Episode 26: Christina Hoag

skinNight in L.A. can be heavy as a medieval cloak or it can sparkle and crackle. It can burn you with its current, protect you or betray you…

Skin of Tattoos, Christina Hoag

Christina Hoag is a journalist, nonfiction author and novelist. Her thrillers are just that — thrilling rides with young people on the verge of adulthood and already mired in life-and-death situations. Complex characters and interwoven relationships that form, not a net, but a sticky web that traps her protagonists as they fight to escape the consequences of their own dangerous choices. Skin of Tattoos features Mags, just released from prison and trying to escape the gang life that landed him there, while Girl on the Brink is a very different examination of violence and predation. girl

Christina’s nonfiction book, Peace in the Hood, was co-written with Aquil Basheer and digs deep into his program to combat gang violence. Their book is on the syllabi of several university programs, and Basheer himself has been featured in two recent documentaries: License to Operate and The Black Jacket. Plus, I promised to link to a great interview Christina recently did with a fabulous interviewer — herself!

I gave a shout-out to my favorite Golden Age mystery writer, Ngaio Marsh. Artists in Crime is my favorite (and if you don’t need to read the books in order, a great place to begin), but Colour Scheme takes place in Christina’s native New Zealand. Looking for one with both New Zealand and sheep in the murder? Yup, Ngaio Marsh has that, too. Check out Died in the Wool.

Christina, meanwhile, remembers her favorite children’s mystery author, and one whose books I also devoured as a kid: British author Enid Blyton. Blyton was prolific; it’s hard to go wrong with any of them, but the mystery series are, in particular, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. There are so many others, I’m not going to try to guide you through them, but I will toss you over to the Enid Blyton Society. Enjoy!

To learn more about Christina, check out her website and her Facebook page. And for a great read, turn to any of her books! 

— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Christina Hoag

Laura Brennan: My guest today is a journalist, a novelist, and a nonfiction author. Christina Hoag’s novels, Skin of Tattoos and Girl on the Brink, both focus on young people caught in life or death situations — and both are all the more terrifying because those situations are so real, and so frighteningly common.

Christina, thank you for joining me.

Christina Hoag: Thank you Laura. It’s great to be here.

LB: Before we talk about your work, I’d love to talk a little bit about your background. You were born in New Zealand?

CH: Yes. I was born in New Zealand. I lived in a number of countries, my family moved around a lot — which is kind of an understatement. But I ended up in the United States when I was 13, in New Jersey to be exact. So I’m sort of a global nomad.

LB: I wanted to sneak in here that everything I know about New Zealand I learned from Ngaio Marsh.

CH: Oh, great! Great. That’s great that you’ve heard of her and read her. Yes, she’s one of New Zealand’s literary stars.

LB: Oh, she’s phenomenal. I love her.

CH: Yes.

LB: I’m sure New Zealand is more than murders, mind you.

CH: Yes. There are a lot of sheep there.

LB: A lot of sheep. Okay. That sounds like, actually, a couple of her books. So you grew up all over the world and landed in New Jersey. And then, how did you get into journalism?

CH: Mainly because I loved to write. And I won a prize, when I was six years old, in New Zealand, one little prize at school for writing interesting stories. So it’s something, I’d always loved to write, I was a voracious reader growing up, reading Enid Blyton and The Famous Five, The Secret Seven mysteries, you know, those were juvenile mysteries written by the British author Enid Blyton. So I always knew I wanted to write stories. And when I was in high school, I discovered the high school newspaper and joined that and joined the journalism class associated with it. And I just said, that’s what I want to do. That’s going to enable me to write, a writing career.

LB: You actually did a terrific interview recently, with yourself as the interviewer and interviewee.

CH: [Laughter] Yes, exactly. I had fun doing that. That was a good one.

LB: I’m going to link to that in the show notes because it was just awesome. But in it, you talk about how journalism steeped you in the dark side of humanity.

CH: Yes, totally. Because, let’s face it, most of what you cover as a journalist is negative. That’s what makes the news, are negative events. What I always loved about being a journalist is that you get to see other sides of life and of people and of society that you normally wouldn’t get to see up close, and sort of delve into. Even though it’s a superficial sort of dive. You dive into do a story, write your story and move on to do the next thing. But still, you get this great exposure to all kinds of things. I mean I’ve interviewed, what I like to say is I’ve interviewed prostitutes to Presidents, bums to billionaires. And it’s completely true. So you see absolutely all facets of life and humanity.

