ironic distance of much literary fiction doesn’t work for me. I’ve seen too much of what’s going on outside of those safe MFA enclaves. I made a promise to myself when I was quite small that I would never be a victim again, and I would never be a villain like my father. My life and my writing have been a long experience of trying to find a successful way to live without giving into either of those extremes. It is certainly why I’m drawn to crime fiction.

What are you working on now?

I am just finishing final revisions on the second Skeet Bannion novel, Every Broken Trust, and working up the characters and background for a new grittier urban mystery/thriller series. I have finished final revisions on my newest book of poetry, Dark Sister, and will be sending that to a publisher who asked to see my next book of poems. I recently wrote a short story for Kansas City Noir (Akashic Books, forthcoming), and I have two short story ideas that didn’t work for that anthology that I’d like to write and send around to crime fiction journals. Short stories don’t come naturally to me. I’m essentially a long-form writer (or very short, i.e., poetry), but I like the challenge of trying something that’s difficult for me. I’m also doing ongoing research and planning for a big, complex novel about the Vietnam War’s effect on my generation at home and overseas.

In my head, I’m also cleaning up and decluttering my home, which has become a disaster zone. In actuality, most of that is going to have to wait—quite a while. But I will—someday.

How much crime do you think is economically driven?

I think a great deal of crime is economically driven. The crime of the poor certainly is. I live in the poor, African American section of Kansas City, Missouri. As a city, we have many more homicides per capita than New York City, a much larger metropolis. In my area of the city, we have a much higher per capita rate of homicide than in the city as a whole. This is not a surprise since this is the poorest area of the city, and this city is much poorer than New York.

As the United States has swirled into a depression (because, from where I sit so far away from the protected enclaves of Washington and Wall Street, that’s what this has been), I’ve watched houses around me repossessed, including my next-door neighbor’s. I’ve watched as so many hard-working people have lost jobs. I’ve watched as these same hard-working people desperately and futilely tried to find jobs to support their families. I’ve watched despair, frustration, and rage—and the feeling that no one in power cares—set in.

This past Christmas season was our largest for car break-ins and house burglaries. If you have nothing for your kids, you get more than a little desperate. Our food banks throughout the metropolitan area run out of food early in the month and have to turn people away. When you can’t feed your family, you get desperate. More families are homeless than ever before, often living in cars. When you can’t even give your family one room to shelter in, you get desperate.

These are the perfect conditions for crime—the indifference of the wealthy and powerful, devastating despair, frustration that none of your efforts to make a legal living work out, and rage at the system that’s taken your hard work and dumped you and yours on the trash heap. Add the highest incarceration rate in the world to that. With only 6% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners, mostly men of color, African American, Latino, Native American. Private prisons are a growth industry here, as is the slave labor they provide. Yes, it’s the chain gangs again.

Large parts of urban and rural America have become a laboratory experiment to see what happens when you provide the perfect environment for crime to flourish. Under those circumstances, as you might suspect, crime flourishes.

The crime of the rich, which is not just flourishing but growing exponentially, is another matter. That’s propelled by sheer greed and is reclassified as “free market enterprise.” Best not get me started on that.

Tell us about your poetry.

First of all, my poetry is not in fashion right now. I work very hard to make sure my poetry will be accessible, and that’s highly frowned on in academic circles. I hope the reader will pick up all the richness below the surface of the poem, but even if he doesn’t, I want the reader to be able to navigate the surface of the poem without wondering, “What was that even about?” I don’t believe poetry should be just for the chosen few in the academy. So right there, I’m out of step with the larger poetry community.

Secondly, my poetry is feminist. The women in my poetry are usually not shrinking violets. I’ve written poems that celebrate women claiming their own power, poems about domestic violence and abuse and about divorce and passionate love affairs. I’ve written lots of poetry about passionate love and sex. I don’t think anyone who read much of my poetry could come away feeling that I hate or dislike men, though.

Along with the feminist strand running through my poetry is another of heritage and family. I carry several different heritages inside myself, and they inform my work, as does the Eurocentric academic system within which I was trained.

What’s something no one asks you?

About my animals. I rescue animals. Although I have only one large dog and one cat right now, I’ve had as many as five cats and a dog. Always they have either been living on the streets a while and are in bad shape or they are scheduled for immediate euthanasia, if I get them from the pound. Usually I stay to one dog at a time since I usually rescue big dogs that no one wants to mess with. I’m kind of a fanatic about it. I’ve seen too much of what happens to animals that are not spayed and neutered, so I’m a big opponent of those people, usually guys, who don’t want to neuter their dogs. (It’s like they have their pet’s genitals all mixed up with their own.) And the ones, again usually male, who think treating a dog cruelly will make him a better guard dog. It just makes the dog erratic and difficult to place in a home when bozo finds that he’s actually made his dog “mean” and gets rid of him. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the idiots who insist on keeping and breeding large, wild, predator species, such as wolves, coyotes, lions, tigers, bears. Aren’t you sorry you asked?

Thanks for having me here, Richard.

Thank you Linda for an insightful and brilliant interview.

Linda Rodriguez author websiteBio:  In addition to her novel Every Last Secret, Linda has had two books of poetry published: Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press) winner of the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and Skin Hunger (Scapegoat Press). Besides her affiliation with Latino Writers Collective, she is also a member of Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, Kansas City Cherokee Community, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime.
Visit Linda’s website here.
Follow Linda on Twitter.
Pre-order a copy of Every Last Secret at Amazon US and UK and Barnes & Noble.

Here’s what’s being said about Every Last Secret:

“Fans of Nevada Barr and Sara Paretsky will relish Linda Rodriguez’s stellar debut. Her sleuth, Skeet Bannion, is a keeper. Every Last Secret is a triple crown winner; superb writing, hell for leather plotting and terrific characters.”–Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author of One Was a Soldier

“There’sa new cop in town and she has smarts, courage, and a good heart. Mystery readers will find a new favorite in Chief Skeet Bannion.”–Nancy Pickard, author of The Scent of Rain and Lightning

“EveryLast Secret offers that rare and startling thing in the universe of thrillers: a truly fresh voice. Rodriguez’s tale spares nothing. Skeet is an all-too-human heroine, and we just want more,more, more.”–Jacquelyn Mitchard, #1 national bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean and Second Nature: A Love Story

“Linda Rodriguez has created a captivating female detective with a mind for justice and a heart for those who’ve been unfairly treated. Skeet navigates university politics and a nest of deadly secrets to find the truth, even when it means investigating people she cares about.”–Carolyn Haines, author of Bones of a Feather

“Rodriguez’s debut is an action-packed ride featuring an intriguing heroine you won’t quickly forget.”–Sally Goldenbaum, national bestselling author of The Wedding Shawl

“Murder on a college campus, plenty of bad people, and all kinds of puzzles to solve. Linda Rodriguez has written a highly enjoyable procedural introducing a rough and tender heroine, Skeet Bannion.”–Kathleen George, author of The Odds and Hideout

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