An Interview With Author Carmen Amato

by Viviana Hurtado

It’s Friday which means for weeks on L4LL, it’s Carmen Amato day, when this author publishes fresh, relevant, and entertaining posts on how to get and keep your Read On. Today the tables have slightly turned on Carmen as we interview her about her just-published novel Hat Dance. Part of the Emilia Cruz international mystery novel series, Carmen dishes about the household name Latinas who inspired her main character and how books can build bridges between people. For all the aspiring writers out there, Carmen gives you a must-read primer on how to get published and the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing.

As if that wasn’t enough of a gift for L4LL readers, Carmen is also offering Hat Dance for free on Kindle again today, Friday August 30!

Viviana Hurtado (L4LL): Congratulations, Carmen for just publishing Hat Dance! This mystery/psychological thriller is set in Acapulco, Mexico. Tell us the plot and main characters.

Carmen Amato: First, thanks so much for this interview and the opportunity to work with L4LL over the past few months. For an author, anything that helps to promote literacy is a true labor of love!

HAT DANCE is the second novel in the Emilia Cruz mystery series. It follows CLIFF DIVER, which when I last looked was #12 on amazon’s list of Top Rated International Mystery and Crime novels and the #27 best selling book in the Hispanic Fiction category. My books haven’t knocked Ian Rankin or Junot Díaz off the best seller lists but they are in contention!

The series pits Emilia Cruz, Acapulco’s first and only female police detective, against both Mexico’s drug war and culture of machismo. The plight of those missing in Mexico will be a continuing theme. In HAT DANCE, Emilia tracks cold cases of missing women and is asked to find a girl from her own neighborhood while also hunting for an elusive arsonist. As Acapulco burns and Emilia ends up on the wrong side of a dirty Vice cop, she’ll start making deals for information and access. But the deal she makes with the devil could be her last . . .

Here are some of the characters readers will meet:

  • Emilia Cruz Encinos: An Acapulco native forced to grow up too fast, she’s been a cop for nearly 12 years and a detective for two; a strong woman in a squadroom that didn’t want her and is still trying to break her. Emilia is a good liar, a fast thinker, a determined investigator and a mean kickboxer.
  • Franco Silvio: A former heavyweight champ, Silvio is the senior detective and the most vocal opponent of women detectives.
  • Victor Obregon Sosa: The head of the police union for the state of Guerrero is a dangerous and deceptive man. Sex with him is always on offer, he wields enormous power, and Emilia is rightfully wary of him.
  • Carlota Montoya Perez: Acapulco’s beautiful and ambitious mayor is willing to twist anything—even the truth—to accomplish her political goals.
  • Kurt Rucker: Manager of Acapulco’s most deluxe hotel, he’s a former U.S. Marine who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to go after it.

The city of Acapulco looms as large as any character in the series. There’s the Acapulco that tourists know; luxury hi-rises, candlelit nights on the beach, the sweep of the most beautiful bay in the world, the majesty of the clear blue Pacific. There’s also the Acapulco that is a prize to be fought over by drug cartels–the city that is home to hookers and thieves, the streets where life is cheap and poverty is as pervasive as the wind off the ocean.

Both of these versions of Acapulco claw at the each other and force Emilia to survive between them. No investigation will be easy, no crime will be simple.

L4LL: The main character is a woman, Emilia Cruz. Tell us about her and why you were drawn to develop a strong female lead.

CA: Two of the biggest influences in my life have been my mother and grandmother, both strong women who made hard decisions in their lives. My best friends are strong women who live busy, multi-faceted lives. That’s how I define myself as well. A strong female character who copes with both personal and professional challenges and grows as a result is my comfort zone as a writer.

To create the Emilia character I took as inspiration 3 well-known Latinas: Justice Sonia Sotomayor, boxer Marlen Esparza, and actor America Ferrera. I wrote a blog post on my website earlier this year, explaining how they each inspired me.

L4LL: This is part of a political thriller series featuring Emilia Cruz. What is it about this character, genre, Mexico, and the current climate of drug violence that draws you to this place and characters?

