Pens, Paws, and Claws would like to welcome Gabriel Valjan to the blog!
Tell our readers a little about yourself and your writing.
My name is Gabriel Valjan and I write crime with a love and respect for Italy (my Roma Series with Winter Goose Publishing) and an enjoyment of intrigue (my Company Files, again with Winter Goose, and my forthcoming Shane Cleary series with Level Best Books). In all my writing I try to create a group of characters that readers can enjoy and root for, while giving them slices of culture and lost history they may not have known.
The Roma Series is contemporary crime fiction with an American expat abroad. Readers should expect a story with some technology, politics, and Italian culture and food. The Company Files introduces readers to the early days of the intelligence community and the rivalry between the CIA and the FBI. The Shane Cleary series will take readers back to 70s New England, this time to South End Boston—not to be confused with Whitey Bulger’s South Boston. The first of five Shane books, Dirty Old Town, is slated for publication in January 2020.
I’ve been publishing since 2010. My short stories have appeared online, or in anthologies. I’ve been shortlisted for the Bridport and Fish Prizes, and I received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Nero Wolfe Black Orchid Novella Contest.
Tell us about your pets. Are any of them models for pets in your writing?
I have one cat named Squeak aka Buttons, a rescue tuxedo cat. My followers on Twitter expect to find some missive from Squeak on Caturday (Saturday in the Twitterverse). Squeak has been my writing companion and the inspiration for one of two cats in Roma Series Book 5: Corporate Citizen. In Dirty Old Town, the first Shane Cleary novel for Level Best Books, readers will meet Delilah, my main character’s cat and voice of conscience.
Many writers have pets and I’ve found that readers both enjoy the distraction and interpret how the character treats his or her pet as indicative of their morality. I think it’s true to say that many people find unconditional love and a nonjudgmental attitude with their fur-companions. Buttons and my late cat Squawk aka Banzai have been a joy in my life.
Tell us about any pets you have in your books/stories. Are any of them recurring characters? What are they and their names?
Buttons is Bogie, the male in the couple of Bogie and Bacall in Corporate Citizen. Bianca, my main character, is rather prickly and standoffish but Bogie and Bacall elicit a warmer and caring side of her personality. The real treat for readers is how Silvio, a gifted translator of sorts, communicates with cats. Silvio had also adopted a cat orphaned when his owner was murdered.
Delilah or Dee in the Shane Cleary series takes Shane to task on some of his choices. Without giving away too much, she sits and stares at him (literally) when he comes home after doing something that he shouldn’t have. Shane knows it and he ‘talks’ to Delilah. She won’t have any of it and lets him know it in no uncertain terms.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Murder List and Edwin Hill’s The Missing Ones, and am anxious to get my mitts on Louise Penny’s The Better Man. In the interim, I’m reading a brief short story collection by Italo Calvino, Under the Jaguar Sun. I read between books I’m writing to avoid undue influence. I find short fiction a welcome palate cleanser.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
At the moment, I am editing Dirty Old Town for Level Best Books. In revisiting the writing, I want to make sure everything ‘adds up’ and that I’ve seeded the book with questions that will get answered as the series progresses. I have written five books and had a long-arc view of conflicts and resolutions.
Who is your favorite author and why?
This is a hard question to answer because I enjoy many authors for different reasons. As an only child, I found solace and company in reading books. I was also fortunate to have teachers who thrusted books into my hands. My seventh-grade teacher gave me a copy of Agatha Christie and I proceeded to read all of her work in the next two years. As a child of the Seventies, I had a fondness for historical sagas that were all the rage, so Clavell, Hailey, Jakes, Levin, Peters, and Wouk are nostalgic touchstones for me. As for contemporary historical fiction, I’ve enjoyed Robert Harris’s trilogy on Cicero.
As a writer, you feel ‘on’ most of the time and oftentimes your inner critic interferes with your enjoyment. When I sit down with a writer I enjoy, I like to think I’m spending time with an old friend or making a new one. Good writing like good food is sustenance; it can offer escape and yet fortify you against the troubles in Life. In terms of style, I’ve come to appreciate the clean and elegant sentences of Margaret Millar, her husband Ross Macdonald, and Rex Stout. I began writing with poetry and moved to short stories. Short fiction is a difficult art form and I think most readers avoid it because they’ve been traumatized by high school English classes. Stefan Zweig was a master of the form, and I admire the stories we get from Bonnie Jo Campbell, EJ Levy, and Art Taylor.
