INTERVIEW WITH THE MAN BEHIND THE CAT KING OF HAVANA, TOM CROSSHILL! Jason S. Ridler
Tom Crosshill is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Clarkesworld, and other fine establishments. His novel, THE CAT KING OF HAVANA, is a YA story set in Cuba published by HarperCollins.
How does an award-winning Latvian author of science fiction and fantasy end up writing a novel that deals with internet media moguls, lolcats, and SALSA in Cuba . . . for the YA market? Or, WHY HAVE YOU ABANDONED GENRE FICTION for a novel that sounds like way more fun?
One of the things that I really love about genre fiction is the sense of surprise and discovery — reading about places I’d love to go, people I’d like to meet, awesome skills I wish I could attain. When you look at it like that, THE CAT KING OF HAVANA isn’t really that big of a departure. I wrote the book at a time when I wished I could go back to Cuba but couldn’t afford to — and I was burning to share my excitement about salsa dancing with the world.
Also, I had a lot to say about the experience of growing up as a nerdy teen — about getting a handle on physical and social skills which many of us SF geeks take far too long to develop. I’m hoping I might encourage some teens to get going on this stuff earlier than I did.
As I put in the book, if you expect CAT KING to tell you that Geeks Are Good and Everyone’s a Special Flower and You Shouldn’t Let Other People Tell You How to Live Your Life, you’ve been watching too many indie films with quirky teenage protagonists.
(Also, I do have a track record in animal-themed fiction — take my FFO piece TO FLY A PIG IN THE DORSENY SKY!)
That still sounds like far more realism than science fiction . . . until we have a geeky guy learning salsa and living in Cuba! Why would someone raised on the shores of the Baltic Sea be captivated by Cuba’s sexiest export? Why did you become their first Baltic import?
A lot of assumptions there! Among others, I certainly wasn’t Cuba’s first Baltic import — in fact, there are a number of Latvians who have lived on the island far longer than I did (and some who have had children which have, in turn, emigrated to Latvia). But it’s probably true that I’m the first salsa-obsessed Latvian to spend such a long time in Cuba. . .
My first trip to Cuba was actually for a yachting trip — I couldn’t dance a single step of anything. A chance meeting with a woman married to a Latvian led to my first salsa classes — and from that there was no turning back! There are some passions in life which develop over time, and others that you simply discover intact and full-blown, like they’ve been under the surface all along.
And perhaps dance was indeed under the surface. . . critique group friends have pointed out to me that a lot of my stories had a dance theme even before I consciously became interested in the topic. If only I’d known!
Actually, that’s one thing I’d like to accomplish with CAT KING — encourage people who might have this subsurface love of dance to go ahead and try it out.
We start with assumptions (and hyperbole) then get to the nitty grity! Let’s talk about the subsurface. Why would salsa be lurking under your skin? I ask because, as a fellow Balt, our people are often represented in history and culture as dour, hard working, and reserved, in part from being victims of the Soviet occupation and its powerful aftermath. But! Is this another cultural assumption that needs challenging, or was the subsurface desire for a beautiful, vibrant, and sensual art form all your own? If so, why salsa and not Tango, like the Finns seem to love?
Perhaps it’s that old attraction-of-opposites thing. Many of my life decisions have seemed unlikely at the time. I decided to major in physics in college even though that was my weakest subject in high school. I decided to look for a job on Wall Street when I grew tired of life as a hirsute physics senior. And I decided to learn salsa even though I was a barely-coordinated, stiff as a log Baltic geek. . . I guess I enjoy a good challenge! Although of course by now it is much more than that.
Re. tango vs. salsa — the answer is probably that salsa is what I happened across first. I have yet to try tango so I don’t know how I would like to dance it — certainly I enjoy watching it. But I’ll have you know salsa too is big in Finland!
Ha! The benefit of questions is getting answers you didn’t expect! As a writer, you’ve carved a successful track record in SF&F short stories. How did writing a non-fantastical-genre novel challenge you, and were you tempted to make the cats psychic or aliens or Cuba is really a spaceship? Also, will there be a sequel?
CAT KING was actually my second non-SF novel in a row, so I was used to it! When I was writing THE CATTLE EXPRESS — an adult literary novel of a Latvian on Wall Street, and his grandmother’s struggles in Siberian exile, now coming out from a major publisher in Latvia — I was a bit tempted to make Stalin a secret vampire or something of the sort. By the time I got to CAT KING the temptation had faded.
CAT KING still allowed my geek side to express itself, though — the protagonist is a cat video entrepreneur, after all, and there is a lot of cat video meta-analysis in the book. . .
Making Stalin a vampire is the call of all Baltic writers, so good on you for resisting the urge! Is the CATTLE EXPRESS due for North American release as well, as it sounds terrific?
Also, you’ve clearly betrayed all genre fiction by writing material inspired by geek culture but with no elements of fantasy. Why are you such a Judas? More seriously, your books sound way more fun than most of what’s coming out by the major genre outlets. Did you “level” up out of the genre ghetto, or is that material just under the surface still percolating in non-genre yet inspired by genre (geeky stuff) culture?
I’m definitely shopping THE CATTLE EXPRESS around, and actually, there’s a Latvian government grant that could help the right well-positioned small press publish it pretty much risk-free. I don’t know much about the adult literary space, though, so I haven’t actually been able to show the manuscript to as many people as I’d like. I’m working on it.
Personally I’m not big on the genre/non-genre divide. I love all kinds of books, and I enjoy writing about all sorts of topics. I’m still writing occasional SF short stories, and my next novel may well be genre again. But I’m definitely not a purist. For me the story comes first — if a great concept comes to me, I don’t care what genre it is in.
I know this genre-hopping might hurt me commercially, but then, I’m not really in this for the money (although I certainly won’t turn money away!)
Hey, grab all the scratch you can, and do it your own way (the systems rigged, anyway!). Second last question: what’s next for Tom Crosshill the cross-genre writer and is there another wild left-turn bubbling under the surface for us to watch?
Very last question: when are you writing more flash fiction???
I’m working on a couple of short stories and a fantasy novel concept. . . I prefer not to discuss my works-in-progress too much, though, as it saps my creativity. I find these days that my number one priority is doing work I enjoy and not worrying too much about publishing pressures or practical concerns.
With flash, the difficulty for me is that a flash story can take as long to conceive and design as a novelette! Generally I’ll write a flash when a story comes to me fully formed in a. . . what do you call it. . . ah, yes, in a flash of inspiration. And those flashes are kind of hard to anticipate. . .
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