My guest today is Gabriel Valjan, author of the Roma series, published by Winter Goose Publishing. The first book, Roma, Underground, came out earlier this year. The sequel, Wasp’s Nest, was just released this week. The third instalment is scheduled for August 2013.
Valjan attended the University of Southern California for his undergraduate education and completed graduate school in England at the University of Leeds. Ronan Bennett short-listed him for the 2010 Fish Short Story Prize. Valjan’s short stories continue to appear in print and online literary journals. He recently won ZOUCH Magazine’s inaugural Lit Bits Contest. He lives in New England.
Thanks for this interview. Tell us a little about what got you into writing?
Like most things in my life the road was not always obvious or straight. I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer. As a child I read voraciously, so I was quite awed, quite intimidated, by the great talents on the bookshelves at my local library. I began with a lot of self-doubt about my ability to sustain an idea, create multidimensional characters, and capture the tics of dialogue. I knew what I enjoyed in literature, understood to some degree how it all worked. I was convinced (still am) that nobody could teach the idea that starts a short story, a novel, or a poem. When I had set aside the initial excuses and insecurities, I discovered that I was having fun and I had stories within me.
What was your inspiration for Wasp’s Nest?
After I wrote the first in the series, Roma, Underground, I knew that I had created my cast of characters. Two things happened then: one, I wanted to see how each of my characters would grow and evolve, interact with each other, the world around them, and bond emotionally; and two, I wanted to take my own sense of “what if” thinking and create situations and see how my characters would negotiate them. I believe what makes my characters interesting is that they each of them has their own “issues,” as we all do in life, but mixed in it all is a cultural collision of American and European. In Wasp’s Nest, the “what if” has to do with cancer research and technology. What if someone had a way of detecting cancer at the level of DNA and prevent cancer from occurring without chemotherapy, radiation, and disfiguring surgeries? Since the majority of us will die either from heart disease or some form of cancer, there is that “what if.” And then there is the “what if” in Wasp’s Nest of the threat a potential cure poses to those industries that profit from chronic illness. I don’t suggest that “what if” is a pure either/or. Dance with the angel of a cure, but don’t forget that the Devil was also once an angel.
For those readers who haven’t read this or the first book yet, what is the blurb of the series as a whole and how many installments are you planning?
I haven’t committed to an exact number, but I had planned six novels. The overall arc of the series is watching friends learn how to love and trust each other, learn how to move within a morally compromised world. The main character Alabaster (or Bianca if you prefer her alias) is difficult to know, extremely intelligent, and dichotomous at times in her thinking. She sees things others do not, yet she struggles with intimacy and trusting another person. Dante, her boyfriend, is a nice guy, a little too patient with her at times. Farrugia is a stoical investigator with an edge to him. His peer Gennaro is a widower who has never forgiven himself for causing his wife’s death. Alessandro has brains but picks the wrong women. Then there is Silvio, the ambitious and humorous interpreter. In Wasp’s Nest, readers will be introduced to Diego Clemente, a garrulous, very Boston character. Throughout the Roma Series I try to infuse authentic Italian culture and food.
In this novel, you dive into the controversial world of biotechnology, genetics, and pharmaceutical companies. Is the theory about wasps, the methyl toolkit, and their connection to cancer in your story a real thing?
The Nasonia wasp is real. There are three species indigenous to the U.S. and a fourth was indeed discovered in Brewertown, New York. In the novel I mentioned Mendelian genetics, which should return readers to basic biology. I try to keep it simple. I address the reason why this wasp was selected and why the fruit fly is an imperfect model. The reader will discover that the Nasonia wasp is no pleasant creature, but what I said about its genetics is true; it is easy to study, easy to manipulate, but the “what if’” is that current research in Nasonia is devoted to the development of pesticides. The concept of the methyl toolkit is real. The “what if” I propose is pointed at oncology. I don’t think that it is misleading to say that we all have the potential for cancer. Women with a familial predisposition to cancer, for example, can be tested for the BRCA1 and HER2 genes for ovarian and breast cancers, respectively. A while back, the actress Christina Applegate tested positive for the BRCA1 gene, which was unexpressed, but she opted for a double mastectomy as a pre-emptive strike. This is an example where technology exists and the ethical debates begin. While some sophisticated ideas do exist in Wasp’s Nest, I tried to not make them inaccessible. I believe readers are intelligent and seek intellectual engagement while they enjoy a story.
How much research did the book required?
I always do a great amount of research, but I hope that what I decide to include is articulate and not beyond the grasp of the reader, or so implausible that it is science fiction. I research technology online and in technical libraries. While I don’t have a Ph.D, I’ve retained a working vocabulary from my scientific education. With the methyl toolkit I did speak with an immunologist and instructor who researches cancer and teaches at the graduate level. While I was remiss in thanking him in the Acknowledgements I had him in mind when I introduce readers to Portuguese food in Wasp’s Nest. I should also mention that another form of research necessary to the Roma Series is cultural in nature. Two of my friends act as my editors. Dean proofreads all my work; and Claudio does the ‘cultural editing.’ Both men are far more knowledgeable in Italian than I. Claudio is a native speaker, a linguist, a journalist and a professional translator, with northern and southern Italian culture in his veins. While I can read Italian with respectable facility, only the native speaker can give you the authentic phrases and turns of phrase. This ‘cultural editing’ was crucial to the third novel, out in August 2013, since it deals with a volatile part of recent Italian history, with an unfortunate American connection.
