Interview with Michael Nava

Rag and Bone—the last Henry Rios novel? Say it isn’t so.

If Michael Nava’s fictional Latino attorney Henry Rios were to be assigned a literary pedigree, he might well be deemed an offspring of Joseph Hansen’s pioneering gay insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter. But what a precocious offspring. The seven-novel panorama of the life and times and trials–trials intensely personal as well as professional–of Henry Rios comprises the most distinguished and iconoclastic gay mystery series to grace the pages of American literature.

That these luminous, elegantly written novels transcend their genre and may be judged against the highest literary standards is hardly arguable. Since the inception of the Lambda Literary Awards, every Rios novel has been nominated for the award, and four have won. Each novel has been published to critical acclaim in our gay presses and in this nation’s major periodicals, and all of the Rios books have attained international publication. Even The New York Times, hardly a bastion of support for our work in years past, has conceded that “Michael Nava is one of our best.”
Beginning with The Little Death in 1986, the series has escalated in power and authenticity. Henry’s unrelenting defense of the defenseless fuels the stories, and his relationship with AIDS-infected Josh is fiercely real. Nava’s eloquent portrayal of Henry’s love for and eventual loss of Josh is at the heart of these novels and traverses one of the darkest periods of twentieth century gay life, culminating in perhaps the apogee of the series, The Death of Friends (1996). But all of the novels are breathtaking in their gifts of language and successful defiance of many conventions of mystery writing, and in their depth of characterization and bravery of theme–as in Howtown (1992), where Henry defends a pedophile accused of murder; or in The Burning Plain (1998), where denizens of our own subculture come under the spotlight of Henry’s hard-edged scorn and anger.
Michael Nava’s writing time has not been solely occupied with the Rios novels. In 1992 he co-wrote, with Robert Dawidoff, the brilliant and essential Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America. And back in 1989, he edited a collection of short stories whose title seems, in the context of this interview with him, prophetic and ironic: Finale.
If Rag and Bone is to be our farewell to Henry Rios, to the end of an era, we have much to be thankful for: these seven superb novels and an enduring literary legacy from Michael Nava no matter where his future writing endeavors may bring him.
Michael and I have known each other since the mid-eighties, when we both lived in Los Angeles. We have continued to be chroniclers of life in that City of Dreams, and I am proud to call him my friend. I talked to Michael in San Francisco, where we both now live and where he works as an attorney for the California Supreme Court…
KVF: The first question all your readers will want to ask is: why? Why is Rag and Bone the last Henry Rios novel?
MN: Rag and Bone is the last mystery I’m writing because over time the constraints imposed by the mystery form have been harder and harder to transcend without ignoring them altogether which is, of course, unfair to the reader who paid for a mystery. I’m just not interested in writing mysteries anymore; the machinery of the murder and clues, all that, increasingly gets in the way of the stories I really want to tell. By the same token, however, I learned the craft of fiction by writing mysteries, more I think than I would have learned had I started out writing so-called “literary” novels which often seem like self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical plotless bores to me. Writing mysteries taught me very quickly how to construct a plot, create vivid characterizations, and write dialogue that both illuminates character and moves the story along and all the nuts-and-bolts of telling a story that engages the reader’s attention and keeps it. Also, when I started writing fiction, mysteries seemed to me to be an especially appropriate vehicle to explore the experience of being gay in this culture because, at least in the American tradition of crime writing, the protagonist is an outsider looking in, which describes the experience of most homosexual men and women. I suppose another reason I’m giving up the series is that I have said all I have to say about that experience, for now at least. Writing about being gay doesn’t interest me much more at the moment than constructing a whodunit.
KVF: Los Angeles is a more benign place in Rag and Bone than it was in the Dante’s Inferno depicted in The Burning Plain. How meaningful/mutable/metaphoric has the LA setting been for you as a writer?
