I first encountered the work of Gabriel Valjan when his short story “Undead” turned up in Paper Tape’s slush pile in late 2014. ”Undead” is one of those rare stories that terrifies with the Kafkaesque while leaving you with the indelible impression that tomorrow could be much more interesting than today. Before I read this story, I thought that I knew all the things that can possibly go wrong at the DMV, but “Undead” proved me so very wrong. I’ve since added “evidence of a pulse” to the list of things to bring with me the next time I renew my license.
In this interview, Gabriel and I talk about the Roma Series his thriller series published by Winter Goose Publishers, what inspired him to write about Italy, and writing about the media.
Kristy: Tell me about the Roma Series?
Gabriel: The Roma Series has a strong, intelligent woman as its central character. The Series is marketed as a suspense/thriller. My main character, Bianca, began as a challenge from a coworker when I was writing short stories. I think the literary landscape is littered with weary of drunken, retired private detectives, so why not a female protagonist? There is also a trend for unlikeable characters, but I wanted to create someone who was decent. Lisabeth Salander is rowdy and rude, but she has a strong moral compass for justice. Bianca is distant and difficult, enigmatic, but she demonstrates the contradictions we all possess: heroic but afraid, outraged and uncertain how to proceed. At times, she has no filters and infuriates her friends, but she is often on the mark. Like all of us, she wants to be accepted, loved, and respected on reasonable terms.
Of the four books in the Roma Series – Roma, Underground (Book 1), Wasp’s Nest (Book 2), Threading the Needle (Book 3) and Turning to Stone (Book 4) - three are set in Italy and only one in the U.S. Each book was written as a stand-alone, but I’ve designed the series in such a way that readers will see a range of emotional development and responses in each of the main characters. Bianca will confront her issues with intimacy. Readers will have hints about what happened to her, but its magnitude is not exposed until Book 5. With each book, readers will learn more about – and love, or, understand – what makes each character tick.
When I situate the story outside Italy, I do it for contrast. I don’t just mean American and European contrast, though there is that; but rather that readers see Bianca realizing her feelings for Dante and her sense of growing disconnect with American culture. If I am criticizing America, it is for its lack of work-life balance. In Book 5, Corporate Citizen, Bianca will return to Boston, but this time to help an old friend. It will be her last hurrah in the United States and a “goodbye to all that” for her, for reasons I won’t disclose. I have the sixth volume planned for London, which will put some salt into old wounds and find Bianca paired up with an unexpected ally. After Book 6, the Roma Series stays firmly in Italy.
Kristy: My family originally comes from a town about 50 miles east of Naples, so my ears perked up when I saw you’d written fiction set in Naples. Why Italy? And Naples in particular?
Gabriel: Several streams flowed into the river for Turning To Stone, which is set in Naples. Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah was influential for giving me a sociological portrait of the Camorra and Naples. The Camorra is far more fluid organization than the Sicilian La Cosa Nostra. Women play a vital role in the Camorra. It’s this organizational fluidity that makes the Camorra a formidable organization for law enforcement. Saviano’s assertion that organized crime is a cultural problem was, to me, a brilliant observation. Campania has, sadly, a high cancer rate and the Camorra’s dumping of toxic waste is to blame for the disease’s high incidence.
Kristy: What else has inspired you?
Gabriel: The Financial Crises of 2007 and 2008 provided something of a backdrop for me. I dug deep into the post-mortem on the Fiscal Crises. Journalist Andrew Sorkin’s corpulent Too Big To Fail, at 500-plus pages, is considered the definitive autopsy on the Fiscal Crisis of 2008. While I was writing Turning, UMass Amherst graduate student Thomas Herndon and Professors Michael Ash and Robert Pollin came along and exploded Harvard duo Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s pro-austerity argument. Reinhart and Rogoff said that a country would collapse when its public debt hit 90% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Herndon et al. proved that the hypothesis and the methodology were specious, the result of faulty thinking. I probably enjoyed the plate-glass at Amherst trumping Harvard’s red bricks more than I should have, but needless to say, economists everywhere took a black eye for not having seen the storm on the horizon, and for not having explained it adequately after the fact.
