In author Joy Castro’s debut novel Hell or High Water, a writer struggling to make a name for herself at a New Orleans newspaper comes face-to-face with a number of convicted sexual offenders as she desperately seeks to uncover the truth behind a shocking series of murders that have left the residents of the area rattled.
The newly released follow-up Nearer Home picks us one year later and finds newspaper reporter Nola Céspedes at the center of new crime involving the murder of her former journalism professor at Tulane. As Nola begins to investigate, she quickly realizes that the perplexing details she’s uncovering might just put her own life and those of her closest friends and family at serious risk.
What follows below is a spoiler-free discussion about Ms. Castro’s writing process, the evolution of Nola Céspedes, and how Nearer Home differs from Hell or High Water.
Born in Miami, Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir (University of Nebraska), the literary thriller Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s), and the essay collection Island of Bones (University of Nebraska). Her work has appeared in anthologies and in journals including Seneca Review, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and The New York Times Magazine.
She teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she also serves as the associate director of the Institute for Ethnic Studies. She was a founding faculty member of the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College in Boston, where she taught for three years, and has led classes and workshops at the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, and the University of Iowa MFA in Nonfiction Program. (from the author’s website)
TE: We already know who Joy Castro is, but catch us up to speed, what has she been up to since the publication of Hell or High Water?
JC: Well, it’s only been a year! I did have another book come out in 2012, Island of Bones, a collection of memoir essays that recently won an International Latino Book Award, so that was exciting. But I’ve mostly been teaching and working on campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where my day job is being an associate professor of English and Ethnic Studies, and I’ve been helping my editor at St. Martin’s put the finishing touches on Nearer Home. I also edited the collection Family Trouble, which will be out this fall from the University of Nebraska Press, and I was recently able to spend the month of May in Mandeville and New Orleans, researching another Nola Céspedes novel.
TE: Was it difficult to decide where to begin book 2? What ultimately led to your decision to jump forward a year instead of picking up immediately after the shocking events that transpired at the conclusion of Hell or High Water?
JC: No, it wasn’t really difficult. It felt like a natural move: to let the dust settle and imagine where Nola and her various friends would be a year later. The concept of fallout is particularly interesting to me. I like to imagine the ramifications of things.
TE: How has this passage of time changed Nola both personally and professionally?
JC: Answering this question without any spoilers is a challenge! She’s more clear and at peace within herself now, and she’s confronting her demons head-on instead of denying and avoiding them. Professionally, her success as a dogged, risk-taking reporter in Hell or High Water led to the promotion she wanted at the Times-Picayune, so she works the crime beat in New Orleans now.
TE: Nearer Home is somewhat of a perplexing title for this novel. As far as Nola is concerned, what could possibly be “nearer home” to her than the events that transpired in the first book?
JC: This question made me laugh out loud. Good catch! Here’s the story behind the story. My own original title for this novel was BAD SHOOT, because one of the crimes on which it turns is an example of just that. (A ‘bad shoot’ is when a cop takes the shot and it turns out to have been unwarranted by the situation.) However, my editor wanted something softer and more appealing. We compromised on Nearer Home, which is a phrase from Robert Frost’s famous poem “Desert Places”:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
This excerpt serves as the epigraph for the book, and as you can see, it suggests a kind of psychological terror, when it’s what’s inside that scares us. As a title, “Nearer Home” gives the book a cozier feel than a gritty phrase like BAD SHOOT—so my editor was happy—but I can still convey the frisson of self-fear that fuels Nola.
TE: As far as you, the writer, are concerned, the title could poke fun at the fact that you’re hitting close to home professionally by choosing to knock off a fictional professor. How did your colleagues receive this second novel? Do they keep their distance in the halls now?
JC: This made me smile. The book is just coming out, so I don’t think many of my colleagues have read it yet. Even if they do, I don’t think they’ll associate me, the fairly quiet professor who works on departmental committees with them, with the loud, risk-taking Nola, who’s in her twenties, dresses flashily, and totes a gun. They can just assume I have a rich imaginative life.
If anything, I used the academic character in Nearer Home to critique my own weaknesses, foibles, and blindness, which is what I tend to do with characters. (Not that I’ve slept with a student, as she has! Or neglected my child, for that matter. But impatience and greed are traits we both struggle with.)
