Hi Joan. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to have a few minutes to chat about your travels and your writing. What do you say we jump right in? Pull up a chair and sit down your purse and we’ll get right down to it.
Your bio says that you lived in Jamaica, London, Malaysia, Puerto Rico and Miami. Can you tell me a little about your time in these places and how it’s impacted your writing?
I think all our life experiences impact our writing in one way or another. With the exception of Colombia, the locations in The Tangled Web are places I’ve lived in or visited. But your question has made me realize there may be a little more to it than writing about places I know. I’ve traveled from an early age and that may be why my plots travel around. The book I’m writing now doesn’t have as many locations as The Tangled Web, but the plot doesn’t stay in one place either. It moves between England, Jamaica and Ghana. So it seems I always find a way to return to Jamaica where I was born and lived a good part of my life, and England where I studied and which just happens to be the first country I ever visited.
Although I lived in Puerto Rico for more than three years, I can’t say the time I spent there had any particular impact on my writing. It was really Miami that introduced me to the Hispanic culture, which I touch on in The Tangled Web. Rubbing shoulders with Hispanic co-workers and friends every day, I came to know that culture well. I never did learn more than a smattering of Spanish, but I understand the tone of the language well enough to have brought authenticity to the Spanish dialogue in The Tangled Web. Even when the Colombian characters are speaking English, the way they express themselves is how they’d speak in Spanish. Malaysia had a huge – and lasting – impact on me, but none of my Malaysian experience is reflected in my writing.
How long have you been writing?
Has writing always been something you wanted to do?
I think I’ve always written, without consciously thinking it was something I wanted to do. It was a poem I once wrote that landed me my first job as a writer. I didn’t want the job. I didn’t think I was a writer, but the friend who offered me the position in his ad agency thought I had potential because he’d read my poetry. Until I retired a few years ago, I made my living writing. I was an advertising and marketing writer. There were times I loved it and there were times I hated it – pretty much the same way everybody feels about their job.
What books or stories have you written? Published?
I’m skipping this one since I already jumped the gun and talked about it.
Can you tell us a little about your books? What are they about?
It’s a bit premature to talk about the book I’m writing now, so I’ll stick with The Tangled Web, though every time I’m asked about The Tangled Web I get tongue-tied. If I say it’s about political corruption and cocaine trafficking on a grand international scale, I’m over simplifying, because there are two interweaving main plots. One is about a set of powerful people who get together to rescue their country from becoming a drug state, and the other is about a man and woman who fall in love while caught in this dangerous web of political intrigue. It’s impossible to say more about it without throwing out spoilers. In fact, I think I may already have with that short description.
The characters just came to me, as did the plot. There’s only one character which vaguely resembles anyone I’ve known, or known about. She looks like a former roommate of mine in London, but she’s very much like one of my cousins. But something amazing happened with my character, Maria – the ruthless Colombian drug boss. I didn’t know this while I was writing the book, but she has a real-life counterpart. Or I should say had. Her counterpart was assassinated in Colombia late last year. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the news report. She was known as the cocaine godmother. She was a pioneer in Colombian drug smuggling and mentor to the famous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. It’s said she was behind around 40 homicides. There’s no physical resemblance between her and Maria though. Griselda Blanco was a plain woman. Maria is drop-dead gorgeous.
Are the books based on personal experiences?
No. Not saying my life isn’t interesting, but I find fiction a lot more fun. There are no limits with fiction.
Is there any advice you have been given that you could give to a young up-and-coming writer?
When I published The Tangled Web, I didn’t have a clue what was involved. It’s a miracle I sold that many books. My advice to up-and-coming authors is to do your marketing homework before you even breathe a word about your book. Don’t publish until you’ve built a social media network and a network of other authors who will support you. Line up reviewers and interviewers in advance, so you have reviews and author interviews as soon as you’re published. And don’t release a book that hasn’t been professionally edited. You could have the greatest story ever written, but it won’t get good reviews if it’s littered with typos and grammatical mistakes. And forget the old saying “Never judge a book by its cover.” Whoever said that was wrong, wrong, wrong. Your cover is the first impression of your book, and it can make or break your sales. Have it professionally done. There’s a lot more to a book cover than a nice design. And prepare to market your book. Nobody will buy it if they’ve never heard of it.
