Saturday, February 16, 2013

Author Interviews: RJ Mirabal

Q&A: Authors unleashed

Author RJ Mirabal loves the Middle Rio Grande Valley having lived there for most of his life. A happily retired high school teacher, he now pursues writing and music while volunteering with a motorcycle club and teachers’ organizations. RJ enjoys exploring New Mexico’s wilderness areas on his four-wheeler and traveling with his wife, Cheryl. The Tower of Il Serrohe is his debut novel.

H. Talk a little more about your background. 
RJ. I grew up in Peralta, NM, about 25 miles south of Albuquerque. I attended school in the Los Lunas School system, earned my teaching degree in English, speech, drama, and music at UNM, and then returned to Los Lunas High to teach those subjects for 39 years. My parents were a great encouragement to me and taught me anything I wanted required work and persistence. Neither had finished high school and were never prosperous, but they were determined I get a good education so my life would be better than theirs. As an only child, I developed quite an imagination to keep myself occupied. I always had cats and dogs as well as farm animals, so they became some of my closest companions. I enjoy the outdoors especially if I can be out riding. I used to ride motorcycles, but now enjoy a 4wheeler. Since I was a kid I also enjoyed music and participated in music at school which has continued to interest me. Recently, I have been learning to play the hammered dulcimer since I retired four years ago. I’m something of an organizer, so I have participated in organizations for many years.

H. Give us a quick synopsis of the story.
RJ. Strangely enough, my story takes place in the Middle Rio Grande Valley between Albuquerque and Los Lunas (which I call “Rio Luna” in the novel). My main character, Don Vargas, whose life is at low point, is kicked out of his home by his wife and ends up living in a two room Casita north of Rio Luna. He is visited by a bat who tells him of another valley, the Valle Abajo, which is very similar to the Rio Grande but has important differences including the Medieval lifestyle of the people who live there and the fact everything about the Valle is physically magnified. The mountains to the east are the size of the Himalayas, the river, called Dream River is a mile wide, and so on. However, the Valle Abajo is still New Mexico with its familiar environment, weather, etc. The people who are gathered into very unique clans are in a deadly conflict with the Soreyes. On the rim of the lava cliffs overlooking the valley, the Soreyes built a tower which has a magical power over the clans. The clans need someone who can figure out a way to overcome the Soreyes and the bat has come to persuadeDon to take on this quest. Of course he doesn’t want to have anything to do with this and would rather remain

H. Talk about your inspiration for this story. Is it something you had been thinking about for a while? RJ. Several years ago, after not having much success writing science fiction because of my limited scientific knowledge and new ideas demanded by that genre, I decided to try writing fantasy. I wanted to avoid the typical sword and sorcery tale with heavy elements of magic set in a Celtic or European kind of setting, so I decided to place my story in a New Mexico setting and focus more on the interaction of the characters and their inner selves rather than complicated magic. It was a nice little short story, but didn’t go anywhere. Later I started writing a realistic story about a loser—alcoholic, cynical, and profane—who had been kicked out by his promiscuous wife. Then I reached a dead end. At some point I got the idea to connect this character to my New Mexico fantasy and used the familiar portal concept to connect the two so the readers would understand this alternate valley is another version of New Mexico.

H. Talk about the character of Don Vargas. Is he running away from life or toward redemption?
RJ. I believe through most of the story he is definitely running away from life. He is tired of his career as a second rate instructor at a small college in Albuquerque; he and his wife have a poor relationship; he drinks too much; and he resents his abusive father who raised him alone since Don’s mother died giving birth to him. Near the end, I believe he starts to see the possibility of redemption, though he would never consciously admit it.

H. He does not appear particularly courageous in the beginning of the story. What drives him?
RJ. At first Don is not in the mood to risk anything for anybody. He doesn’t care about these clans or their problems, but since he is trying to escape life, he is more curious than brave. He thinks this talking bat and his story is the result of an alcoholic delirium. Once he gets into it, this curiosity keeps taking him to the next level until more courage is demanded. He would have been more afraid if he had believed this was reality from the beginning. Later, it was too late to back out.

H. This is obviously after Don Vargas discovers he has access to an alternate world. What made you use this as a vehicle for telling the story? RJ. The ability to pass through the Portal is unique to him and one other from his valley about a hundred years before, a curandera whose story is also related in the novel as well as two “sister” curanderas from the Valle Abajo. As King Arthur is the only one who can pull Excalibur from the stone, he is chosen to travel to an alternative existence, but he can’t imagine why someone like him can do this other than he is crazy or delirious. Later, more is revealed about why he is qualified though there are still unanswered questions at the end.

H. What was your biggest challenge in creating the alternate world? It seems like modern-day Rio Grand Valley but there are differences. RJ. I wanted to recreate the familiar New Mexico environment while adding a sense of wonder and mystery. I felt I needed to remake it on a grand scale, but not to the point it is unrecognizable. I have always admired how the writing of Tony Hillerman and Rudolfo Anaya evoked both the reality and spirit of New Mexico. My goal is to match what they accomplished while infusing the setting with the wonder of a fantasy quest. I’ll have to leave it to the readers to determine if I succeeded.