If a character in my fiction comes off badly, it’s usually because I’ve used the opportunity to hold up a microscope to my own blind spots. Illumination and understanding are the goals there. Conversely, if characters come off well, they’re usually based on people I admire. Using fiction to settle personal scores has always seemed kind of small to me—though very natural, of course. A lot of classic writers have done it: Hemingway, for example, in “Mr. and Mrs. Elliott,” which is just scathing.
TE: Nearer Home differs from Hell or High Water in that it’s purposely structured to take place over a set number of days. Why did you choose to use this particular format to tell the story? Is there any significance behind the length of time the story takes to resolve itself?
JC: Yes, I wanted to work within a more compressed time-frame with this novel. Hell or High Water unfolds across an entire month—April, 2008—while the action of Nearer Home takes place within a single week (with the denouement occurring a few days later). I’d like to say something about how ‘the nature of the crime seemed to call for a tighter frame,’ but really I just wanted to pose a challenge to myself as a writer: to work with a very different kind of pace.
I’ve sketched out the next two Nola Céspedes novels, and one takes place within 24 hours, so I seem to want to keep playing with time. Time is one of they key elements of narrative—like plot or setting or characters—but it’s subtler; people don’t notice it as much. I want to keep experimenting with it and seeing what results.
TE: The novel opens from the point of view of a murderer which is a perspective we’ve (arguably) not seen you write from before. Was this a difficult voice to find? Was this piece actually written first and did you know who the killer was when you wrote it?
JC: If I’m remembering correctly, I wrote the prologue first, and I definitely knew who the killer was when I wrote it. I compose an outline before I begin to draft (to work out any kinks in the plot and make sure the mystery will come together at the end), so I always know whodunit from the get-go.
The murderer’s prologue is mostly narrated in very close third-person, so we’re not immersed entirely in the killer’s POV—it cuts away at the end—but it was fun to do. The voice was a little tricky, yes, and it took some fine-tuning. I didn’t want it to be over-the-top, and I didn’t want to give away anything definite about the killer’s identity.
TE: Nearer Home seems to find you much more comfortable and relaxed in the role of a writer of crime fiction and as a result the plot of the book progresses at a much quicker pace. Was it difficult to strike the right balance between developing the characters, describing the setting, and advancing the investigation?
JC: Thank you. It was actually vastly easier than it was when I wrote Hell or High Water, which is the novel I wrote to learn how to write a novel. Hell or High Water took me four years of flailing around, drafting and cutting, drafting and cutting; Nearer Home took only one. So yes, I do seem to be more comfortable with it all now. I know my way around.
TE: There seem to be some subtle hints that Nola may be headed to Miami in book #3. Have you started to think about what comes next for her? What are you currently working on?
JC: I know! But when I sat down to outline books #3 and #4, there was no Miami trip in either of them! Very disappointing. Miami is where I was born and lived for part of my childhood, and Key West is where my family is from, so I had wanted a chance to work both settings into a Nola novel. But Nola seems to have enough crime to keep her busy right in New Orleans.
My work seems to flow best when I trust the characters and my own instincts, so I’ve let Miami go for the moment. We’ll see.
TE: What was the last great book you read?
JC: Funny you should ask. I’m spending this summer rereading books that have struck me as great in the past, to see if I can learn from them. One I recently finished was A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which is brilliant and intricate, a tour-de-force. One I’m rereading now is Jennifer Egan’s metafictional novel The Keep. I recommend both. I want the next Nola novels to be more layered and complicated—narratives within narratives, like matryoshka dolls—and those two books achieve that, while still being tremendously entertaining. I’m planning to reread Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which also falls into that category.
The greatest contemporary novel within the genre of detective fiction, in my view, is Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? It’s breathtaking. So intricate, so textured, so deeply felt—it tags all the bases of the genre but does everything a great literary novel does, besides. And a book outside the genre that I’ve recently loved is Reyna Grande’s 2012 The Distance Between Us, an immigration and coming-of-age memoir that is truly moving. I wish everyone could read it.
We’re giving away 3 bundles containing first edition hardback copies of both Hell or High Water and Nearer Home. Come tell us who your favorite crime writer is for a chance to win.
The two novels in Joy Castro’s Nola Céspedes series, Hell or High Water and Nearer Home are published by Thomas Dunne Books and are available wherever fine books are sold. You can learn more about Joy Castro by following her on Twitter and visiting her official website.