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Interview With an Author: Alex Segura

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Alex Segura and his latest novel, Secret Identity
Author Alex Segura and his latest novel, Secret Identity. Photo credit: Robert Kidd

Alex Segura is the author of Star Wars Poe Dameron: Free Fall and the acclaimed Pete Fernandez Mystery series. He has also written a number of comic books, most notably the superhero noir The Black Ghost, the YA music series The Archies, and the “Archie Meets” collection of crossovers. A Miami native, he lives in New York City with his wife and children. His latest novel is Secret Identity and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Secret Identity?

It was a few different things—I love comics and mystery novels, and both seemed like separate parts of my life until I realized I could write this book. I’ve always admired how someone like Megan Abbott takes the elements of noir and sprinkles them over worlds or industries that you wouldn’t expect, like cheerleading or science or dance. I wanted to try and do that with comics, but I wanted to showcase a time when comics weren’t the pop culture phenomenon they are today, and to actually show the comics being created. That part of it came from when I’d read Kavalier and Clay, a book I absolutely adore, that really delves into the Golden Age of comics. I finished that book and really wanted to experience those Escapist stories. And while those eventually came out as another, additional publication, I wanted to try my hand at blending both mediums to create something that showed them in conversation with each other.

Are Carmen, Harvey, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

No, it’s never one for one. Even in my more traditional crime novels, I always draw inspiration from the real world—but it all has to go through the filter of my mind, and often involves amalgamation and tweaking to make the characters feel new. If they evoke people, that’s great, but it’s never a singular adaptation.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

No, I’m happy with the final product. My editor, Zack Wagman, was such a great guide and resource throughout the process, and he helped me really hone down the idea and make it sing. I had some sequences, for example, that involved stories and news items from the era and beyond, but it felt clunky when you also have interludes with comics - and it took the focus away from Carmen. So I really appreciate him nudging me away from it. I’m very proud of the book as it is.

Marvel or DC (or do you have another favorite)?

I love them both!

Do you have a favorite superhero?

That’s a tough one. Probably Spider-Man and Batman. I love them both for different reasons, but as a kid, Peter Parker felt very relatable, so he was the guy we all were, while Batman was this perfect, idealized guy we probably could never be.

Do you have a favorite comic book pastiche, television or motion picture adaptation/interpretation? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

I’m really fond of the first Batman movie, which I thought evoked the spirit of the character while still being its own, weird thing. I also find myself going back to movies like The Rocketeer and Dick Tracy a lot as I get older. Films that just celebrate the medium and aren’t afraid to lean into the colors and styles of comics. In terms of more modern fare, I loved WandaVision and really enjoyed the Daredevil Netflix show. Hawkeye was also a lot of fun!

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Superspeed. No doubt.

What drew you to set Secret Identity in 1975 (as opposed to other possibilities)?

The 70s were an odd time for comics—the industry was in a bit of a tailspin, and was nowhere near the popularity of today. I wanted to show a comic book industry in stark contrast to the world we know today.

How familiar were you with the comic book business in the mid-1970s? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Secret Identity?

I love comics as a reader but I also love it from a historical perspective, so I came into it with a base of knowledge that helped me get started, but I revisited a lot of books that I’d read and added more to the pile to make sure I not only got the facts right, but also evoked and echoed some of the common themes of the industry—which sadly includes creators losing the rights to their work and issues with credit when it comes to character creation or collaborations.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

The most fun thing was actually chatting with people that worked in comics at the time, like the legendary writer and editor Louise Simonson, writer Linda Fite, writer and editor Scott Edelman, Gerry Conway...and so many more. I was blown away by the generosity of these great, talented people. So hearing their anecdotes was a blast, and being able to integrate that texture and insight into the novel was a blessing.

You are a resident of New York City. Do you have any favorite places in the city? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss, but would only learn about from a resident?

I probably did a few years ago, when I went anywhere, to be honest! I’m a sucker for a good vegan restaurant, though.

Did you ever visit CBGB before it closed?

I did! In the early 2000s, I went there for a show—it wasn't very memorable, but I got a good sense of the layout and atmosphere before it closed!

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how comic books and graphic novels have grown from being considered a disposable/transitory entertainment to the cultural juggernaut they currently are within our culture?

