Interviewed by Jon Michaelsen
Michael, thank you so much for taking time to answer some questions for members of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook group.
Let’s start off with, where do you live?
Just outside San Francisco.
Without getting too personal, would you share a little about your home life?
You know, Jon, the most interesting things about me are in the books I’ve written. Otherwise, my life is quite ordinary. Getting up, cleaning the cats’ litter box, going to work, coming home, making dinner, watching baseball on TV. Really nothing to write home about.
What would you say is your greatest accomplishment to date?
Twenty-plus years of sobriety. (Jon – Congratulations! That IS a major accomplishment and I’m greatly proud for you.)
Have you ever had to deal with homophobia after your novels were released, and if so, what forms has it taken?
Well, never to my face. I’m sure there were outlets that did not review the books because they featured a gay protagonist and undoubtedly many readers wouldn’t read the books for that reason. On the other hand, the fact that there was a gay protagonist may have distinguished them from the crowded field of crime fiction and attracted reviewers and readers for that very reason. Certainly, I have no complaints about the positive reviews the books received in many mainstream publications. So, the gay factor may have been a wash.
Your seven novels featuring gay Mexican-American criminal attorney, Henry Rios, are cited often by authors of the LGBT mystery/thriller genre (including me!) as not only ground-breaking, but a major influence in their own writing. How do you feel having achieved such enormous influence on generations of writers (not to mention readers) and the icon-status bestowed upon you?
I appreciate the compliment but the real pioneer was Joseph Hansen. His 12 Dave Brandstetter, novels, published between the early 70’s and mid-90’s, featured a gay insurance investigator who was both secure in his sexuality and his masculinity and competent at his job. Joe’s books were the antithesis of camp and the mid-70’s New York gay ghetto novels in which the protagonists were “doomed beauties” whose lives seem to consist of sex, drugs and self-pity. I read them as a law student at Stanford and they spoke to my experience of being gay and gave me a model for what a sane, accomplished life might look like as a gay, professional man. They are also beautifully written — Joe’s best books are as good as Ross McDonald’s or any of the other so-called “literary” mystery writers — and a great pleasure to read. Joe showed me the way and I am in his debt as a writer and a human being. So, to the extent people feel the way about my books that I feel about Joe’s, I would urge them to read Joe’s books if they haven’t already.
The five-time Lambda Award winning Henry Rios mystery/suspense series is what fans have come to know you for, starting in 1986 with the release of The Little Death. Last year, to the excitement of many fans, all novels in the series were released in e-book and audio formats to a new generation of gay mystery lovers. Are you surprised by the series’ incredible endurance of almost three decades?
I’m happy the books are still available and that, as e-books, I won’t have to worry about them ever going out of print. It was odd hearing the audiobook. I could only listen to a little bit and then I had to turn it off. I don’t know why it was so disconcerting to hear another voice reading words I wrote, but it was. As for why they have survived, I don’t know. I think they do document a very complex and difficult period in LGBT history — the plague years — and the fact that they constitute a series may provide a more panoramic view of those years than a one-off novel.
Can you share why you chose to end the Henry Rios series with the release of the seventh and final novel, Rag and Bone?
I never set out to be a mystery writer, my first vocation was as a poet. When I did turn my attention from writing poetry to writing fiction in my early 20s, I wanted to write about my sense of “otherness” and estrangement from the mainstream culture as a gay man in a straight world and a brown man in a white world. I found the American noir was a perfect vehicle for that exploration because in those classic novels by Chandler and Ross McDonald, for example, you had an outsider hero who embodied the virtues the mainstream pretended to honor — loyalty, courage, ingenuity — but rarely demonstrated. And, as I said, Joe Hansen’s books, which were mysteries, gave me a blueprint. So crime fiction seemed a way to write about a queer Latino lawyer struggling to right the thing in a hostile world. The Little Death was supposed to be a one-off but it did well and the publisher — Sasha Alyson, another gay pioneer — asked me if I had another one in me. I did. After Goldenboy was published a New York literary agent got in touch with me and said he thought New York publishers would be interested in more Rios books. He negotiated a two book deal with HarperCollins and, voila, I was a mystery writer.
By the time I got to the last book in the Rios novels, I had pretty much exhausted its capacity to explore those outsider themes. At the same time, I had become more interested in my Mexican heritage and identity than in my gay identity. So I looked for another literary vehicle to explore that aspect of my “otherness.” One thing and another led me to fin-de-siècle Mexico, the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican-Arizona border and Hollywood in the silent film era. So now I’m writing a series of historical novels. My underlying theme never changes: I write about the day-to-day heroism of disenfranchised, the despised, the underdog.
It’s been about thirteen years between the release of your last Henry Rios novel and your most recent release, The City of Palaces. What kept you so busy all these years? Have you ever considered penning another gay mystery series?
Well, as you may know Jon, in addition to writing I’m a lawyer. I’ve spent almost my entire legal career in public service, first as a prosecutor, and for the last 25 years as a staff attorney at the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court, where I currently work on death penalty cases, writing opinions in those cases for the court. I also became very involved in pushing for greater diversity in the legal profession and the judicial system. California is a “minority/majority” state — that is, no single racial or ethnic group comprises 50% of the population — and the largest population is Latinos, most of us of Mexican descent. Yet, though we are approaching 40% of the population, lawyers and judges are overwhelmingly white, straight and male. Unless we’re prepared to accept an apartheid system of justice in California, that has to change. I spent most of the last 10 years working on that issue in various capacities. Now as I approach retirement from the law, I’ve turned my focus back to writing. I’m not interested in writing another mystery series, but I don’t rule out revisiting Rios at some point.
The City of Palaces is a significant departure from the more contemporary gay mysteries you’ve written in the past. After a long absence from publishing, what influenced you to share such a sweeping historical saga set prior to the Mexican Revolution?
Well, as I mentioned, in the last 15 years or so I’ve become really interested in the Mexican part of my heritage and identity. My great-grandparents came to California in 1920 as refugees of the Mexican Revolution; they were among the million Mexican displaced by that savage and bloody civil war, about which most of us know nothing. So there’s that. But I also became fascinated by Ramon Novarro, who was one of the first generation of movie stars in the 1920s, and who was both a Mexican immigrant and a homosexual. His early life — how he came to L.A. as a teenager and hung out at the studios where he was discovered — and what it might have been like to be an immigrant and gay and suddenly propelled into worldwide fame, seemed like a story worth telling. Those narrative threads came together for me. Originally, I was going to write a single novel based on Novarro and set in Hollywood in the late teens and early 20’s, but the backstory — the story of the Revolution and how he came to California — was so complicated and dramatic and fascinating that I realized I could not do his story justice in a single book. So The City of Palaces, which introduces the Novarro character (called Jose) as a nine-year-old boy is the first of four novels.
Last question; can you share with us a little about your current release and/or WIP?
I just finished a book tour for The City of Palaces and now, after catching my breath, I will resume work on the second book in the series which is set in the border town of Douglas, Arizona between 1913 and 1916.
On behalf of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook Group, thank you so much for sharing your time with us and answering questions fans of the genre would like to know.
Thank you, Jon.
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