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Q&A With Rayo Casablanca

Rayo Casablanca is the author of the inventive new thriller 6 Sick Hipsters, his debut novel. And just in time for a Friday, June 27, appearance at the LoDo Tattered Cover (click here to learn more), he sat down with Westword for a conversation captured in the Q&A below.

Spoiler alert: Endings and significant plot points are discussed, so read no further if you want to be completely surprised by the novel's twists and turns.

WW (Amber Taufen): How are you connected to Denver?

Rayo Casablanca: I grew up and went to high school here, college out of state. I went to Vassar in upstate New York, but I grew up near 10th and Poplar, right around there, and I went to Manual HIgh School. So I'm pretty local -- I wasn't born here, but my parents moved here when I was six months old.

WW: Could you define the word "hipster" for us?

RC: It’s tricky. I think really that there are almost two competing definitions. When I first started hearing the word used in the late '90s, it was really kind of these liberal, white, urban, overeducated, underpaid, intellectual -- maybe snobbish -- music or film kind of geeks. There was nothing negative attached to it; there was a crowd and they were hip. There was this pull from the Beats, and they gave it kind of the cache themselves. Nowadays, with this huge hipster backlash, certainly in New York, it refers to a much younger group, in their mid-twenties now, who are kind of consciously cool. I think the folks earlier were cool by default in some way, and now the ones that people hate the most are doing it for the look and the lifestyle and trying to form an identity around this elitist attitude that’s kind of surfacey. The book has gone through a number of different incarnations. I started about five years ago. I wanted to show the landscape of all of these various hipsters, the old-school ones, the new-school ones, the irritating ones, friends of mine that wouldn’t call themselves hipsters.

WW: So would you define yourself as a hipster?

RC: I wouldn’t. I think the reason is, I can walk the walk and talk the talk, but I’m not a kind of stylish or lifestyle-driven person. If you saw me, you wouldn’t say, "That’s a hipster." I don’t have any of the faddish kind of style. But I know all the indie rock and indie music and indie film and literature, I can definitely kind of talk hipster, but I don’t consider myself one. I’ve got friends that I would call hipsters, but it would be more in that original hipster sense. They have that encyclopedic, almost elitist knowledge of music, but they also have kind of the looks and the lifestyle.

WW: Which of the characters in the books do you most closely relate to?

RC: You write from what you know. I think in a lot of ways, almost all of them are some sort of fractured version of myself; there are different aspects of me. At first the character of T (Radcliff) was the closest to myself. Then it maybe became Harrison a bit, even though they're almost polar opposites. I think now that -- it’s interesting -- I think I kind of went in there and saw a lot of myself and changed it purposely. I saw a lot of myself in Harrison; his reaction is my reaction, but I purposely tried to skew it away from myself.

WW: Why did you choose to set the book in New York City as opposed to, say, Denver?

RC: When I first began, a good chunk of it, the Cooper character, was in Denver and he had a whole life outside of what ended up in the book. The book was set in six different cities: Portland, Denver, New York, and as the plot wound on they all ended up in New York. My first agent said, "Let’s bring it all into New York," primarily because Williamsburg is this ... When people think hipster, they think of the breeding ground, the epicenter of it being Williamsburg. It really was the epicenter back in 2003 when I first started the book. Williamsburg has changed today. All these people who were really setting the scene there moved into less gentrified areas, and it’s become this nightmare area of hipsterdom which lends itself to the book, but the idea was, we’ve really got to keep it as close to where things are happening. So you see, it’s amazing how it’s spread over the last five years. You can go to Park Meadows Mall and see little hipster kids coming out of Urban Outfitters.

WW: Tell me about the ending -- why did you choose to end the book the way you did?

RC: It went through a number of diferent tweaks. Originally, it was a much more cliffhanger ending, it happened on the last ten pages and I moved it up. The very ending of the book went through a number of changes. At one point, Beth Ann was part of the conspiracy, and her role was to lead Harrison into it, but the publisher thought it was a little too dark, too unhappy. When I first sat down to write the book, I don’t know if I had the conspiracy thing in mind, I was thinking a satirical thing with a serial killer versus some hipsters, and as I was writing it, it just sort of unfolded. I’ve gotten e-mails from people who really love the second half or really love the first part and don’t like the second.

WW: Why Sisters of Mercy and "Doctor Jeep" as the villain?

RC: It was just kind of a personal thing, I was kind of a goth kid in high school and always loved Sisters of Mercy and decided it would just be fun. I think it was a random trivia thing that would come up about their drum machine, which was called Doctor Avalanche. It was kind of fun thinking those little pieces up.

WW: Do you have plans for your next book yet?

RC: It’s actually done; publishing is this glacial process. My next one will be out in April of '09, it doesn’t really involve hipsters but a good chunk of it takes place in Colorado, in Boulder. It’s kind of a reimagining of the Patty Hearst kidnapping and brainwashing and early-'70s terrorist activities, kind of through my own lens. There are art-school dropouts and psychotic kidnappers led by their therapists and all sorts of craziness, but I think it’s really good, I think it’s a better book. It’s got a similar voice and somewhat similar characters. They’re not hipsters but they’re late-twenties, early twenty-somethings into popular culture and aware of what’s going on, and there are all sorts of twists. It’s called Very Mercenary.

WW: Why did you choose to kill off the characters you killed in 6 Sick Hipsters (stumbling over the title)?

RC: (laughing) A number of people wanted to change that title. Some people would say ,"We love it." Others would say, "I can’t pronounce it." It was kind of through the various iterations of the book. I think Cooper was just one who just -- he didn’t really seem to be going anywhere, but he was kind of this lovable oaf, so I thought it would be sympathetic if I killed him. Everyone who’s read it has this really negative reaction to Wolfgang, so I thought it would be interesting to have him die in a kind of Star Wars scene. I did kill Rad in one version of the book, but ended up kind of saving him because I liked his dynamic with Harrison. I think they all died in some version or other, and toward the end it was just kind of the ones that appealed to me the most or who had the most character development. Xavier was the one who I kind of introduced late -- who I thought, I need someone in here who’s someone you can root against more, a one-sided character who’s there to either get killed or kill somebody. One piece that a lot of people said they wanted more of was that character, particularly his restaurant. People were like, "You’ve gotta expand that and bring that out," and that was kind of a sideline thing I threw in there thinking it would shock people, but it’s been interesting how many people wanted to expand on that.

WW: What other reactions did you get that surprised you?

RC: The reaction I got that I was suprised by was how many people -- even those who’ve told me that they didn’t like the book at all -- they loved the fact that hipsters were getting killed. There were people who didn’t like the book, but loved the hipster-killing scenes. These guys are foaming at the mouth for hipsters, so any instance where they’re going to see one die, they’re really getting up and cheering.

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen