Archive for interviews

Mexican Gothic: Talking With Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The most exciting kind of travel has been taken away from us. Borders are closed, flights cancelled, museums shuttered. And who dares go to a restaurant? Yet we can still escape quarantine with books. And nowhere has seemed more mysterious, gorgeous and suspenseful to me than the inner world of a book called Mexican Gothic.

This remarkable novel by Silva Moreno-Garcia is narrated by Noemi Taboada, a smart young single woman who is sent by her wealthy family in Mexico City to check up on a cousin who’s sent a worrying letter after having moved to her husband’s family estate in the mountains. This is a true Gothic novel, with the benefit of being enriched with Indian mythology and surreal dream imagery, and colonial history, warped eugenic theory, and biology of plants, animals and insects. Critics are calling it intoxicating and pitch perfect gothic and admire its chills and thrills. It debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and is still in the top 15 three weeks later.

I am grateful to Silvia for answering my questions about the book and her writing life.


Silvia, this is a very special book. To me it feels like part historical suspense, part gothic novel, part Latin-American magic realism, part horror. Were you aware you were doing something ground-breaking with this book? Did you hear “this book doesn’t fit any category” when you were in the submission process? Was this book an easy sell or a complex sell?

Gothic fiction is a hybrid genre. It contains elements of psychological suspense, sometimes of outright horror, sometimes romance, sometimes supernatural elements, often a historical setting. It can have a mystery. It’s the literary grandparent to modern domestic noir, but also an ancestor of modern romance. It’s why I was interested in working in a Gothic mode. It can spill out of categories.

As to how it sold, it was easy in the sense that Del Rey bought my previous novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, in a two-book deal. So this was the second book I delivered and because I was under the contract we didn’t have to shop it around.

However, that ease is relative. I’ve had a hard time selling almost everything I’ve ever published. Right after finishing Mexican Gothic we tried selling Untamed Shore, a noir, and it was basically impossible to move that. We ended going with a new, small press called Polis/Agora for a very modest advance of a few hundred dollars and a print run of 2,000 copies.

English Pantheon
by Diego Delso, Lic CC-BY-SA

Is this book coming out in any other countries, and any film interest yet?

I’ve never had much luck with translation but Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic will be translated into a handful of languages. And there is film interest. Nothing firm, though.

Mexican Gothic has been on the NYT bestseller list for two weeks, and hopefully more, as word spreads. What is different about life for you now that you are a NYT bestselling author? 

I can hopefully worry less about my future. As I indicated above, it hasn’t necessarily been easy to sell my work. My vampire narco novel Certain Dark Things and my fantasy of manners The Beautiful Ones both went out of print very quickly. Publishing houses expect very quick successes and have little patience in nurturing talent. And they didn’t think much of my genre-switching ways. I’m not interested in writing in just one category, I don’t want to write series, I write a lot about Mexico. All those were minuses for me. But now that might not matter.

This book presents an old-fashioned Mexico with most characters living elite lives, rather than the stereotype of suffering that is predominant in novels published in English about Latin America. Did you intentionally wish to share a different Mexico?

All my books show different slices of Mexico. In Certain Dark Things one of the POVs is a homeless teen, in Untamed Shore we have a woman in a very small town in Baja California with limited social mobility, in Signal to Noise the characters are different shades of middle class. There are programmers, cops, radio announcers, small business owners, translators, and everything else.

It’s the 1950s, and two regions are central to the novel—sophisticated Mexico City and the quiet mountains, where peasants still labor in silver mines for foreign landowners like the Doyles. What is your relationship with these areas? Had you visited each place over the years and how else did you learn such intimate details of these places?

Mexican Gothic is inspired by Real del Monte (also known as Mineral del Monte), which is a town located in Hidalgo in central Mexico. It was mined by the Spanish and then by the British, which earned it the nickname of Little Cornwall. It has a very unique look and feel because of that. There’s an English cemetery and it is high in the mountains, so it can get chilly and foggy. Yuri Herrera by coincidence recently released a non-fiction book about this region and its mines called A Silent Fury. If you want to learn more about it, check it out.

The Pool Las Pozas
by Rod Waddington of Kergunyah, Australia, Lic CC-ASA-2.0

It’s also worth mentioning that Edward James built a surrealist garden in Mexico, in Xilitla. I didn’t include this in my book but at one point I wanted to have structures inspired by it, with stairs that go nowhere and things like that. I think it has a very haunting look.

A Stairway to Heaven in the surrealist garden
Photo by Pavel Kirilov from St Petersburg, Russia

The novel’s heroine, Noemi, is a pampered society girl who wants to study anthropology rather than marry. She longs to enroll at the national university, and her father promises to pay for it if she’ll check on her cousin. Noemi arrives at the remote Victorian mansion with a suitcase of lovely clothing, cigarettes and a lighter. Tell us more about the inspiration for your protagonist.