Can you talk a little about the benefits of getting your work professionally edited?
I’m sure there’s a writer somewhere out there who’s capable of editing their own work, but we lesser mortals need another eye – several other eyes. Aside from line editing, which is basically cleaning up typos and grammatical errors, there’s the editing that involves scrutiny of the storyline – continuity, plausibility, the strength of the characters and stuff like that. Here’s a good example of the value of an editor. I went into great detail with a scene in The Tangled Web where one of the assassins is getting prepared to shoot his target from a window. I went through that scene with a fine tooth comb, going as far as to time how long it took to get up on a ladder and unscrew the cover of an air conditioning vent. When the manuscript came back from the editor, there was a note in the right margin telling me that he needed to open the window. I’d overlooked that small, but very important detail.
What are some of the hardest things you’ve had to overcome as a writer, in order to be published?
I published my book, so I didn’t have to go through the song and dance of literary agents and publishers. But I think I’ll probably take the traditional publishing route with the one I’m writing now. I’ll be in a better position to answer your question then. 🙂
How do you find time to write your books?
It’s hard, and I haven’t been writing as much as I would like. I’ve been concentrating more on marketing. The thing is I become totally immersed when I’m writing, so when I get back to my book, marketing will have to take a back seat. Both are important to a writer and some writers are able to find that balance. I can’t. It’s one or the other for me.
Several of my guests have often said writing is therapeutic and relaxes them. Can you talk a little about how writing relaxes you? Any specific examples you can share?
Writing is relaxing? Think that’s a bit of an understatement. It’s like a drug that sweeps you away into an alternate universe of your making. It’s pure bliss. Or as another author put it in their interview, it’s better than sex. Okay, I admit that’s a bit of a stretch. But how about as good?
Has writing made you a better person?
I really don’t have an answer to that, but if you were to ask my family and friends they’d tell you I’ve become annoyingly anti-social since I started writing books.
Do you like to read? If so, what are your favorite genres and why?
Yes, I like to read, though I don’t have much time for reading these days. But I manage to bury my nose in a book for an hour or two every night. If I were to choose a favorite genre it would be historical fiction, though I like most genres. I also read a lot of non-fiction, mostly history and religious philosophy. And I love poetry.
Can you talk about how important reviews are to writers?
I think reviews are very important. They’re the feedback on your work, plus they often show your book in a light you never saw it in. For example, even though there are some factual events in The Tangled Web, it never occurred to me that it could be categorized as historical fiction until two reviewers alluded to that in their remarks.
Have you ever received a bad review? If so how did it make you feel?
Indeed I have – a scathing one-star review that made me blush to my elbows. I read it again when I’d recovered from the shock. I don’t think the reviewer was being mean. The book just wasn’t their cup of tea. Though The Tangled Web certainly doesn’t deserve a one-star. That’s usually reserved for very poorly written books, and most reviewers won’t bother to review a book if it’s that bad.
Would you mind sharing an excerpt from your book?
I’d love to, and I’m going to share one I’ve never shared before. This was a special moment during the writing of The Tangled Web. Maria came out of nowhere, and her arrival on the scene changed the plot I’d had in mind. She’s the drug boss, the one with the real-life counterpart.
Late that evening in Cali, Jorgé Caicedo Rojas tightened the sash of his burgundy smoking jacket and walked over to the well-stocked bar to make himself a nightcap. He deliberated for a moment between a Grand Marnier or a Rémy Martin. He decided in favor of the Rémy and poured a large snifter, filling it considerably more than is customary.
Across the room, Maria Echevarría lounged languorously on a butter-soft calfskin sofa, her white satin gown clinging to the curves of a perfect body. “You are such an uncouth pig, mi amor.” Her comment, breathed in a low, throaty voice, was iced, and she contemplated the man at the bar with disdain. “You live in the lap of luxury and yet look how you pour a glass of cognac, like a peasant. And here am I dying of thirst and you haven”t even thought to offer me something.”
