Author Mario Acevedo discusses his literary influences, Rocky Flats and writing about dogs
Reading is about more than following a narrative or absorbing information; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, which celebrates the books that inspire Denver artists.
Mario Acevedo is a local author whose 2007 debut novel, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, introduced readers to Felix Gomez, an war veteran turned undead gumshoe; it was touted as one of the best new books by a Colorado author in the august pages of Westword that year. Since then, Acevedo has published four more Gomez novels, and recently co-authored an e-book about an international ponzi scheme called Good Money Gone. I recently met up with Acevedo to discuss his literary influences, his career, and the community of Colorado writers at Three Dogs Tavern, where we watched our own dogs tentatively befriend one another on the patio out front.
Westword: You are the president of the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America, right?
Mario Acevedo: Well, I was termed out.
Mystery Writer presidents have term limits? How democratic.
I served for four years, but elections are held year to year, so you've got to keep getting re-elected, but I always ran unopposed. Yeah, we got a new guy named Mike Befeler, who just did a reading at Broadway Book Mall. He took my place after four years.
How many members are there? Do you find it helpful to be involved in a community of like-minded writers?
Sure, it's important to be involved. Our chapter has 130 writers, and nationwide, it's about 29,000. I'm also involved with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers -- I think you've interviewed a few fellow members already -- and I also go to the Lighthouse Writer's Workshop. Have you been there yet?
I have not.
You should meet Andrea Dupree and Mike Henry, the directors. They're married. They started Lighthouse fifteen years ago in their apartment, doing critiques and getting people talking about books, and they've grown and grown they've got a staff of five paid employees and they moved into this mansion off Colfax and Race.
Oh, I had always wondered what was in that place. I know the area well.
Head over there, man, they know lots of great writers.
What kind of books do you tend to read these days?
Whatever friends recommend, that's the main thing. Gosh, I try to read like a book each week and I'm drawing a blank right now. There's a writer by the name of Robert Crais who I like a lot; he writes L.A. crime novels. Bestsellers, really fantastic. He comes to Denver about twice a year. I also really like this guy called Manuel Ramos, have you heard of him?
Yes, I think he was in Westword recently.
I just finished Desperado, which is this great Denver noir set in the Highland.
So mostly mysteries?
It's about half mysteries, half miscellaneous.
Well, yeah, but that doesn't count. I read those all the time, slowly and also just to get information here and there. I like history a lot. Books about art, art deco architecture.
Do you remember a particular book that got you interested in the mystery genre?
When I first started reading, I didn't really pay much attention to genres. My dad used to read a lot, he would buy all the big potboilers as soon as they came out in paperback, so I would pick up books from him. One of the first mysteries I remember was The Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald, who also wrote Cape Fear, but he originally called it The Executioners. He's a classic noir guy, one of the guys I remember reading, enjoying and then going through most of their books. I liked Leon Uris. Another big, meaty book I remember reading was The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. I was twelve, I think.
Did that book give you nightmares too?
Like, about disease? No plague nightmares?
No, I didn't have any nightmares. I just always found that stuff so interesting. My dad was a chemist for the army at the time, so he laughed reading that book, pointing out all the stuff that these supposedly brilliant government scientists in the book were getting wrong. He used to take me to the university library on Sundays. At the public library in Las Cruces, I would stay so long that my mother would call the library and tell them to send me home.
Any memorable library picks?
That's some heavy reading for a kid. I was a vegetarian for a whole six hours after I read The Jungle.
He wrote that, and then he wrote this book called Dragon's Teeth in the early '40s that warned everybody about the Nazis, and he wasn't even close to capturing how evil they were. I was always drawn to stuff like that, being a history guy. My tastes have always been pretty eclectic. Looking back on it now, I read a lot of science fiction, but I would often just choose those for the covers, so there all kinds of writers that I've missed. I read Heinlein, some of the big names.
Have you ever read The Man in the High Castle? It's about Nazi stuff.
Phillip K. Dick? Yeah, I just couldn't get into it, I thought it was kind of tenuous. Conceptually Phillip K. Dick was always good, but his prose just misses the mark for me somehow.
Keep reading for more from Mario Acevedo.
Did you always want to be a writer or did you go through other jobs first?
Out of college, I went straight into the Army. Some people laugh when I tell them this because they find it hard to imagine, but I was a ranger, a paratrooper and a helicopter pilot. But it was pretty hard on my family, so I retired as a captain and we moved around while, eventually got to Denver where I pursued another degree at the University of Denver and took engineering jobs, including one at Rocky Flats, where I was an environmental engineer. Then I got laid off. It's funny, because when you talk to guys in my dad's generation, they hardly knew anybody who'd been laid off. Now, I hardly know anyone who hasn't. When I was first starting out as a writer, I would try to get published in all these literary magazines that would accept my stories and would follow up with a regretful letter saying that the publishers were going under. One of them even went ahead and sent me a check for 25 bucks and apologized that they couldn't publish my story, but for a while, I felt like agreeing to publish me was this kiss of death for these publications. It's a tough business; it's often just a labor of love for the people who keep printing.
Do you have particular books that you find yourself recommending to people again and again?
Yes, I recommend books to people so often that sometimes I find it hard to hang on to my own copies, because I'll just lend them out. Jennie Shortridge wrote a great book called Riding with the Queen that I like to tell people about. She's from Denver, but I think she lives in Seattle now. Robert Crais, who I mentioned earlier. I always tell people to read Demolition Angel and he's got a new book called Suspect. I love that book a lot. Crais is just a hell of a writer. He not only has a command of the English language that's very lyrical and poetic, and profound psychological insight into his characters and their motivation, but his books are these plot-driven crime stories. You'd definitely like Suspect; it's about a dog. It's about a bomb-sniffing dog and a cop who both have post-traumatic stress disorder, and they become partners and help each other. It's so good, and he's done great writing from a dog's point of view. He doesn't personify the dog at all, so it feels like reading the way a dog would think, the way he describes smells and how he relates to people. It's great and it just came out. There's a local guy named Warren Hammond who's writing really cool science fiction stories. He's a really good writer; he just won the Colorado Book Award. I like Richard K. Morgan a lot, too, he's a British science fiction writer with a really cool series.
When you're reading, do you tend to respond more to the prose or the ideas? Which do you think is ultimately more important?
You need both; it's better to have both. This is one of the things I keep coming up against in the writing classes I teach and Lighthouse workshops. Almost everybody who participates comes from a creative writing background, and I don't. I've always written genre. That's the discipline that I come from. And sometimes, I butt heads with more literary people who get really precious about their manuscripts. I personally think a lot of the literary establishment is a racket. The Pulitzer Prize is an insular group of elites congratulating themselves and the others in their circle without ever inviting anyone from the outside in. Another book I'd recommend is by this guy Stephen Hely, called How I Became a Famous Novelist. At one point, the protagonist gives up trying to write a thriller because it's too difficult to keep all these twisty plot points and have them come together into a cogent story. So he goes the literary route, where he can cover up for plot holes with florid writing. It's very cynical. So I prefer writers who have both skills.
To learn more about Mario Acevedo, his books and upcoming appearances, visit his official website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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