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The WD Interview: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The bestselling author of Mexican Gothic shares her approach to world-building, character development, and what she’s learned about the business of writing in this interview from the July/August 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a novelist who never likes to write the same book twice. And if you’ve read more than one of her novels, you know that’s true. Since her first novel, Signal to Noise, was published in 2015, she’s tackled inter-species vampire conflict (Certain Dark Things), ancient Mayan gods coming back to life (Gods of Jade and Shadow), con artists in a Mexican tourist town (Untamed Shore), a gothic house trapping its inhabitants (the New York Times-bestseller Mexican Gothic), and a young woman unwittingly caught between the CIA and a Mexican government-backed gang (Velvet Was the Night).

Moreno-Garcia’s work often lives at the crossroads of multiple genres, including horror, science fiction, fantasy, noir, neo-noir, coming of age, and historical fiction. It’s something she says has caused difficulties in her writing career, “…because switching genre does present challenges for marketing and selling a book. You are expected to kind of specialize in a certain niche. Even if, let’s say, you’re not doing sequels, but you’re a crime writer or you’re a romance writer, when you are moving around as much as I do, it does present the issue of audience building. Is this audience that you built going to follow you to a different genre or not?”

In her newest novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, Moreno-Garcia ventures into the historical science-fiction realm of vivisection—the biological and physical manipulation of animals into animal-human hybrids who, in this case, are capable of talking and complex thoughts. Inspired by the 1896 H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, Moreno-Garcia’s book is distinctly different. “For me, it’s just a launching point, a small idea,” says Moreno-Garcia, “and then I go someplace completely different.”

Set in 19th-century Mexico, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau follows Carlota, the doctor’s daughter, and Montgomery, a troubled newcomer hired by Doctor Moreau to help with his experiments. But where Wells’ book focuses mostly on the unsettling and (un)ethical questions of the experiments, Moreno-Garcia’s novel is clever, immersive, deeply emotional, and wildly entertaining. It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of gender, race, class, colonialism, and family—something fans of any one of her other works will recognize.

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau | Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Order a copy of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. | IndieBound | Amazon

Moreno-Garcia spoke with WD in advance of the book’s publication, beginning with the inspiration for the story.

What appealed to you about using The Island of Dr. Moreau as the starting point for your novel, and what did you know you wanted to do differently than that book?

I had toyed with the idea of doing something related to The Island of Dr. Moreau for a few years, but I hadn’t found a way to make it work. The stumbling point was the setting. It’s set on an island; I’ve never lived on an island. I just couldn’t imagine writing that kind of setting. I kept going back to not being able to picture what I might be doing. Even though I had a few ideas, not having the time and place well-defined prevented anything else from happening. So, I just jotted some notes and left it there.

Then a few years ago, I was watching a black-and-white movie that is called The Black Cat, and Bela Lugosi is in it, it’s this kind of early talkie. I remembered as I was watching it and was looking at the cinematography and the set that this was also the time period when they had filmed an adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau in black and white. I don’t know if it was the first one, but it was one of the first that I remember seeing, and [Charles] Laughton was in that one. I just remember thinking about, Oh yeah, I remember that movie in black and white and what the sets look like, and that could almost have been Mexico. And when I thought about that, because later—[Boris] Karloff who was this actor who did horror movies went to do work in Mexico in his old age—I started thinking about, OK, wait a minute. It could have been set in Mexico … how? I remembered the Yucatán peninsula as a place where they could have filmed, where it could be set. I remembered the Caste War of Yucatán. I thought, It’s perfect. It’s the place and the time to do this.

Untamed Shore and Mexican Gothic are each told from one character’s perspective. In Velvet Was the Night, you showed two characters’ perspectives going back and forth. What I really loved about Doctor Moreau was you had two perspectives, but they sort of overlapped with each other. At the end of one chapter told from one character’s perspective, the other character would make an entrance, and then the next chapter would tell how they got to that moment. How did you decide to explore the narrative in that way?

My natural impulse is to do different points of view. When I can’t do them, I find it really very difficult. Mexican Gothic required a single point of view and so did Untamed Shore because otherwise, the story that I was trying to tell could not be told in that same way. Gothics tend to be single-person narratives told from the point of view of a woman, and so in trying to evoke those neo-gothics that came back in vogue in the 1960s and works like that, I couldn’t really do the multiple point-of-view situation. I toyed with the idea of doing some letters embedded within the story, and it just wasn’t working, so I scratched that. It’s a matter of the form.

For Doctor Moreau, for reasons of explaining the way things are, I needed to have an outsider perspective and an insider perspective. Montgomery serves as that outsider perspective in part one, helping you navigate what you’re going into. Then in parts two and three, [he] serves to juxtapose the point of view of Carlota and offer a different kind of perspective than she has. It’s not that Carlota is myopic, but she sees things obviously in a different way. Montgomery being this older character, this character that is perhaps a little bit more jaded, that has seen a little bit more of the world, that comes from a different place, is looking at Doctor Moreau in a much more cynical lens and at the other people that they’re meeting in a much more cynical way than Carlota is. That was necessary because otherwise, it becomes just the narrative of an ingénue, and I thought that would be difficult to maintain. And this serves to give us that perspective.