Jorgé’s blood boiled at the insult, but he chose not to react. He had learned not to rise to the bait where Maria was concerned. “I apologize, that was thoughtless of me. What can I get you?”
“Drambuie, por favor. My tastes are less extravagant than yours.”
Jorgé poured the Drambuie carefully and took it over to her, waiting for her to begin the inquisition.
“Jorgé, mi amor.” She was pouting petulantly. “You have not brought me up to date on our deal with the island.”
Jorgé took a cigarette from the engraved silver cigarette box and lit it slowly. “Everything is in place, Maria. Transportation to two additional cells in Eastern Europe has been secured. That eliminates our reliance on the Albanian Mafia.”
“Remind me, where are the new distribution centers?”
He knew she remembered perfectly well, but nevertheless placated her with an answer. “Albania and Kosovo. We ship directly to the island and the containers get transferred immediately to a secure shipping line.”
“What ever happened with the African route?”
“I don’t see how that can be beneficial to us at this point. Right now, I think the island is our best bet.”
Maria shifted on the sofa, her dark eyes quickly calculating. Because Europe was largely Mafia territory they had, until now, been left with no choice but to collaborate with the Albanians to open up new European markets. Their partnership with the island opened doors that had formerly been closed. Jorgé was right on that count. But she still considered the island a risk. “Who owns the shipping line on the island?” she asked.
Jorgé eyed her. He never knew what dark thoughts were running through Maria’s mind. Her question could have been for any of a hundred reasons. “It’s a small private operation,” he answered carefully. “They ship mostly agricultural products – citrus, coffee, sugar – that kind of thing. From what I gather, that company was the main shipper of bananas to the UK during the island’s banana heyday.”
Maria smiled sardonically, “Well, bananas are no longer profitable. We must keep up with the times to stay afloat.” Her eyes looked into an unseen distance. “How much do you estimate we can transship through there in a year?”
“With these new centers opening up? I estimate we can move at least one hundred tons in a year. That’s the plan anyway. But I should warn you, there is a downside.”
Maria arched her eyebrows quizzically.
“Our associate demands fifty percent of gross sales.”
Maria did not respond immediately, seemingly preoccupied with close scrutiny of her manicure. She seemed oblivious to Jorgé for an uncomfortably long time before she stated calmly, “I’m not happy giving our associate such a large slice of the pie. That is a ridiculous demand. El hombre debe estar loco.”
“Usted no esta·tomando en cuenta ciertas cosas, Maria. Not only is he offering unobstructed transportation, he can also stockpile the merchandise for us if we need him to. That is a plus. In addition, we are spared the cost of intelligence gathering and bribes to officials because we have his protection as head of state. These things need to be taken into consideration.”
“I’m aware of that,” she snapped, “But even so, I am not prepared to facilitate such an insane demand! There must be another way.” She twisted a silky strand of ebony hair in contemplation as she stared at him unseeingly, not expecting a response, or wanting one for that matter. Then, in the matter-of-fact tone of one who has come to a mundane household decision, she said, “Eliminate him.”
Jorgé flicked an ash into the ashtray without comment.
“Find somebody else. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”
“No creo que sean necesario tales extremos. The man can never be a threat to us.”
“Everyone’s a threat,” she hissed, uncoiling like a viper and sitting up. “Somebody’s pilfering those shipments. The figures aren’t adding up. We can’t be sure it’s happening on that end, but I don’t trust him. He’s become careless, and that makes me nervous. We can’t afford to have our operation compromised. In any case, he’ll be forced out one way or the other eventually. With things deteriorating at the rate they are in that country, it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. Then, where will we be, Jorgé? Dígame!”
Jorgé finished his Rémy with a single gulp and sat heavily in an armchair opposite her. He had always had a strong distaste for violence and had only ever turned to violence as the very last resort. “Are you absolutely sure you want to take this path, Maria?” he asked in a futile attempt to dissuade her.
“Positivo, mi amor,” she said rising and going over to him, her perfume enveloping him. She moved closer and ran her fingers through his hair. “I’m going to Europe for a little break. I’m sure you’ll have everything in place by the time I get back.”