This week, TheLatinoAuthor.com is featuring author Victor Cass. Mr. Cass has spent a great part of his life as a Police Officer and has used this platform to capture ideas for a couple of his books. This is an insightful look into the author’s background. Read the interview and see what compelled Mr. Cass to become a successful author and check out his latest book that will be coming out shortly.
Victor please tell our readers a little bit about your background such as where you grew up, where you currently reside, or if you have another profession other than being a writer?
Hi Corina, thank you very much for the opportunity to be a guest on The Latino Author. I was born in Kingsville, Texas, interestingly enough in the same hospital my mother was born in. I come from a multi-generational Hispanic-American family with a diverse ethnic ancestry comprised primarily of Spanish, Native-American, and Irish-Scotch background. One of the reasons my family ended up in Texas was that a Great-Great-Great Grandfather from New York, serving in General Zachary Taylor’s Army, brought back a Mexican war bride during the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48, and they settled in south Texas. My parents met in college at Texas A&I University, and when I was one, they moved to Pasadena, CA, where I was raised and currently reside.
I grew up in Pasadena’s traditional Armenian neighborhood, East Washington Village, and attended John Muir High School. I received my BFA from Art Center College of Design, also in Pasadena, and worked as an advertising art director in New York City before moving back to Pasadena, where I switched careers and joined the police department. I’m currently a 23-year-veteran Police Officer/Field Training Officer (FTO) at the Pasadena PD, and am involved in mental health nonprofit work, being the current President of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) San Gabriel Valley affiliate.
I see that your Bachelors obtained was in the fine arts field and you worked as an Art Director for a bit. Then you switched careers and currently work as a Police Officer. Why the big switch in careers and what triggered this change?
Great question. I come from a family of folks dedicated to helping/teaching others: my parents are both educators, my sister’s a university professor, I’m an Eagle Scout from Pasadena’s historic Troop 4, so there’s definitely that “do-gooder”-give-back-to-society element to our family narrative. While being an art director in advertising, especially during that time period in New York was fun and exciting–I loved the parties, business trips, and photo shoots–my heart was not into the work very much. I was young, with many interests and distractions, living far from home for the first time, and was heavily influenced by the New York PD. I remember I would read about them and think to myself: “That’s what I should be doing, helping people and catching bad guys,” and actually, I had signed up to take the NYPD exam, but later decided that I would rather be a cop in my hometown. I moved back to Pasadena, and the rest is history.
You first book was a nonfiction titled Pasadena Police Department: A Photohistory, 1877-2000. Did your career in the police department instill your insight into a writing career, or was this always a goal for you?
I had been a writer most of my life, even when a kid. I took creative writing in college and started getting my work published shortly afterward. In fact, my first published piece ever was an editorial for the Pasadena Star-News shortly after I graduated from college. I would go on to write a lot of opinion/editorial pieces for the Pasadena Star-News, Pasadena Weekly, Arroyo Monthly Magazine, and other local publications.
I can say that my career as a police officer certainly inspired many of the stories that I started formulating in my head at the time, which would go into my first novel. Also, in 1999, I received my MA in Military Studies-Land Warfare, from American Military University. This was more of a history degree, which coupled with my research experience and writing ability, led my then-Chief Bernard K. Melekian to tap me to write the first scholarly history of the police department, which was released in 2000.
After your first book, you switched to writing the novel titled Love, Death, and Other War Stories. Why did you switch from fiction to nonfiction and of the two, which do you prefer?
Fiction was always my first love. The ideas for my books usually develop inside me for several years before I sit down to put them to paper. Love, Death, and Other War Stories was to be my “police”/mystery novel, of which I had a lot of source material for. I think I still have a few nonfiction books in me, and I definitely want to tackle a biography and a memoir at some point.
Can you differentiate for our readers the methods you used for each of these books and which was more involved regarding research, structure, etc.?
My first book you referenced, Pasadena Police Department: A Photohistory, 1877-2000, being nonfiction, required a lot of exhaustive research into police, City of Pasadena, and Pasadena Historical Museum records, archives, and photographs. As a historian, I had to amass a wide collection of original sources–“first-hand accounts”–reports, diaries, memoirs, etc., as well as interview numerous Pasadena PD veterans from as far back as the 1940s. I also gathered a wide array of scholarly secondary sources, including books, articles, newspaper clippings, etc. It took almost two years to gather and put together the source material for a book that took about six months straight of writing. The book was chapter end-noted, with a definitive bibliography, and several appendices, including an all-time list of sworn police personal (in order of seniority) dating back to the late 1800s (talk about meticulous research!), and chronological Chief of Police listing.
Love, Death, and Other War Stories took 7 years (on and off) to write, so there was a lot of thinking, and re-working plot and story elements. I probably put it down for a whole year during that time, without touching it, and then I would go back to it with a fresh outlook, maybe some different perspectives on the characters, etc. Not much research went into that book other than compiling and confirming facts about my city, and descriptions of certain neighborhoods, buildings, etc., which I had easy access to. Being a police officer also gave me intimate knowledge and access to police/detective procedure that many writers don’t often get, which was crucial to the “immersion in the culture” that I wanted the readers to feel.
My second novel, Telenovela, only took a year to write (it’s a short novel), but the research involved me learning a lot about both Mexican and Argentinean culture. I did not grow up in a traditional Latin household (despite my Hispanic roots!), being a fifth generation American, so I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, had never heard of a quinceanera until I was an adult, and would hardly have known how to depict scenes from a Telenovela. However, I traveled to Mexico and Argentina, learned a lot about Mexican culture from a girlfriend I had, and had two Argentinean women teach me a lot about their culture as well. It was really a journey of discovery for me, and gave me a profound love and respect for Latin traditions and culture.
