Today on Mysteristas, I’m interviewing Joy Castro, author of the Nola Céspedes mystery novels, Hell or High Water, and Nearer Home. Nola is my new favorite sleuth. She is feisty, funny, and whip smart. She doesn’t suffer fools but has a soft spot for those in need. If you haven’t met Nola Céspedes, you’ve got to check out these novels.
KO: I love Nola Céspedes in her two outings so far. Will we see Nola again in a third crime novel?
JC: Thank you so much, Kelly! I loved writing them both and would love to write more. I’ve outlined two more Nola novels so far, and I noodle around on them from time to time, when I can’t concentrate on my current main project.
One is about industrial environmental crime that poisons the Pearl River and Lake Pontchartrain, and the other is about a drug cartel that wants to rule New Orleans. The drug-cartel one has a little old evil stone-cold matriarch who spouts a twisted version of theorist Simone Weil as a justification for the use of violence, so I’m having fun with that one.
The novels are kind of geeky and issue-driven, obviously, but there’s also a lot of action and wit. I tend to love both kinds of things: the serious stuff and the fun.
KO: What was it like turning to crime writing from memoir and other genres? What do you like about writing crime and detective fiction?
JC: In memoir, I write to discover, to pursue answers to the serious questions that haunt me. When I begin writing a memoir or personal essay, I don’t know the answer—or if I’ll even find one. I just know the question, and I know I’m on the trail of something painful and elusive. In this way, there is a kind of connection with sleuthing or detective work, and the hope is that, through writing—through confronting the issue and thinking/feeling hard about it, through tracking down its ramifications—I’ll find or create some kind of meaningful shape that illuminates the issue and makes it cohere both aesthetically and at the level of meaning. This doesn’t always happen, of course, and then the piece fails, and it stays in my notebook, and no one else ever sees it. I have quite a few of those…
When writing crime fiction, on the other hand, I first need to generate the resolution, the solution, before I begin drafting, so that I can carefully lay each brick in the road to lead to that conclusion. You know: clues and so on. It all has to add up. If I sat down and wrote to discover, the novel could meander all over the place and never actually lead to anyone’s solving the crime—which, of course, might be more interesting from a literary or philosophical standpoint, but there’d be a lot of disappointed crime-fiction readers when they got to the end. And I like the nice tight snap of a surprising ending as much as anyone. Who doesn’t love closure? So I want to furnish that particular pleasure in my crime fiction. When I write crime novels, all the sleuthing’s been done already in my imagination before I set pen to paper, and the challenge is to craft a narrative I already know in a logical, cause-and-effect pattern.
KO: Your Nola novels perfectly balance suspense with contemporary social issues. How do you strike that balance?
JC: Oh, thank you! That’s my goal, so I’m glad that’s how you found them. I always say I want to write “beach reads for smart people”: books that are action-packed page-turners yet engage the troubling facts of our day. To achieve that, I do a ton of research—political research, historical research, psychological research, scientific research—and then really work hard to comprehend and digest it fully. To let it become a part of me.
And then I forget it. I don’t have my research notebooks open on the desk with me (I mean, I don’t write at a literal desk, but you get the gist) when I’m writing the novels. The goal is to have absorbed the new information so thoroughly—and then put it out of my conscious awareness—that the right detail just rises effortlessly to my mind as I’m drafting, the way the right detail just naturally rises to your mind when you’re telling a story about something that really happened to you.
Then the information gets woven in seamlessly, instead of feeling like an info dump, or like a little sermon or history lecture.
At least, that’s the hope. I don’t always achieve it. Sometimes my agent will say, “You’re sounding like a professor in this passage,” and I’ll know there’s more work to be done.
And as for the politics, I’m thinking about politics all the time anyway, so I couldn’t help infusing the novels with those issues even if I wanted to—which I don’t. I engage regularly on Twitter about politics, if anyone wants to connect with me there.
KO: How did you choose New Orleans as the setting for the Nola novels? What are the opportunities and challenges of setting your novels in a city with so much character of its own?
JC: I love New Orleans. Love it, love it, love it. But I’m an outsider, so I wrote the novels with the attentive care and respect of an observer, not the deep authority of an inhabitant.
I went there for the first time in my 20s, with the man I was falling in love with. It was his home, and I fell in love with the city as I was falling in love with him. The people, the food, the music, the complicated and painful history—which doesn’t scare me, because that’s the kind of history I have myself, too, so I’m used to finding what’s beautiful and salvageable in something that’s been wrecked, and I’m very stubborn about cherishing and defending what’s mine. I feel a kinship to New Orleanians in that way.
So my lovely former husband and I went there every year together, visiting friends and family, for over 20 years, and I spent one of my sabbatical years there—after both novels came out, actually. It has been such an education and a joy.
In setting the books in a beloved and well-known place, I see mostly opportunities: the chance to learn new things, to immerse myself in a place that overwhelms and enchants me, to be open to transformation. Who wouldn’t want to do “research” at Tipitina’s or Jacques-Imo’s? What writer wouldn’t want the opportunity to contend with New Orleans’ vexed layers of history?
The main challenge is getting every detail right. As an outsider, I can’t take my knowledge base for granted or rely on memory, and New Orleanians are justly protective of their city—especially since so many tourists come for a weekend and think they know the place. I knew I was writing for the locals, and I’d have to measure up. So I had to “walk the job” of every single setting, even the not-so-safe ones, like the site of the former Desire Projects, and I had to work very hard to render everything accurately. I wanted the books to cover far more of the city than just the French Quarter or Uptown and to tackle the political conflicts that may not meet the eye of the casual visitor. What made me the proudest, in that regard, was when New Orleanians who’d read the books couldn’t believe I wasn’t from there. I felt very relieved and grateful every time that happened.
On the other hand, I did once get a very irate email from a New Orleanian. She was upset that I had invented a parking lot, and she said she couldn’t believe anything else in the books because I’d made such a careless mistake. That illustrates how seriously the local readers take such things—and I don’t blame them: it’s horrible to be publicly misrepresented, as anyone from a subordinated group can attest.
So that’s the challenging part. On the one hand, my work is fiction; on the other hand, if it’s going to work in the mode of realism and create any kind of verisimilitude, then it needs to cross its t’s and dot its i’s.
KO: What are you working on now?
JC: I’ve written a few short stories lately, and one will be coming out next April in Ploughshares, but my main project is a new novel. It’s a stand-alone literary novel about a Latina sculptor in Chicago who has a Very Mysterious Past. There are crimes in it, but I wouldn’t call it a crime novel per se—except in the sense that Beloved or The Round House can be said to be crime novels. I’ve got a full rough draft, and I hope to finish it next year. It’s called Almost Heaven, and I suppose you could call it domestic suspense. I’m a huge Patricia Highsmith fan, and she’s the gold standard for me in that regard. I’m aiming high.
Thanks for joining us on Mysteristas, Joy Castro!
Follow Joy on Twitter: @_JoyCastro