RJ Mirabal is a New Mexico native and former high school English teacher whose debut novel The Tower of Il Serrohe was published in 2012 by Black Rose Writing. The Tower was a finalist in the science fiction/fantasy category of the 2013 New Mexico/Arizona book awards. Visit RJ’s website to read a synopsis and sample chapters of his novel, along with updates on the sequel, Extreme Dust Storms May Exist, scheduled for release in the spring.
Tell us about your debut novel. Wrenched from a deteriorating lifestyle when his promiscuous wife kicks him out, anti-hero Don Vargas rents a dilapidated casita which, unknown to him, is actually a portal to another world. Vargas takes readers through a dusty portal on a Southwest contemporary fantasy quest into a larger-than-life alternate Rio Grande Valley where local clanspeople are at war with the Soreyes who terrorize them on a regular basis. The clanspeople need Don to save them from the wily Soreyes’ mysterious Tower, but he only wants to drink his troubles away.
What do you hope readers will take away from The Tower of Il Serrohe? This book explores how perception governs our relationship with the universe. All of what we perceive to be reality is a function of our perception, which is informed by our normal senses and our emotional and philosophical states of being. And, as in most literature, I hope readers will see that evil is bad, kindness is good, and love is essential to life. But, honestly, my main focus is entertaining and enlightening my readers who can share in my imagination as they read the book.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you? I had to put myself into the skin of a character who shares little with me in terms of values and lifestyle. And I wanted readers to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of the New Mexico setting. We who live here find it second nature to enjoy our landscape and interesting lifestyles, but to capture it in a novel that isn’t entirely realistic was a fascinating challenge. Finally, I wanted to take readers on a great adventure. Keeping it all interesting was a constant challenge, and only readers can judge whether I succeeded.
What was the most rewarding aspect of writing The Tower? To see my characters become a reality on the printed page, with their lives and unexpected problems taking place on the New Mexico landscape, has been the most rewarding for me. To talk with people about how these characters and their lives came alive for them is a writer’s dream.
How did this project come together? The story idea was inspired by the old adage: “Write what you know.” I knew New Mexico and I have enjoyed fantasy stories since childhood, so I combined the two and placed my fantasy in New Mexico instead of the typical Medieval European setting. The other spark that started the fire of my story was taking on the challenge of writing about someone with personal problems I didn’t share. From initial idea and a couple of short stories that gave birth to the much more complex novel, it took 30 years to complete this story. Of course, I wasn’t working on it that whole time. I actually spent the last three years on the majority of the writing, editing, and getting it published by 2012. But the story ideas and my writing style improved over those years. I read continually, taking inspiration and tips from every author I read.
Are you a pantser or a planner? I start out as a pantser once I have an idea that intrigues me. I usually write one or two chapters (not always the first chapters) off the cuff, usually in a torrent. Then I step back and start mulling and plotting in such detail I can copy my notes to the draft and flesh out additional details. Strangely enough, when I’m plotting, I’m still being a pantser because I seldom go back and make drastic plot changes unless I’ve discovered a logic gap or have a revelation that energizes the story.
Why do you write in the particular genre you’ve chosen? I have always been more fascinated by stories beyond “reality.” In junior high, I got hooked on science fiction and I still admire the icons of that genre: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Jack Williamson, Kurt Vonnegut, and dozens more. Then along came J. R. R. Tolkien and fantasy was added to my list, along with great mystery writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and many new writers such as Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander series). Two of my favorite writers are fellow New Mexicans: Tony Hillerman, the famous writer of Navajo detective mysteries, and Rudolfo Anaya, well-known author of the Hispanic experience. Both writers have evoked the New Mexico landscape, culture, and lifestyle. I have tried to bring together these diverse elements in my writing.
What has been the most challenging so far—writing or promoting? At first, I thought writing was difficult. But now that I am learning and struggling to promote my book, I find the writing to be fun and the promoting to be drudgery. If I could afford it and found someone who could do a great job of it, I’d turn over the promotion to someone else. Maybe once I have a bestseller! Having to talk up my own work is not in character for me, in addition to the realization many contacts have to be made before one pans out. When I write, I can knock out as many pages, etc. as is needed to tell the story—much easier to me in comparison.
What are you working on now? My editor, Peggy Herrington, and I are putting the finishing touches on the final draft of the sequel to The Tower of Il Serrohe entitled Extreme Dust Storms May Exist. This story centers on Esther Jiron, a sixteen-year-old honor student, who is drawn into the alternate valley of the first book, the Valle Abajo. Once again the clanspeople of the Valle are under the cruel siege of the Soreyes who terrorize and dominate the Valle. Esther is called to the Valle to help the clanspeople fight off this continuing threat just as they had called Don Vargas. Of course, there will be many surprises as the story develops. I’ve already mapped out the basic plot and am writing the first few chapter drafts to conclude the saga in a third installment entitled Zero Visibility Possible.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. KL has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.