Diversity in our writing, interview with Nicholas Mena

A few weeks ago, I posted a link to an interview Nicholas Mena did with me about diversity in fantasy. Now he's asked me to interview him as well. We focused on his novel (series) Glass City.

Tell us a bit about Glass City. How did the story develop for you?
Glass City is actually a very old idea for me. When I was a teenager, I was very into being game master for about a dozen RPG worlds I invented (I still have most of them in those old, black and white marble exterior composition notebooks). Glass City was an urban world I invented where my friends could play as an echidna (a vampire), a lycanthrope (werewolf), a homunculus, warlock, rei, or undine. I had tried writing this world as a short story and a novel unsuccessfully in the past, but this time, I finally had more direction and a clearer path to follow. Having all of the support at FWO was a big help to finishing the first draft. I owe a lot of folks a steak dinner if the book ever sells.

You rotate among four different narrators for this story. What challenges did that give you? What did you do to make each of them distinct?
It took several tries to get the distinction between the four point of view people right. Since my people are very real for me in my head, hence the fact that I don’t use the word “characters”, it took some venturing into splitting my own personality and giving each persona a very distinct voice. June was determined but questioning. David was a self-depreciating nerd. Maya was seductive but emotionally damaged, and Carlos was prideful and a bit co-dependent. I then made the chapter headings connected to each of the four main people, but I wanted a twist there, so I used the food that each creature race ate: blood, skin, breath, and flesh.

You use some traditional elements, like vampires and werewolves, as well as others that are (I believe) your own creations. Are there specific traditions you looked to for those established creatures/beings? And are there any folk tale or legendary/mythological sources for the ones you've invented? Did you have any difficulty making the various creatures mesh in a single story?

Even though all the creature names existed in literature, I wanted to make them all specifically mine. One trait I added was that they were all mongrel creatures in that they were essentially human but with demon blood mixed into them in very specific ways to create each creature. I also had each mongrel race have a patron or matron demon who originated each creature. One of these demons is introduced in this story, and he makes another appearance in the sequel wherein the origin of the first warlock is revealed. While all of the creature races have varying origins, I embedded a purpose for their being brought together in Glass City. Part of the back story was that when the persecution of their kind was at its zenith, several of the race leaders agreed to move to this secluded city and live peacefully there. They made arrangements with certain human groups to ensure the peace held and to switch their diets from humans to animals, which were shipped in large quantities to the city. The current state of Glass City is that the established peace has fallen and each group is on the verge of all-out war when these four individuals are introduced to the drastic changes in their lives.

You're from the U.S. Virgin Islands and live there now, though you spent some time living elsewhere. In what ways does St. Croix itself and the culture you grew up in play into Glass City? And what about the time you spent away from there? Does June's homecoming in the first chapter at all reflect your own return home?

Does June’s homecoming reflect my own... yeah, I guess it does, now that you mention it. My island home always has a way of popping up in my prose. Most of my settings in my stories are islands in some form. I drew on a trip I took to Manhattan when I was the director of photography of a documentary I was making with some friends there. It served as inspiration for most of the urban elements and themes of bright lights and glass exteriors hiding the true darkness of a place in plain sight. Above all else, my Crucian background lends itself to the diverse cultural makeup I tend to have in my stories. St. Croix was a place that after the transfer from the Danish to the US, and in subsequent eras, there were financial upturns and job opportunities that were largely filled by immigrants. You’d actually have a hard time finding someone on St. Croix whose family goes back several generations since so many of us, myself included, are second and third generation immigrants. My mother’s side came from Vieques, Puerto Rico and my father’s side is from the Dominican Republic. Often, when I’m in the need for a richly cultural fantasy name, I’ll open up my high school yearbook and find gems like Kishma, Sunil, Jacob-el, or Chichester.

You also have some background in film-making and have used those skills in your non-profit work with children. How do you see that work affecting your writing? What skills carry over from one medium to the other, and what's completely different?

When it comes to teaching kids about video production, photography, and writing skills, it’s like getting a fresh perspective on everything. I would compare it to folks with young children who talk about experiencing things with their kids and seeing the world like it’s the first time all over again. I also love the fact that I am passing on something useful into the world.

An interesting thing about screenplay writing is that it forces you to funnel your senses. When you are writing for the screen, you only have two senses through which everything can be experienced: sight and sound. You can’t smell the movie or taste or touch it. But this limitation, in turn, teaches you to pay attention to your senses and how you perceive the world since you have to make the other senses evident through sight and sound. You can’t sell the taste of the steak, but you can sell the sizzle.

The downside to this screen-writers’ perspective is that it can make your writing very tell-y. We often forget that we have access to those other senses in prose writing so our descriptions can often end up telling rather than showing. For me, that lends itself to filtered descriptions where I tell how a person felt or smelled something rather than just saying what was touched or showing the aroma, but I’m getting better at catching those every day.

You're currently working on the second Glass City book. How is that going? What's next for it and for you?

The second book is drafted and I’m actually a few pages into the third. It still needs a complete overhaul, though. What I’d really like to see is the series becoming popular enough so that I don’t have to keep doing my soul-sucking night job and can just stick to my nonprofit work. To be frank, I’d love to see it coming out similar to your Spire City series. I always thought the multiple perspectives would lend well to episodic publication like that.

Although, my aspiration is to have my other novella, Cayuyé, be published as that is my dream story and the most fitting tale for my brand. My Spanish-speaking relatives and friends have said that they would love to see that one as a telenovela.

I've enjoyed following your month of interviews related to diversity in fantasy. Are there any things that especially struck you during those interviews—things that are excellent or things that are lacking? What would you hope to see other people take from this and apply to their own writing and reading?

Another writer friend I interviewed asked me a similar question where she kind of turned the tables on me and asked what I was looking for when it came to second world fantasy. I think it’s the same when it comes to all literature writing in general. Diversifying your writing isn’t about forced perspectives or having to change what you want to write to satisfy some new politically correct norm. I think it’s more about what makes people want to keep reading a crusty-old genre like ours, the fact that we are always delving into unexplored territory. We’re fantasy writers. We all have the power within us to take the mundane and make it into something fantastic. There’s no excuse for sticking to the old tried and true methods. We’re not Hollywood executives regurgitating the same tripe we know will sell easily. It’s like what Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls said about motherhood. “If it was easy, fathers would do it.” We write it because it’s hard, because it tests us and takes us to new places and new experiences and explores territory we sometimes didn’t know we had inside of us. I think that is the main lesson of diversity in fantasy writing: above all else, don’t be boring!

My thanks to Nick. And don't forget to read the other interviews over at Sancocho Pot.