ABOUT THE BOOKSouth of the border there is love and loss, revenge, betrayal and mystery. “International Bridge” follows a young, expecting Central American couple who travel in hopes of crossing into the United States. Love joins smuggling for a white-knuckle flight in the title story, “The Havana Brotherhood.” These eleven tales presented by the author of the acclaimed thriller, Hostages of Veracruz, include three stories now published for the first time in English — the funny and playful “Rivals,” the brooding “Nostalgia for Death” and “American Paranoia,” a serpentine, multi-layered spy tale. This collection showcases the heartbreak and humor, unsurpassed craftsmanship, and drama that reveal Miller as a master of the short story.
INTERVIEW WITH GRAYDON MILLER
Welcome back to A Blue Million Books, Grady. The Havana Brotherhood shows you in a new light as author of short stories. How did this book come about?
For years I wanted to gather all these Mexican-themed stories into one book. Then the success of my thriller, set in Veracruz, got me into action. From the material at hand, mostly written during the nine years I lived in Mexico, I weeded out all stories unrelated to Latin America. Honestly, there wasn’t much left — certainly not the size book I’d dreamed of, and it would give my daughter yet another chance to yap, “Dad, you should write longer books.” I hunkered down to translate three remaining stories from my Mexico period from Spanish into English.
What was that like?
Suspenseful. I didn’t know where the other two stories were. I only had in my hands a copy of one story that had been published in a Sunday supplement in Guadalajara. The copy was falling apart and you couldn’t read the words anymore in some places. As I finished translating “Rivals,” another story reappeared from my files, and so on, till I had the three stories. I also added a long story about a Chicano detective who works in Mexico. When all the stories all came together, there was a kind of magic, like the golem coming to life. The stories bounce off each other in amazing ways I could never have planned, and Cuba emerges as a leitmotiv woven throughout, this symbol of mystery and danger. A couple of these Spanish stories had been real orphans, estranged from me. When I started sharing the English versions with another reader, her enthusiasm brought the stories, and me with them, back to life.
The cherry on top was my daughter holding a proof copy, flipping through the pages and pronouncing “187 pages.” And, oh boy, when an agent’s reader declared it a cohesive collection, I was walking on clouds.
I'll bet! What most pleases you about the response to this book?
That it is going to be taught in two Community College English classes. If students read and like these stories they’ll be story readers for life — that’s an exciting prospect. Also, there’s a heavy responsibility in kindling a love of the short story. Hemingway, de Maupassant, and Juan Rulfo are depending on me.
The stories may also stir up controversies as well as entertain. One story reverses the stereotype of the lawless immigrant in the U.S. and replaces it with a gringo con-artist who plies his trade in Mexico. A lot of the stories contrast U.S. and Latin culture and attitudes. These can clash painfully in a two-culture relationship. In the title story, about cigar smuggling, the contrast is implied. Harry Stockton is your typical super conscientious law-abiding guy thrust into crime for the first time in his life. In the U.S. we’re conditioned to obey the law in the tiniest details; in Mexico there’s a no-seatbelts attitude toward life. Friends could egg you on to join them blindfolded on a tightrope and, if you show reluctance, the standard response is “No pasa nada.” Nothing will happen. And the funny thing, they’re usually right.
How does it feel to translate your own stories?
What I’m doing is recreating. Since I’m the author, there’s no worries about being faithful. To me, translation is re-creation. Re-creation is another rewrite. And rewriting, for sure, is my favorite part of writing. The story is in place, I know pretty much who my characters are and and what they’re doing. The theme is there. Each new draft is a baby step toward something I like better. I learned this especially with my comical writings. The ugly duckling became a swan with elbow grease, pencil lead and toner. And lots of walks; I take lots of walks to sort things out.
How do you decide whether an idea is for a novel or a short story?
The short story aims for perfection and unity of effect. Everything is related, there are no stray details whatsoever. As Capote said, "a short story should be perfect like an orange." A novel is something bigger than I am, that’s going to take some research and growing. The Hostages of Veracruz was meant to be a short story, you know, but it had a life of its own. It fits the definition of a novel, though I didn’t know it at the time.
What's your theory about a short story?
It must have a secret behind it that one will never know. Take “Nostalgia for Death.” It seems to be about a bellboy wrongly accused of shooting a policeman, but that is not its secret. Great art can be born from something very trivial or shameful and yet it fuses to transmit emotion in a way that is meaningful to any reader.
You’re pulling a fast one, Graydon. What’s the secret behind “Nostalgia for Death”?
Fear of terminal disease.
What short-story collections have inspired you?
Dubliners by James Joyce is a model for a cohesive collection. I can go back and read “The Dead,” again and again. And there’s A Tree of Night by Truman Capote. Every time I have read it,a different story will stick out, most recently “Master Misery.” It’s really a mini-novel. Silvio Martínez Palau’s Made in U.S.A., left a lasting impression on me. It’s a satirical and deadly serious ride on the roller coaster that is American life.
The stories of Chekhov which I discovered in Mexico in Spanish translation, Jorge Luis Borges in general, and Raymond Carver. A lot of people think I don’t like Carver because of views expressed in a story I wrote, “A Confession.” The truth is I’m fond Mr. Carver’s stories, and as I get older they gain only depth, humor and compassion. I also admire two contemporary collections: S.R. Mallery’s Tales to Count On; Richard Lange's Dead Boys is not to be missed.
Did you develop any new marketing or editorial techniques in putting together the Havana Brotherhood?
