Welcome to the third installment of author interviews in anticipation of Mystery Thriller Week, 2/12/17 – 2/22/17. This week’s feature is Christina Hoag, writer and former journalist whose own life reads like a real-life crime novel. She’s “been threatened by a death-row murderer, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and her phone tapped in Venezuela, was suspected of drug trafficking in Guyana, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, gunmen, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories.”
Kirkus Reviews calls Christina a “talented writer,” and her debut novel, Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016) “a well-crafted, engaging novel about an ex-con trying to break free.” Her YA thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice, 2016), was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. Christina also writes nonfiction, and co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities.
Christina was born in New Zealand, but grew up as an expat, living in various parts of the world, and is fluent in Spanish and French. She boasts four different accents in English (!) and despite her extensive traveling would probably call England home because that was her mother’s home.
Christina currently makes her own home in Los Angeles and on the web.
Synopsis for Skin of Tattoos
Los Angeles homeboy Magdaleno is paroled from prison after serving time on a gun possession frameup by a rival, Rico, who takes over as gang shotcaller in Mags’s absence. Mags promises himself and his Salvadoran immigrant family a fresh start, but he can’t find either the decent job or the respect he craves from his parents and his firefighter brother, who look at him as a disappointment. Moreover, Rico, under pressure to earn money to free the Cyco Lokos’ jailed top leader and eager to exert his authority over his rival-turned-underling, isn’t about to let Mags get out of his reach. Ultimately, Mags’s desire for revenge and respect pushes him to make a decision that ensnares him in a world seeded with deceit and betrayal, where the only escape from rules that carry a heavy price for transgression is sacrifice of everything – and everyone – he loves.
Think Christina sounds mysterious and exciting? Think Skin of Tattoos sounds like the must-read thriller for 2017? What until you read this!
What’s your writing background (schooling), backdrop (where you work at writing), and backstory (what you will tell the world when you become super famous)?
I won a prize for “writing interesting stories” when I was six years old so I think writing was something I was born with. I always wanted to write books. I discovered journalism in high school – a career that would pay me to write! I wrote short stories on and off until I really focused on my childhood goal of writing novels about a dozen years ago. I wrote an outline for Skin of Tattoos in 2006, started writing it in 2008, finished it in 2013.
What are your favorite books?
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Goat’s Party by Mario Vargas Llosa; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Queen of the South by Arturo Perez Reverte; Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle by Ingrid Betancourt; Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood: A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd; For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Vanity Fair by WillliamThackeray.
I love delving into the seamy side of life and what drives people in that world which is very different than mine! My characters do things that I never would so maybe that’s why I like writing them. I’m fascinated with the psychology behind the criminal mind and how people get to be that way, the risks they take. Other than that, crime makes great drama and conflict, the basis of any novel.
Do you see the need for all these sub-genres or do you think we’ve become over-specialized, as in, a story isn’t just a story any longer, but a specific type of story?
Genre can really help sell a book because readers know what they’re getting. Publishers love assigning genre. On the flip side, genre can also box in a book to those preconceptions. Thus I don’t think reliance on genre is great for authors who need free rein to write from their imaginations. I see it as a necessary evil of the publishing industry. Sigh.
Why writing and not ceramics, or gourmet cooking, or anything else really? If not writing, then what?
I have to be intellectually engaged. If an activity doesn’t engage my mind, I get bored easily. Secondly, I love to use my imagination, hence I love writing fiction. It completely absorbs me.
From where do your ideas come?
Really anywhere. Some have come from my own experience, some from people I’ve interviewed and things I’ve written about as a journalist, things I read about or that people just tell me about their own lives. It kind of all gets poured into a funnel in my brain and mashed up.
What’s your routine? Do you work out while writing, take breaks, or simply gut it out?
I’m a morning writer. I get up early, have my coffee, check the news and then sit down and write until I feel my brain turning squishy, usually early afternoon. Then I get some exercise and try to do some marketing and social media work. It’s amazing how much time that stuff consumes!
What is your favorite place to walk?
Anywhere in nature that doesn’t have hills! I really love wild, remote places, probably because I live in the city.
Do you think writing is a form of therapy and, if so, has it helped you work through anything in particular?
Definitely. My YA thriller Girl on the Brink was inspired by a bad relationship I had. I wrote this novel so teen girls could learn the red flags of an abusive relationship, particularly the insidious signs of emotional manipulation. Because it was so personal, writing this book was hard and it took a long time to get it right, but I feel so much better that sharing my experience will help others.
Do you work outside of writing, i.e., do you have day job?
My day job is writing! I do corporate communications/public relations writing: speeches, press releases, blog posts, that sort of thing. I also edit dissertations and do some journalism in the form of big reports for Congressional Quarterly Researcher. I work freelance so I can juggle my schedule to fit my novel writing into my schedule.
If you could quit your job and just write, would you, or do you pull inspiration from the other aspects of your life and find it necessary to keep the creative spark going?
Not really. I have set goals and ideas I pursue. Self-discipline, though, is the key to keeping going.
Pantser or perfectionist who meticulously plots out their stories?
