Marc Cortez began his storytelling career in the third grade, when he entered a school writing contest and won with his story THE ANT WHO STOLE EASTER. Since then he has become a marketing writer and frequent blogger, leveraging his writing skills into success as a business executive and entrepreneur. With A GANGSTER’S GARDEN, he has turned his lifelong passion for storytelling into a full-length novel.
Mr. Cortez studied creative writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and lives in California with his wife and two children. A GANGSTER’S GARDEN is his first novel.
1. How did you come up with the title of your book?
At its core, my novel is about the consequences that result from people’s choices throughout their lives, and so in that sense A Gangster’s Garden is the perfect metaphor. Gang-leader Benicio de los Santos, the book’s main character, has to deal with the consequences of the gangster choices he’s made: he’s forced to deal with the aftermath of his family’s murder as well as his plans for revenge. Miguel Rodriguez, another of the book’s main characters, so dedicated himself to orchestrating every detail of his son’s life – even changing his son’s name from Julio Rodriguez to Julian Ross - that he’s ultimately left with nothing when his son is murdered on the very streets he fought so hard to overcome. So A Gangster’s Garden is a metaphor for the arcs in the character’s lives.
The name A Gangster’s Garden also has a literal role in the novel, but I’ll leave that for readers to discover on their own.
2. What is your writing environment like?
I love writing in crowded, noisy places, so in that sense I’m probably a very atypical writer. My favorite places are book stores and coffee shops, places that get a lot of traffic. I actually wrote a lot of A Gangster’s Garden on airplanes and at airports. But quiet, serene places begin to drive me a bit crazy. Maybe I need the noise around to force me to dig deep and concentrate.
3. What is your favorite quote? Why?
“Have you ever felt the Devil in your soul? Then you know the only power great enough to kill it is God, the Almighty. So when people doubt my resolve, I tell them that I believe in the power of forgiveness, and of God, because I have seen the Devil.”
It’s a quote from my main character Benicio de los Santos, during an interview with a reporter from The Denver Register. I like the quote because it shows who he is deep-down inside: despite his violent past, he’s still in touch with his path to God. In fact, in his own twisted world, he appreciates God even more because of the violence he’s participated in and witnessed throughout his life; God must exist, because the Devil most certainly does. It’s a turning point in the novel, because he’s decided that he wants spiritual redemption, and this quote shows that his motivation to change is believable and consistent with who he is.
4. How has your upbringing influenced your writing?
I’ve always been interested in the 4 L’s - language, loyalty, lineage, and legacy – and how those mix and interplay throughout a person’s life. I grew up in Oakland, and was exposed to gangs and the street’s dynamics from an early age. I remember watching my uncle chase a thug down an Oakland street with a baseball bat. So I was always interested in what goes on in the streets, and how it was different than the regular world. And then growing up as part of a Mexican family, there was always a language conundrum: do you speak English, assimilate, and betray your own, or do you commit to Spanish and limit your opportunities? So language as a powerful force in one’s life became an important theme for me.
When I moved to a mostly-white Denver suburb in high school, I experienced racism first-hand, and I became very protective of myself – not only of my lineage, but also of how my past would show up as I moved forward. And so the fundamental ties between my past and present and future have always been there for me, and these are themes that resonate throughout my book.
5. What inspires you to write?
I love creating characters. What’s cooler than creating people? I love finding those small details that take a character from being interesting to being full-blown, three-dimensionally fascinating. Benicio de los Santos is engaging as a street-gang leader, but becomes riveting when we see he studies the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu. He goes from being an ordinary thug to a master strategist in an instant. So it’s creating characters that inspires me the most.
6. What do you consider the most challenging part about writing a novel, or about writing in general?
The biggest challenge I faced in writing A Gangster’s Garden was making my main character a sympathetic figure instead of a stereotype. How do you get readers to care about the leader of one of Denver’s most violent Mexican gangs? I did it by painting the framework of the world that he lived in: the warped yet internally-consistent morals of his gang set, the pain and loss he feels for his slain family, the rules he’s constructed about him to give his world a sense of consistency. I try to show that he’s not a simple street thug; he’s a general, planning his enemy’s destruction out of love for his fallen family. And in his twisted world it all makes perfect sense.
7. Did you learn anything while writing this book? If so, what was it?
Invest in your characters first and they’ll drive your plot. When I first began writing A Gangster’s Garden, I had a very clear idea about the plot and the story I wanted to tell. But once I began creating the characters, a funny thing happened: the characters came to life and took over the story! So at some point the book flipped, with the characters becoming real and deciding their own arcs and the book’s plot. It was a bit schizophrenic, as there were many nights when I woke up with multiple voices thrumming in my head, but I found that the plot really came to life because the characters were the ones who took me there.
8. What have you done to promote this book?
An online book tour! One of the best things about doing it is that I’ve been able to really hone in on the book’s main themes and communicate those as succinctly as possible. Many books cross genres, and because of that might be misplaced or positioned incorrectly when it’s being marketed. I’ve found that the more interviews I do, the better I’ve been able to find my core messages.
I’ve also done a book trailer video that shows the book in image form – it’s on YouTube and my website www.gangstersgarden.com.
9. What are some of the best tools available today for writers?
The rise of ebooks and self-publishing is transforming the way books are produced and read. Print-on-Demand (POD) services like createspace.com can print and deliver your book quickly, without the need to keep inventory. Amazon can deliver your ebook instantly. And promotion sites like pumpupyourbook.com allow an author to get your name out to readers quickly and easily. So there’s never been a better time to be an author.
10. Is there anything else you would like to share?
Stay open to new characters, new genres, and new types of stories, because you never know how a story will touch you. Does a story about a botched street-gang murder sound like your type of book? Maybe, maybe not, but you might be surprised at what the storyteller might be able to help you feel. Inspiration often comes from the strangest places.