An Interview with Dan Lopez

An Interview with Dan Lopez

It's my honor to invite everyone to get to know a personal friend of mine, author and Lambda Literary Award nominee, Dan Lopez!

 Dan grew up in Florida, the son of Cuban exiles. He moved to New York after college before eventually finding his way to the west coast. His debut novel, The Show House (out from Unnamed Press, December 13th), is set in his home state and deals with the struggle we all feel to follow our own desires or to do what’s expected of us. I got the opportunity to talk with Dan about The Show House to give everyone a sneak peak about what you can expect from what is sure to be a phenomenal success!

 

JV: How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

Dan Lopez: I remember very specifically the first time I sat down to write what would eventually become The Show House. I was at my then boyfriend’s house (we’ve since gotten married) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was morning and he was on his way to the office. I had a part-time then and my shift wouldn’t start until the afternoon, so I was sitting in bed enjoying the morning and just messing around on his computer. I’d enrolled in a writing class and knew I had to turn in a couple of chapters of a novel-in-progress later that week, but I didn’t have anything I was working on at the time. So after he left I figured might as well start something from scratch. I wrote the first draft of the first serial killer chapter that morning. I also wrote a chapter I would eventually discard but which introduced two of my other main characters, Thaddeus and Cheryl Bloom. Theirs was a fairly standard domestic drama—overbearing father, put-upon mother, estranged son, that kind of thing. I knew that these characters were somehow part of the same story as this serial killer but I had no idea what that story looked like. The mystery was enough for the first meeting of my writing class, though, so I just went with it. This was about ten years ago and I would say that I didn’t really figure out how those two stories fit together until about eight years in.

 

JV: That’s so interesting! I love that you kept working on this trusting that eventually it would come together. Personally, I really loved the Laila character! Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with her?

DL: Of course! It’s a funny story, actually. Laila is the sister of Alex, a troubled gay teen who’s basically been kicked out of his house by his mom. He’s kind of ended up at Laila’s house. She’s much older than him and they’ve never had a great relationship. She resents him a little bit. It’s a tense living situation for both of them. The novel really only took shape when Laila came into it and here I have to give credit to my publisher. I’d known for a while that something was missing from the book, but I wasn’t sure what. My publisher rejected the initial draft I showed them, but suggested I add another character, someone to balance a lot of the darker elements of the book. When I heard that suggestion it was like a lightbulb going off in my head. I had all these ideas about how the new character would fit in.

 

JV: That’s wild! I love it. You talked about a writing group and your publisher’s input. I know when I’m working on a creative project I absolutely need to bounce ideas off of people I trust, but writing seems like such a solitary thing. How important is that sense of community for a novelist?

DL: Oh, totally! It’s crucial to have people who you trust who can just rip your work apart when it needs to be. It comes from a place of love, of course, but you need to hear that feedback. It’s weird because, as you probably know, I tend to be a reserved person, so I don’t naturally solicit feedback from people. But I try to surround myself with people I trust, especially when it comes to my writing. I have several good friends who are just brilliant readers that I always show my work to and I always really value what they have to say. I don’t think you can do anything creative without that support.

 

JV: I know you haven’t lived in Florida in a long time. Was it hard to kind of conjure all that while living in different parts of the country?

DL: Yes and no. The Florida I’m writing about isn’t a literal place. In fact, I’d say a lot of what I put in central Florida is informed by my childhood in south Florida. Most people probably don’t see a big difference, but if you’re from Florida you know that south Florida is it’s own thing. Florida is kind of an inversion of the country. The southern part is more culturally Northern and the northern part is more culturally Southern. Orlando, which is in central Florida, is kind of a wild card. All of this is to say that while I’m very much writing about Florida, I’m also writing about a larger American struggle. Our generation, in particular, I feel, has this tension between following our dreams and doing what’s expected. On the one hand, you have this message that you should do what you love doing because life is short, but on the other hand, you have this incredibly precarious economy that presents a strong argument for holding onto a job, any job, for dear life. Florida, in many ways, is a perfect laboratory for that kind of story because it’s a real boom-bust type of place. When times are good, the living is high, but when times are bad, it’s not a fun place to be, yet the tourism industry has to keep this beautiful fantasy alive no matter what.