Originally, when I was mapping this out, there was a third perspective, which was Eduardo. I ended up not going with that because it would have made it a lot longer. I was interested in him for the reason that he could show us the world outside this very small, contained setting and we could see some of the other parts of Mexico, but I ended up nixing that for several reasons. One reason was because by containing it, I thought it worked better. It worked like a world apart of the world in a certain way.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia | Writer's Digest July/Aug 2022

When you talk about “containing” the world, what is your approach to world-building in general? How much do you create in advance of the actual writing of a first draft?

It depends. I like to research as I write traditionally, so I will have done some kind of research ahead of time. But generally, there’s a point at which I say, “OK, that’s enough.” Then I go into it, and I’m still doing research while I’m working and it’s happening in tandem. That that can be good and bad. It’s good because I think it allows me to just get to it and start building the story. It can be bad because if I suddenly discover something that doesn’t really fit with what I’ve been doing, then I’m 40 percent into a book, and then it’s like, Oh, no this really is going to shift things. But for the most part, it has worked. It happens a little bit ahead of time some, and then it continues to go during the novel.

For the next thing that I’m working on, I’ve been doing a lot more research ahead of time, rather than doing it in tandem. So, I will be spending more months taking all my notes together and prepping them. Then once everything is concluded, I will begin writing and we’ll see how that works out.

One of the ways you helped set the mood or create the world for Doctor Moreau is the descriptions of the characters. All of the characters, not just the hybrids, are described in terms of their animal-like qualities, like “… he laughed and it sounded like a dog barking.” Did that come naturally as you were drafting, or did you work them in to better build the world as you were revising?

I normally like to get a sense of the characters before I start writing the book, and the characters really helped me make the book. Once I understand the voice of the characters, then I can really start writing the actual bits of dialogue and paragraphs. I like to do a lot of dialogue work with my characters. Some people like doing biographies, where they’ll ask biographical data of how tall is this person, whatever. I don’t find that useful. I don’t like doing that. I like talking it through, and as I talk it through, I end up understanding the characters.

When I say, “I talk it through,” it’s [a] weird process, but I start literally talking to the characters. I start having conversations with them. I start saying lines that I think they might say, and then replying and try[ing] to figure out how they might hold a conversation. And while I’m doing that, I’m figuring out the physicality. So, if I’m trying out a line and saying the lines and conducting this conversation with a character, I’m also doing things like moving my arm as if I was holding a cigarette or figuring out if they would be drinking a glass of something, or if they would be pacing. If they’re tall and confident or they’re small and meek, and if their voice is low or if it’s high. I do that while I’m kind of rehearsing this stuff. So, it looks almost like I’m acting except I’m not really reading any pages at that time. It’s almost like talking to an imaginary friend.

Once I have that, then I have a good sense of the voice of the characters, and I can keep fleshing them out. … I can figure out some of the other bits of how they look, how they move, and does this person remind me of a bird of prey or more like a jackal? Or are they like a dove? What kind of things are going on with them?

But it all starts with the dialogue. It all starts with the conversations. It sounds pretty insane, I know it, talking myself through that, but it really does work because I can hear it. Then it’s not just words on a piece of paper; it’s somebody that is coming alive.

You have worked in all different kinds of publishing. You’ve had self-published books, worked with a small press, worked with the Big Five. Do you see pros or cons to each of those different types of publishing?

The basic problem with self-publishing is, it’s a question of money and resources, right? You need money and resources to be a publisher. If you’re a self-publisher and you don’t have either one of those, it’s going to be really difficult to do anything that is competitive and really quite good. So, you need some kind of capital. You also need knowledge. It’s starting your own business, and starting your own business, whatever the business might be, is always a difficult and longer learning curve. And, if you’re an unknown writer, the quantity of money that you’re making is not a lot. I think some people might look at the success of [Brandon] Sanderson and think, Well, the sky is the limit. But I’ve published myself, I’ve done Kickstarters, I’ve done all those kinds of things, and the amount of income I’ve earned from that has not been anywhere near Sanderson’s situation. …

Now, some niches are more open for that, and that’s why you see romance and erotica flourishing in that sense. But for some other genres and niches, it’s going to be almost impossible. If you are a picture book author, if you want to write books for kids with illustrations, just imagine how expensive that would be. Then you have to figure out physical distribution and printing and all that. So that’s a very different situation than somebody who’s writing romantic novellas and they’re 20,000 words just distributed to the Kindle. That’s one of the things self-publishing is, it has all those pitfalls built into it. It potentially rewards obviously monetary control, but all those pitfalls.