My new book, Black Widow Bitches (“BWB”), is probably my most complex, being an epic war novel spanning several continents over a two-year span. I had to do a ton of research, interviewing numerous war veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, all the way to the Iraq and Afghanistan Campaigns in the current Global War On Terrorism. I leaned heavily on my military history background, and had to tackle the challenge of combining actual historical events, figures, etc., with a fictional story line. This book took four years to write, and involved me utilizing the internet as I had never done before, especially Google Earth, YouTube, and Wikipedia.
In this writing profession, what do you see as one of the biggest obstacles? Is it the actual writing, getting your book published, or marketing it? Can you elaborate on these three items?
I would say that the greatest obstacle with anyone wishing to enter the writing profession (or even for those of us already involved in it) is actually writing that first, second, or third book. Everyone probably at one time or another has said: “I’m gonna write a book,” but consider the percentage of those who actually do. So, yes, I would say #1 is the actual writing. Without a finished product, there’s not even going to be the publishing or marketing steps. But I would add that getting one’s completed manuscript published is probably right up there at #2 in terms of biggest obstacles.
When you begin your books, do you have an end in mind? Do you use an outline or do you prefer to write your thoughts and story as it comes to you?
I always have the whole book already “written” in my head before I even write one word. And I definitely do begin with the end in mind. It helps keep me focused on the arc of the plot and the pacing, as well as gives me scene “benchmarks” that lets me know my progress. I do not use outlines, I just write. However, I do keep an open mind to new plot twists and story detours as I write.
In “BWB” for instance, there were a couple of scenes/plot elements that were originally going to be in the book, that I had planned out for years. Once of which was going to be a part of the story where the women from Bayonet Company are on leave, and attend a formal dance with male British soldiers while still in theater in the Balkans. It was to be an interesting scene with the usual cultural differences, some sexism, tension, etc., and then I cut that part out in the end. I didn’t feel it would move the story along. Another part of the book I kept but changed. Captain Venable, a female African-American tank commander, was originally going to be a part of an armored group assigned to the “Black Widows” division, but I changed it, and made her part of a ground force spearhead meant to relieve them.
What is the one solid advice you can give our readers who are just starting out in a writing career?
It’s going to sound cliché, but READ, READ, READ! I’m an avid reader of both nonfiction, fiction and the CLASSICS. There’s a reason they’re called classics–they’re the BEST books ever. “Great Expectations” is probably the greatest novel ever written; I’m still in love with Shirley Jackson’s work, and I get chills just thinking about cracking open my H.P. Lovecraft compilation. A writer has to have a firm literary foundation, they have to know what’s been done, how it was done, and what’s out there. Whenever I get writer’s block, I read the opening paragraphs of The Red Badge of Courage, The Big Sleep, or Moby Dick (three of the BEST!)–snaps me out of it every time!
In your third book, Telenovela, you write a novel that encompasses women and their world. How tricky was this to write coming from a male standpoint? Do you find writing female characters for your novels, tricky, complex, difficult, or fairly easy?
Well, I am half woman on my mom’s side…I’m a lover of women, both in the literal and figurative sense. I have a wonderful mother–she’s a saint and mentor, had a super close relationship with my sister, and have a loving and rewarding relationship with my teenage daughter. I have been blessed to know hundreds of great women, teachers, mentors, bosses, close friends and dating partners. So for me, I feel very comfortable writing female characters, and enjoy stepping into their world, immersing myself into their feelings, fears, hopes, joys, and struggles. “BWB” is the culmination of my writing efforts at depicting women, as it is a novel with mostly women characters, a lot of them, and in diverse and challenging situations, it being a book about women at war.
What writer would you like to meet, whether dead or alive, and why?
I would love to meet Philip Roth. He’s probably my favorite writer alive today, and one of the most honored in history. He’s the Jewish John Updike (another favorite of mine) only for New Jersey instead of New England, and his writing is so visceral, in your face, and hauntingly heartfelt. I cried when I read one little passage from Indignation, and The Human Stain will challenge your belief systems and stay with you for a long time.
As a writer, what is it that you would like to be remembered for? Do you believe that your writing thus far has carried your message through?
I hope so. I want to be remembered as that writer that immersed you in the culture of the police, or of what it’s like for an American citizen-soldier to go to war. My novels each have a universal theme, themes that are very personal for me: the impact you have on someone’s life, the power of friendship, acceptance and redemption, and so forth. I don’t know…Don’t we all want to be remembered as the greatest writer that ever lived? Haha!
I understand that you have a new book coming out soon. Can you give us a little insight into this new book and when can we expect to see it rolled out to the masses?
My new novel, Black Widow Bitches, is about the first all-female combat infantry division. It’s a war book, about the current war, only a few years in the future, and let’s just say that things have gotten worse. How worse? Well, that the military finally agrees to let women serve in front line infantry combat. It’s gritty, action-packed, shocking, and has more combat in it than any war novel I’ve read or come across. And it’s about WOMEN!
I think it’s very timely, with the current national debate about whether women belong in combat, or not. The Army is kind of saying “yes,” with the recent graduation of the first women from their elite Ranger School; the Marines are saying “no,” the physical rigors of combat are too tough, physically and mentally for women. My novel challenges these perceptions, and shows the reader what it’s like for an American citizen, from the moment they sign up and have to break the news to their family, to getting shipped off to Basic Combat Training, being broken down and built back up into a cohesive fighting force, and getting sent overseas and thrust into their baptism by fire–except again, it’s with women. I think it’s also noteworthy that this book has not only strong female characters, leaders and generals even, but mostly minority LEAD characters–unheard of in mainstream fiction. Black Widow Bitches is scheduled for release in late October 2015, and you can expect to see it after that. Enjoy!