My family on my mother’s side was poor, my great-grandmother was a maid and my grandmother wanted to be a doctor, but her father forbade it. He said she couldn’t go to medical school because there would be men there. Plus, they expected her to bring money in for the family. So at 15 she finished secretarial school and by her early twenties she married, which was what you did in the 1950s.

My father’s side of the family, my aunts came from a family with some money so they were able to live a life of leisure, and a couple of my great aunts remain unmarried (solteronas) because the family had enough money to support them. One of my great aunts that did marry had a bad marriage and stayed for a while because she was terrified of what people would think if she separated. And in the case of my own grandmother, my grandfather abandoned the family and divorced her, but she couldn’t say that publicly. They lied because if anyone knew about it, my father and his siblings would have been expelled from their Catholic school. There were a lot of secrets that we kept because of the prevailing morality.

My heroine is going to rural Mexico in 1950. Women don’t even have the right to vote. She can’t just phone the authorities and drag her cousin out of a house, even if the people there are creepy. And the family wants to keep this all obviously hush-hush.

Mexico was never a British colony, buts its land and people were exploited by British and American businessmen, following Spain. Discuss the Doyles and how they fit in with this picture.

Spain was the first European nation that exploited Mexico, but obviously it wasn’t the only one. We didn’t get a French empire in Mexico for a few years just because we were bored. Colonialism is not something that ends and everyone says let’s go home. One reason why Latin America is an absolute mess nowadays is because the USA intervened in many countries there, backing coups and destabilizing countries. My next novel briefly mentions some of the CIA’s work in Mexico in the 1960s when they helped train Mexican forces so they could repress and violently neutralize Communist activists. The Doyles are in many ways a much easier boogeyman than the horrific legacy we have in Latin America.

The description of ghostly people in the novel ring true to paranormal experiences people have chronicled. Can you share if you used real accounts of hauntings as background for what happens in the house, or is it all a glorious fantasy?

Ghost stories are fun but it’s all completely made up.

When the pandemic is over and we can travel, what are a few must places in Mexico, that are beautiful and historic, you’d recommend? 

Mexico has very different regions. In the south you have the jungle and a number of Maya archeological sites, in the middle there are many cities that were colonial sites, in Baja California we have desert and water and whales and sharks, and we obviously have beaches too. And then there’s Mexico City which is huge. So it really depends what you feel like doing.

Can you tell us about the crime novel that you released earlier this year?

Untamed Shore combines a coming of age narrative with a noir sensibility. It’s set in the 1970s in a small shark fishing village where a young Mexican woman becomes entangled with some American tourists. I’ve seen people compare it to Jim Thompson’s work. It had two starred reviews (Booklist, Library Journal) but because it came out from such a small press not many people heard about it. LA Review of Books said “Brutality takes on an almost divine quality.” So, maybe check that out.

I think once people have finished Mexican Gothic they’ll be ravenous for your other work. I’m grateful you’ve got all these books waiting for me, and that you continue to take risks and tell the stories that are in your heart. Thank you for visiting with Murder is Everywhere.

Glorious Gargoyles! A Chat with Gigi Pandian

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Gigi Pandian

Continuing our journeys to Paris, I’m interviewing author Gigi Pandian about her new book, The Lost Gargoyle of Paris. Gigi has been a friend of mine since the time she was writing her first mystery featuring archaeologist Jaya Jones. She grew up as the daughter of anthropologists from New Mexico and South India and spent her childhood traveling the world with them for research. Those adventures built the imagination that created the Jaya Jones mystery series, followed by the Accidental Alchemist series, and many locked-room short stories. Gigi has won Agatha and Lefty awards for her fiction and made it to the USA Today bestsellers’ list. The Alchemist’s Illusion, published in 2019, is a finalist for the GP Putnam Sons’ Sue Grafton Memorial Award, which we’ll learn about on Edgars Night, April 30. Yes, I’m also competing for the same award, but I’ll happily lose to Gigi.

I was thrilled that Gigi could join us to talk about her latest Accidental Alchemist mystery, a novella titled The Lost Gargoyle of Paris. It was released last week and is an immensely cozy, comforting read for me during these difficult times.

Thank you for inviting me back to Murder is Everywhere, Sujata. I hope everyone is doing well in these difficult times! It’s great to see everyone remotely, from my cozy little house in Northern California where I’ve been sheltering in place for four weeks now.

Tell us a little about your new book, and especially its connection to Paris.

The Lost Gargoyle of Paris is a novella in my Accidental Alchemist mystery series about a centuries-old female alchemist Zoe Faust and her impish gargoyle sidekick Dorian Robert-Houdin. I hadn’t planned on writing a novella set in France before the next full-length novel, but the idea came to me after watching helplessly as Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in April of 2019.

