Tom Crosshill On The Meeting Point of Personal Passion & Public Interest

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the blog is a seriously interesting person. Originally from Latvia, Tom Crosshill moved to the US as a teen and now lives wherever his adventures take him. A black belt in aikido, he has operated a nuclear reactor, worked on Wall Street, and toiled in a Japanese zinc mine, among other things. You can see why I like Tom.

Tom’s fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award (thrice), the Latvian Literature Award and the WSFA Small Press Award. He has won the Writers of the Future Award. In 2013, and was a resident at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa — where he started THE CAT KING OF HAVANA. To find out more about Tom’s fiction — and to read some of his short stories — visit his website.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

As with most of my projects, CAT KING was born at the intersection of several inspirations:

-- Being a passionate salsero, I did a dance movie marathon one day and realized most were kind of bad. Entertaining, sure, but not particularly nuanced or true to life. I was inspired to write a dance story which, while fun and fast-paced, would also make dancers go -- yes, that's what it's like! (I also wanted non-dancers to go -- now I want to learn to dance!)

-- I was a nerdy non-athletic kid and it sucked. I wanted to help others in my position develop the confidence to get out of their shell and try some physical activities. More, I wanted to help kids discover the strength and passion required to keep going even in the face of the inevitable struggles and failures and setbacks. The story of a cat video geek who gets it into his head to learn salsa seemed like just the ticket!

-- I wanted to go back to Cuba, an island that has fascinated me since my first trip there, but I couldn't afford to. I figured writing a story set in Cuba would be just as good -- and would help my readers visit too!

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I'm a big believer in structure -- in stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with particular functions and requirements for each part. Before I sit down to write a word, I need to know what challenges will be set up for the protagonist in the beginning, how these will evolve through the middle, and what resolution the protagonist will (or will not) find by the end. 

With CAT KING, I had the story of Rick Gutierrez, a cat video tycoon who becomes obsessed with salsa dancing -- and with Ana Cabrera, this smart & cute girl he meets (beginning). 

Following both obsessions takes him to his mother's native country Cuba, where he discovers that love and dance are both a lot more difficult than he ever imagined (the middle). 

Then (the end) Rick comes face to face with Voldemort and must destroy the seven. . . oops, wrong book there. I guess I won't be spoiling the ending of CAT KING after all!

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Absolutely, this happens a lot -- in fact, I believe that it should, otherwise you're not writing a living, breathing story but executing a construction blueprint. With CAT KING, I discovered a lot of layers I hadn't anticipated including in the story initially (such as the mystery of Rick's mother's past and the anti-government struggles of his cousin Yolanda). In your head, the novel is a shimmering ghost of a thing, full of promise but insubstantial. As you sweat and hack and struggle through the arduous process of dragging the story across the imagination/reality boundary line, you discover all sorts of unexpected wonders. 

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Ideas as such come to me often, but ideas I burn to write about come by only once in a while. I know other authors have dozens of ideas they'd love to write at any given time, but I don't. I'd rather go dancing or do a business deal or read a book than write about an idea I'm only moderately interested in. I'll work to put together something that electrifies me and then get to work. 

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Because of the reasons I mentioned above, this is typically not a problem for me. But generally I tend to look for the intersection of passion and public interest. Between two ideas that I'm equally excited about, I'll pick the one that I think more people will love reading about.

I recently got stitches in my arm and was taking mental notes the entire time about how I felt before, during, and after the process of being badly injured. Do you have any major life events that you chronicled mentally to mine for possible writing purposes later?

Sure -- pretty much everything, every day, from the time I broke my jaw to the time I watched Lehman Brothers go bust in real time on a trading floor, to that one time I was overcharged for a pound of chicken at the grocery store. I try to reassure acquaintances by noting that my characters are always compositions of several real life figures, seasoned liberally with imagination. Similarly, I don't lift scenes one for one but mix and match. But certainly, every mortifying conversation, every sublime experience of beauty and joy, every hilarious mistake, every medical struggle, every sweet little daily moment gets stored away for later retrieval.