By Mark McNease
As a mystery writer myself, it shouldn’t be surprising I jumped at the chance to interview Michael Nava, an icon in the genre. His seminal Henry Rios series was heralded as the gold standard when the books came out, beginning with The Little Death in 1986.
In communicating with Michael for this interview, I discovered we were both in Los Angeles during the same time period, and both considered queer bookstore A Different Light (Silver Lake location) central to our writing and reading lives. This December we’ll see the release of Lay Your Sleeping Head, from Kórima Press (now available for pre-order), a reimagined and substantially rewritten version of that first book. I had the great pleasure of reading an advance copy, and was struck on the first page by its literary strength, its meticulous, rich detail and the aching humanity of its characters, as well as its finely crafted plot. Nava, as was declared of him in the New York Times, was, and is, “one of the best.” I’m delighted to share his answers to ‘6 Questions’. (And for all you audiobook fans, check out his Henry Rios series on Audible.)
MM: You’ve been gone from the mystery writing scene for some time, since the publication of the last Henry Rios novel, Rag and Bone. Can you talk about your decision to move on from that series and pursue The Children of Eve books?
MN: What happened is that I became interested in subjects and characters and stories that could not be expressed in the kind of book I had been writing, so I needed to move on and find a way to explore those stories. That’s the great thing about being a writer – you can follow your interests wherever they take you.
MM: I’m curious about the convergence of your interest and research into Ramon Navarro, silent film, and the Yaquis. It seems panoramic and massive. Where are you at with all that?
MN: Convergence is the operative word because they seemed to me to be quite different threads at first. I became interested in silent movies when I went to a few screenings where the movies were projected on big screens with musical accompaniment, just as they had been in the 1920s. It was unlike any previous movie-going experience – silent films are not just movies without words; they are a distinct and different form of cinematic art in some ways more beautiful and engaging than “talkies.” So there was that. At the same time I became interested in my own family and ethnic history – my maternal grandmother’s family were refugees from the Mexican Revolution who arrived in California in 1920. My grandfather was a Yaqui whose family escaped persecution from the Mexican government by crossing the border into Arizona around 1900. Navarro – a queer Mexican immigrant who fled the Revolution with his family and became one of the first generation of global movie celebrities – became the vehicle through which my various interests could be expressed. It took me 14 years to write the first book. The second book sits on my desk in first draft form, about 400 pages. It’s not quite coming together and I don’t know how to fix it, so I’ve set it aside for now. I read somewhere that if you put a manuscript in a drawer it will either ripen or rot. That’s where I’m at with the second book.
MM: Had you originally planned to simply revise A Little Death, as opposed to rewriting it to the extent that it’s a new book? How did that come about, and what was the process like for you reimagining the story?
MN: When I got back the print rights from my e-book publisher, the idea was to read through the book and correct some typos and do some light revision but as I re-read it, a couple of things happened. First, I’m a much better writer now than when I wrote The Little Death in my twenties and re-reading it, I winced at some of the stilted writing and poor craftsmanship. I wanted to bring to bear what I’d learned about writing fiction in the intervening 30 years. Second, when I wrote the book, I had no intention of writing a series. It was intended as a one-off to teach myself how to write a novel. Of course, I did write a series. So in revising it, I treated it like the first book in the series and included material about Rios particularly that would foreshadow developments in the subsequent books. I should also add, when I wrote The Little Death I omitted any explicit sex scenes because I didn’t want it dismissed as pornography, which it certainly would have been in 1986. But the erotic attraction between Rios and Hugh Paris is absolutely central to motivation and character, so in revising it, I included those explicit scenes. I imagine I will lose some straight readers as a result but I am no longer willing to accomodate the tender sensibilities of straight people who find gay sex “icky.” They need to grow up and get over it.
MM: May I ask about your personal life? What can you tell readers who would like a better glimpse into who Michael Nava is?
MN: Well, Mark, the only truly interesting thing about me is the books I’ve written. Otherwise, my life is quite prosaic. Like many other writers I’m pretty introverted and I stay close to home. Fortunately, my spouse has a similar temperament. We’ve been together for 14 years and married for eight; I met him when I was 48 years old which I hope is encouraging news to older, single gay men. We live outside San Francisco and also have a small place in Palm Springs where I retreat when I need some sunshine (my doctor tells me everyone in San Francisco suffers from a Vitamin D deficiency because of the fog.) I recently retired from the practice of law after 35 years and I’ve been adjusting to that enormous life transition by digging up the old garden and putting in a drought resistant one. I learned how to swim when I was 52. I work out three or four times a week. Among the things that bring me joy are cats, babies, trees and Ella Fitzgerald. I root for the San Francisco Giants. I like to cook for my husband and my friends but when I’m alone subsist on sandwiches. I’ve been sober for 23 years. My guilty pleasure is the TV series Forensic Files which I binge watch when I’m in Palm Springs. I’d rather eat a bowl of tortilla chips and guacamole than a piece of chocolate cake. My middle name is Angel.
MM: You’ve been writing and publishing a long time. Do you have any impressions or observations about how the publishing landscape has changed from the days of Alyson Publications to, say, the behemoth of Amazon and the explosion of ebooks?
MN: Publishing has become much more democratic and writer-friendly. In the old days, the big publishers controlled access to the reading public via their monopolistic relationship with distributors, bookstores and reviewers. Unless you were published by one of them, you had virtually no way to get your book in front of readers because distributors would not distribute, nor bookstores carry, either self-published books or many small press books, and the newspaper and magazine reviewers would certainly not review a self-published book or, with rare exception, any small press books. Now, with the advent of Amazon and e-books, it is possible for writers to by-pass that machinery and find their audience. Of course, that also means there are a lot more books out there; that’s the downside. By and large, however, I think it’s a good thing especially for LGBT writers and writers of color because the big publishers and the literary establishment have never been interested in our work and they continue to neglect and ignore it. But we don’t need them anymore. There are alternative structures like your site and others that let readers know our books are out there. Frankly, your site and others like it that address readers who are interested in LGBT books are more valuable to me as a writer than a review in the New York Times.
MM: Do you have any plans to continue rewriting or reimagining the Henry Rios books? If not, are you content with letting it rest again?
MN: I’m going to revise all seven novels, but I expect only Goldenboy will be as extensively revised and rewritten as The Little Death. From How Town, the third book, on I became a better writer and there is less in them I want to change but certainly in all of them there will be some revisions and corrections, along with introductions by academicians and an end note by me about the circumstances under which the particular book was written. And when I finish revising the seven existing novels, I plan to write an eighth one, an entirely new Rios book, that picks up 15 years after Rag and Bone ended.
Mark McNease is the Editor of lgbtSr, a website “where age is embraced and life is celebrated.” He’s the author of the bestselling Kyle Callahan Mysteries, as well as the co-editor and publisher of the anthology Outer Voices Inner Lives (Lambda Literary Award finalist). He’s also the co-creator of the Emmy and Telly winning children’s program Into the Outdoors.