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Author Michael Nava presents ‘The City of Palaces’

Published: October 11, 2012
Section: News

Attorney and writer Michael Nava read excerpts from two of his books Thursday afternoon in a Shiffman classroom, showcasing his upcoming novel, “The City of Palaces.”

Nava is most famous for his seven-book mystery series following the cases of gay lawyer Henry Rios.

“Henry is gay because, well, I’m gay, and that is what I know,” Nava said to an attentive audience. His first book in the Rios series, “The Little Death,” was rejected by 13 publishers before finally accepted by a small Boston publishing company. Nava, however, was never anxious or worried that his book would not sell. “I had a real job as a lawyer, so I didn’t take it too seriously,” Nava said.

“The City of Palaces,” a historical rather than a mystery novel, presents new challenges to Nava as a writer. The Rios series is written in the first person, through the eyes of adult, Henry Rios. “The City of Palaces,” on the other hand, is a third person story told through the eyes of a child. “I haven’t been a child for a very long time,” Nava said with a laugh.

He states that the most challenging element of “The City of Palaces” was imagining prepubescent sexuality and how that would be portrayed. Nava decided that he would develop it as a desire to be physically near the other person. The portion of his novel that Nava read was the main character, a nine-year old boy named Jose, realizing he was in love with an older boy named David.

Nava’s novel is written eloquently and with great style. He illustrates Jose’s realization of love through watching David play the piano. Jose notices a softness in David’s face while he plays, and notes, “he had never imagined one could love an activity as much as one could love another person.” At that moment, Jose began to understand that he not only enjoyed David’s presence but that he needed David to be around him; it was a physical desire unknown to him. Nava also interspersed Spanish words throughout the novel to remind the reader that the characters are speaking Spanish. To make his novel more realistic, he formats the English text in Spanish syntax, which is much more formal. “I’ve done this to remind readers that my characters are living in the 1990s, not in 2012,” Nava said. It was technical challenges like this that induced Nava to spend 15 years writing “The City of Palaces.”

More than a decade after “The Little Death” was published, Nava’s writing is now beginning to attract critical attention. Nava is praised for doing something new with the mystery genre: exploring the current societal issues with sexuality and ethnicity. Nava, however, is done with mystery novels. “The format [of mystery novels] is too restrictive,” Nava said.
Then he lightened up the audience with a joke, “Now I’m a historical author, moving from one grave to another.” “The City of Palaces” is Nava’s first plunge into the historical novel genre. The book is set in the last years of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship in Mexico City, right before the Mexican Revolution.

Nava also read an excerpt from the fifth book of his Rios series, “Death of Friends.” The novel begins with an earthquake that startles Rios awake. “I imagined for a moment that I could hear the earth roaring before I realized it was the beating of my heart,” Nava read in a strong, confident voice. Nava admitted that the earthquake scene came from his own experience in the 1994 Northridge earthquake that struck his home in Los Angeles. “Who the writers are, where they come from, definitely impacts what they write,” Nava said.

After both readings, Nava opened the floor for discussion. Many of the questions presented by the students dealt with Nava’s writing process. Nava admitted that writing mysteries was simple; he merely began with his ending, the “whodunit,” and worked backward until the beginning. The “City of Palaces” presented much more developmental problems that Nava had to tackle. He began with a general idea of who his main characters were and developed them into sophisticated, three-dimensional beings while writing the novel. Nava would add a secondary character whenever a scene demanded it, and the story fleshed itself out under his fingers.

The publication of “The City of Palaces” is eagerly awaited by both critics and fans of the series, including Professor Lucia Reyes de Deu (HISP), who won a copy of a book in the Rios series in a raffle at the end of the event.

The event was sponsored by Hispanic Studies with the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Romance Studies, American Studies, Creative Writing, Latin American and Latino Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, ¡AHORA! and Triskelion.