Episode 3: Desiree Zamorano

Human CargoEpisode 3 is an interview with author  Désirée Zamorano. We talk about her masterful PI novel, Human Cargo; her short story, “Quickie;” Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder flash fiction series (hers will go live on August 1st!); and we briefly touch on her literary novel, The Amado Women.

Désirée isn’t just a writer, she is a fellow mystery lover, and she gives a shout-out to a number of fabulous writers and books. I’ve linked to the websites of these contemporary writers: Edgar winner Naomi Hirahara, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Sara Gran, best-selling author Kate Atkinson, James Sallis (who has won the lifetime achievement award from Bouchercon, among many other mystery awards), Rachel Howzell Hall, Sue Ann Jaffarian, and the wonderful Steph Cha, whom I interviewed in Episode 2.

Classic mystery writers include Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald (the Travis McGee novels) and Patricia Highsmith. One last influential writer mentioned, although not in the field of mystery, is Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

We talk about books and writing, but we also discussed the need for women to be financially savvy and have an “escape fund” — not necessarily to escape a dangerous relationship (although obviously that can help), but also so you’re not stuck in a bad work situation. Money is freedom. 

The most important links, however, are the ones Désirée sent me on human trafficking:

If you’d rather read than listen, here is the transcript. Enjoy!

Transcript of interview with Désirée Zamorano

Welcome to Destination Mystery: A Podcast for Readers who Love a Good Mystery. I’m Laura Brennan.

A Pushcart Prize nominee and award-winning short story author, Desiree Zamorano has wrestled with culture, identity, and the invisibility of Latinas from early on and addressed that in her commentaries which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, NPR’s Latino USA, and Publisher’s Weekly. She is also proud of having co-authored with her sister two plays commissioned by Southern California’s Bilingual Foundation for the Arts. “Reina” and “Bell Gardens 90201” received Equity productions and toured for a total of eight years.

She delights in the exploration of contemporary issues of injustice and inequality, via her mystery series featuring private investigator, Inez Leon, published by Lucky Bat Books. Human Cargo was Latinidad’s Mystery Pick of the Year.

Her novel, Modern Cons is a story of psychological suspense where she explores the reverberations of being raised by a con artist.

Laura Brennan: Thank you for being here. I’m so excited.

Désirée Zamorano: Whoo-hoo!

LB: How are you, Désirée?

DZ: Me, too. I’m excited, too.

LB: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get started writing?

DZ: We writers are all a crazy bunch and we probably as kids said, Oh, I want to create something so wonderful, because as kids we have fallen into this world. And as kids we have this naïve perception that writers just magically put those words on the page. Well, I wanted to magically put those words on the page! But as I got older I realized it took a lot of work to make the work look seamless. So you asked how I got into it. I always wanted to be a writer and I started sending off my short stories — those were a big deal as I was my twenties, short stories were the thing — and after about 100 rejections, two acceptances and $50, I thought wow, that’s a lot of heartache! I mean, if I’m going to deal with rejection, I might as well go big time. So I sat down to write a novel. I’m going okay, I’m going to write the Great American novel. And I sat down to write a novel and I thought, I have no idea what I’m doing. And I thought about all the books I loved to read and I love classics, I love contemporary modern fiction, but have a real soft spot for mysteries. And what I love about mysteries, and what I loved as I sat down to write mysteries, is they have a structure. A structure you can play with, but a structure that’s familiar to the reader, familiar to the writer. And it was such a wonderful starting frame for a new writer, for me. And also, naïvely, I thought it would be easy to break into the industry with genre book. So that’s pretty much how I started.

LB: Oh my goodness. Well, I’m amazed — I’m not amazed that you had success with short stories, I’m in awe that you’ve had success with short stories because short stories are hard. To be able to capture that moment, to give a complete experience in so few words is, I think, a real art. Are you still writing short stories? I mean obviously, you’ve won awards for it.