I love the title, which of course suits the story well because it works on two levels. Did you come up with it right away or did you have to brainstorm?
I knew the title from the start. I had wanted to create a story in Boston. The title does work on many levels. It alludes to the insect, the Bostonian stereotype of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and the colloquial expression of getting into a mess, although I think the proper phrase has to do with a “hornet’s nest.” One of the particular joys with Wasp’s Nest was working with Winter Goose in designing the cover art. I should point out that the wasp on the cover is not a Nasonia critter, but a yellow jacket wasp.
How long did it take you to write the novel and did you plot in advance?
I wrote Wasp’s Nest in four to six weeks, BUT I spent longer editing and shaping it before I submitted it to Winter Goose, where it underwent more editing with James Logan. Fellow Winter Goose authors Jessica Kristie and Sherry Foley provided me with invaluable feedback and suggestions before James touched the manuscript. Jessica is a poet so her contribution around imagery was helpful. Sherry is the author of two Winter Goose thrillers: A Captive Heart and Switched in Death. She taught me other “suspense tricks.” I can’t emphasize how helpful they were for both Wasp’s Nest and for me as a writer. In terms of plotting, I knew where I was going with this novel. It did feel at times like “seat of your pants” writing, but I advocate getting the story down on paper and then editing afterwards.
What made you decide to make your main character a woman? Has this been challenging? If yes, in what way?
The genesis for the Alabaster character came from a dare. I was talking to a work colleague whom I’ve known for over ten years. Margaret knew that I was writing short stories at the time so she suggested that I try my hand at writing a female character. The result was a short story entitled “Alabaster.” Yes, it is challenging to write out of gender and I would add that it is also difficult to write from a child’s perspective. I have a deep respect for children’s authors since they have to modulate story and vocabulary to their audience. I don’t think writing from a female point of view is insurmountable. Research can get you the answers. The skill is in transforming the knowledge into believable action and dialogue.
In Book I, it was Rome. Now, it is Boston. In both novels your locations are fleshed out in vivid detail. How important is a sense of location in a story?
In the Roma series I try to make the location a character. We can take our environments for granted. Wasp’s Nest takes place in Boston, the third, fourth, and fifth novels take place in Milan, Naples, and Boston. Cities change all the time: think of Whitman’s Manhattan and New Jersey, T.S. Eliot’s London, and Baudelaire’s Paris. The modern metropolis provides a remarkable backdrop to our individual and social conflicts and pleasures.
How do you keep up with what’s out there in terms of spy gadget technology?
I hope readers don’t think that they are getting Jane Bond. John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy proved that spy-craft is a slow game of chess. As I mentioned earlier, I read a lot so I read the geek articles whenever I find them, rummage in the libraries when an idea takes root, but in terms of gadgetry I think I use a remarkable device called the “intelligent brain,” and it happens to belong to a woman.
As it’s the case with book I, there’s a lot of marvellous food description in Wasp’s Nest.
Starving is not an option in Italy. How could you not love the food and the attitude of La Dolce Vita?
If you could narrow down the three main elements of a good spy story, what would they be?
Ambiguity. Misdirection. Movement. A story has to move; the pages have to turn. Ambiguity in character and motivation is true to life. Human beings are not selfless creatures; that is why I think altruism is a virtue. One of the joys of a good mystery is watching intelligent people being intelligent. This is damned difficult to write, since your protagonist has to be smart enough to spot something that neither the other characters nor your readers can see, even though it’s right in front of them.
You also write poetry and short stories, having published many in literary journals. What do you find more enjoyable: working in a poem, a short story or a novel?
Each has its appeal. Poetry is a house with all the necessary language; and by its nature, not often natural language. The short story is an airplane with a short runway and flight is imminent or the plane crashes. The novel is an endurance race, where there are miles to go, numerous paths to take, but you have only so much water and food: use them wisely. For me poetry is intimate and personal. While I enjoy the short-fiction format, I have noticed that what was once acceptable–twenty to fifty pages is now impractical, with most stories clocking in at 5,000 words. Flash or micro fiction is challenging. Is it a story or a vignette? I’ve only had one flash-fiction piece published; it was a 111-word story that I did for a contest for ZOUCH Magazine.
Congratulations on winning first prize in ZOUCH Magazine’s Lit Bit contest. Can you tell us about it?
I was searching for the “calls for submission” web pages and I saw page after page of requests for flash fiction. I felt dismayed but then I thought: What can I tell in a short, SHORT piece? I wrote one sentence that told a hero’s journey. The brevity of the form drew upon my experience in writing poetry.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m almost done writing the fifth book in the Roma Series. I’m trying to find a publisher for a three-volume noir series that I have written. It has two main characters, an American and a British woman, who are part of the American intelligence community. The novel starts in Vienna and continues in McCarthy-era Los Angeles and New York, highlighting the time, the mores, and the dark rivalry between the CIA and FBI.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers?
Write because you love to write. No matter how great you think the writing is, please have someone edit it for you. Respect your reader and try to understand that not everyone will like you, that criticism, while an opinion, is an opportunity for improvement. If you find a writer that you like then write a balanced review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads. Last but not least–thank you for reading.