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Manuel Ramos may have grown up in Florence, Colo., but he has called North Denver home for nearly 40 years. A longtime lawyer and activist, Ramos has more recently made a name for himself with his noir novels, which chronicle his colorful and ever-changing neighborhood and the people who live there.
His first novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, was released in 1993 and introduced readers to Luis Montez, a burnt-out Denver attorney. Seven more novels followed, including 2013’s Desperado: A Mile High Noir, a thrilling crime tale centered on Gus Corrall, a new protagonist struggling to make ends meet in North Denver. Now the characters of Corrall and Montez are back in My Bad, a sequel to Desperado, in which the duo comes together to investigate a mysterious murder with apparent connections to Mexican drugs cartels.
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Ramos will read from My Bad and sign copies of the novel at the Colfax Tattered Cover on Thursday, November 3 at 7 p.m. We caught up with Ramos before the event to talk about the new novel, Hispanic literature, and the continuously changing face of his North Denver neighborhood.
5280: What can readers, both old and new, expect from this book?
Manuel Ramos: The two main characters, Gus Corrall and Luis Montez, have been in my previous novels. This is the second one for Gus, and I had a whole series of five books with Montez as the main guy. He showed up in my last book, Desperado, too. So I think readers can expect to see those two guys that they might have some familiarity with. For those who are not familiar, they are pretty interesting guys with their history—one being a lawyer who is about to retire and the other a guy from the North Side of Denver who grew up on the street. They both live in the same general neighborhood and have the same kind of history and background. The book is told from their alternating points of view. That was a challenge for me as a writer but once I got into it I really enjoyed it.
What is it about these characters, Gus and Luis, that holds your attention as a writer?
I was a lawyer for years until I retired recently so I had some of the background of the things Montez went through, especially when he was a young attorney and trying to do his own practice. I came up with that character early on in a short story. I had basically not written anything creatively for years, because I went to law school and became a lawyer. It wasn’t until about a dozen years later that I was feeling a little burned out, so I went back to doing creative fiction. And, you know, of all things I wrote about, a burned-out Chicano attorney I related to. And then with Corral he’s the kind of guy that I used to see in my neighborhood more often than I do now. Exploring the mystery of who he really is is part of the attraction of being a fiction writer. I can get into that personality and that character and do something with it.
It seems like most noir novels are set in big cities like Los Angeles, Boston or New York. What do you think makes Denver a good setting for a noir novel?
The easy answer is that it’s really the people in the place that turn a story into noir. People can be dark and cynical and fatalistic, and that’s the definition of noir. Denver is such a dynamic place, and because it’s changing so much, it has a particular attraction. I know there’s a traditional view of the big cities and major metropolises as being where these kinds of atmospheric stories take place, but that’s what I write, and I think I’ve done it in my books about Denver.
You used to work for Colorado Legal Services, the statewide legal aid program, as a civil attorney doing family law and dealing with consumer, housing and healthcare-related issues in low-income communities. How has your work influenced your writing?
I think all of my life experiences have influenced what I write. As a creative person, I am going to dip into my past experiences. Being a lawyer is part of that. Being a Chicano certainly is part of that. The activism I have been involved in over the years has played a part in what I have created. I’m writing my take on the noir genre, but it’s influenced by who I am and what I’ve done, what I’ve seen and where I’ve come from.
Your writing is very much focused in North Denver, which is changing profoundly. How do you address those changes in your writing?
I’ve lived in this neighborhood for almost 40 years and I’ve seen tremendous changes. I remember the neighborhood being lively and diverse with a lot of history and culture. It’s slowly changing into a more homogeneous locale. Because of the changes, and because there are new people and older people are leaving, to me that’s drama and conflict. So as a writer, and especially a crime fiction writer, I think that just makes [the neighborhood] a great background for dealing with all kinds of human problems and situations.
As a Hispanic crime writer, you’ve talked about how you feel you are doing something that otherwise is not being done. Why do you feel that way?
There just aren’t that many Latinos who write crime fiction. I was one of the few from early on, [when I wrote] my first novel back in 1993. There were a handful of us who were doing this kind of writing and I got to know them all. There are more now, and it’s no longer just the Mexican American community but other Latinos writing these stories. But it’s still a rare kind of literature, and I don’t think its what people think of necessarily when the topic of Latino literature comes up.
Tell us about La Bloga, the internet magazine you created that’s devoted to Hispanic literature and arts.
I started La Bloga with Rudy Garcia, another writer from Denver, 12 years ago. Now we have a dozen contributors from around the country. Initially it was the place where we could focus on Latino and Latina literature, so we did reviews and interviews with authors and made announcements of new books. We still do that, but over the years we now have writers who write about food and health issues, music and art. It’s become a resource. La Bloga can really bring attention to writers and artists who might get overlooked.
Do you think North Denver will continue to maintain some of the flavor that is central to your books, or do you worry that eventually the area’s cultural identity will become a thing of the past?
That’s actually a sad question because just asking it means that it’s possible. I know there are people in the neighborhood who are doing what they can to preserve [North Denver] as a neighborhood rather than just a hip place to live for awhile. I think eventually there will be a settling down of all the movement into this part of Denver, and when the dust shakes out, there will still be some remnants of the old neighborhood left. But like somebody says in my book, “There really isn’t any more North Side.” It’s not the same.