SARAH CORTEZ – Award-Winning Author and Law Enforcement Veteran

ATSNStop the ThreatChuck Thompson

Sarah’s latest crime fiction thriller is The Carlucci Betrayal.

Here is a glimpse into Sarah’s award-winning career:

Sarah Cortez, a Councilor of the Texas Institute of Letters, Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has poems, essays, book reviews, and short stories anthologized and published in journals, such as Texas Monthly, Rattle, The Sun, Pennsylvania English, Texas Review, Louisiana Literature, The Midwest Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature. Winner of the PEN Texas Literary Award, her debut poetry collection is How to Undress a Cop. Her books have placed as finalists in many contests, such as the Writers’ League of Texas Awards, Los Angeles Book Festival Awards, and the PEN Southwest Poetry Awards Latino Book Awards, Border Region Librarians Association Award, Press Women of Texas Editing Award. She has been both a Houston and Texas finalist for poet laureate; she is a law enforcement veteran of 28 years. Her memoir entitled Tired, Hungry, Standing in One Spot for Twelve Hours: Essential Cop Essays brings the reader into the patrol car as it reveals America’s most dangerous profession.

The Carlucci Betrayal takes readers deep into the Mississippi Delta during Prohibition to witness the founding of a criminal empire, and not since The Godfather has a Mafia family captivated readers the way the Carlucci brothers do in Robert Wilkins’ and Sarah Cortez’s rollicking novel of love, lust, and naked ambition.

Michael Bracken  – Anthony Award-nominated editor of The Eyes of Texas

 Genres in Which I Write: I write in more than one genre, and I love seeing how the interaction of skill and intention translates and doesn’t translate across genres.

I began as a literary fiction writer, then to poetry, then to memoir. At this point, I think I’ve been published in almost all popular and literary genres and subgenres. I love all kinds of writing and edit all genres.

Writing Process: In terms of my writing process, I don’t have much leeway to choose a particular set of locations or circumstances to write. As a full-time professional writer/editor, I write when and where I can. I always seem to have deadlines breathing down my neck, whether for writing or editing. I am also an editor for a large international Catholic online journal of the arts. Those deadlines keep me very busy. www.catholicartstoday

First Publication: My first book came out within less than three years of beginning to write poetry. I now have 14 books—all traditionally published. For quite a few years, I had one or two books published per year. I have been very fortunate to work with publishers who really believed in my book projects.

Characters: In the popular genre of crime fiction, there are usually two strong-willed characters: the criminal and the sleuth. They must be fairly evenly matched in order to have a drawn-out conflict that is sufficiently interesting for a reader to read the entire novel.

The process of creating a 3-D character, particularly a main character is involved and mysterious. Tomes have been written about it. Curiously enough, it is the one critically important step that most fiction writers, particularly beginning fiction writers, don’t spend enough time doing. All the hours of research, imagining, taking notes, thinking through personality and choices, and personal history of the character pay off. Yet, most fiction writers either skip this step or do it quickly—a fatal mistake to both plot and the possibility of writing a book that readers enjoy.

Writing Characters of the Opposite Sex: Due to police work and my corporate career before policing, most of my life has been spent working with men. I do not find it a particular challenge to write from a male’s POV. In fact, most of my literary and popular fiction is written in a male’s POV.

Do You Base Characters on Real People? As a freelance editor who has been privileged to work with many writers, I think that basing a fictional character on a real person is an absolute no-no. Fiction that does this results in erratic character motivation and is often boring. Characters must be free to act according to the psychological and emotional dimensions based on the imagined history and personality that the writer has given them. So, you can see from this line of thought that I never base my characters on real people and certainly never on myself.

How To Raise the Stakes for Characters? Especially in popular fiction, but also to a lesser degree in literary fiction, the author’s “job” is to apply stress on the main character. These stresses of circumstance create conflict, and conflict creates plot. The way the stress is applied to each character will be different since each character has a different personality and history.

Does a Protagonist Ever Disappoint You? As an author, I am not thinking about my reactions to characters in a book. I am always thinking, however, about what the scene needs to be of interest to a reader. Sometimes a protagonist needs to fail, whether that failure is of his choice or imposed on him. If the writer is writing a protagonist that changes throughout the book, the protagonist will make mistakes. Some characters, like James Bond, do not change over the course of a book. But even this type of character does experience failure of action and choices.

vintage Italian mafia gangster in 1930 in New York

What Kind of Research Do You Do? I research what I need to research. Sometimes that involves an entire era with its cultural artifacts of music, dance, clothes, attitudes, disasters, politics, etc. Sometimes research is very specifically related to a particular scene. For instance, in The Carlucci Betrayal, I had to find out how a young male below the age of military service would get to Europe in 1938 to volunteer to fight against Hitler. Since 1938 was before the U.S. declared war, I had to see which avenues were open to this young man. This only affected a couple of sentences in a phone conversation between two main characters, but it had to be historically accurate.

