Gabriel Valjan is the author of the Roma Series from Winter Goose Publishing. Also the author of numerous essays and short stories that continue to appear online and in print, Gabriel lives in Boston’s historic South End, where he enjoys the local restaurants. His two cats, Squeak and Squawk, tolerate the occasional empty food dish and his traitorous fondness for dogs.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Corporate Citizen: Roma Series Book Five. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Corporate Citizen has Bianca returning to Boston. She was last in Boston in Wasp’s Nest (Book 2). She’s here now to help the cantankerous Clemente, who has enticed her with a cryptic reference to her past employer, the covert agency named Rendition. While in town, Bianca will confront her past through a new member to the team, a former soldier with PTSD. Readers will learn more about her past, what makes her ticks; this installment will present major revelations Book Five turns the corner into new territory.
I wrote Corporate because I had watched the banking crises with interest (no pun intended). After I had written the novel, I watched the movies The Big Short and Spotlight, and felt a weird sense of discomfort. In books three and four, Threading The Needle and Turning To Stone, I had visited the ideas of financial and institutional terrorism, but after viewing those two films, I felt I had captured and conveyed the magnitude of cynicism (The Big Short) and corruption (Spotlight) in Corporate Citizen, although my characters fight the good fight. A day doesn’t pass without news about the deeds or misdeeds of a corporate conglomerate. This disquieting news plays as background noise in our lives.
I introduce a new character, a veteran who is both dangerous and compassionate. Nick was modeled (loosely) on a deceased family member. When I was a kid, he wouldn’t talk explicitly about combat but he did mention that he and other selected infantry soldiers had been given large doses of Dexedrine, an amphetamine, and, on one occasion, LSD. He would die at the age of forty as a result of exposure to Agent Orange.
Q: What do you think makes a good mystery-suspense? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: Ambiguity. Pace. Tension. A good mystery-suspense is like a kettle on the flame; you know that the water is heated and at some point you will hear the water roil and then see whispers of steam before the kettle screams. A writer is responsible for how much water is in the pot and the degree to which the flame is pitched. The water will boil, the whistle will blow — suspense and tension. Is there a potholder nearby? An enjoyable mystery-suspense book is one that gives you an unexpected ending such that when you think about it, you see all the pieces had been there and had come together.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: With Corporate, I knew where I was going with the story. I knew what I wanted to achieve and how I was going to go about it. Corporate Citizen is a game-changer in many ways. Writing it, the intention was a calculated risk, but I don’t believe in a formulaic approach. Life has its changes. New challenges are necessary for my characters to grow. With change, there is discomfort, catharsis, and renewal.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: Bianca is an amalgam of people I’ve known. I once knew a notorious hacker. Another friend of mine, now deceased, was beyond brilliant, with a 200 IQ, but unable to interact with people. You could tell when you dealt with him that he was thinking about things on another plane and that he struggled to put it all into words. Bianca is a combination of these two individuals, and there is an element of my younger self. I was cold and very Spock-like when I was younger. It was a defense mechanism. I’ve mellowed some. I don’t do character sketches, but it isn’t difficult for me to access the people I’ve known and anticipate what they would say and do in certain situations.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: I think pure Evil is rare. Human beings have a primitive instinct, a survival impulse to avoid such people. It’s more realistic that a person is flawed, that they have a genuine impulse to do good, but the end-results are problematic. History is littered with individuals who are one nation’s hero and another’s nightmare. I aim for ambiguity. Here, the title matters. Is a soldier, who has killed for his country, a bad person? Objectively, he has taken lives. Is the politician, who has ordered an assassination to maintain hegemony and political stability, evil? Readers of the Series know that Rendition had started with the best of intentions. In Corporate Citizen, there are two new characters: I let the readers decide whether they are villains.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: Writing a novel is like the race between the tortoise and the hare. First, I think you have to a clear and fast glimpse of the finish line. What does each character want? What is the price (assumed and real) of what they want? What will they have by the last page? If you have rough answers to these questions and you know your characters well enough that they speak to you inside your head then write it all down. That is the slow part of the process. You could vary the pace, like a director with a camera, with a cutaway to another scene, to another character, but end your chapter with a question or a revelation that is picked up later. The more you write, the more you read, the better you will get at knowing what to do, when to do it, and the more likely you’ll have a sense of how to do it. I know that sounds vague, but the more you read other authors, the more you become aware of the tricks of the trade. This is why reading widely across genres helps. There is also some excellent writing for serial television, such as Breaking Bad. Enjoy it first and then make a case study of it so you teach yourself how the writer(s) did it. Jane Austen almost never describes what her characters look like and yet she writes dialogue, often in close combat, that has withstood the test of time. What you teach yourself, the knowledge you acquire, is on your terms, in your own language, and what you know, you’ll never forget.