MN: Los Angeles is a mythic place, startlingly so for so a young a city. This has quite a bit to do with the fact that the movie industry has been based there for almost 90 years now. The landscape of LA, shown in tens of thousands of movies, has seeped into our collective unconsciousness so we respond to a story there with these cinematic images. It also probably contains the most diverse population of any American city or for that matter any city anywhere. It’s perhaps the largest Mexican city outside of Mexico City, the largest Korean city outside of Seoul, and on and on. Simultaneously Los Angeles is also a first world and a third world city, with brutal contrasts of wealth and poverty, and it’s a city where the crassest materialism lives side by side with the most sublime spiritual seeking. To write about Los Angeles is to write about life itself. I feel deeply connected to Los Angeles and while I don’t live there now, I think there’s a chance I may someday return. Regardless, it will always be a kind of spiritual home to me and I know I am not through writing about it.
KVF: A feature of the Rios series is that it is populated with empathetically drawn lesbian characters including Henry’s sister. Has the inclusion of lesbians been important to you?
MN: I never set out to consciously include any particular group of people in my books but they necessarily reflect the diversity of my own group of friends and acquaintances over the years. That group has always included many women, heterosexual and homosexual and some of them, like yourself, Katherine, have been people of enormous achievement. So when I create the character of a judge, for example, or a powerful politician, that character is as likely to be a woman as a man. That some of them are lesbian again simply reflects the reality of my world.
KVF: The character John in Rag and Bone represents a departure for Henry as a love interest. Why John, and where is Henry emotionally in this final book?
MN: Rios has always been a non-stereotypic homosexual man. By that I mean he doesn’t fulfill the stereotypes of either the straight world or the gay world which can be equally oppressive. John is his non-stereotypic equal and it was important to me that their sense of kinship is based as much, or more, on their shared ethnicity as a common sexual orientation. Well semi-common, I guess, since John is bisexual while Rios is a Kinsey 6.
KVF: Henry’s view of his own community, even as he’s taken on and fought for its fundamental issues, has been angrily compassionate, clear-eyed, and unsparing. As Rag and Bone comes to a close, where do you think you leave Henry as you close out the series?
MN: I don’t believe in this idea of a gay community. We have in common a sexual orientation, a political and legal agenda for equal rights, and for many of us similar experiences in the realm of sexual expressiveness, but we don’t have a common race or ethnicity, a common language, a common religion or a common history and to me those are really the markers of community. What we have is a subculture. I find the gay male subculture to be, for the most part, puerile and spiritually empty, so I steer clear of it. My distaste for the subculture is probably mirrored in Rios’s relationship to it, which I explored exhaustively in The Burning Plain. Certainly I never meant for Rios to represent all male homosexuals any more than he represents all Mexican-American men. What I set out to do was to tell the story of one man’s voyage through life. Of course, the novels make observations about being gay in this culture, since he is gay, but I’ve tried to make them in a way that doesn’t exclude people who aren’t gay from bringing their own experience of otherness – and everyone has it – to bear. What I dislike about most gay fiction is its parochialism. I hope my books are not ultimately so much about difference as about connection.
KVF: It seemed to me that in this last book, the paramount issue seemed to be family. Would you comment on that?
MN: Well, you can legitimately read it that way but my intention was not to deliver a meditation on family so much as on the way people choose, or don’t choose, to be connected to one another. In fact, I would say that just as important as the theme of family are the themes of ethnicity, class and gender and how those effect connectedness.
KVF: As one of our best writers and most eloquent voices, you are very important to us. What will be next for Michael Nava?

MN: I’ve had published eight books in fifteen years while also practicing law for all but three of those years. I have no intention of keeping up that pace anymore. When I finally do get around to writing another book, it will be on a more relaxed schedule and, frankly, I don’t particularly care whether I’m published again. I’ve never enjoyed the public part of being a writer – book signings, interviews, dealing with the machinery of the publishing industry, that sort of thing – and I plan to drop out of sight now that this series is over. The only thing that matters to me is the writing. Everything else is just noise.

In its fourteen years of publication, Lambda Book Report has published original interviews with over 100 LGBTQ writers, including Edmund White, Rita Mae Brown, Essex Hemphill, Sarah Waters, Bernard Cooper, E. Lynn Harris, Armistead Maupin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and so many others.
This archive is made possible, in part, with a regrant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council for the Arts, a state agency.