The concept of financial terrorism inspired Turning To Stone. I’ve always paid attention to the language used in the public forum. I never subscribed to the analyses that American media outlets offered the public about the financial debacle. Watch the news and, on any topic, you will see that the news anchors use the same phrases verbatim. What are the odds that different people in different parts of the country will parrot the same words?
While I was writing Turning To Stone, I was reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American a second time; it’s a short novel that has a scene that prompted me to consult Greene’s memoir, Ways of Escape. Greene was in Saigon in 1952 for British intelligence. A bomb had gone off. In the novel, Greene makes it clear who planted the plastic explosive. In his memoir, he comments how convenient it was that a Life photographer happened to be at a strategic spot in order to photograph a gruesome image. The spin on the blame game that happened in 1952 isn’t what interested me; it was how the media had been used, in this case photojournalism, to facilitate propaganda and political disruption. The type of media may have changed, but the impetus to shape opinion has not.
Kristy: Has researching and writing about the media influenced how you approach your own writing practice?
Gabriel: Observing the media has made me especially sensitive to language and imagery in popular culture. There is no peace for writers because the stakes are higher than ever to get a reader’s attention in a landscape where anyone can call him or herself an author. In terms of talking shop, the sales hook of garnering attention starts within the first paragraph. Sentences are shorter so as not to tax the reader’s patience and further compromise an even shorter attention span. The attention span of most readers is shorter until there is an established fan base for an author. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Neal Stephenson can do whatever they want today, without any editor involvement, because publishers know that they will sell, regardless. They are established commodities.
The healthiest way to approach the media in contemporary society is to see it as a narrative in the public forum, just as the dramatic arts had once been communal. Theatre and media take in the viewer as both spectator and accomplice. Contemporary readers are not so naïve as to not know conglomerates own the media. Media shapes political thought and social opinion. The viewer is nothing more than a data point, a consumer, and a potential Nielsen rating. However, there is no catharsis in the public narrative because everything has been dehumanized to an impulse and to dollars and cents. Image is everything; substance is secondary. Symbol = Image = Content.
The image of a bottle of Coke encapsulates a marketing function that is both subjective (taste, private memory of drinking Coke), but the output remains the same: buy that next bottle of Coke. The viewer is reduced to consumer and passive entity. Isn’t that odd? Books have to compete with television or movies. Reading is a multitasking event. The reader has become an Input and Output device. News media create stories to be digested and then deleted, or revised.
In our era, information is streamed 24/7/365 and it is now global, whether it is from conventional sources such as newspapers, print or digital, television, public or cable, or alternative sources, such as bloggers, Reddit or Mother Jones. While scale has changed, tactics have not, though they have become far more sophisticated than the ministries of propaganda of oppressive regimes from which advertising and government pundits have drawn their lessons. There is simply no way any individual can keep abreast with the media. People are either pacified with easy answers or kept in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear. The best a person can do is to manage the flood of stimuli with Twitter where x-number of characters is the ultimate expression of concision. Hemingway would gasp with envy. My point here is that humans cocoon and turn inward and segment stimuli. In terms of reading books, they seek genres that either don’t remind them of reality or that are hyper-realistic. J. Alfred Prufrock is very much alive, but he is drowning in a teaspoon.
The media rely on cognitive dissonance. Think of Hamlet’s edict: “Suit the action to the word, the word to action.” Now, think of drug commercials. Within sixty seconds, the consumer takes in the image of someone suffering from some horrible disease. The commercial is: Person, Disease, Solution. Subtitles at the bottom of the screen list exceptions and directions to consult a doctor ‘if this medication is not right for you.’ The voiceover does the double duty of sales pitch, how the drug might help the consumer, while at the same time enumerating side effects -- often worse than the disease itself, or another condition altogether, including death. That narrative is flash fiction.