DZ: I agree, I think short stories are a very particular art form, and they take a lot of work. Because every word, it’s like crafting a jewel. Every word has to be there, every sentence has to be purposeful and intentional. And I write short stories when, more from inspiration than dedication. I write novels through inspiration and dedication. Perhaps you’re familiar with Akashic’s Mondays are Murder? Every Monday they print a 750 word short story, and a few weeks ago I looked at it and I thought, wait a second, I’ve got a PI. I can do that. So I read it on Monday, wrote it on Tuesday, by Thursday was accepted. That was a rare occurrence in my life.

LB: Well, your PI started out – – “Quickie” came before your novel Human Cargo, correct?

DZ: No it didn’t. It came afterwards. My publisher, Lucky Bat, said to put up “Quickie” and then when you sell it on Amazon, it will have the next few chapters of the next Inez Leon story.

LB: Oh I see. Was it harder? Because you wrote that in the third person. Was it harder to write it when you weren’t in Inez’s head?

DZ: You know what’s funny? I had just had an issue with a professor I didn’t like, and I had had an issue… Sexual harassment was coming out all over the place and I thought, I need to kick-ass woman to take care of this in a fun kind of way.

LB: Oh, well, then, Inez is your girl!

DZ: That’s what I was hoping for.

LB: Where did the idea for her come from? Where’d she spring from?

DZ: Well as I said, I wanted to write mysteries and I was thinking about it, and when you write a novel you’re dedicating years of your life to it. Who do I want to spend this time with? Well, there’s a lot of male protagonists out there, they’re covered. There are some female protagonists out there, really interesting female protagonists. Who did I not see? Well, I didn’t see Mexican-Americans. So I thought, holy smokes, this is easy, I’m gonna write a Latina PI. How did I choose her name? Leon means lion. I wanted a tigress. I wanted a great, powerful woman. And Inez is actually my little callback to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz who was the first writer in the Western continent, the first European writer, so, she was a Spanish nun and I just want to give her little homage with that.

LB: That’s fantastic and it leads right into, who are some writers who have influenced you?

DZ: Well, if you talk to Naomi Hirahara, she really doesn’t like Raymond Chandler. If you talk to Steph Cha she really loves Raymond Chandler. I’m in the Raymond Chandler camp. And I started reading him as a young adult, just swept away by his language. And of course Dashiell Hammett, all of that gritty stuff. And then there’s that really odd duck, Patricia Highsmith. You can never tell what she’s trying to say and you have to read between the lines, what’s going on. So those are all fascinating and you can see they’re all older writers as well. A little more contemporary, a friend of mine in the ’80s introduced me to the Travis McGee novels which I devoured and loved. But looking at them with more mature eyes, it’s very funny how standardly sexist they are, and not quite – – not really PC, not really aware of the different people in the world. Which is something I certainly try to aspire to with Inez’s adventures. I want readers to see the whole cast of LA as I see it.

LB: It’s really interesting to me that you would mention Raymond Chandler, because as I was reading Human Cargo, what came back to me was his line about “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” and Inez, I really thought you were playing with that because Human Cargo almost tarnishes her. She wrestles with that.

DZ: To me, Inez is a conflicted person and her adventures should provoke self-reflection. She’s not the most self-reflective person and when you articulate that she’s kind of untarnished, that’s part of being nonreflective, that she can go forward propelled by this mission in her life, and yet come across things that she finds very disturbing. In the current novel that I’m working on with her, it’s the same thing, it’s going to change her perception.

LB: Well, I thought it was really artfully handled.

DZ: Thank you.

LB: Would you consider the books to be Noir?

DZ: So, you know, I get confused by the labeling. I was listening to one panel where Noir means the protagonist – – it ends badly. Okay? I don’t want to write a protagonist where it ends badly. I want, I’m sorry, I like Hollywood endings. That’s the way I am. When I pick up a book, if it’s going to end badly, I probably don’t want to read it. I know that sounds perhaps shallow, but I do see entertainment and these kinds of art forms as escapism. We’ve got enough misery in the world. Mysteries are the only place we can find justice in this world. I’m there.