A lot of it has to do with distribution—which sounds mundane, but makes a huge difference. Once comics were being sold in specialty shops and were nonreturnable, it created an aftermarket for the books that didn’t exist before. That, plus the advent of the book market—which spurred the growth of the graphic novel format—opened up new channels for comics and stories, and expanded the reach that was limited by the transient nature of the newsstand. So, by the time movie special effects caught up with the kind of things you’d need to be able to do in comics, the culture was primed and ready for cinematic takes on these stories they’d been reading for years. All of that created a groundswell of awareness and engagement, I think.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

In terms of novels, I just finished Jennifer Hillier’s fantastic new thriller, Things We Do in the Dark, which hits this summer. I also think Kellye Garrett’s Like a Sister is magnificent. I’m also excited to see people react to Amina Akhtar’s Kismet, a fantastic takedown of the Sedona wellness industry in thriller form. Don't Know Tough by Eli Cranor was the football noir I wish I’d written, too. Rob Hart’s The Paradox Hotel is also a fantastic speculative time travel thriller—I really loved it. Comics-wise, I read a ton, often older comics I missed as a kid. I’m currently revisiting Roger Stern’s Avengers run, the bwahahaha era of Justice League, and enjoying current series like Devil's Reign, The Good Asian, Human Target, Catwoman, Jonna, and more.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I can try! George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Margaret Millar, and Patricia Highsmith, in no particular order.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I read The Godfather at too young an age, but I don’t think that’s what you meant. I remember really loving Bridge To Terabithia, and that was my first introduction to death in fiction. Which, well, has become a staple of my work.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

See above!

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Life’s too short to pretend you’ve read all the classics, so I haven’t pretended to read anything—but I will admit I haven’t read as much Joyce as it seems everyone else has.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I picked up Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand because I loved the design. This was years before I became obsessed with his work, so it was nice to already have it on my shelf when I did!

Is there a book that changed your life?

A handful:
Kavalier and Clay
The Killer Inside Me
Beast in View
The Godfather
A Firing Offense
Baltimore Blues
Darkness, Take My Hand.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Anything by Sara Gran, Tracy Clark, Kelly Braffet, Lisa Lutz, Melissa Ginsburg, or Kellye Garrett.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I sometimes wish I could read a book as a fan, instead of as a professional—as the latter, you’re doing it to help a friend or support a colleague, even if there’s no expectation. But I do miss the days of just reading to read without anything else involved. Without, I guess, thinking about the craft? I read a lot of novels because I want to see how others do it, and then you borrow tricks and things like that in your own work. So, having said that, I would’ve loved to have just read something like The Turnout by Megan Abbott just as a reader, as opposed to a writer in awe of a master! haha.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I went through a big St. Vincent listening binge recently, and I’m just amazed by her music and persona. I could lose myself in it for months.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Time to write, time to read, time to be with my family and friends, a good meal, some book or record shopping, live music. That all sounds great.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I wish we talked more about diversity and inclusivity in the crime genre, and how all authors can help make the genre reflect the world around us. I often feel like the burden to call things out, falls on marginalized writers, and that shouldn’t be the case—it’s exhausting. I also hope that the recent uptick—in terms of marginalized writers getting nice deals from publishers to write major books—isn’t just a trend that will fizzle if the first wave of books don’t become bestsellers. I hope it continues and publishers see value in investing in diverse voices telling different stories—not just their own personal traumas, either—because they can grow an audience for those kinds of books.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a bunch of comic book stuff plus my next crime novel for Flatiron, which I’m excited to talk more about once the time is right.

Book cover for Secret Identity
Secret Identity
Segura, Alex

In Secret Identity, Alex Segura, himself a comic book writer, deftly captures the atmosphere of comics in the mid-1970s. It was a time when comics were  a niche interest on the verge of becoming a global obsession in just a few decades. This includes the "old boy" network that pervaded the publishers and the rampant and blatant misogyny that permeated both the offices where comics were created and the pages they produced.

Segura paints a vivid picture of an industry trying desperately to decide who and what it is. Are the writers and artists that produce the monthly books hacks or artists? Is their product disposable ephemera or something more substantial? These are questions for which we now have answers. Segura does an admirable job of exploring the fears, concerns, and resignation of his characters regarding their chosen field.

In addition to the comic book industry, Segura does a marvelous job of capturing 70s New York City, describing perfectly how it was simultaneously an inspiration for dreams and nightmares, dangerously teetering on the brink of financial ruin.

Part history of the comic book industry, part noir influenced murder mystery, and part coming of age story, Secret Identity is a genre bending/blending novel that is greater than the sum of its parts.