Also, for The Carlucci Betrayal, I had to research Mississippi law regarding homicide and manslaughter in the late 1920s for a courtroom scene and for the lawyer’s arguments to be accurately based on the law.

A Writer You Admire: I greatly admire Megan Abbott, a wonderful noir writer. She successfully combines what’s best about crime fiction with exquisitely styled prose. She is so successful because so few writers write with her precision and energy in such gorgeous prose. My favorite title of hers is Bury Me Deep.

Advice for New Writers: I’ll pass along some wise advice from a professional saxophone musician: don’t choose anything but your horn. In other words, writing demands a serious commitment to practice and learning. When the others meet their friends to go bowling or drink at the bars, you must be reading, learning, revising, drafting, studying, etc. If you’re going to be a good (highly skilled) writer, then writing isn’t a hobby. It is your job.

Anything Else You’d Like to Mention: Getting to work on The Carlucci Betrayal was tremendously hard work and also tremendous fun! I’ve always wanted to write Mafia-era fiction. This gave me an opportunity to research plus create three-dimensional characters that acted according to a different era’s pressures in a society that was both more constricted and more free-wheeling than today’s.

I also relished my research into Mafia fashion. Not only for the men but for the women. Holsters, spare magazines, stilettos, razors, cigarette lighters, etc. Types and calibers of guns. Several PWSA members helped me out with these questions. For me, becoming conversant with places of concealment, fashions for men and women, mobsters on different coasts, and what they wore—fascinating! It was a delicious peek into the psychology and practicality of why the mobsters and their ladies wore what they wore.

Readers can contact me at: cortez.sarah@gmail.com or at carluccibetrayal@gmail.com

Our website,  carluccibetrayal.com – Search Results | Facebook, also has a “Contact Me” button.

Phone: 713-331-9342

I am available for virtual book readings and presentations on Mafia Fashion.

Follow us on Facebook at   The Carlucci Betrayal | Facebook

 

 

17 Comments

  1. Joseph Bryce HAGGERTY Sr

    Sarah, great post, your Advice to New Writers should be the Pre-amble to any book about writing. I am totally intrigued with The Carlucci’s Betrayal and will add it to my reading list.

    Reply
  2. Madeline Gornell

    Sorry I’m late to the party, Sarah, but what an interesting post. Very impressed by your accomplishments and inspired! Especially awed by your writing in so many genres. Continued success!

    Reply
  3. Ana Manwaring

    What concept–Mafia Fashion! Thanks so much for your interview. Thank you too, George!

    Reply
  4. sarah cortez

    Thank you, John Bluck, for your positive comment. I appreciate it!
    Sarah

    Reply
  5. sarah cortez

    Hello, Michael,
    It is good to remember how you gentlemen (and ladies) of the listserve helped me with research.

    We all need to stay strong . . . you are so right.
    Bless you,
    Sarah

    Reply
  6. sarah cortez

    Oh, Holli,
    I’ve thought of you during the years since Gabe and I attended you and your husband’s opening in NOLA. Email me sometime and let me know how and what you’re doing these days!!

    Reply
  7. sarah cortez

    Oh, Marilyn,
    It always makes me happy to see your name! I have an entire “Marilyn Meredith” section in my bookcases.

    I hope to make it to another conference soon.

    Reply
  8. sarah cortez

    Thank you, John, for your comment. You’ve always been so great to me.
    Sarah

    Reply
  9. Lynn Hesse

    I found another author’s work with law enforcement experience I want to read. Thanks, Lynn

    Reply
  10. John Schembra

    Great post Sarah. Interesting to
    Learn other author’s writing process, and how they plan/organize their characters and plots. Best of luck with your new book!

    Reply
  11. Darlene Record

    Congratulations on your new book. Just purchased it and look forward to reading it. Really enjoy your work.
    Thanks for your helpful advice on writing.
    Darlene Record

    Reply
  12. John G. Bluck

    I like your comments about building strong characters. I look forward to reading your books!

    Reply
  13. Marilyn Meredith

    Great post, Sarah, with so many valuable tips. I was so glad to see at the recent PSWA conference and catch up with you some. Hope you’ll come again soon.

    Reply
  14. Holli Castillo

    Sarah, loved learning about your writing process. I find it more difficult to write from the male perspective so I envy your ability to do it so easily. I also find the idea of mafia fashion fascinating. Your thorough research is evident in your work as it always rings authentic.

    Reply
  15. Michael A. Black

    Hi, Sarah. Great advice about writing and the dedication to learning one’s craft. I loved the saxophone allusion. Your new one sounds interesting. I’ll have to check it out. I remember when you were researching the holsters and such. Good luck and stay strong.