LB: Oh, I completely agree. I think the idea of having a fulfilling ending, as opposed to having a shocker ending, and you nailed it. So, tell me about Human Cargo. It handles very compelling and difficult material. You were talking earlier about having to live with your protagonist for years. But living with that subject matter, too, how did you pick that?

DZ: Human Cargo is actually the fourth Inez Leon novel I wrote, the first one to be published. And each one, each preceding novel represented a different topic, a different theme, a different idea. And I really wanted to do something — like I said, you have to live with this. I cast about for big idea and as I was casting about someone had given me a National Geographic which covered human trafficking throughout the globe. This was at least 10 years ago and frankly I was stunned, shocked and startled. And it was just horrifying to me. So I had to figure out, how can I bring this in, and how can I at the same time, how can I subvert stereotypes. Because this book is not about Mexican immigrants coming to the US. It’s about a different population. How can I subvert stereotypes and in some way educate? I don’t think a novelist has to educate because that becomes didactic and distracting to the reader. But I guess, broaden the reader’s horizon. That’s what a book should do, broaden the reader’s horizon. So once I came across that magazine, I just started reading more and more about it, and in fact many of what Inez references actually happened.

LB: Oh, clearly. Actually, I will never look at warehouses in Glendale the same way again. But there’s such a richness to it, it feels so, it feels so incredibly real, I almost wish I knew what to do to stop it. You got me into it.

DZ: There’s this other woman I read recently. Ausma Khan is her name. And she writes about Canadians and Muslims and her detective is a Muslim Canadian in Toronto. Her first book was about the Srebrenica massacre and how it echoed in Canada. And she had lots of links afterwards to support refugee groups and support groups. And I thought, geez, that’s what I should’ve done with Human Cargo, had somehow links to authentic places where we can help fight that issue.

(LB: After our conversation, Désirée very kindly provided links to groups that are working to stop human trafficking. I’ve included those in the show notes at DestinationMystery.com.)

LB: One of the other things about your book that I really was drawn to was her relationship with her sister. It’s one of the things that keeps her from being a Philip Marlowe. She — there are so many ways in which she wants to be a lone wolf. But then she has so many ties that keep her from being that.

DZ: Yeah, she think she’s a lone wolf. But she really is very deeply connected with her sister, and her sister keeps her sane.

LB: Yes, very grounding. I, obviously, am very much not a lone wolf private investigator no matter how much I want to be one in my imagination, but still her, there’s a moment where she says to herself, I should be able to do this by myself. She really resists calling anyone for help or getting any help from her actual support system. And I just felt that resonated with me as sort of a modern woman. That we are all supposed to do it on our own.

DZ: I think it’s an illness. I think it’s actually an illness of our contemporary US culture. Because what do we say? “Rugged individualist.” And yet in any culture no one has raised themselves. And we’re very reluctant to realize how important a community is to all of us. I mean, think of your writing life and my writing life. It’s gotten so much better now that I have a community to draw from. That support system.

LB: Who are some writers that you’re reading today? You mentioned one of them. Who else?

DZ: I don’t know if you know the Sara Gran?

LB: No I do not.

DZ: Okay, Sara Gran is amazing. The first thing she wrote that I read was called “Come Closer.” It’s kind of a riff on The Yellow Wallpaper —

LB: Mmm, yes.

