Hello, this is L.M. David. Today I am interviewing Carmen Amato, author of Cliff Diver. I admit I am happy to be doing this interview. It marks the second time in history that Preston was actually polite to a guest. He greeted my guest with humility…then locked me out of the building. It took a lot of yelling and screaming but I am now inside and we can begin this interview.
Q. Welcome Carmen. Please tell me a little bit about yourself.
A. I’m originally from New York but love to travel and experience new cultures and new ways of thinking about the world. I consider myself an occasional nomad, a cultural observer, and a reluctantly recovering Furla handbag addict. Like most mystery writers, my favorite beverage is coffee. I spend far too much time on Twitter but am still happily married with two nearly adult children. We own 5 Kindles, 2000 print books and a haughty German Shepherd.
Q. Your book, Cliff Diver, is about the first and only female detective in Acapulco. What is Emilia Cruz like?
A. An Acapulco native forced to grow up too fast, Emilia Cruz has been a cop for nearly 12 years and a detective for two; a strong Latina woman in a squad room that didn’t want her and is still trying to break her. But Emilia isn’t afraid to defend herself and get what she’s rightfully earned. She’s a good liar, a fast thinker, a determined investigator and a mean kick boxer. She knows that many women in Mexico don’t get the chances she’s had. The proof is in a log she tracks of women who have gone missing and her quest to find out their fates will be a continuing subplot through all the books. The one thing Emilia doesn’t know how to handle is gringo Kurt Rucker, the manager of a luxury hotel in Acapulco.
Q. What inspired you to write this book?
A. We lived in Mexico at a time when the drug wars were really beginning to heat up. One Christmas a junkie stumbled into midnight Mass. Father Richard was leading us in the Prayer of the Faithful when a man staggered up the center aisle, his limbs jerking as he alternately murmured and shouted incomprehensible words. We all shrank back as he made his way towards the altar, an unexpected and volatile presence.
As the congregation looked on in growing panic, the man accosted Father Richard. The priest didn’t move or stop the prayer, just dug through his robes for a pocket. He pulled out a few pesos and pressed them into the man’s hand.
By that time several of the male congregants had come onto the altar as well and they gently propelled the drug-addled man back down the altar steps and through the church to the rear door.
Christmas mass continued and the addict remained nameless to the shaken congregation. But he stayed with all of us, evidence that Mexico’s own drug problem was growing as more and more drugs transited the country en route to the insatiable United States.
He reminded me of the drug war raging just outside our happy expatriate bubble. We were an American family in Mexico City, embracing a new culture, exploring a vibrant city, and meeting people who were to impact our lives for years to come. But we always knew that the bubble was fragile and as if to prove it, Mexico’s news grew worse in the new year: shootouts in major cities, multiple drug seizures, rising numbers of dead and missing, the murders of mayors, governors and journalists.
Back in the United States, I was surprised and saddened by how little of what was going on made it into the news. Especially as the numbers of people missing in Mexico continue to climb, I’m hoping a mystery series can raise awareness of what’s going on in Mexico, with plot elements straight out of the headlines, an authentic dive into one of the most beautiful settings on earth, and a little salsa fresca from my own years living in Mexico and Central America.
Q. Sorry to hear about all that. How much research did you have to do for this book?
A. Given my experience in Mexico, I had a good grasp of the issues and people I wanted to portray. Moreover, I’ve always been a news junkie and knowing some Spanish helps. I read at least 4 newspapers a day, along with blogs and some academic-type websites. I also have some well-thumbed maps of the area and follow several Mexican-based bloggers.
Q. Kurt Rucker is the love interest for Emilia. What is his character like?
A. A native of New York who grew up on a farm, Kurt is a quietly confident man who enlisted in the US Marine Corps, went to war, and then on to college where he “studied hotel and restaurant management so I’d never have to go back to that farm.” He manages Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel, serves on the prestigious Acapulco Hotel Association board, and speaks fluent Spanish. Kurt moves easily in any environment, from Emilia’s uncle’s garage in a poor neighborhood to the mayor’s boardroom. A competitive triathlete, he is very different from any other man Emilia knows.
Q. How deep does Kurt Rucker get in the murder investigation?
A. Kurt is the manager of a hotel where some of the action takes place. The series doesn’t cast him in the role of either sidekick or victim. His role is more as a mentor and a refuge when Emilia needs a break from the pressure. If Emilia was Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Kurt would be Susan.
Q. Cliff Diver is just one in a series of books involving Emilia Cruz. What are the names of the other books?
A. The next book in the series is Hat Dance, which will be released 30 July 2013. Emilia will hunt for a missing girl even as the investigation into a spate of deadly arson attacks puts her own life in danger. Help is in short supply as city politics hobble both investigations and the ongoing fight against Mexico’s violent drug cartels stalks every move the detective makes. In late 2013 the third book in the series, Sun God, will pit Emilia against a cult devoted to Santa Muerte, the patron saint of death and the talisman of many drug cartels. To tell the truth, that manuscript is scaring me a little.
Q. You also have a book out called The Hidden Light of Mexico City. Is this book separate from the Emilia Cruz mysteries?
