Talking to Novelist Andrew Cotto About His Brooklyn Gentrification Noir

08/16/2012 9:00 AM |

Let’s talk about the characters. I especially want to know about Caesar. How did you come up with him, particularly his backstory?
It’s hard for me to go back and think about where characters come from. I’m not sure who I had in mind when conjuring Caesar, though I do remember I wanted to make him an amalgam of different identities and backgrounds—the Irish father, the Sicilian mother.

I grew up in a town just over the George Washington Bridge that was full of families from the Bronx and upper Manhattan that were white-flighting in the 70s. Children of immigrants trying to get out of the Bronx and Inwood, and this town was entirely full of Irish and Italian kids. So I began there, with this kid who is the product of city people from the Bronx. I liked his identity being complicated, and the line about him wanting to be an Indian was a big part of that complication since it spoke of a desire to be different. That came from my childhood. That line in the story about the father telling the kids they were “Goomba Indians from the Woppy tribe” is actually something my father told my brother as a joke. My brother believed it and thought he was an Indian for a while, wearing a bandana on his head, he grew his hair long. So, part of that character is coming from my older brother, who is a pretty tough guy and a complicated individual. But then Caesar took on a life of his own. At that point, he’s flying as a complete entity of my imagination. I’m just trying to make him as conflicted and complicated as possible. Throw the whole family curse thing in, and it gives him some drive and ambition, which helps define his behavior.

I like the family curse; it’s not something you usually see in noirs, which tend to be very logical.
Me too. It was a little fantastic and fun. I didn’t want Caesar to take it too seriously, but I also wanted him to be obligated to his mother’s wishes. So the promise he makes to her about trying to do something about the curse actually made it function in the story in a believable way that was practical for the narrative.

Speaking of the curse, I loved the opening line about the grandmother. Where other books about America might have immigrants coming over for noble reasons and upward mobility, you’ve got a grandmother coming to murder someone, which is a great opener for a noir.
Thank you. That line was really inspired by—and maybe it’s folklore among my family, but we always tell it this way, so it’s true to me—how my mother’s grandmother came from Sicily. She was a tough woman. She lived a long time, so I knew her as a kid. She used to sit in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen, just eating raw garlic, slivering it with an old stiletto. Eating it and looking at us kids. My mother and her sisters called her Gus, like she was a Gestapo agent. That knife she used to eat the garlic was the knife she came here with. It had a worn walnut handle and was a long stiletto knife, and the story in my family was that she came here with that knife and some money to kill the guy who left her sister at the altar in Sicily. Then she got here and fell in love and started a family. I don’t think she ever killed that guy. I’d known that story my whole life, and when I started writing this narrative, it just came to me. The line pretty much wrote itself; I didn’t have to sweat over how to make that line lyrical and impactive, though it was a bit tougher to make it work in the story overall.

Getting back to Caesar, one of the interesting things about him, parallel to his drifter life, was that he is—maybe the word is “player.” He’s a pretty sexual guy. Would you characterize this book or your writing as sexy?
Definitely not! I have a hard time going there. I remember when I was workshopping that scene when he seduces Colette in his kitchen with the wine, cheese, bread and honey, I was just blushing. I remember giving it to the class, and I had a line in there that was so unbelievably stupid. I ended the scene in the novel, thankfully, with him just peeling off her panties and leaving them on the counter with the crumbs. But I tried to get deeper into it the first time I wrote it, and it was so stupid I couldn’t believe it. Women in the workshop kept making faces, asking “what are you talking about?” or “what does that mean?” I didn’t even know. I had a close friend at the New School, where I was doing my MFA, in my class who was really good at writing sex scenes. He was just ashamed for me.

That said, I did want to make Caesar’s sexuality part of his character. It’s sort of innate for him in some ways, but it also correlates with someone who is a drifter. Someone going around, who tries to find connections more of a sexual nature, often does so as recourse to loneliness. He attaches himself to women just to attach himself to people. And that solitary figure is someone many women find attractive, too, so those properties sort of lend themselves to each other. I wanted Caesar to have sexuality as part of his identity, but also to be tender. Even with the prostitute that he frequented, there was a tenderness to that. And certainly with Colette it was quite romantic. He’s not a guy out there trying to “bang chicks” for sport or conquest or anything stupid like that. He was just a sexual person, it was at the forefront of his identity. It was tough to strike that balance without having to put myself in places where as a writer I’m just not comfortable going. So erotica is not in my future.

That’s where the money is!
Hey, I would write a page-turning erotic thriller in a second if I could get away with it, but 50 Shades of Caesar Stiles is not happening.

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