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Steven Torres was born in the Bronx, spent part of his childhood in Puerto Rico and has authored six previously published novels. He teaches English in Connecticut where he lives with wife and daughter.
Can you sum up The Concrete Maze in no more than 25 words?
Jasmine Ramos, 13, goes missing from a skating rink in the Bronx, and her father, Luis, will do anything (to anyone) to get her back.
What was your motivation for writing it?
Many things, but part of it is that I was involved in the periphery of a similar real life story when I was a teenager. I had long wanted to say something about the Bronx in the early 1990s when New York City suffered through a half dozen murders daily. To the outsider, New York probably looked like a cesspool, and it would have been except for one fact – people suffered. I mean, if there were two thousand murders and nobody cared, that would have been a cesspool. But people cared. Desperately. I wanted to show that. Luis Ramos searches the streets of a city that could be incredibly cruel for his daughter. Compelling and true. I don’t know that a writer needs more than that as motivation.
How long did it take you to write?
The book was started while I was spending three weeks of January in Puerto Rico. I wrote about the first fifteen thousand words between trips to see family and to the beach. Then I set the book aside for about a year and wrote the other sixty thousand words during a spring semester. I can’t for the life of me remember what other writing projects I carried out in the time between starting the book and taking it up the second time. There wasn’t any problem with the book itself. It had been going swimmingly; I just ran out of vacation time, started the semester of teaching, worked on other stuff for the rest of the year and never returned to THE CONCRETE MAZE again until the next winter break. Then I picked it up again without missing a beat – like I’d just stepped away to fetch a soda from the fridge. Probably the best writing experience of my life.Sent early mock-up copies to all the best hardboiled noir type authors I could think of – Ken Bruen, James Sallis, Megan Abbott, Sara Gran, Russel McLean, Al Guthrie and the list goes on. Everyone had kind words, and I knew I’d done something good.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
I write action and dialogue well. Those are my strengths. I am also getting better at the architecture of a novel – juggling character and narrative arcs so that one becomes the other seamlessly. Oh, and I’m usually pretty good at proof-reading my work.
Hmmm, weaknesses? Is this where I put down “too much humility”? I’m not sure it’s a weakness, but I have been trying to write a full-on thriller for several years now and so far it has been dud after dud. There is something about the architecture of the thriller that I’m not getting. Not sure what. They say a thriller is just putting two trains on a collision course – preferably one carrying a load of orphans and nuns and the other carrying a doomsday device – but I guess I’m just not working the formula right.
What crime book are you most looking forward to reading?
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran. I think she did something extraordinary with her novel Dope, and I’d love to know if she managed the feat again.
What makes you keep reading a book?
There are a variety of things that can keep me reading – compelling characters, tightly woven plot – but perhaps the one that gets the least attention is an attention to language. The individual words that get selected and the phrasing of sentences. Economy in language. I just read a couple Edgar Allan Poe stories and the man was an absolute master of this economy. You might think 19th century writers tended toward being verbose – they got paid by the word – but not Poe. He was a mean one. Read “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” and there’s not a word wasted. Everything is doing something. Perhaps harder to sustain in a novel length work, but where you find this, you treasure it.
Of course, I don’t mean that every sentence has to be clipped. Megan Abbott has a luscious prose style – long sentences, poetic passages – but never a word that didn’t need to be there. Ken Bruen may not have the same overall style – tending toward shorter sentence, sometimes the entire sentence is just a heavily weighted word – but every word earns its keep. Write this way, and I’ll read.
Ever tried your hand at screenwriting?
I have. It’s wicked difficult for me. I think it’s that I haven’t read nearly as many scripts as I have novels. Novel and short story writing seem like much better fits for me as a writer, but I think that’s practice. My first screenplay – great concept, sci-fi, space opera, but the execution needs a lot of work. I’ve done bits and pieces of other stories, but I’ve got a story in mind for a relatively quiet movie, and I’m collaborating on a Nazi mad scientist story. We’ll see where that goes.
It is a curious process – writing without getting into the character’s minds or even very much description. It stretches the writing muscles though I’m not sure how much of those skills can be brought back into the novel-world.
Do you read outside of the crime genre?
Absolutely. As an English professor, I really don’t have a choice. I could just teach the same stories, poems, and plays each semester, but that would be dull to me and I have no doubt that boredom would be picked up on by my students. I try to add new works to the syllabus each semester. Just read a short play by Terence McNally called “Andre’s Mother.” It’s not new, but I’d never heard of it before. Ten minutes on the stage, but devastating.
Not to say that non-crime is better than crime. Some of the best stories out there are about crime and punishment including, of course, Crime and Punishment. The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” they’re all crime stories.