“…[M]en were restless souls chased by the past after something that couldn’t be found. He said the key to salvation was in our hearts and not in our feet.”
~ from Outerborough Blues, A Brooklyn Mystery
We are tied to our past, no matter how hard we try to pull away, until we find reconciliation — within ourselves or with others. This is true in life and in fiction. When I was younger, my moves to a new house or apartment often were inspired by an effort to separate myself from some person, place, or event. But memories of what, or who, I left behind resurfaced again and again, refusing to be ignored, until I dug deeper to understand them, and myself.
Andrew Cotto’s novel, Outerborough Blues, A Brooklyn Mystery, tells the story of Caesar Stiles, who is on his own mission to escape his past, albeit a much more complicated one than mine ever was. By setting down roots in Brooklyn, Caesar hopes he will break a family curse. But, a mysterious woman pushes him to search for her missing brother and, in turn, sets Caesar off on a journey of unexpected discoveries that eventually forces him to face what he left behind.
Brooklyn comes alive in Cotto’s novel, in the imagery and details, as Caesar and the story move in and out of neighborhoods, brushing against the lives of characters in the mix.
I’m pleased to host Andrew Cotto today to talk about his novel and about writing. Also, he’s offering an autographed copy of his book to one lucky reader, so be sure to leave your name in the comments; the winner will be chosen on Friday, June 29th.
Now, welcome Andrew!
CC: The prologue in Outerborough Blues introduces readers to Caesar and his family’s dark past. It also hints that this novel, while a mystery, is also a story of self-discovery, one that takes Caesar through the winding complexity of a city at large. What inspired you most to write this novel, your character, Caesar, or the diversity of the place where he lives?
AC: I’m always inspired by how characters have to reconcile their past and subvert their own self-image in order to achieve acceptance or transformation. The character of Caesar Stiles certainly falls into this category, both from his family history and, as a result, his own identity. I was inspired by some of the mythological characters of literature reconfigured into a noir archetype of the outsider. Caesar’s family history and transient existence helped shape a character, when immersed in a mystery, who works within these contexts.
CC: In this article on The Good Men Project, you say how much you love storytelling for “the images and language and devices that make the narrative art form so compelling.” Outerborough Blues, set in Brooklyn, is filled with vivid and intimate images of the urban landscape. Were you born and raised in Brooklyn, or what did you do to familiarize yourself so well with the setting?
AC: I grew up in numerous places around America. I’ve always been inspired by urban settings, and I’ve been particularly inspired by the people, cultures, architecture, and general atmosphere of Brooklyn since moving here in 1997. One of the reasons so much Brooklyn ambiance is on display in the novel is that the imagery, as described by Caesar, is a way to reveal his character. This is not a narrator who favors emotional exposition, so I tried to use his descriptive prowess to reveal his nature and aesthetic. This was also done through his cooking.
CC: You write nonfiction (for the The Good Men Project and for the New York Times) as well as fiction, and common themes, like relationships and a strong sense of place, run through both genres of your work. How is writing fiction similar, or different, for you from writing nonfiction?
AC: In both genres I’m trying to tell a story, and those themes you mention (along with a few others) tend to find their way into my narratives, in both fiction and non-fiction. The biggest difference to me is just the scope of the story, and, of course, the component of imagination in fiction. In both cases, though, I’m always trying to create something insightful and descriptive and reflective of our times.
CC: What are you reading these days?
AC: I just got done teaching a literature class where the novels were all pre-selected by the department chair, which dominated most of my reading time for the past three months, so I’m pretty excited to have the summer to choose my own books. I’ve started with the two widely-acclaimed novels of my fellow writers published this year by Ig Publishing. Both Ghosting by Kirby Gann (reviewed recently by the New York Times Book Review) and Jonah Man by Chris Narozny have met the high expectations. I have a “Beat Generation” class to teach in the fall, so I’ll probably spend the rest of the summer preparing for that by reading On the Road, Howl, and some maybe some lesser known “Beat” titles. I’ll also delve into some James Lee Burke and re-read Mystic River.
CC: What piece of advice do you share often with other writers?
AC: Figure out how to self-promote. Almost every writer these days is obliged, if they want to succeed, to connect with their audience. I know a lot of writers, by their introverted natures, don’t dig this idea, but it’s part of the job description these days for any of us who are not household names. There’s ways to do this that are not as painful and time consuming as they seem, and I strongly suggest getting started sooner as opposed to later with having a routine of social media promotion alongside that routine of writing.
Andrew Cotto is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of two novels: The Domino Effect is a coming-of-age story about a kid from Queens with a damaged past and a complicated present at a boarding school in rural New Jersey; Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery is an unconventional noir about a drifter seeking a missing person and a remedy to his family’s curse in the dawn of urban gentrification. Andrew’s articles have appeared in many national journals, including the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Salon, the Good Men Project and Teachers & Writers Magazine.