Set in the depths of a Denver recession, Manuel Ramos' new novel follows Gus Corral as he gets caught up in a gritty world of warring gangs, murder and a missing religious artifact. Out now on Arte Público Press, Desperado: A Mile High Noir uses the North Side of Denver as the backdrop for a thrilling crime tale.
Ramos will discuss and sign his new book at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Broadway Book Mall. In advance of that, we caught up with the local writer and co-founder of La Bloga to talk about Desperado , writing crime fiction and the gentrification of the neighborhood he's lived in for over thirty years.
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Westword: Where did the idea for Desperado come from?
Manuel Ramos: Actually, the main character in the book, a guy named Gus Corral, was the character in a short story I published about three years ago. It was in an anthology of Latino mysteries and the name of that short story was "The Skull of Pancho Villa," and it was about this guy who lives here in the north side of Denver, what is now being called the Highlands or the LoHi neighborhood. He had to deal with this mystery of a relic linked with the skull of Pancho Villa. Anyhow, I found him such an interesting guy that I started expanding his story and fleshed out more of his family and his friends and put him in the middle of the recession that we had over the last couple of years and the changing demographics here in the North Side.
He had lived here all the time and this was his life and he didn't like all the changes and didn't know what he could do about them. But in the middle of that, a guy he hasn't seen since high school calls on him for help [because] he's getting blackmailed. So that's where the mystery starts and the friend gets murdered and Gus is thrown into the middle of trying to resolve that. So that's where the basic idea came from: my short story and observing what was going on in my own neighborhood here.
Can you talk a little bit about the gentrification of the North Side and why you decided to use that as the setting for the book?
Well, because it's what's happening. I've lived here in this neighborhood for more than thirty years, my wife and I have been here for quite a while, and we've seen all kinds of changes happening. And so with a guy like Gus who's younger than I am, he would've also seen these changes and lived through some of them. It's a very human experience, so as background for the book it provides a kind of narrative that I like because there are things going on around him he can't really control. He doesn't like all of the changes but he likes some of them, so it's a very human conflict that affects everybody, good or bad, here in the neighborhood. To me, that's a natural fit for a story that's gonna take place here on the North Side.
Was the process for this novel similar to that of your past work?
There's always some similarities in the way the writing process works for me. For me, the most important things are the characters, of course, and fleshing them out to make sure they're three-dimensional and people will care about them one way or the other even if they're bad people, so that in the book the reader will make some attachment to try to hang with the characters to see what happens. So all that was the same for me in terms of how I worked on the story. It was different because the main guy came from a short story that I'd already written, and actually that short story is now one of the chapters in the book. So that was a bit different. But writing is always something that's going on with me, so I don't think the actual process is that much different from one book to the next -- and certainly what's produced is going to be different.
Well, my research is really just living here in the North Side. I did an event with a few other writers a couple of weeks ago and this is what we talked about, doing research in fiction. And for me, I managed to focus enough before that talk that I realized what I do is I listen and I observe and then I try and understand all I've been listening to and observing. All of that stuff sticks with me; it's not like I consciously include things or people or events that have happened around me, but all of those things that I see just living day to day walking through the streets of my neighborhood and going to restaurants and the bar and hanging out with those folks, all of those things stick with a writer. It influences what you do. So that's my research.
I try to get other things right that are needed to get right, such as locations or if I include any of the history of the neighborhood. But really for me, research is always going on. It just happens to be what I do is write -- so when I'm just engaging in day-to-day activities in life, that's research.
What specific places will people recognize in Denver that appear in Desperado?
There's a scene in the book that takes place right at 32nd and Zuni street. Gaetano's Restaurant is another place where things take place. And with my fiction, I always throw in places that I've made up that you can really find if you look hard enough in the neighborhood. There's a coffee shop that if you go to any of the coffee shops around here, you'll recognize it. Some other bars and restaurants. North High is mentioned a few times.
What attracts you to writing about crime?
Well, for the most part I write crime fiction. My first series was about a Denver lawyer who was always caught up in the solving of some kind of murder that took place with his clients or with friends and family, and I've just carried that forward. That's mostly what I do, that's not all that I do. This particular book is called a Mile High Noir , so it's a little grittier and darker. It has more of a sense of being on the streets. I like to read mysteries and crime fiction and detective fiction. That's what I find myself reading quite a bit of, so I'm not only a writer of the genre, I'm a fan of the genre. And I'd like to present issues of conflict and drama against a background of things that are really going on. The violence and the fact that there is a crime involved is something that is all imagination, so that's where the writing part comes, in I guess. I've never really encountered that kind of stuff.
What do you hope that people get out of reading the book?
Primarily I'm a storyteller, and I do hope that folks can read the book and enjoy it as a story with characters and people that feel real to them and conflict that doesn't stretch the imagination too much in the sense that it does seem like things can happen. For me, it's important that the reader can get lost in the story itself -- so that's basically what I'm hoping for. Readers will get out of the book and story other things that maybe writers never intended, and that's fine, too.
And as I said before, the background for the novel I put in because that's very human and that's what's going on right now. It wasn't inserted as a political statement, it just happens to be that's the way things are now and my characters are living through that. So if my readers can take away the fact that they thought it was a good story, I'd be very pleased with that.
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