DZ: And there’s something psychological and intoxicating. I mean really it’s just an intoxicating book. And I was looking up what other books I love and I loved, I think it’s called Claire DeWitt. Claire DeWitt, she’s a PI. I didn’t realize it was also written by Sara Gran. It’s just a fantastic series. The first one is set in New Orleans during the terrible hurricane. And the next one is set in San Francisco. Another writer that I love is Kate Atkinson. Everybody knows who Kate Atkinson is. Her Jackson Brodie series is just amazing. I don’t think it’s a typical, I don’t think it’s listed under mystery or thriller, but it weaves lives and everything, four different storylines and they all come out at the end. and it’s just amazing. I love that she can do that. She’s so brilliant. James Sallis, he wrote the novel, Drive. I don’t remember why I picked it up, but it is so elegantly, sparsely written and it contains so much between the lines that I couldn’t put it down. Now this was made into a movie, I forget who the star was, but in the novel, Drive, the main protagonist falls in love with a Latina. In the movie, she is white.

LB: Yes. That is how they cast.

DZ: I love Kate Atkinson, I don’t know if you know this, she’s also producing this TV series called The Catch. The Catch is set in LA, it’s also co-produced by Shondra Rhimes. Set in LA! There is not one recurring Latino cast member. It’s disturbing. That’s my little political rant. We’ve been here since the inception and somehow we’re not still not on TV.

LB: Or in that many novels.

DZ: Well, that’s true, too. That’s true. I think I blame television more because the visual images color people’s perceptions. And because we are invisible, people look at us in shock, they’ll say — which I’ve been told in New York City as recently as two years ago — “You don’t look Mexican.” Well, what has defined their concept of what looks Mexican? I do not look like a humble maid who is worried about the INS. Nor do I look like Sofia Vergara. So, that leaves me the range in between, which is not represented in most visual media. Except commercials, because they know brown women buy things.

LB: That is one way in which culture changes: whoever controls the money controls the images. Controlling the money is something else that comes through in your stories as well. The women tend not to be in control of the money. And yet, they’re the ones often who are making things happen.

DZ: Nobody has pointed that out to me, so that’s very interesting. In my other novel, the literary fiction one, The Amado Women, one of the main characters is actually a financial advisor, and she is very intent upon managing her money and those of her family members. Money is always an issue for me. What does Grace Paley say? Write about blood and money. And I think those are very compelling themes. And also outside of novels, I think women have to control their money. Otherwise they’re victimized.

LB: Oh, absolutely true. Getting a little off topic, but there was that great article that went around on having an escape fund.

DZ: I didn’t see that. That sounds like the beginning of a mystery novel right there.

LB: Actually, that is a good idea. I will find it and I will link to it in the show notes.

DZ: That sounds great.

LB: What have we not talked about that you want to say?

DZ: You know, there was another author, she doesn’t need my shout out, but I just love her. The woman who wrote – – okay, everybody loves Gone Girl. But that wasn’t her best book. Sharp Objects, Dark Places, those are two really amazing novels. So I really, people out there, read ’em, they’re great. And also, of course, I love, I mentioned before Naomi Hirahara, and another woman who’s writing, you know, Rachel Howzell Hall, she came out, she’s got a detective set in LA. She writes a book a year and she works full-time. I don’t know how these people do it.

LB: Sue Ann Jaffarian is the same way.

DZ: Oh my gosh, I heard her speak, it’s like, when do you live, Sue Ann? She’s amazing. Her productivity is amazing.

LB: Let me ask one last question, then. What are your hopes, I guess, for your series? For your protagonist? Of course we want international success and fame and fortune, I’m going with that, but when someone picks up one of your novels, what you want for them?

DZ: I want them to turn the page. I really want them to care about what’s going to happen next, to be intrigued enough to turn that page and to keep turning. That is my goal. In terms of dreams for my series, you know, Naomi Hirahara has worked very hard, and she must have been publishing for at least 10 years, and it’s only this year that one of her novels is being published in French. And that, to me, is, like, fantastic. To be able to go to France and do an event there, that would be a dream. So I would love to be able to get to the place where Inez is coming out once every two years, because it takes me a little more than a year.

LB: That’s terrific. Thank you so much for joining me today.

DZ: Thank you, Laura! Loved it!

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