Transparency or accountability is nonexistent in the media, to the point that it is amoral. The immediate mea culpa is “mistakes were made,” a phrase that Nixon coined on his way out the door. It is a headless phrase that corporations use. Mistakes were made, but by whom and when? If this sounds abstract, then consider the case of Salaheddin Barhoum, who had been mistakenly identified as a Boston Marathon suspect. The New York Post refused to retract their story when it was clear that the African-American teenager had no role in the terrorist attack. “Mistakes were made.” Barhoum disappeared into the fog, along with Abdul Haq and Aaron Swartz. If the names of these last two individuals don’t sound familiar, ask yourself why not. The media is elusive because they count on human desire, on amnesia that exploits the fact that critical thinking is absent in society because the liberal arts have been dismantled and universities, corporatized. The riddle that the media offer is not as clever as Shelley’s poem "Ozymandias." The question has been reduced to whether you are a wolf or a sheep.
I realize my answer to the question is lengthy, but the media are complex, a hydra with many heads. The media are another form of storytelling. Narrative techniques and point of view are fundamental to any story. Stories permeate every aspect of our lives. Fiction and reality are sometimes strange and inseparable. The story that a writer creates at the desk is a view of his or her world. Diction is important and imagery has to be carefully constructed. A writer’s image cannot compete with video or the results of marketing departments with unlimited budgets. So much is at stake because writers have to compete for attention, for visibility, in a mutating landscape. On the one hand, writers want to tell a story, but publishers want what will sell. This has not changed since the invention of the printing press. Patronage is extinct. The Big 5 publishers are corporations, an arm of the news media.
The lesson that I learned is to slow down, think analytically, and rely on your education, or your ability to find a reliable source of information. Whether self-taught or college-educated, it is essential, even crucial to slow down and think about what you feed your head and to question the answers you are given or see in imagery. I’m thinking here of the recent Paris attacks with the news media’s recycling photos from the Charlie Hebdo attack. Manipulation and disruption are recurring themes in the Roma Series. Read and listen with the understanding that you are told a story from someone else’s point of view. Storytellers have an objective. Speaking of media, Nathaniel West offered a searing (and prescient) satire of media in his novellas, Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust. In the end, readers have the choice to either Accept, Reject, or Ignore the narrative.
As for me, I’ve come to understand that fulfillment in life is doing what makes you feel good deep within yourself, no matter what the outer world thinks of it. Writing is sharing; it is ultimately a form of love, whether it is for language or humanity.
Kristy: What are you working on right now?
Gabriel: I just completed August Moon, the second book in a series set in 1933 Shanghai. I enjoyed researching another era and having fun with the characters that I created in the first book. In this outing, a Japanese girl is murdered and my main character is trying to solve the homicide in a city that dislikes the Japanese for having invaded Shanghai the year before. My detective works for Sir Victor Sassoon, a fascinating and colorful individual. There are gangsters, corrupt police and diplomats, and the high life in this novel. Oh, the journalist Emily Hahn and her pet gibbon, Mr. Mills, make an appearance in this short novel.
Kristy: That sounds awesome! Do you know when we can expect it?
Gabriel: Neither of the two Shanghai novels has found a home with a publisher, although I have a new series kicking off in 2017 with my publisher, Winter Goose Publishing. I have already written 3 novels in The Good Man Series. The writing style is a departure from what readers have experienced in The Roma Series. The series starts off in Europe and returns to the US, where a small cast of characters will navigate challenges and dangers in McCarthy-era Los Angeles and shady Off Broadway Manhattan. Below is a brief synopsis of the first installment of the series:
Jack Marshall, OSS bureau chief in postwar Vienna, is trying to discover what former Nazis might know about the Soviet atomic program. Unfortunately, many of them are being murdered before he can get to them.
The Good Man revisits the classic noir spy thriller, steeped in the atmosphere and politics of postwar Vienna, from the small cafes to the secretive gambling houses and the sewers. This exploration of the early days of the intelligence community provides enough intricate twists and turns to keep a John le Carré reader happy.
Kristy: Where can readers find your work?
Gabriel: The Roma Series can be found online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at my publisher’s web. The series is available for Kindle at the sales price $2.99 for a limited time only.
Corporate Citizen, Book 5 in The Roma Series, is slated for Spring 2016.