    Reply

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Ursula Pike – Karuk – Author – Peace Corps Volunteer

Ursula Pike’s debut book is An Indian among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir

At the age of 25, I stepped off a plane in Bolivia to begin two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I assumed that connections with the people of South America’s most indigenous country would be easy because I’m Native. The truth was much more complicated. This is my debut book.

Deborah Miranda (Ohlone /Costanoan-Esselen) author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, said this about the book, “The Indigenous peoples Pike lived and worked with speak loudly from these pages, challenging many of us to check privileges we didn’t know we had, demanding the right to be complex, strong, and human. This book is all heart, all vulnerability, as a young California Indian woman makes family far from home.”

Do you write in more than one genre? Creative Nonfiction is my favorite genre to write in, and by that, I mean memoir and essays. However, I have a few short stories I’ve written. I have a story about a Native Elvis impersonator who dances in powwows in his Elvis regalia.

What brought you to writing? Writing has always been my strategy for dealing with life. Writing in a journal is a mindfulness exercise. I never knew that when I started, but that’s exactly what it is. Writing requires me to focus on the moment I’m in. All the brutally honest writing I filled my journals with helped me develop a clear voice on the page. I learned to write for myself and never thought I’d show my writing to anyone else. An online writing class at Austin Community College helped me have the courage to share my writing with others.

Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? A library is the absolute best place to write. During the pandemic, I’ve really missed libraries. Not only are they usually bright and quiet with comfortable chairs, but I am also surrounded by books. There is nothing as inspiring as looking up from my writing to see a book that looks terrible and think, “If that book was published, maybe mine has a chance.”

Tell us about your writing process: There are times when I feel inspired to write, or an essay idea pops into my head, but, honestly, deadlines are the thing that makes me actually sit down and write. In Austin, I used to read at a monthly open mike event, and the pressure to produce something good to read terrified me. I was always motivated to get a good five-minute piece ready by the deadline.

What is the most challenging part of your writing process? The very first revision is incredibly challenging. I am comfortable with churning out the crappy first draft. But turning that imperfect lump into a chapter or essay that I might want to show someone else is daunting. My computer is littered with first drafts that I never went back to because I wasn’t sure what to do with them.

Who’s currently your favorite author? Right now I’m reading Toni Jensen’s Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land and loving it. It is beautiful, honest, and humorous in a sly way that makes me want to read it slowly to enjoy the stories.

Do you travel and visit the settings used in your work? My book is set in Bolivia during the two years I lived there in the late 1990s. But I did travel back to Bolivia in 2018 while I was writing the book. Bolivia is a stunningly beautiful country, and the trip helped me beef up the descriptions of the landscape and the people. During my return, I also paid attention to how Bolivians speak and revised some of the dialogue in an attempt to more accurately reflect conversations.

How long to get it published? I queried agents for over a year with no luck. Then Heyday Books, a small publisher in Berkeley, California, began accepting submissions after being closed for a while. They liked the book outline I sent and asked for the full manuscript. A few months later, they made an offer to publish the book. In total, I spent about 18 months trying to get the book published before finding Heyday. Then I spent another year and a half working closely with two editors revising the book.

How do you come up with character names? Naming the people in my book was a difficult issue for me because it is a true story. But I didn’t want anyone else who is part of the story to be easily identifiable. For this reason, I changed everyone’s name except my own. I even changed the name of the town. Bolivian newspapers were a great resource for finding realistic names because they are full of quotes by people listing their names.

Do you have subplots? The revision process helped me with the subplots. The editors I worked with pointed out ways that I could strengthen the subplots. For example, there’s a subplot about an important friendship I had with a volunteer from El Paso. In earlier drafts, the description of the friendship was primarily in one or two later chapters. My editors suggested I add scenes earlier in the book to develop those subplots more. They also helped me discover a few subplots that needed to be cut out entirely.

What kind of research do you do? People might think that writing memoirs doesn’t require any research because the author is writing about their life. And it is true that the eight blank journals I filled with my recollections while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia were the first source of information for the book. But, in my case and that of most memoir writers I know, research was a critical part of the writing process. I read books and academic articles about Bolivia, the Peace Corps, and even about my own tribe, the Karuk. Not all of this research ended up in the book. Still, it helped me better understand the historical context I was writing about.

Looking in the future, what’s in store for you? An Indian among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir came out on April 6th, and I’ll be promoting that during the spring and summer. After that I will be finishing my next book, which details the years after the Peace Corps when I lived in Eastern Mississippi, broke and pregnant, teaching English at a chicken processing plant. The working title for that book is House, Mississippi, although my teenage daughter thinks I should call it Radioactive Chicken Baby.

Order Book: An Indian among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir

How do readers contact you?https://ursulapike.com/

Twitter: @urs_pike

IG: @ursulapike_in_austin

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Michael A. Black

    I’ve known a few people who served in the Peace Corps. I salute you for your dedication and courage in helping to make this world a better place. Good luck with your writing.

    Reply

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