Both Zoe and Dorian’s histories are connected to the cathedral, so I found myself unable to focus on their next adventure set in Portland, Oregon. I knew they had to go on an excursion back to Paris first. Like all of my books, it’s a lighthearted puzzle plot mystery steeped in history.

In The Lost Gargoyle of Paris, Zoe and Dorian travel to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to investigate a mysterious discovery found in the wreckage of last year’s tragic fire: a long-lost gargoyle illustration drawn by Victor Hugo himself.

American secret alchemist Zoe narrates the novel. Her Dr. Watson figure is Dorian. He’s the most extraordinary sidekick imaginable. What’s his bio? 

Dorian would definitely take issue about being called a Watson rather than the hero! He thinks of himself as a modern-day Poirot—and as a gargoyle, he has the “little gray cells” to make him convinced of his brilliance.

Dorian Robert-Houdin is a gargoyle who was originally carved in stone for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but was accidentally brought to life through alchemy. He was a prototype who was just a little too small, at three-and-a-half-feet, so architect-restorer Viollet-le-Duc gifted the cast-off carving to his friend, famous French stage magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. The magician didn’t realize an antique book he was using as a stage prop contained real magic until it brought his carving to life. He raised Dorian in secrecy, teaching him to be a proper Frenchman.

I am a gargoyle lover—there are so many gargoyles and whimsical animals built into the grand stone buildings of old Bombay, and I’m always trying to photograph them. Was there a special time that gargoyles were in architectural fashion worldwide? Besides England, India and France, where else were gargoyles adored?

True gargoyles are water spouts, but the term “gargoyle” has come to be used more broadly for all sorts of animal grotesques. Gargoyles can be found in ancient Egyptian and Greek architecture, but they’re most associated with medieval European cathedrals. But there’s a mystery that scholars disagree about. What were they meant to represent? Were gargoyles meant to be demons who would frighten people into attending church? Did they represent the trapped souls of people who’d been wicked on earth? Or perhaps to ward off evil themselves?

By having Dorian a living, breathing character, you’ve woven a little magic realism into cozy mysteries. How has that been received by the reading audience?

When I created Dorian, I didn’t imaging it was for anyone beyond myself. I was 36 years old and had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a year of cancer treatments ahead of me, so I threw myself into writing something meaningful to me. I’ve always found gargoyles to epitomize all things mysterious, and have been fascinated by them since I was a kid, so I created a gargoyle character to amuse myself. (And of course my subconscious had kicked in and had me create an alchemist who’d discovered the Elixir of Life, while I was going through chemotherapy.)

I’ve been surprised at every step of my publishing journey how much readers love Dorian and Zoe’s cozy world of alchemy. From my agent and editor to the enthusiastic readers who made the series a success, I’m still pinching myself.

Do you draw the covers for the Alchemist series? If so, what is your art background?

I do have a background in art, but illustrator Hugh D’Andrade is the talent behind the amazing illustrated gargoyle image. In a funny coincidence, Midnight Ink hired him to illustrate the book covers, not knowing that he’d been one of my instructors in art school!

You have a career that is sometimes called a hybrid: some of your books are published by traditional presses, and some, like this current book, are self published. What advantages does this give you?

I’ve learned so much about publishing through the various ways my books have been published. I’ve been able to see firsthand the challenges of different types of publishing—not just self-publishing versus traditional publishing, but also what it’s like to be published by presses of different sizes.

I began my career self-publishing after my agent had been pitching my debut mystery for a year and kept hearing that marketing departments weren’t sure what do to with my books. It was a rewarding experience but a lot of work, so I was happy to be picked up by publishers after my debut novel novel did well. When the large publishing house that published my Accidental Alchemist mysteries closed their mystery imprint, I knew I wanted to continue writing the series and that my readers wanted more books, so I decided to publish the series on my own (and happily I was able to buy the gargoyle illustration so I can continue to use it). It’s an in-progress experiment that I’m having fun with, but I’m not sure what the future holds.

How’s quarantine going for you? What are some of your stress-beating tips for us?

My agent is patiently waiting for a project I owe her, but I’m finding it so difficult to focus these days! But I’m very fortunate to have a house full of books and a small but beautiful backyard vegetable garden.

I had an online video meet-up with my writer’s group last week, and that helped me see I wasn’t alone in having trouble focusing on writing, so I’m not being too hard on myself.

The things that are helping most with stress are staying connected to my distant loved-ones, cooking, and getting plenty of exercise. I love to cook and already cooked most of my meals at home, so I’m making a point to experiment with more recipes while I have additional time at home. I’m the cook and my husband is the gardener, so we each get the benefits of both. Personally I think I got the better end of the bargain.

Sending good wishes to everyone! I hope you have many fulfilling armchair travels this spring.

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