Friday, June 15, 2012

Interview (and a Giveaway) with Robert Arellano

A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Robert Arellano’s novel Curse the Names.  At the time, I thought I had enough of a handle on the book in order write an accurate and insightful review.  And you know me—I like be a smarty pants about literary criticism.  I was going to write the review, post my thoughts, and move on to the next book in line.  But that wasn’t how it happened.  This book stuck with me.  And the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if maybe I had missed the boat, if there wasn’t something I had overlooked in my original interpretation.  It intrigued me—so much so that I decided to go to the horse’s mouth, so to speak, to get my answers (and perhaps apologize for any undue criticism).

The good folks at Akashic Books were nice enough to arrange an interview with the author (an Edgar award finalist, no less), Mr. Robert Arellano.  They even offered to provide a paperback copy of Curse the Names for a giveaway, which you can enter using the rafflectoper widget at the bottom of the page.  Robert is with me today to answer a few questions and hopefully shed a little light on some of my questions.  Hi Robert, thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule for this interview.  I’m truly honored.

RA:  Thank you! I appreciated your review, and it’s very kind of you to invite this conversation.

Q1)  Alright, first question.  We’ll start with an easy one.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

RA:  I was born at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey, shortly after my family left Cuba in the 1960s. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and over the past 10 years Akashic Books has published four of my novels as well as my short fiction in their noir-anthology series. I also collaborated with several visual artists on Dead in Desemboque, a graphic novel from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press, and Sunshine ’69, which when it was published by Sonicnet in 1996 became the web’s first interactive novel.

Q2)  Now what about Curse the Names?  I’ve put forth a synopsis in my review, and of course there’s the blurb on the back of the book, but how would you describe your novel?  To you, what’s it really about?

RA:  I liked your—how shall I put it?—healthily skeptical take on the blurb, and I have to confess that I wrote it myself. I can understand the interpretation that the story itself seems to diverge from it, but my thinking was to have the jacket copy focus on what seems to be happening in the heart of the book so as not to lose the ambiguity around James’s sanity.

Q3)  I feel kind of stupid asking this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, ‘cos I want to know.  The title, Curse the Names—what does it mean and how does it apply to the story overall?

RA:  One of the book’s epigraphs comes from J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, who said this in a speech just two months after the nuclear bombardment of Japan: “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.” That mirroring of Los Alamos and Hiroshima–the city that was wiped out by the Bomb and the town that built the Bomb, where my novel is centered—and the bridge to James’s belief, upon discovering his name in desecration texts, that he’s been “cursed,” led me to use those three words as the title.

Q4)  Ha!  I had a feeling my own stupidity was the culprit there.  And as I said in my review, I’m still trying to muddle through the overall meaning of the book and put it into some semblance of order in my head.  What theme, if any, do you want your readers to take away from the novel? 

RA:  I really don’t know. It’s dark; it’s a nightmare … and at the heart of it all—it might make most sense for me to invoke the other epigraph, from Ted Hughes’s masterful translation of The Orestia by Aeschylus: “This was life. The luckiest hours / Like scribbles in chalk/ On a slate in a classroom. We stare / And try to understand them. Then luck turns its back - And everything's wiped out.”

Q5)  Initially I didn’t think that your book qualified as a Noir novel—it seemed too focused on horror to be Noir.  But the more I thought about it, the more Noir elements I started to see in the narrative.  For instance, one of the primary tenants of Noir is the affect of base human emotions (greed, lust, wrath, etc.) on humanity and how they bring about our downfall.  But substance abuse could qualify as one of those negative emotions, right?  So what do you think?  What genre (or genres) do you think most exemplify Curse the Names?

RA:  I’ve loved what reviewers have come up with: “New Mexico noir,” “paranormal noir,” “nuclear noir.” Today my favorite is from the Albuquerque Journal review: “a dizzying Thompsonian concoction of noir crime thriller and alternately nightmarish and comic surreal psychodrama.”

Q6)  Yeah, I have to agree.  That sums it up perfectly.  Now, James Oberhelm isn’t a very likeable protagonist at times—in fact, there were several reviewers on Librarything that mentioned as much.  I wasn’t bothered by it, but it seemed to affect a lot of people’s enjoyment of the book.  So my question to you is, did you consciously decide to make James an unlikeable narrator, or did it just evolve that way during the writing of the story?  If it was a conscious decision, why did you decide to go that route, especially considering that there are a lot of readers out there who don’t take well assholes as protagonists?

RA: I teach writing workshops, where we sometimes we talk about the unreliable narrator. I also like to introduce discussions about the despicable narrator. In his feature on Curse the Names in the Taos News, Rick Romancito had some thoughtful questions for me on this aspect of James’s character. My intention was to take “unlikeable” to the extreme for the sake of the story, and my ideal reader will still be interested in his fears, dreams, and the resultant complications. As one writer friend put it recently: maybe the point of this particular subgenre of noir is to put our protagonist up in the tree and start throwing fruit at him.