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: It helps that I’ve lived or traveled to the places that I use in the Roma Series. However, special precautions are necessary when a writer uses a foreign locale. I wrote an article for Writer Unboxed about avoiding stereotypes. When I think the story is as good it’ll be, I’ll send it to my Italian friend in Milan, Claudio Ferrara, who is also a talented writer and translator. He does what I call ‘cultural editing.’ Simply put, there is a point where, despite all of my research and empathy, a native speaker helps with authenticity – whether it’s an Italian word, or a detail about a place. A foreigner often sees touristy things but a native will point those things that are the heart of the city and culture. Let me give you an example. I live in Boston, the city that sparked the American Revolution. There are so many touchstones to the historical past: the Freedom Trail, the Old Meeting House, and the Boston Tea Party, but I’ll point to one curious memorial. On School Street, where there used to be a Borders bookstore, there is a plaque commemorating the site of the first Catholic Church building in Boston and the city’s first public Mass in 1788. The Puritans settled New England in 1620. Think about that gap in time and its implications for religious tolerance. It’s all a matter of perspective and insider knowledge.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme recurrent in your other work?
A: The recurring themes throughout all of the Roma Series books are friendship and loyalty among friends while they negotiate dangerous situations. I know from the start where the story will take place, and which aspect of organized crime I will present to the reader. Where I strive to be distinctive in crime fiction is in how I show that organized crime is more than just some thug like Tony Soprano, though they do exist. Organized crime in Italy is the vampire that feeds off superstition and fears, but yet has morphed, paradoxically, into a very modern, sophisticated and multinational corporation.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: A writer’s skill is craft, but the art of it all is a collaboration of invisible hands. Editing and revision is where there is Art. My friend Dean Hunt copy-edits my writing and has proofread my novels. Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist and a doctoral student in American literature, remarked that “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s spelling [was] so awful sometimes I think if he had auto-spell Gatsby would not have died.” Not comparing myself to the wonderful Fitzgerald or Rindell, but writers need guard rails. Line editing requires an attentive ear and knowing the writer. Dave King has helped me in this regard. He also has helped me with structural editing for the plot’s arc. I have readers who spot-check for continuity. I’ve already discussed Claudio’s work with me as my cultural editor. When my novel visits James’s desk at Winter Goose, I hope that it is as clean as possible, and yet he’ll find nits and wrinkles. The point to all this is that a book in hand – what we call Art — is the product of many different talents and minds at work.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Item #1 is a quote from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
Stupid people surround themselves with smart people. Smart people surround themselves with smart people who disagree with them.
In a word, you rise to the occasion because smarter people, those who’ll call you on it, make you a better writer and person.
Item #2: The ability to create characters who want something, and an obstacle in the way of fulfilling that desire. The character should start somewhere and arrive somewhere else.
Item #3: The writer should be invisible to the story. The story should reveal itself without any authorial intrusion, which means no verbal pyrotechnics, no showing off what they know, or forced jokes or gratuitous violence. Whatever happens in the story should be organic and logical to the initial premise and appropriate to the personalities.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I agree. Writers are sensitive to language and the ‘homework’ is studying other writers. For example, I have little interest in rap music, but I admire and appreciated what Lin-Manuel Miranda did in his musical Hamilton. He used contemporary music to teach history, tell a story, a tragic one. I had read and enjoyed Chenow’s Hamilton, but the musical Hamilton brought the historical person of Alexander Hamilton, a brilliant and at times monumentally insecure man to life in my imagination.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: I consult Dave King and Rennie Browne’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and visit Writer Unboxed online, along with Kristen Lamb’s blog. While I respect advice, exercises, and strategies, I think you’re best left to figure it out on your own, using your imagination and learning lessons from reading for decades.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Do it. Write. Put your butt in the chair and hands on the keyboard and see what comes through the fingertips. Readers want a story that entertains them, moves them, and changes their way of looking at the world. Trust your imagination, draft and revise it. Have fun and write that story.