With small press publishing, I think one of the problems is this romantic idea that small press publishers are better for you. They’re kinder, nicer, they’ll treat you like family, and when somebody says, “This is not like a workplace, it’s family,” I always remember that families can be dysfunctional. I’ve seen and met plenty of small presses that are just terrible at doing their accounting. They don’t have a budget for publicity or for covers. I had a book that came out with a ton of spelling and grammatical errors and the publisher was a small press publisher. I don’t think they had a good copy editor, and I like the novel, but the actual production of it was not very good. They don’t have money for doing this and that.

So, although small press publishers can certainly fulfill a niche and sometimes provide an avenue for works that would otherwise not make it into the world, and can also be lucrative depending on what they’re doing, you can’t forget that they’re not saints. You should not just accept that, Oh, well, it’s small publisher, so therefore they’re allowed to take all my rights. … That can happen quite often. I mean, they’re small press publishers and people think, The big ones are gonna treat me like a faceless creature. Well, the small ones can also treat you like crap. There’s no guarantees there. … You still have to look carefully at who it is, what they’re doing.

Big press publishers, theoretically, have the money. They have the resources; they have the distribution and theoretically, it’s all gravy. But that’s not true because every imprint buys a lot of books and doesn’t put money, resources, or anything behind them. So, depending on who you’re with and [how] they work, you can end up being forgotten, not taken care of. You can be shuffled between editors. I had an editor [who] left and then I was shuffled between two other editors and my book just basically disappeared off the market. …

There’s no easy and perfect solution for a writer nowadays, and that’s why I bounce around a lot, trying to find a good place for myself. I do a lot of things with a lot of different people because I can’t rely on just putting my eggs in one basket.

This is one of the things that I’ve appreciated about watching you from afar—you’re very open about the truth of the publishing industry as an industry. You help set the expectations for other authors as they come up and for readers that writing is a business endeavor, as well as an artistic one. When and why did you decide to take that approach?

I didn’t come through an MFA. I didn’t take any writing classes, anything like that. I came up through just selling short stories to science-fiction and fantasy magazines, which are the ones who paid. Literary magazines, generally, want you to pay them. So, it’s a very different scenario or a very different thought process when you come through an MFA. It’s almost like you have to get permission to get paid and you’re afraid of getting paid, or you think that you’re doing a lofty service to the world, some really big poetic thing for the world. And basically, I don’t think I’m any better than a plumber. A plumber does an important thing in the world. When my dishwasher wasn’t working, I was very grateful for the plumber [who] came and fixed it. I tell stories which people find amusing and interesting and maybe sometimes even useful too. But I don’t consider myself to be any more than that. I’m a freelancer, that’s what I am as a writer.

When you’re a freelancer like me, when this is a job that I’m doing, whether it’s a side gig or a full-time job, then I have to accept the realities of the fact that this is work. And if it’s work, if it’s not just a hobby or something that I’m not expecting to get paid for, then it has to follow the rules of work. When I’m trying to get freelance work, when I’m writing articles, I’m thinking about how many hours is this going to consume of my time. What am I going to bill these people for? I’m thinking about taxes. When I’m writing fiction, it’s not any different. It’s not any more precious because it’s fiction than because it’s an article. …

I think what happens with MFAs is that they don’t really tell you a lot about this side of the story. They want to almost hide it a little bit. But even if you’re really interested in just doing literary fiction and you don’t think that commercial fiction is for you, things like applying for grants, knowing how the local arts scene works, and [how] funding and residencies and that kind of stuff works, it’s really important if you are going to be making a living off this. Now, if you don’t want to make a living off this, if this is just something where you feel that you want to write a story once every one or two years, that’s valid and that’s fine. But if you’re doing that, then you’re having a completely different approach than a working writer. If you’re a working writer, you need to know all of these other parts of what writing is and know all the grammar, the syntax, the history of literature, all that kind of stuff.

I read the interview you did with DIY MFA, and you talked about when you were first starting out, it can be hard to accept that you’re not always ready for publication right off the bat. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about that and how writers who are just starting out can work through that challenge?

I think with anything you get better at it eventually if you do it enough times, almost anything in life, and it’s the same with writing. The idea that there’s some kind of learned genius [who] knew how to write basically off the bat, it’s probably very slim chances that that happened. And also, success off the bat is a difficult endeavor. We do see things like such-and-such 22-year-old writer got a million-dollar contract, and then you want to smash your head against the wall because they are 20 years younger than you and they just got a million-dollar contract, and you’ve been working for I don’t know how long, and you can’t even get $2,000 for your stuff! [Laughs]

But it’s important to remember that you have to have metrics of success that are not dependent on the outside world. They have to be more internal things. And by that, I mean, you can’t say, “Well, my worth as a human being is determined by the worth of my rate-per-word,” you know? If I’m worth only 2 cents per word, then I am not very valuable versus if I’m worth a dollar per word. You can’t go that way because that will be just psychologically incredibly damaging. You have to set up other kinds of goals and metrics and things that you see as kind of sticks of measurement. Things like writing a short story within a certain amount of time in the summer, for example, and maybe your rate of success will be, “I will send that out to 10 different markets and see what happens with it.” So, whether you get one response or not, it is not the thing that you are really gauging. It’s just the act of sending it out and seeing how it goes. 

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