I read broadly, but yet I’ve tried to seek out writers who are different from either how I’ve experienced the world, or how I would write a story. Writers I have enjoyed: RG Belsky, Andrea Camilleri, Bruce Coffin, LA Chandlar, J. California Cooper, Dick Cass, Colleen Gleason, Maurizio de Giovanni, Peter Hamill, Cheryl Head, Reginald Hill, Jim L’Etoile, Laurie King, Dannie Martin, Gabriel García Marquez, Eryk Pruitt, Stephen Mack Jones, Sara Paretsky, William Martin, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Walter Mosley, James Ziskin, and many more.
However, my absolute favorite, my desert island author is Shakespeare.
Did you have childhood pets? If so, tell us about them.
I did. My mother had a miniature poodle named Lulu, who was a terror and spiteful force of nature. To give you one example, she hated baths so she would run outside and roll in the dirt the minute she escaped the tub. She got on with my mother and nobody else. My grandparents had a German Shepherd named Nero, who was the most chill and calming living thing I’ve ever encountered. Protective, intuitive, and a gentle being.
How do you use animals in your writing? Are they a character in their own right or just mentioned in passing?
I try to stay true to how animals function in our lives. They are our friends and family; they understand us in ways our biological relations do not, and they do so without judgment. Buttons helped me get through aggressive radiation treatment. He’d wait at the door when I came home and snuggle up to me until I fell asleep. That was selfless and compassionate. Then he would eat. If you know him, you know he likes his food, but when I was sick, I came first and I’m grateful to him for that. There’s an understanding there I think people don’t understand.
Why do you include animals in your writing?
I include animals in my writing for the same reason people infuse humor into their stories. Pets add dimensionality, reveal our humanity, our shortcomings, and I think we are quick to defend animals because they are innocent and unconditional. Think of Tony Soprano, a killer, who became upset and distraught when the horse Pie-O-My and the dog Cosette died. Even he, despite his sociopathy, understood pets deserved to be protected.
When did you know you were a writer? And how did you know?
Not until after I was 40. I’ll be honest: as a reader all my life, I never gave thought to writing a novel or anything. When I turned 40, I set myself a goal of writing a short story a week for one year. My earliest artistic impulses were in drawing and painting. When started writing, I accepted the fact that most of it would be terrible. I had slapped together a novel, just to get certain things out of my system. A year later, I had a handful of stories that I thought were decent (I’m very critical of my own work), so I submitted two stories to magazines, and both were published. One of them was shortlisted for the Fish Prize in 2010. I wrote most of the Roma Series while dealing with the aftermath of radiation; there’s a reason why food is a thread throughout the novels. My later novels were born of my own curiosity and explorations in history.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
Respect your reader’s intelligence and their time. Give them a story and an experience, and not your ego for 300 pages where you demonstrate your wit and vocabulary. People thirst for intimacy and a hardscrabble few will pick up a book instead of the TV remote. Write authentic. I can’t define what that means for you, and perhaps that is why I waited until I was 40 years old.
You are the sum of a lifetime of reading and your relationship with language. What you do with language is unique to you, so find it and cultivate it…in workshop babble, it’s called Voice, and it can’t be taught in any MFA program. The rest of it…humor, how you turn a phrase comes from your own peculiar way of observing the world around you.
Don’t make excuses. Set aside distractions. Trust me, you’ll make the time for what is important to you. Set aside distinctions such as genre and literary and create a where you want to spend time in and swim in. There’s a good chance others will enjoy it. If you enjoy a particular writer, break it down for yourself what it is you enjoy about them, and think about how they did it, and then do it your way. Learn craft, the ways of creating character, pacing and rhythm, and dialogue. Yes, you can learn it from a book or from a teacher, but I think it’s best to teach yourself, on your own terms because you’ll never forget the lessons or tools you created for yourself. Last but not least, it’s easy to be a critic, so be selective about what you allow into your sphere. Keep writing and strive to improve your skills.
What is one lesson you learned about writing or publishing that you’d like to share?
There are no guarantees. Be careful of how you define success. There are a lot of ‘successful’ books that are nothing more than soapboxes for ego, that lack structure, or are formulaic stories. I’ve learned that books that I thought were successful because of awards and vigorous marketing were poor in sales. Publishing is a business and money is what matters. Right time. Right place. There are too many variables, so write what you are proud of and can speak for you when you’re not in the room.
Gabriel Valjan is the author of the Roma Series and the Company Files with Winter Goose Publishing. The first of five Shane Cleary novels with Level Best Books is scheduled to appear in January 2020. Gabriel is a member of Sisters in Crime, and attends Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, and New England Crime Bake. He lives in Boston.
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