CA: In the description for CLIFF DIVER, I shared a story about encountering a junkie on Christmas during Mass at our church in Mexico City. He was the tip of an iceberg that included shootouts in major cities, multiple drug seizures, rising numbers of dead and missing, the murders of mayors, governors and journalists.

Major US news outlets didn’t carry much of this kind of reporting in deference to domestic politics, the Middle East, and Lindsay Lohan. News about Mexico was mostly immigration-related. The real story–the toll that the drug wars were taking on the people and culture of Mexico–wasn’t getting out.

I carried my memories of Mexico with me when we left. I poured them into a Cinderella story set against the backdrop of Mexican political corruption and cartel violence. The result was the 2012 political thriller The Hidden Light of Mexico City. The reviews made me sure that contemporary fiction could ignite popular interest in what was happening in Mexico better than the news.

I knew, however, that a standalone novel can only take an independent author so far. I needed to take it a step further.

The resulting formula? A mystery series (the most popular literary genre) + an iconic city that US readers will recognize + relationships with heat + action from today’s headlines = Emilia Cruz.

L4LL: You love to travel and “love”–marrying “the smartest man I could find” with whom you’ve moved to Mexico and Central America–provides inspiration for your writing. What is it about the region and the people that captured your imagination, making them settings, even characters in your books?

CA: I grew up in an Italian family where going to church every Sunday was an Event. My extended family all lived in the same city and came together for every holiday. My grandfather’s home movies were all of people eating. I loved all the associated rituals: helping my grandmother set the table with her good china, arranging pepperoni, olives, and roasted red peppers for the antipasto, cranking the handle of my grandparents’ pasta maker to turn out homemade capellini.

When I moved to Mexico so much was already familiar. Church, family, rituals of food, celebrations of the homemade. It was easy to make it all my own.

I was lucky to have ready-made bridges between one culture and another. I think more bridges need to be built and books can serve as building material.

L4LL: Can you tell us about your experience publishing, specifically with CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform?

CA: All 3 of my currently published books are exclusive to Amazon as ebooks for Kindle and paperbacks printed by Amazon’s Createspace service. The industry calls it being an “independent author.”

Createspace and the Kindle publishing platform give authors a lot of options and I love that I maintain all creative control. It is ultimately my decision how the final product looks, when it is released, and the retail cost. Most importantly, it is my decision how professional the books and their presentation will be. I had a publishing contract in 2011 but felt that the publishing company was offering a poor quality product to readers and I ultimately walked away.

In today’s digital world, print copies are a very small percentage of total book sales unless you are J.K. Rowling. Both royalties and sales volume is significantly higher for Kindle ebooks and I know many authors who do not sell print books at all. Moreover, bookstores generally will not stock print books by independent authors. Some book reviewers will not accept indie books for review, either.

L4LL: We are not editors, publishers, and literary agents yet are often approached for guidance on how to publish a book. Can you share some tips for budding authors?

CA: Getting a book in front of an audience and even racking up a few sales is no longer the hard part. Polishing your product, however, is. Many rush to publish because they can—there is no editorial filter—and they skip over quality control. Here is my best advice.

  1. Don’t fall in love with your first draft. Fall in love with your characters, in the setting, and in the plot twists. Keep editing and rewriting until your manuscript is as good as it can be. Learn to be a ruthless editor of your own work.
  2. Don’t change points of view within a single section. Just when a reader has identified with a certain character–whoops–suddenly they are inside another character’s head. This is my personal pet peeve. Read novels by Leon Uris and Ken Follett for great examples of keeping points of view separate and how to use different points of view to advance the plot.
  3. A writer’s group is a terrific way to get feedback on a draft and learn best practices from fellow writers. A side benefit is encouragement and the feeling that you’re not the only one with a writing obsession.
  4. Find a writing partner and share drafts for timely feedback and brainstorming.
  5. Finally, in this day of instant access to information, there is no excuse for bad punctuation. A random typo is one thing, consistent punctuation errors in a published work is another.