LB: I love how that comes out in your novels. There’s a real heart and a real humanity, especially in your main characters.

CH: Yes, well, I’m glad you said that. That hopefully is what I’m trying to portray, in the main characters and also the secondary characters. I really try for that deeper character development. One of my problems with mystery and crime genre in general is the character development doesn’t go deep enough for me. So I really try and flesh out character a lot, so thanks for noting that. I put a lot into developing those characters.

LB: Well, I want to get specific about each book, but just another overarching thing with both of them is that, it’s not just the characters that are rich in them. It’s the relationships between the characters, that’s how you really get to know the other people, is in relationships.

CH: Yes. Exactly. You can go on endless description, it’s boring to the reader, so you have the character — it’s really the old showing, not telling. When they interact with each other, then the character comes out. And that’s what we do in life. As we get to know someone, we interact with them, and then we, that’s how we get to know them through their actions and their behaviors and what not. Hopeful that’s a reflection of real life.

LB: Let’s start, actually, by talking a little bit about real life. Because before you wrote your novels, you cowrote a book on gang intervention.

CH: Yes. Peace In The Hood.

LB: Peace In The Hood. How in the world did you get involved in that?

CH: Well, it was through journalism again. I was working as a reporter at the Associated Press in Los Angeles, and my beat was urban affairs. So I covered a lot of, mainly homelessness, poverty, inner-city issues, and one of those in LA of course is gangs. LA is the gang capital of the nation, gave birth decades ago to some of the more notorious gangs that are now not only nationwide but international. I covered a number of gang issues, more from the social side of things rather than the crime, we had a crime reporter reported on some gang crime. So one of the stories that I came across was this guy who had an academy of sorts, a school that he trained former gang members to be the interventionists. And basically an intervention means they go in and work with active gang members to disrupt the cycle of violence and retaliation, because that’s really what drives all gang violence. It’s all about this cycle of revenge. You shoot my homie, then I’ve got to shoot your homie. You shot my homie, so I’m going to shoot yours. It’s just this endless cycle. And interventionists aim to disrupt that cycle in various ways using people whom gang members trust, which is other gang members, usually older, veteran status gang members who aren’t really active anymore, and just trying to work on the other side of the fence.

LB: I saw that there was also a documentary made about the gentleman you wrote the book with, Basheer?

CH: Yes. In fact there’s two. Another one just came out, both different angles on the same subject, on this work. So yes. He’s being called, he just spoke in Geneva at the World Health Organization and has been invited to participate in some community violence solution roundtables all over the world. So it’s a concept that’s out there. Fighting the good fight.

LB: It also reminded me of, especially I watched the trailer to the documentary, it reminded me of Romeo and Juliet in that the only thing that seems to be able to stop the violence is the grown-ups, the ones who maybe even started the violence or started the vendetta, stepping in and saying the cost is too high. Our children are dying.

CH: Yes. It’s funny you should say that, because I just watched, I went to a performance of Romeo and Juliet set in modern-day Palestine, Montagues and Capulets as Israelis and Palestinians, and it hit me as well, boy, this is just like gang violence. It’s these two warring factions who basically — everybody’s forgotten why they’re warring, whatever the seed cause of that was, and just simply is carrying out these vendettas against each other for the sake of it. It becomes something that you define your identity from. Like, I’m not them, fighting against another faction to give yourself more status.

LB: So you actually used, for your first novel, Skin of Tattoos, use the backdrop of the gangs.

CH: Yes.

LB: How did that come about? Were you just so steeped in it that the story begged to be told? What was that?

CH: Actually, that goes back to another story I did years ago. A magazine sent me to El Salvador to do a story on Los Angeles gang members who had been deported to El Salvador, which is where they were from. And I found these guys there, and they were desperately homesick, some of them didn’t speak Spanish that well. They had all left El Salvador with their families in the 80s as babies, infants. They were to all intents and purposes American, they didn’t know El Salvador, they could barely read newspaper and things. But they weren’t US citizens, so they got caught up in gangs and criminal acts and got deported. One I found there had been, actually went to El Salvador to flee, he was a fugitive and was sort of hiding out there. He didn’t tell me what for. So anyway, they were there, and it just struck me that this was such an odd, being an immigrant myself, I know how you can get caught between cultures. You don’t belong to the one you came from, and you don’t belong to the one quite that you went to. You get caught in between. So I sort of related to that aspect of their story. And of course it was just a really strange outgrowth of the whole civil war in El Salvador. I’d lived in Latin America for almost 10 years so I knew the politics and the various civil wars in the region and whatnot. So just struck me, this is a really odd outgrowth of both the war and the immigrant experience. So it stayed with me, and again having an interest in that area, it grew out of that really.