H. Is Don Vargas ultimately drawn to the quest of defeating the Soreyes by an innate desire to regain his pride, or out of a desire to win favor? RJ. He would deny to the death any desire to win favor, but as the story develops, I believe this becomes an unspoken and, probably, unacknowledged motivation. And if he was accused of trying to regain his pride, he would be in total denial. He feels he never had pride in himself so why should he start now? Again, in my mind, he’s drawn by his curiosity and the distraction the quest offers so he doesn’t have to think about his own life, problems, and failures.

H. The protagonist has been kicked out of his somewhat comfortable existence, thrust into a future drenched in unknowns, and conflicted by his uncertain past. How do these factors contribute to his truculent nature and drinking? RJ. The drinking is his great escape. He is honest about his alcoholism, but hardly interested in reforming or giving it up. He has his moments of wanting to reform, but he is not ready to start a 12 step program. Only when other people reach out to him and the challenge of the quest makes demands on him does he consider changing his life. His truculence is due to his father’s abuse, never knowing his mother, and the general sense of failure and pointlessness to his life. Only as he encounters the rather na├»ve and trusting clanspeople of the Valle Abajo, does he mellow out somewhat.

H. What is your writing routine? RJ. Once I get an idea, I jot down a few particulars I don’t want to forget, usually in the form of a story idea or an interesting quirk a character possesses. Then I just let it roll around in my head for days, weeks, even years until I get the urge to start making it real. I usually write a rough synopsis in terms of plot. I also start developing character and setting descriptions. Only as I’m writing or even after I’ve written do I explore the thematic elements and then tweak the story and characters if needed for thematic consistency. As a teacher, I would push my students to think about the implications and themes of a work of literature. But, oddly enough, as a writer I don’t give it that much thought until I’m almost done. Some of your questions have forced me to think about themes and personality traits I hadn’t explored before. Once the fun part of running the characters through the plot is done then begins revision and copy editing. I try to read it aloud as a final step before I have others look at it. I now have an editor which is godsend because she can see possibilities to rephrase some of my sentences to give it that extra polish and punch. Plus, I always need more pairs of eyes to catch those errors I can’t see because I’m too close to it.

H. What reaction have you had from people who have read the book? RJ. Most people are intrigued by Don and mostly forgive his crusty nature. They don’t seem to fault him for his language and attitude as much as I do! Also, I have been pleased about how well I’ve surprised people by unexpected developments in the story. An author’s special effects are in his words and imagery and I’m gratified people have enjoyed the world I’ve created.

H. What did you learn about yourself in the course of writing this book?
RJ. I found out I could create a believable character that shares little with me in terms of personality and motivation. Of course, there’s a little of me in every character, but Don and I are fundamentally different. I also found out I had more in my imagination than I thought possible.

H. Your book was published by a small publisher, Black Rose Writing. What was that process like? RJ. It’s been mostly good because Reagan Rothe, the person behind Black Rose, is a young man who wants to involve authors more in the process of publishing and marketing their books which is necessary for an independent publisher. I have also learned from fellow authors that large publishers are not as supportive as one might expect unless the author is a huge best seller or a celebrity. Another thing I didn’t realize was that with the smaller publishers, you have to have your own editor to be sure your writing is well polished and more readable. On the other hand, it was nice having a publisher take care of all the details of setting it up for publication and printing, posting it as an eBook, getting it listed in the catalogs, and supplying the book to bookstores.

H. What do you wish you had known when you started writing this novel?
RJ. I wish I had known how much I needed an editor. Being an English teacher, I constantly edited my students’ work. So I thought I could edit my own. And I can, but not to the level that’s necessary. I also would have liked to have known more about promoting the book, setting up a web site, etc. But I’m learning that now and I might have been discouraged if I had anticipated all the work involved before I started writing. Sometimes, if you really want something, it works better if you enter it with some blissful ignorance otherwise you lose courage and never try.

H. What advice do you have for writers?
RJ. Keep writing and keep sending things out to whoever might publish your work. Even if you never make the best seller lists, it’s a great sense of accomplishment to know you gave it your best shot. And remember, all the most successful publishers, editors, agents, and fellow writers really don’t know what will take readers by storm and what won’t. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected around 40 times before being accepted by Scholastic!

H. What are you working on now?
RJ. My small, but growing group of readers wants a sequel, so I’ve outlined the plot and have started the first few chapters. Of course, I’m concerned if it will fulfill expectations.

H. Where can the book be purchased?
RJ. My book is available from the publisher, Black Rose Writing which can be found on the Internet, along with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords as a book and in all eBook formats. Hastings and Barnes and Noble bookstores can order my books as well as most any bookstore since my book is in all the major catalogs bookstores use. I can mail a signed copy to anyone who contacts me. I can be found on my web site: where visitors can “leave a comment” which allows me to reply. My web site has complete information on my book, my upcoming events, links, etc. Also, I am on Facebook under my name, RJ Mirabal, where I post my activities and can respond to inquiries.


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Sharon Vander Meer is the author of four books. She publishes Happenstance, a bi-monthly digital magazine featuring the work of talented writers in a variety of genres. Fiction, nonfiction, memoir, essays, articles and opinion pieces will be considered. Compensation is not available at this time. The magazine is available by paid subscription. Contributing writers will be given a complimentary subscription. For more information about submitting work, contact

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