A. Yes, The Hidden Light of Mexico is a stand-alone thriller. I wanted to write something about Mexico’s highly stratified society, which I see as an enabler of the rise of the drug cartels. In Hidden Light, Mexico City attorney Eddo Cortez Castillo’s unexpected relationship with housemaid Luz de Maria Alba Mora becomes a dangerous vulnerability when he investigates links between his boss, the Minister for Public Security and Mexico’s most elusive drug cartel leader. But what Eddo doesn’t know is that Luz is trapped at the bottom of Mexico’s ladder of inequality, where broken dreams and family poverty have brought her to the breaking point.
It took me more than 8 years to complete this novel, which was repeatedly interrupted by other writing projects, international moves, and real life, but it is the one that lives closest to my heart.
Q. What are some of Emilia’s bad habits?
A. She lies. She lies often and well. Her lies are a defense mechanism against the active dislike of her male detective colleagues and a way to avoid revealing information she knows could derail an investigation. She lies to trick witnesses into giving up information, to protect herself from corrupt politicians, and to throw up a wall between herself and Kurt Rucker when she’s afraid of their intimacy. She usually gets away with it, but Kurt Rucker sees through her every time.
Q. If your book were being made into a movie, who would you get to play Emilia Cruz and why?
A. I have “dreamcasts” on my website as well as on Pinterest boards. America Ferrera is my choice to play Emilia, although Eva Mendez, whom I picture as Hidden Light’s Luz de Maria, runs a close second.
Onscreen, Ferrera is fierce, able to project true depth of emotion. The scene in the first The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants in which she finally sobs out her anger to her father over the phone is a riveting piece of acting. She perfectly captured the gritty cop vibe in End of Watch; for the movie’s prep she attended police academy training and rode with Los Angeles cops. Despite her success she comes across in interviews as friendly, normal, and happily resistant to Hollywood elitism. Emilia Cruz has that same combination of toughness, emotional vulnerability, and frankness.
Q. What is a typical day like for you?
A. A typical day for me starts out with coffee (no surprise) and the news at around 0545. I generally work out after that and am ready to start the writing work day about 0900. I check social media first—another news source–and then focus on book writing, blog posts, or generally answering the mail until about 1500. If I haven’t gotten a lot of real writing done, I’ll often write longhand in the evening, coming up with new angles or sketching out dialogue. The best part of writing is editing but I can’t do that late at night, for some reason I tend to have better concentration in the morning. There’s more about how I approach my work on my website’s FAQ.
I have a writing buddy that I meet with once a week. We bounce ideas off each other and generally recharge our creative batteries with too much cappuccino. He’s a walking thesaurus and very helpful.
Q. Are you good at solving mysteries?
A. I’m good at unraveling people’s motives. I like to see where they’re from and what experiences they have had that make them tick. And I like to build mysteries out of intricate pieces, some of which only exist because of a cultural influence.
Q. What was the hardest part for you to write in Cliff Diver?
A. The hardest part to write was when Emilia finds out the real identity of the killer. I’d always planned for the plot to reveal the killer this way but had to get up from the computer several times, too upset to keep going. One reviewer said it was like “a punch to the stomach” while another said she wanted to kill the character herself! So the scene got the wow factor I was after but it was tough.
Q. What was your favorite part in Cliff Diver?
A. I like Emilia’s snappy dialogue with senior detective Franco Silvio throughout the book. But I loved the scene with Emilia and Kurt in the pool. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Q. Why did you choose to self-publish?
A. I had three experiences that soured me on the traditional publication route. First, when seeking to publish The Hidden Light of Mexico City, I was told by a publishing insider that New York agents would never represent a book in which all the characters were Mexican. Second, an agent who was considering Cliff Diver said that although the book was good, he would not represent me because he didn’t know anybody who knew me. Third, I walked away from a contract in 2011 for The Hidden Light of Mexico City due to the publisher’s unprofessional approach to the book cover, price setting and related issues. At that point I no longer saw an advantage in going the traditional route—the creative control and income is just so much better as an independent author, without having to put up with anybody else’s agenda.
Self-publishing has allowed me to set my own pace, maintain creative control over every aspect of the writing and publishing process, and expand my skills set. I’m lucky enough to have a great virtual team to call on when I get stuck, including an intellectual property rights attorney, a PR specialist, and friends in the graphic design field. It has been a tremendously positive experience.
Q. What advice would you give to a writer who is considering self-publishing?
A. Have a quality product that can compete with the books from traditional publishers, both in terms of content and formatting. If you don’t have a competitive product then you are not done! Read well-reviewed books in your genre, in both ebook and print formats. Know the level of excellence to aim for. Polish your prose, grammar, and have a concept for the style of the book. Join a writer’s group, get feedback, and act on it.
The best part of being an indie author is control over the timeline—so use it! Don’t rush to publish and present a product full of bad punctuation, a floundering plot, or stilted dialogue. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Be your own most ruthless critic.
Once you are sure that your product is competitive, start gathering your network of experts. Traditional publishers still have what you don’t—a posse of editors, proofreaders, cover makers, marketers, book reviewers. All those resources are out there but you’ll have to either duplicate their work yourself or find/hire people to do it for you. Nothing is impossible but it will take time.
Also, please don’t use Papyrus font on your cover. It always looks like an amateur did it.
L.M. David: That concludes this interview. Thank you for stopping and best of luck with your publishing ventures.
Carmen Amato is the author of The Hidden Light Of Mexico and the Emilia Cruz mysteries set in Acapulco. Occasional nomad, cultural observer, reluctantly recovering Furla handbag addict. Reads both Kindle and print. Overly fond of coffee.