The release of the thriller The Hostages of Veracruz last summer spawned the idea for the story collection. I gave myself until May of 2015 to prepare the manuscript, emulating the long calendar of traditional publishers. This provided plenty of time and patience to lavish on the editing. I am particularly grateful to Patricio Maya and Brenda Buttner. They made the quality of book possible; they also gave me the best year of my life.
Brenda’s enthusiasm for the stories buoyed my spirits. Patricio pushed me to the last mile, and beyond with close reading, that bordered on the premonitory. Here I was weeding out the “dumb” straight quotes, ready to wrap it all up, and he gave me a batch of comments that cast me back into full creative mode. Faulkner said, “Try to be better than yourself.” That’s what Brenda and Patricio helped me achieve in the course of assembling The Havana Brotherhood.
And as far as marketing techniques: as editing progressed, I got these Mexico stories back into circulation with magazine editors. I’m pleased to say that “Poison Pen” has a slot in an upcoming issue of Ellery Queen.
That's fantastic! What are your thoughts about traditional publishing?
Gosh, it has its place. And yet I really think the traditional world seriously underestimates the indie world. The tables were already turned before anybody was looking. Self-publishers are way ahead in the game, empowered by contacts with fellow authors, feeling the joy of helping other talents to be recognized, and are unable now to tolerate the vagaries of the traditional publishing world. You know what I told Patricio Maya, the first author I published beside myself, “I want to give you what nobody ever gave me.” At the end of several months, there was his book of brilliant essays, “Walking Around with Fante and Bukowski.” And now he can go on to the next book and the next . . .
When you start receiving recognition, it feeds such a sense of purpose, and you can’t go back. Something S.R. Mallery said, it’s “important to get one's work out there so we're not living in a vacuum, eating ourselves alive with self doubt!”
Sure, I respect what traditional publishers do, and they do it well. They will have a place; both will have a place. And the more successful self-publishers will evolve into traditionals. It is ironic but true.
How long have you been a writer?
As long as I can remember.
How often do you tweet?
Sorry about that, Amy. What was the question? I just had to tweet that I’m being interviewed by Amy Metz.
Sweet! :) How often do you tweet?
Like to do it often, in real time. I often fall short and suffer twitter guilt. Of course I still tweet in my head all the time.
Who would you want to narrate a film about your life?
John Huston. There’s that infectious voice with a brogue, and I can hear him saying, “Graydon Miller grew up in this white ranch-style house of Usher on the corner of Beach and Blackburn in Watsonville, California in the pancreas of Steinbeck Country.” Huston’s own life had a small role in sparking my own fascination with Mexico, starting in my teens. He had more than passing acquaintance with Mexico; as a young man was in the Mexican Calvary, later he put Puerto Vallarta on the map in Night of the Iguana, and of course he directed Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. Through that movie I knew Mexico before I ever set foot there.
If you had a swear jar, would it be full?
Hell yeah. I grew up very overprotected, I would say almost a prude, and avoided curse words like the plague. It was a real shock in third grade when my friend John Lintz taught me a word he overheard his mom, Judy, saying, and I innocently told my mom, proud of my acquisition of one of the cleanest and most satisfying words I’ve ever learned. She doused all my enthusiasm for saying ‘shit.’ But since returning from Mexico in 2001, I have become American. I grew up here, of course, but didn’t become fully American till my return to this country after nine years away. I hold that it takes a person ten years to become American, and part of the process is becoming very fluent in curses. Some newcomers pick it up right away. I still cringe at how my profanity may sound to my more genteel friends, and the majority of curses remain spoken inside my head still. My dad was terrible in the swearing department, the way he’d say “excuse my French” after going all profane. It was painful to listen to; I always wanted to laugh.
Do you spend more on clothes or food?
Honestly, more on clothes than food. I prefer shirts by Turnbull and Asser. That’s my secret nobody would suspect. Those shirts are like Havana cigars, they cost plenty.
What is the most daring thing you’ve done?
This is something I planned to take to my grave. Then my daughter went to Mexico this summer and her grandmother blabbed. My daughter recognized that it had not been easy what I had done. I ferried a family member without papers across the border. I was aware of the consequences having already written my short story “International Bridge,” the one that opens The Havana Brotherhood. I knew there would be hell to pay — fines, car impounded — if I got caught.
It sounds like there’s another story in there?
What inspires your stories?
Emotion. And if it goes good, it all clicks together in a flash like a joke. Mismatched ideas mesh, and there’s even a punchline, the end provided. Then I sweat it out. Also, it’s worth mentioning another type of inspiration. A single moment can inspire a story. In Beverly Hills this week I saw an automatic sprinkling system watering Astroturf. There’s a moment that is already looking for a story. In “Nostalgia for Death” there were all these types in inspiration working. I always had in mind the rusty stains on the ceilings in the finest houses of Guadalajara; there was always this irritating touch of disrepair. On some level the stains symbolized a decadence I wanted to explore.
Tell me about Guadalajara?
It figures in many of The Havana Brotherhood stories. I’ve called it my Paris, a perfect place to grow as a person and grow art. It’s got the major requisites of low rent and high saturation of culture. And I got to know at all, from the morgue to the zona roja, the red-light district, to the grand houses. And of course the cafes. People there laugh at me for saying Guadalajara is Paris, because I guess Paris is always something “out there.” I do know when I go to Paris and they ask what I think of their city I will say, “Paris is my Guadalajara.”
Cake or frosting? Frosting
Tequila or bourbon? Tequila
Chevy Chase or Bill Murray? Bill Murray, hands down.
Laptop or desktop? Desktop
Emailing or texting? Postcards
Indoors or outdoors? Indoors.
Tea: sweet or unsweet? Depends.
Plane, train, or automobile? Train for sure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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