What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your life?
Well, my beautiful wife Kathy, my son Mason and my daughter Kayla are at the top of that list But besides that, creating the characters in A Gangster’s Garden! Yes, originating and completing a novel is an achievement, but creating the characters that drive the story is much more interesting and satisfying. What I loved most was crafting all the small, personal details for each of the characters that flesh them out and make them three-dimensional – whether it’s a gang leader using Sun Tzu’s writings to plan gang strategy, or the 48-year-old father who still sleeps with his bedroom lights on even after his own abusive father died years earlier. To me, creating living, breathing, caring, deeply-flawed people that readers care about is the greatest achievement. Hopefully I’ve done that in my novel.
How has your upbringing influenced your writing?
I’ve always been interested in the 4 L’s – language, loyalty, lineage, and legacy – and how those mix and interplay throughout a person’s life. I grew up in Oakland, and was exposed to gangs and the street’s dynamics from an early age. I remember watching my uncle chase a thug down an Oakland street with a baseball bat. So I was always interested in what goes on in the streets, and how it was different than the regular world. And then growing up as part of a Mexican family, there was always a language conundrum: do you speak English, assimilate, and betray your own, or do you commit to Spanish and limit your opportunities? So language as a powerful force in one’s life became an important theme for me.
When I moved to a mostly-white Denver suburb in high school, I experienced racism first-hand, and I became very protective of myself – not only of my lineage, but also of how my past would show up as I moved forward. And so the fundamental ties between my past and present and future have always been there for me, and these are themes that resonate throughout my book.
When and why did you begin writing?
I remember writing as early as the third grade, entering and winning a school writing contest with my story The Ant Who Stole Easter. When I began my career as an engineer, I would often write technical presentations and papers, and this progressed to brand creation and promotion as I moved into business marketing and strategy. And when I became an entrepreneur, storytelling became my lifeblood: I was convincing people to invest in me and my company simply by crafting a compelling story. So writing A Gangster’s Garden feels like a natural progression from the stories I’ve been writing all my life.
When did you first know you could be a writer?
When my high school girlfriend cried over a love letter I wrote, I knew that my words could capture the emotion and depth I was feeling. So I had an idea that my words resonated. But it’s really something that’s developed over time throughout my business career. I received millions of dollars in funding for a company I co-founded on nothing more than my written and spoken words, and so I felt quite comfortable in my abilities as a writer and storyteller.
What inspires you to write and why?
I love creating characters. What’s cooler than creating people? I love finding those small details that take a character from being interesting to being full-blown, three-dimensionally fascinating. Benicio de los Santos is engaging as a street-gang leader, but becomes riveting when we see he studies the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu. He goes from being an ordinary thug to a master strategist in an instant. So it’s creating characters that inspires me the most.
What genre are you most comfortable writing?
Men’s fiction. Men are complicated, our motivations misunderstood and conflicting. I love digging into and writing about the way men find to express ourselves, especially given our social and hierarchical instincts. Why do we do the things we do? It’s fascinating.
What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel, or about writing in general?
The biggest challenge I faced in writing A Gangster’s Garden was making my main character, gang leader Benicio de los Santos, a sympathetic figure instead of a stereotype. How do you get readers to care about the leader of one of Denver’s most violent Mexican gangs? I did it by painting the framework of the world that he lived in: the warped yet internally-consistent morals of his gang set, the pain and loss he feels for his slain family, the rules he’s constructed about him to give his world a sense of consistency. I try to show that he’s not a simple street thug; he’s a general, planning his enemy’s destruction out of love for his fallen family. And in his twisted world it all makes perfect sense.
Did writing this book teach you anything and what was it?
Invest in your characters first and they’ll drive your plot. When I first began writing A Gangster’s Garden, I had a very clear idea about the plot and the story I wanted to tell. But once I began creating the characters, a funny thing happened: the characters came to life and took over the story! So at some point the book flipped, with the characters becoming real and deciding their own arcs and the book’s plot. It was a bit schizophrenic, as there were many nights when I woke up with multiple voices thrumming in my head, but I found that the plot really came to life because the characters were the ones who took me there.
Do you intend to make writing a career?
I’d love to! Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to make stuff up for a living?
What is your greatest strength as a writer?
I think it’s the depth, complexity and conflict of my characters. I love characters rich in conflict, fully aware of their weaknesses and trying to navigate through their worlds despite their flaws. I think it’s because I invest so much into my characters that they, in turn, infuse readers with their depth. And taking those characters and crashing them into one another always yields unpredictable results.
What is your favorite quality about yourself?
Sometimes I invent people and make up stories.
What is your least favorite quality about yourself?
Sometimes I invent people and make up stories.
What is your favorite quote, by whom, and why?
“Have you ever felt the Devil in your soul? Then you know the only power great enough to kill it is God, the Almighty. So when people doubt my resolve, I tell them that I believe in the power of forgiveness, and of God, because I have seen the Devil.”
It’s a quote from my main character Benicio de los Santos, during an interview with a reporter from The Denver Register. I like the quote because it shows who he is deep-down inside: despite his violent past, he’s still in touch with his path to God. In fact, in his own twisted world, he appreciates God even more because of the violence he’s participated in and witnessed throughout his life; God must exist, because the Devil most certainly does. It’s a turning point in the novel, because he’s decided that he wants spiritual redemption, and this quote shows that his motivation to change is believable and consistent with who he is.
Marc Cortez began his storytelling career in the third grade, when he entered a school writing contest and won with his story THE ANT WHO STOLE EASTER. Since then he has become a marketing writer and frequent blogger, leveraging his writing skills into success as a business executive and entrepreneur. With A GANGSTER’S GARDEN, he has turned his lifelong passion for storytelling into a full-length novel.
Mr. Cortez studied creative writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and lives in California with his wife and two children. A GANGSTER’S GARDEN is his first novel.