L4LL: Can you explain the pros and cons of self-publishing versus mainstream publisher?

It’s a tough business, one that is in decline, where it’s difficult for talented authors to make it past gatekeepers in the form of publishers, editors, and agents, and one that does not understand the urgency of tapping into new readers such as Latinos for its survival. How have the advances in technology helped you and other authors?

CA: As the traditional publishing industry shrinks, authors without close ties to that industry will be by and large locked out. Those writing content that isn’t the “flavor of the day” have even a slimmer chance of being discovered and offered a contract. Money is tight, and ironically, editors are now trolling Amazon’s best seller lists and independent authors are being offered traditional publishing contracts but only because they have a proven following and sales.

So frankly, I think publishing independently is the only way to go that doesn’t involve years of wasted time and postage costs mailing queries and manuscripts to people who didn’t ask for them.

The pros of independent publishing are:

  • Retain creative control.
  • Reach audiences immediately.
  • Royalties as high as 70% and paid monthly.
  • You are discoverable by publishers who comb Amazon lists to find breakout authors and subject matter experts.
  • Some book contests are exclusive for indie authors.

The cons are:

  • Your book still must be as professional in all aspects as those traditionally published. It is a lot of work to do cover, editing, formatting, etc and can be costly unless you acquire the skills to do it yourself.
  • You are responsible for your own marketing/cover/author platform.
  • Libraries and bookstores rarely agree to stock independent titles.
  • Important review opportunities can be limited.
  • The quality of independently published books varies widely; many people’s experience leads them to equate “independently published” with “poor quality.”
  • Ineligible for some big-name book contests.

In contrast

The pros of traditional publishing are:

  • Libraries and bookstores may stock you depending on your publisher’s distribution.
  • May receive an up front royalty.
  • Cachet of having a publisher’s name on the Amazon sales page and being able to answer the question of who is your publisher
  • Someone else does the cover, interior and ebook formatting, intellectual property rights protection, etc.
  • Eligible for most book contests.

The cons are:

  • The publisher may own the rights to your work, preventing you from setting a fair price, reprinting, moving to another publishing house, etc. In many cases authors have lost thousands in royalties because they signed away rights to content, characters, and more.
  • You find out you are responsible for your own marketing/cover/author platform!
  • Much lower royalty percentages, generally paid quarterly or even bi-annually.
  • Loss of creative control means you can end up with an unsuitable cover, inaccurate back cover info, etc.
  • Your chances of being offered a contract are very low.
  • You almost always need an agent, who takes a share of your income, to navigate the process.
  • A contract for one book does not automatically translate into a contract for the next.

This is just my experience, and other authors who have gone down a different path will no doubt have a different view. I’d never rule out a traditional publishing offer but will never again sacrifice creative control.

L4LL: What’s next for Emilia Cruz?

CA: Next up is publication in The Huffington Post of “The Beast,” the very first Emilia Cruz story, as part of Huffpost’s showcase of female writers over 50. A collection of short stories, entitled MADE IN ACAPULCO, will follow this fall. Two more Emilia Cruz novels are planned for 2014. Still others are in the outline stage.

A continuing subplot will be Emilia’s hunt for missing women. Will she ever close out all her cases? Will she marry Kurt? Will she survive partnership with Silvio?
L4LL: What’s next for Carmen Amato?

CA: I hope that the Emilia Cruz series becomes one of those cross-cultural bridges I talked about earlier. The mystery series is a literary genre that is hugely popular in the US and several series have brought a popular awareness to new places (Russia and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series; Sweden and the Dragon Tattoo books.) Maybe Emilia can do this for Mexico.

At the same time, I hope the cultural details and connection to current events appeal to Latinos. You have talked on the L4LL website about encouraging a love of reading—which leads to better education rates—in Latino youth. A mystery can be a more attractive choice than literary fiction for young adults still building an interest in reading. A series may encourage them to continue to read.

I also think the series, as well THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, would translate well to film. There would be some great roles for Latino actors. The most popular pages on my website are the dreamcasts. I’m sure Hollywood will be calling any day!

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