Q7)  James’s substance abuse problems (and his delusions about said abuse) factor heavily into his mental break.  Call me callous, but I actually had to laugh when he complained about the unhealthy food in a greasy spoon diner when he’d drunk his breakfast the day before.  As far as the book as a whole, though, was James’ substance abuse just a vehicle to accelerate his downfall, or did you include it for more profound reasons?

RA:  Yes, laugh! I learned a lot of things about drinking the seven years I lived in New Mexico, and alcoholism was such a part of James’s nature from the beginning that it’s probably best for me to say it was profoundly simple to include it as part of his unraveling. Of course, even characters who like to get high don’t want to die; hence his obsession with cholesterol.  

Q8)  One of the items of criticism I mentioned in my review was that the novel seems to lack focus.  I believe I said that it started out like a “’descent into madness’ type of thing, and what evolved was more like an environmentalist’s harbinger of a nuclear nightmare.”  But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if perhaps that was the point.  If you’re going to accurately tell the story of a man going batshit crazy (and from his POV, to boot), how can you tell the story authentically and keep the narrative 100% cogent?  So what’s your take on it?  Why did you decide on that particular direction for the book?

RA:  I like your batshit point, and I may quote you on that. As far as my take on why (and, for that matter, whether) I decided on a particular direction—can I have a few minutes to mull on that? Maybe skip to the next question?

Q9)  Quote away, good sir—and you can have as much time as you like.  As for the next question:  the possibility of nuclear disaster is a specter that looms over the novel.  But given the context of the plot, I’m unsure as to what we’re supposed to take away from the book in this regard.  On the one hand, you make it plain that the possibility of such an incident is some scary shit.  On the other, well… I’ll keep mum for the sake of spoilers, but I’m sure you know what I’m getting at.  How do you look at it—in the context of your book, and as it relates to the real world as well? 

RA: I might call a spoiler alert on this question for that penultimate sentence, but I’ve also heard from some readers who’ve found clues and come to the conclusion that something does happen in the end. Incidentally, have you been watching the news about the wildfires in New Mexico? Last year, out-of-control forest fires got within a few miles of the waste dumps around Los Alamos, and this year’s have been the largest ever.

Q10)  You leave the ending to the book open ended—it’s largely left up to the reader to decide if James is really seeing those vision or if he’s just nuckin’ futs.  What’s your take?  Or do you prefer the “New Criticism” approach, that either interpretation is valid?

RA:  Those scenarios in my book around what could happen after a fire, earthquake, or plane crash? Those are direct from U.S. Department of Energy reports. Please don’t think I’m being coy when I say that the horror of the “open resolution” – the looming specter you mentioned in the last question – is the point.

Well, that’ll just about do it.  I can’t thank you enough for stopping by.  It’s been a real treat to pick your brain and learn a little bit more about your work. 

RA:  Thank you. It’s really a pleasure, and I look forward to your reviews and to following you on Twitter.

If you would like to learn more about Robert Arellano or his work, you can visit Akashic Books or his Wikipedia page, or you could even go read  my review .  But I already mentioned that, didn't I?

As for the giveaway I mentioned, just enter using the handy-dandy Rafflecopter widget below.  Unfortunately, this giveaway is open to only entrants with U.S. mailing addresses (sorry Ryan).  If you’re selected as the winner, I’ll e-mail you to get your mailing address and provide that it the publisher.  Failure to respond within 48 hours will result in the drawing of another winner—and nobody wants that to happen.  Except maybe the potential new winners.  Whatever, you know what I mean.  

a Rafflecopter giveaway



  1. :( all the good giveaways are US only :(
    great interview, though :)

    Do visit!

    1. Sorry, Amritorupa. It really is only because of the international shipping fees. Otherwise I think more people would do it.

      And thanks. I'll be popping by your blog forthwith. ;)

  2. I know you were kinda iffy about this one when you read it but I like when a book stays with you like this one clearly did and you sit and mull it over and then it takes on a totally new meaning. I'd like to be entered pretty please

    1. You don't even have to add the sugar on top. Of course you can enter. ;)

  3. The title of your blog really caught me and the more I read the more I'm loving you style! I'm now following... If you'd like to stop by my site, I'm at It would be awesome to be entered in this contest too but alas I'm Canadian.
    All the best! Sarah

    1. Never fear, I've sent an e-mail to the publisher to see if they'd be willing to ship to Canada. We never discussed exactly who would be entered, I just assumed (and probably rightly so) that they wouldn't want to spend an exorbitant amount on shipping. But shipping to Canada isn't much, so maybe they'll bite. I'll cross my fingers for you.

      Thanks for the follow, and right back atcha. Talk to you soon!

  4. I like books that make you go hmmmmmmmmmm....... Sounds interesting. I feel bad for all the Canadian folks who are not allowed to enter US giveaways. To be honest a lot of people also say Continental US only and that eliminates me, so I know how you feel.

    Dorothy - The Alaskan Bookie

  5. Yeah, it really does suck. I understand why, though, what witg shipping costs as they are. But when it comes to books, there's no reason to say continental US only. Media Mail shipping (or First Class if the book is light enough) via USPS is a flat rate to anywhere in the US. It's a jam up deal, but for some reason a lot of people don't use it.