LB: Skin of Tattoos is the story of, he’s 20 or 21, but he’s really at heart a kid, and he’s trying to get out of gang life. What struck me in this novel, and also in Girl on the Brink, is that both of your protagonists have a very fractured family life. And certainly for Mags, the hero of Skin of Tattoos, he’s looking for a family and he finds it in the gangs.

CH: Yes. Exactly. That’s often what happens, is that — I mean, let’s face it, not every kid from these inner-city neighborhoods grows up to be, goes into a gang. Gang joining has very specific patterns there, and one of them is a broken, dysfunctional family life. And so they seek a surrogate family in the gang, and they get the support, the loyalty, ‘I’ve got your back, bro,’ kind of emotional well-being from the gang. And what happens to Mags, of course, as a teenager, you sort of latch onto that, but then you can kind of grow out of it. So when we meet Mags at the beginning of the book, he’s pretty disillusioned with gang life and he sees that it wasn’t the loyalty and everything for the clica, is sort of a false pretense.

LB: And yet his best friends, the relationships that he really can rely on, do come from the gangs.

CH: Yes, because that’s all he knows, and that’s the whole thing. I covered one case where there was a kid who, a gang member, who had been shot by a cop. He sued, he was paralyzed, shot in the spine, won a multimillion dollar judgment. One of the conditions was, against the city, one of the conditions was that he move out of the city. And so he moved out of LA. A year or two later he was back gang banging, he was back with the gang, because that was all he knew. So despite his million-dollar award and trying to get out of it, it’s very difficult to break those ties when that’s all you know.

LB: I just have to say, this goes back to Peace in the Hood, your nonfiction book, you must be so proud to have contributed to something that is helping these kids and helping the greater good. Universities are using it as a textbook?

CH: Yes, it’s on the curriculum of a couple different types of courses at UCLA, University of Southern California, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Because it’s sort of how to book. It’s a combination of how to be a gang interventionist and we also made it as narrative as possible, with a lot of Aquil’s memories and anecdotes, what he’s gone through on the streets. And people really love that. People have said to me, could you just write about that? Without all the how to stuff? But, yeah, those are the things that drive the book. So, yes, it is. It is incredibly gratifying that it’s finding an audience and hopefully doing some good out there.

LB: So your next book, you’re actually tackling some of the same emotional problems. Girl on the Brink is not about a boy in a gang, it’s about a girl whose family has also fractured and who is searching for love an emotional belonging.

CH: Yes. They both have in common, they’re both different aspects, vastly different aspects of violence. Which is interesting, I sort of surprised myself. And at totally different ends of the social strata, this is an upper-middle-class white girl in suburban New Jersey. I said it in a fictional town, a Northern New Jersey suburb. And, yes, her family falls apart as well, when her parents marriage breaks up in the mother sort of goes into a tailspin relying on pills, tranquilizers basically, antidepressants, to function. Out of that, the main character, Chloe, is sort of left to fend on her own. She 17, it’s a summer between junior and senior year, she’s got her driver’s license, she’s got an internship at a local community newspaper, she wants to be a journalist. At that age, you’re pretty independent. So she ends up taking care of her mother.

LB: It’s interesting because both families, the one thing they share is an absent father. Chloe’s father is actually absent, he’s moved away and Mags’ father is emotionally absent for him.

CH: Yes. There are different types of parental absences. Mags’ father is sort of broken, he was a guerilla in El Salvador, he had to flee because he was on death squad list and he never talks about it. So he comes Los Angeles, his status as a guerrilla leader and a hero is diminished by his status as an immigrant and he’s forced to take low-rung jobs, two jobs to make ends meet for the family, there’s four kids and a mother has to go to work in a factory as well. So it’s a typical immigrant scenario. But he’s broken, the whole experience, and then he’s incredibly disappointed in the path that Mags, his second son, has taken. So he becomes emotionally absent even though he’s physically there supporting the family.

