Omnimystery News is pleased to welcome Ian Vasquez, author of the noir thriller Mr. Hooligan (Minotaur Books, December 2010 Hardcover, 978-0-312-37811-0).
Today Ian writes about writing his most recent novel, and whether it matters where a book is set.
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Photo provided courtesy of Ian Vasquez
If I had to put my head on the block as to what two questions are asked most about a new book it would be: What’s it about? And: Where is it set?
Fundamental concerns and understandable questions, sure, but paradoxically, in regard to narratives, they miss the point. So when I’m asked these questions about something I’ve written, I squirm. I know my answers won’t satisfy me; I know that, to my ear, they’ll sound incomplete. What makes it even more curious is that many writers must tackle these very questions before they begin writing. Yet when faced with the queries from others, we hesitate.
We realize our answers offer an idea of the book but don’t bring us any closer to understanding it. That’s because a book is not its plot or its setting, but how it is about that plot and setting.
And herein lies the paradox, because without that particular plot and that particular setting, it wouldn’t be the same book.
Much of the praise I’ve received focuses on the setting, and so has much of the resistance, albeit implied. Here’s something I often get: “So is it set in Belize again?”
This is followed by: “Hmmm …”
Then: “Have you thought about writing a book set in the States?”
Now, when someone says that, what I hear is: “Why don’t you write a book set in a place I am familiar with?” And I can’t dismiss that concern. As readers we want our lives and our worlds to be affirmed, and familiar fictional worlds can provide that affirmation. A well-read person I know loves Stephen King as much for the thrill of the stories as for the settings, especially the descriptions of the Maine woods and the snowy landscapes.
But what about the reader who longs for a journey, a visit to a new place and culture, an adventure among new faces? Travel writing is popular for a reason; it takes you on vicarious journeys – without the risk. New scenes and cultures pique the curiosity of real-world travelers, but hovering behind the novelty is a recognition, which, depending on the traveler’s mind-set, can spoil or illuminate a trip: the recognition that people are fundamentally the same wherever you go. They, like us, are driven by urges, passions, dreams, they all suffer and hope and plan and connive and plot and work. It is how they live in their particular worlds that make them interesting; just as how a novel’s characters act in their fictional worlds makes them interesting. Reading fiction that takes you into unfamiliar settings can be a glimpse into how people are shaped by their environment, by their political realities and their cultures. Why would we as readers, most of whom are inherently curious, not want to avail ourselves of this?
I read an interview with Cormac McCarthy in which he said that he doesn’t like fiction about exotic places. Yet pick up any one of his novels and you’ll notice that the world he presents – that border territory – when rendered in his inimitable prose style is as exotic as they come. His eye and his mood detect qualities in a landscape that so interests him, he can’t help but tell stories of its people, and I’m sure the language he chooses is the language he thinks is best suited to convey that world in all its variations.
Some writers have no choice but to write books with a strong sense of place. We are shaped, despite the American myth of the rugged individualist, by the places we inhabit. Sometimes our vision bends itself to our surroundings. A New York City teenage boy will have some essential difference in speech and behavior when compared to a teenager from Columbus, Ohio, who will be strikingly different than the one from Haines City, Florida, who will have little in common with a teen from Kingston, Jamaica. Yet, if these boys were put in a room together, you can bet they’d discover common pursuits, insecurities or dreams shared by most Western boys of a certain age this side of the equator.
So does it matter where a book is set? Yes and no.
Mr. Hooligan is set in Belize because it’s a place I know. I know its narrow, potholey roads, its dust and sea air, the rhythm of its patois and the unspoken threat in its backstreets. I know its characters, their constant striving for more, for better, their frustrations – “If only this little Third World country could be…”
A friend of mine, a Belize City business man, said he both loves and hates the city, the hassle of dealing with customs and with workmen on “tomorrow time” and rushing to cross the bridge every day before it swings so as to save himself a longer drive to the other side of the city, to meet someone who will probably keep them waiting anyway. This friend was moved to tears when reading Istanbul. The author, Orhan Pamuk, manages in one long paragraph to evoke the feel of his city, its huzun, and my friend said he felt Pamuk was perfectly capturing the mood of Belize City, with its beggars and broken store signs, its traffic and the play of light on the streets.
Belize is geographically and developmentally far from Istanbul, but I know what my friend means. I write about Belize because it has shaped my way of sensing the world, but it’s not exclusive to someone from Belize. There’s an essential humanity that books try to convey in their characters, and while the settings may differ, their common humanity should be recognizable. Characters, no matter where they’re from, are people we’ve met, or people we know, or fear, or love.
I write about people.
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Ian Vasquez, a copy editor at the St. Petersburg Times, received his MFA while working on a psychiatric ward and counseling at-risk high school students. Raised in Belize, he now lives near Tampa, Florida with his wife and two children. Visit his website at IanVasquez.net.
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About Mr. Hooligan: Riley James was small-time, just a kid running messages and money for the Monsanto Brothers, the real players in Belize City. Then one slip in judgment left two men dead. The Monsantos handled the situation for their young protégé — but accepting this favor put Riley inescapably in their debt.
Now, years later, he’s a pro picking up drug drops under the Coast Guard’s nose and guiding boats through the reefs, which was something he wanted as a kid but not anymore. He wants out once and for all, and to cancel his debt, he makes a deal with the Monsantos to do one last run. It’s Riley’s last chance to scrape back to even, to nothing, to a place where he hasn’t been since he was just a kid.
Mr. Hooligan is available in Hardcover and popular eBook formats (see icons below book cover above).
Read the first chapter of Mr. Hooligan below; use the Aa settings button to adjust font size, line spacing, and word density.