Silvia Moreno-Garcia ignored the experts and trusted her instincts. Now she’s a bestseller
Novelist Silvia Moreno-Garcia brings ‘The Daughter of Doctor Moreau’ to the L.A. Times Book Club Sept. 27
Once someone told me if I wanted to make it as a writer I needed a shorter name. Silvia Moreno-Garcia doesn’t roll off the tongue. You can’t spell it easily. Baristas can’t get my first name right and that’s only six letters. Do you file me under the letter M or under G?
This unruliness of identity is also reflected in my output, with each of my works occupying a different niche. I’ve written a sword-and-sorcery novella, but also a gritty coming-of-age noir set in northern Mexico. I’m best known for a horror book. Do you place me under fantasy or under historical or under crime?
As you can see, I give people headaches.
I often get asked why I write across genres. Truth be told, I get quickly bored and switching categories helps me focus again. At a deeper level, I like the challenge of having to chameleon myself into a different kind of writer.
There is also the fact that some of the authors I’ve most admired have exhibited nimbleness and fluidity. Walter Tevis wrote the chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit,” but also the science fiction novel “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Hustler,” about a pool player wishing to break into the major leagues. Joyce Carol Oates’ prodigious output, which spans the gamut from family dramas to horror, also caught my imagination. Growing up, it delighted me when I found a writer who seemed to escape classification, be it British writer Tanith Lee or Mexican novelist Sergio Galindo.
The Mexican-Canadian author of bestsellers ‘Mexican Gothic’ and ‘Velvet Was the Night’ was born and raised to be a genre-hopping, storytelling dynamo.
You also could chalk up this desire to straddle categories to two things at once. I spent my early childhood growing up in the Mexico-United States border zone in Baja California. My parents filled our home with eclectic books. They were hoarders in many ways, avid readers who didn’t care what shelf something sat on. I learned to read in Spanish and in English because they had books in both languages, and I was as likely to bump into award-winning Mexican writers, French poets or early 20th century American pulp fiction in the chaotic piles of books that mushroomed in every corner of our messy home.
At any rate, I grew up to become someone who wants to be many things, perhaps everything, all at once.
When I was starting out as a writer, such notions seemed foolhardy. I was told the best course of action was to write a series and stick to one genre. In speculative fiction, almost every deal I heard about involved a trilogy of some sort. Agents and editors were simply not interested in a single novel. My breathless explanations of how I wanted to write fantasy, but also horror, noirs, drama and maybe even a western, were met with bafflement.
At the same time, I felt I could do whatever the hell I wanted. After all, I received rejections saying my books were unsellable because they were set in Mexico and even that my name would be too long to print on a spine. Compared with that, the act of moving across categories seemed to me a minor sin.
When I finally scored a sleeper hit with “Mexican Gothic,” you would have thought I’d change my tune and write a sequel to that novel. Settle down, so to speak. But I had been working on a noir set against the background of Mexico’s Dirty War and wouldn’t let go of it. It was not exactly what folks in publishing would have deemed a commercial idea, yet I pushed forth with it.
“Velvet Was the Night” was received well by critics, nabbed a few award nominations and even made President Obama’s recommended reading list this summer. I probably alienated a whole swath of fans with this release. Readers who only knew me for “Mexican Gothic” seemed surprised, as they had expected a horror book. Instead I gave them politics, death squads, a dumpy secretary stuck pet-sitting her neighbor’s cat and a hired goon with a love for rock music, all of them caught in the turbulent summer of 1971.
My most recent novel, “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau,” set in 19th century Yucatán and loosely inspired by H.G. Wells, can be described as a historical drama with an injection of science fiction. Once again, it veers sharply from the horror of “Mexican Gothic.”
Should I have written something different, then? A sequel to “Mexican Gothic” or even a prequel? That would have been the logical choice, it would have upped the odds of success. I probably would have hated the result.
There are many bumps in the road when you try to switch gears as often as I do. Take the time my friend found my fantasy of manners “The Beautiful Ones” sitting in a bookstore’s horror section. It’s a romance with a sprinkling of magic, more comparable to an old Merchant Ivory costume drama than Stephen King’s “Carrie.” I’m sorry for whomever took it home thinking of blood and guts. And then there was the angry reader who contacted me to demand a refund because my vampire-and-narcos novel “Certain Dark Things” was not a romance but a gritty urban fantasy.
Bestselling novelist Silvia Moreno-Garcia discusses ‘The Daughter of Doctor Moreau’ with Book Club readers.
What has become clear to me over time is that I’m developing a body of work the same way a painter might develop an oeuvre. It’s like trying different materials, brush strokes and colors. Even though it makes it hard to market my books and even though I may puzzle certain readers, there are those readers who enjoy the element of surprise, never quite sure what they might get.
I am determined to continue my genre-shifting. After all, I could have changed my name when I was starting out. I could have become Sylvia Brown and set my work in New York City and written a trilogy. But I didn’t. I decided I wanted to molt and evolve into myself, not become a stranger. So hello, I’m Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I write books. What type of books? That’s a good question.
Book Club: If You Go
When: 6 p.m. PT on Sept. 27
Where: This virtual event will livestream on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Get tickets and signed books on Eventbrite.
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