A bit of both. I like to know where I’m going so I have a loose outline. I’ve found knowing your ending from the getgo really helps to avoid writing yourself into corners, or into a wall. That said, I change stuff as I go all the time. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Sometimes I do detailed mini-outlines covering just the next chapter or two. It also helps to get you started when you sit down at the computer every day so you avoid wasting time wondering what comes next.
Your perfect day – go.
Basically it’s what I have now, but maybe I’d have an assistant to handle all the social media/marketing stuff and emails, as well as those big royalty checks coming in!
Favorite book, author, individual?
Probably my favorite all time author is Graham Greene. Many of his books are about the concept of being a foreigner, an outsider/observer, which I relate to on a personal level since I’ve lived in many countries both as a child and as an adult. That influence comes through in Skin of Tattoos, where the protagonist Mags was born in El Salvador but left with his family fleeing the civil war when he was a child so he doesn’t really feel Salvadoran, doesn’t remember anything about the place, yet that is his identity. He’s an outsider to El Salvador, yet as an immigrant an outsider to mainstream American society, as well. He finds his home in a gang with others from similar backgrounds.
What has been your greatest writing lesson? How about life lesson?
Writing lesson: Persistence. Just keep at it no matter what anyone tells you, no matter how many rejections you get. The more you write, the better at it you’ll get, and you will succeed.
Life lesson: Believing in yourself is the greatest gift you can give yourself. If you believe you can accomplish something, you will.
If you could be a character in any novel, what character would you be?
James Bond would definitely be fun!
Favorite childhood memory?
Tough one, but probably my mother buying me a book — a Secret Seven mystery by Enid Blyton — on a shopping trip. I had finished it by the time we pulled into the driveway, and I remember feeling so sad I no longer had anything new to read!
And the final question, do you think writing can save the world and if so, why?
Yes. The foremost purpose of writing is the communication of ideas and messages, and ideas are the seed for saving, or alternatively destroying, pretty much anything.
Want more? How about an excerpt from Skin of Tattoos?
“Ay yo, homes!” A familiar voice sliced through the bustle. “Mags!”
I twirled faster than a ballet dancer, my stomach clenching. Fuck. It was him. Rico. Slashing across the street aiming the shopping bag in his hand at me. His baggy shorts slung so low the waistband of his boxers showed. Socks, white as fluorescent light, pulled neatly to his knees. Ink flowing out of the arms and neck of his plaid shirt. Exactly how he looked the last time I saw him.
The memory of that day bore down on me. We were kicking it at a street corner, and Rico was bragging about how he shot a trey-eight into the ceiling of a liquor store he was jacking, and the storeowner pissed his pants. As he was talking, he took the .38 out of his waistband in a live re-enactment, and I just had to take the piece, feeling its cold weight in my hand for just a second or two before handing it back to Rico. That second or two cost me twenty-six months of my freedom.
Rico threw his arm around me. A thick gold chain shone around his neck. I had a cord with an orange arrow slung around mine.
“Ese.” My voice had as much life as a three-day-old soda.
I never knew if he dropped that thirty-eight by accident, as he said, or if he saw his chance to set me up. I kinda figured the latter. Someday, somehow, I’d get him to admit the truth to me.
“I thought that was you. But I said to myself, ‘Mags, in that fuckin pendejada? Couldn’t be.’ But I looked again and simón, it was. Whatup with this shit?” He flicked the red nose ball. I caught his wrist in midair and stared him down in his swamp eyes. “Easy, fool,” he said.
I dropped his wrist. “Just making a few bones.”
“I heard you was back. We been waiting for you at the garaje, but you ain’t showed up.” Rico drilled my eyes. “You avoiding your homies or what?”
The ball was itching my nose like an oversized mosquito bite. “I got parole and all that. I just wanted to get set up first.”
“I figured you needed a couple days to get readjusted, get some pussy.” He shook his head. “But damn, this shit?” He shook his head. “You ready to get crazy again?”
“Keeping it lo pro, Rico.”
Rico studied me. I suddenly glimpsed myself in his eyes—I had become a small brown man.
He brightened up. “Hey, I just had a kid. A boy. I’m buying some bottles and blankets and shit right now.”
“With Maribel. But I got my side action, feel me?”
“You were always real slick with the jainas.” I knew a little flattery would soften the rough edges of the meet. He smiled big.
“Tell you what, loco, I’ll give you some lessons, make you real smooth.”
“Yeah, I’m out of practice now.” I tried to laugh.
“A lot of changes gone down in the barrio. We need to catch you up.” His arm hooked my neck in a chokehold. “You our firme homeboy, man, you’ll always be part of la familia. We need you, fool.” He squeezed a little too hard. “You come by the garaje. We got a jump in day after tomorrow. We’ll be waiting. We’ll hook you up again, then you can dump this shit.” He pointed his forefinger at me with a barbed wire smile. “Missed you, Mags.”
I watched him vanish into the crowd of shoppers, and spat on the ground to get rid of the bad taste that had flooded my mouth.
p.j. lazos 1.29.17