 

JV: We can’t talk about a book set in Orlando that features a killer so predominantly—

DL: Yeah.

 

JV: You know where I’m going with this.

DL: Yeah, I think I do.

 

JV: We can’t talk about it without talking about Pulse.

DL: First, I want to say that while I left Orlando long before Pulse was even a club, I feel like I know a little bit about what it must have felt to go there to unwind. For me, the club I went to all the time was called Southern Nights. I think it’s gone through a couple of rebrandings in the years since I’ve been away, but it’s still there today. I lived in Orlando in the early 2000’s. At the time, marriage equality seemed like it would never happen. Florida also had some of the most restrictive gay adoption laws in the country. And, as I mentioned earlier, Orlando is kind of a wild card culturally, so while there’s a very visible queer community, there’s also a very palpable anti-gay sentiment. At least there was at the time. It’s important to understand that the first time I had sex, it was before Lawrence V. Texas, so anti-sodomy laws were very much on my mind. Having gay sex was, literally, a transgressive act in many cases. Which brings me to Pulse. National tragedies don’t generally move me to tears, but Pulse did. I remember waking up to a text message from my brother telling me about it. I immediately got on Facebook and started reading all about it. I couldn’t believe it. Well, I could believe it. That’s the sad part. It took me right back to my college days where every advancement was met with a reactionary step backwards. But this wasn’t just a political setback. These were 49 lives that were ended because of bigotry. There were so many nights when I would feel threatened on the short walk from Southern Nights to my car. Was this the night I was going to get bashed? But I always, always felt safe inside. The people at Pulse didn’t get that opportunity. I cried about it because I still know people in Orlando, people that may very well have been there that night. Any one of them could’ve died.

 

JV: Was it difficult writing the character of the serial killer because of that?

DL: I finished the book before Pulse, and I’m glad I did. One of my major goals with that character was to write somebody that a reader could sympathize with, despite him having this heinous flaw. I really like the show Dexter and I’ve always appreciated how they can pull off this likeable murderer, but the illusion always falls apart when you see the actual killing. So I tried to keep that in mind while writing. I don’t know if I succeeded for the reader, but I can tell you that I did succeed for me as the writer. For a long time, the killer was my favorite character. More than anybody else in the book, I think, he embodies this tension between doing what you want and what’s expected. Of course, after Pulse, I have trouble seeing him the same way. I don’t know if I would be able to write him now.

 

JV: You’re Cuban but the Latino/a characters in the book are Puerto Rican. Why did you decided to do that?

DL: For some reason, I’ve always struggled to write Cuban characters. I think I put up a mental wall because I feel like I’m supposed to be an expert but half the time I feel a distance between my lived experience and what my heritage is supposed to dictate that experience be. But as I’ve gotten older and met more people, I’ve come to realize that I’m Latin to the core. My interpretation of it may not always be what people expect, but when I think about the way I was raised and the way my family views certain things—the way I view certain things—it’s undeniably Latin. So, for me, it was important to bring that into the book. Alex and Laila are Puerto Rican because there are more Puerto Ricans in Orlando than Cubans. It made more sense and it made some other plot-related things more plausible. But I really tried to go for a Pan-Latino/a feel (or at least a Pan-Caribbean Latino/a feel) because Latinos, just like any other group, have a tendency to factionalize within the community. We police each other in subtle and overt ways and the underlying message always seems to be one of Latin purity. Who is the most authentic? Which is the truest way to be Latin? I reject that notion. I say all the time that if my family would’ve never left Cuba, how I inhabit my latinidad wouldn’t ever be called into question, by me or anybody else. It’s only exile that narrows the acceptable modes of representation. And, I get it, to some extent. I’m responsible, too. Part of the reason why I struggle to write Cuban characters is because I feel that I can’t somehow understand what it “really” means to be Cuban. It’s something I’m working on.  

Please do yourself a favor and pre-order your copy of The Show House now on Amazon! You can also pick up a copy of Part the Hawser Limn the Sea, a collection of short stories by Dan Lopez, also available on Amazon.

For those of you in LA, you can join author Dan Lopez for a conversation with Jade Chang, author of The Wangs Vs. the World with a signing to follow at Book Soup on Wednesday, December 14th at 7pm!

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