And in the other case, Chloe’s father just says, okay I’m done with this marriage, and goes off. He’s more self-centered, and then it’s revealed that he’s been having an affair with another woman and that was the real reason for the breakup.

LB: It’s the parental absence and the inability to connect for whatever reason that I think makes both of them vulnerable to the forces the prey on them — the violence that preys on them.

CH: Yes, totally. It’s funny, even as kids get older, even into adulthood, we still, we need our parents. They need to just be there for kids. It’s often hard. As a parent myself, your kid grows up and they’re independent, they’re out in the world and sometimes they seem to not need you. But they do. You’ve got to be there for that support, and as a guide in the background. In these cases, in both these books, the parent is lapsing on that role, and with inevitable consequences and that they’ll seek it elsewhere. With Chloe it’s with Kieran. Kieran adopts this almost paternalistic, ‘I’ll take care of you, I’ve got your back, Chloe. You don’t need them, you’ve got me.’ Which of course is very typical of an abuser. And in Mags’ case, it’s the gang, it’s his homeboys that he can rely on.

LB: So, what led you to Girl on the Brink, then? Emotionally, I think it does mine the same really deep needs we all have, but it is a very different book. What led you to that one is your second novel?

CH: It was something that happened to me, with a bad boyfriend. It was an incredible upheaval in my life, getting over this. I just had to write about it. So it took a while to hammer out how I was going to write about it and how it’s going to do it, but I finally got it and to me it was important to write it as a teenage story. These things are not taught in schools, but abusive relationships follow a very set pattern of behavior. Abusers almost to a tee, you can see, once you’re trained, you can see those red flags and the controlling, manipulative relationship forming. But if you’re not trained to attune to those signs, you can totally misread them. So that’s what I wanted to really portray in Girl on the Brink, is how Chloe, again because she is vulnerable because of her family situation, how she falls into it. And it is very easy. And then her journey out of it, which is considerable.

LB: Well, like gangs, it’s very hard to get out of.

CH: Yes. Yes. It’s another situation — and that was another theme in my books, is that people get themselves into situations that sometimes they feel boxed in. And you make choices and find that you wake up and think, I can’t get out of this, it’s too late, I’m in this thing. How am I going to get out? And the answer is yes, you can get out of anything. Sometimes it’s much more difficult to get out of something, usually, then to get into it. That’s another theme, is just that we make choices somehow and we sometimes feel boxed in by those choices, but we always have choices to get out. And sometimes we just have to summon our wherewithal to get out, to make an alternative choice.

LB: Tell me what is next for you.

CH: Well, I’ve got a sequel for Mags, for Skin of Tattoos. A chunk of it’s written, but it’ll pick up where Skin of Tattoos leaves off and continue his journey, which will probably get quite a bit more darker — because now he’s even been more at a stage of disillusionment, he’s on the run, before he reaches redemption. And then I have a detective novel almost in the final stages. And another one’s a political thriller because I lived in Venezuela and one of the events I covered was, in 2002 there was a coup attempt against President then, Hugo Chavez. It was just an incredible experience to be in a country where there was no government effectively for three days. It was complete anarchy. So I’m writing about that through the context of an ex-pat couple who goes to Venezuela and ends up on opposite sides of the divide. And again, it’s about choices, the choices we make in trying to get out of difficult situations.

LB: Thank you so much for sharing your experience, personal and professional, with everyone through these novels. Because they are phenomenal and I hope that they will go on not only win you fans but to do as much good in the world as I’m sure Peace in the Hood is doing.

CH: Thank you. Yes. Hopefully people, I’ve actually heard from a number of readers of Girl on the Brink already. These aren’t even teenagers, they are adult women who are picking it up and reading and saying, you know, this happened to me. This happened to me. It just shows that domestic violence is incredibly common, but it’s something people don’t want to talk about because of the shame factor. You become ashamed that you let this happen to you. So that was another factor in my writing the story, is that it is so common. And you can survive it and live a happy life afterwards. And hopefully with Skin of Tattoos, as well, that people can see ways out of bad decisions.

LB: Christina, thank you so much for joining me.

CH: Thank you, Laura. It’s been great discussing the novels. Thanks.