Bree Barton spoke with Tom about his debut, a contemporary YA novel just published by Harper Collins. Tom’s a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online author group for YA and MG novelists debuting this year. Bree rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
Rick Gutierrez is…the Cat King of Havana! A cat video tycoon turned salsa dancer extraordinaire, he’ll take Cuba by storm, romance the girl of his dreams, and ignite a lolcat revolution!
At least that’s the plan.
It all starts when his girlfriend dumps Rick on his sixteenth birthday. His crime? Uploading cat videos from his bedroom when he should be out experiencing the real world. Known as “The Last Catbender” online—and as “That Cat Guy” at school—Rick isn’t cool and he knows it. He realizes it’s time for a change.
Rick decides joining a salsa class is the answer…because of a girl, of course. Ana Cabrera is smart, friendly, and smooth on the dance floor. Rick might be half-Cuban, but he dances like a drunk hippo. Desperate to impress Ana, he invites her to spend the summer in Havana. The official reason: learning to dance. The hidden agenda: romance under the palm trees.
Except Cuba isn’t all sun, dance, and music. There’s a darker side to the island. As Rick and Ana meet his family and investigate the reason why his mother left Cuba decades ago, they learn that politics isn’t just something that happens to other people. And when they find romance, it’s got sharp edges.
Tom Crosshill’s smart and witty debut treads a colorful coming-of-age journey from New York City to Havana, featuring dance parties, unrequited love, and catrobatics.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom is an award-winning author, public speaker, and salsa teacher. Originally from Latvia, he moved to the United States as a teen and now lives wherever his adventures take him. A black belt in aikido, he has operated a nuclear reactor, worked on Wall Street, and toiled in a Japanese zinc mine, among other things. On a chance trip to Havana, Tom fell in love with salsa. After years of study with the world’s top dancers and several long stays in Cuba, he wrote THE CAT KING OF HAVANA. You can visit Tom and find out more about CAT KING at http://www.catotrope.com
TALKING ABOUT ‘THE KING’
THE CAT KING OF HAVANA is moving and hilarious, with a sizzling beat. It also reminds me of why #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Your cast of characters is predominantly Cuban, with your MC being a Cuban-German American and his love interest a proud New York Boricua. What was it like writing diverse characters as a white male? Did you worry about pushback?
I believe it is essential for writers to write characters of diverse perspectives and backgrounds. The world is complex and diverse, and that’s what makes it fascinating. Literature shouldn’t be anything less.
If treated superficially, this sort of reasoning can be damaging, however—which is, I believe, one of the reasons why there is often pushback to while male writers portraying characters of color. If you are including diverse characters just to “keep things interesting,” you can easily sink into exoticism and stereotyping.
If you want to write about people who are not like you—especially people who may be in a minority or disadvantaged position in their society—you have a duty to do your research and write with nuance. And if beta readers are telling you that your draft is problematic, you’d better fix it before publication—or ditch it if you can’t. Don’t go the easy route of saying “most people won’t mind” and clicking send.
In writing CAT KING, I did a lot of research and consulted with a lot of friends—Cubans, Cuban-Americans and others—to try and get it right. I made some mistakes, was called out for it by beta readers, and tried to do better. I know there will likely be some things I will have gotten wrong in the final version, but I have done my best.
How do you avoid stereotyping?
Detail, nuance, complexity—to me, these are all the opposites of stereotyping. There are many characters of different races and backgrounds in THE CAT KING OF HAVANA, and if I have done my job right they are all different. They are often also contradictory, complex individuals who cannot be reduced to a one-sentence summary.
I will not let anyone tell me who I can or cannot write (nor has anyone tried). But I will do my damnedest to be complex, nuanced and true to life in my writing, and I will accept criticism, and I will keep improving.
Incidentally, I often write stories set in the US, but I hardly ever write from a white American male POV—not because of diversity considerations, but because I don’t particularly identify with white American men. When I lived in the US, I was surrounded by friendly and welcoming Americans who certainly never excluded me—and yet I never felt like I entirely belonged (except in New York. Everyone belongs in New York).
Perhaps it was all the questions about my accent. The fact that I couldn’t get a green card even after eight years in the country and over a hundred thousand dollars in tax payments may also have contributed. But hey.
I find I identify more with outsiders, with immigrants, with people caught in between—who might be citizens of the world but don’t feel entirely at home anywhere anymore.
Rick and Ana must reconcile their beliefs (and their tourists’ curiosity) with the reality of life in modern-day Cuba. Was it tricky tackling an issue as complex as communism?
CAT KING isn’t primarily a political book. It’s the story of a cat video tycoon Rick Gutierrez and his struggles to romance a girl, learn to dance, connect with his Cuban family and become a decent young adult. That said, I was born in the USSR and grew up in post-Soviet Latvia, so I could hardly fail to tackle communism when it came to writing about Cuba.
My number one rule for writing YA—for writing anything, really—is, be honest. Don’t simplify, don’t caricature, don’t exaggerate but show things as they are. I think it is important for young adults, as for the rest of us, to come to realize that the world is a complex place and political issues are rarely as straightforward or black-and-white as ideologues would have us believe. A lack of such nuanced understanding leads to fanaticism and extremism of various stripes.
After reading your novel, I am blown away that English is not your mother tongue. You have such a deft use of slang (in English and Spanish) and your language is smooth, funny, and effortlessly nimble, creating a dialect all its own. Are you the second coming of Nabokov?
From my earliest days I was a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, but I grew up in post-Soviet Latvia where very little translated SF&F was available. So I started reading in English at a young age. Throughout my teens I would read 5-6 English-language books a week. For college I went to Reed College in Oregon, and stayed in the US for another four years afterwards to work on Wall Street.
So, although I have been back in Latvia for the past five years, really it’s not even a choice anymore—I don’t have the language skills to write literary Latvian. My whole literary formation has been in the English language.
I’m hardly unique in writing in a foreign language, though. Just among my writer friends you have Europeans Aliette de Bodard and Floris Kleijne writing science fiction in English. Among literary greats you have not just Nabokov, but Conrad, Kundera (writing in French) and quite a few others.
Your Author’s Note made me cry with its beauty and simplicity. What inspired you to include this gift to the reader?
For those who’d like to read the note, it’s included at the CAT KING website: http://catotrope.com/excerpt (scroll to the bottom)
I wrote the note during my year studying dance in Cuba—frustrated by my slow progress, exhausted physically, and struggling to keep at it day after day, after day. I found myself thinking a lot about why I have kept going at things I find difficult all these years. I realized this question was one of the core drivers behind my decision to write the book in the first place.
Favorite snack: Latvian, Cuban, and American. (Okay, I cheated: this is three questions. So sue me.)
The Latvian apple called “cukuriņš” —”little sugar”—which is the sweetest little apple you ever tasted.
From Cuba: fried thin-sliced plantain chips, without a doubt.
American: not exactly a snack, perhaps, but hearty diner-style apple pie a la mode…
Apples FTW. In your perfect world, if Fidel Castro were to read CAT KING, what would he say?
“I need to learn some salsa!”
Seriously, though, I have a lot of admiration for the Fidel who overthrew Batista—but not the Fidel who steered the Cuban regime for many decades afterwards. I wonder if deep down he acknowledges the disaster that his regime has become. I think he may be in denial too deep for any book to challenge.
For the love of god, please give us the link to your favorite lolcat video so that we may ROFLOL right now.
I’ve shared this one before, but it’s just. So. Terrifying.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER