How did you come up with the idea to make ¡Caramba! an illustrated novel?
I started writing about Natalie, and pretty soon I was writing about Consuelo, and before I knew it, I was writing a novel with about six characters. I thought, "How am I going to get somebody to publish a book with six main characters?" One day I was looking at Mexican Lotería cards, and reading the dicho (it's like a wise or pithy saying) on each card, I thought, "Everything is here!" [The stories on the cards] fit [the novel] so well, so I decided, okay, what if it were a novel told in turns of the card? There would be a divine hand drawing these cards out of the hopper. And then, I was writing about [a fictional watering hole called] the Big Five-Four. Wouldn't it be cool if readers had a diagram with every single song that was on the jukebox that would really give them a sense of the place? So the artifacts give you a part of the story that you don't really get with just text.
Can you explain a little bit about the Lotería cards and their significance in Mexican culture?
Lotería was brought to Mexico by a Frenchman. Lots of people who see the cards around think they're like a tarot kind of thing, but the game is played in bingo parlors and really, it's just a jazzy form of bingo.
This is your first novel. How much of it is autobiographical or based on real people?
Absolutely none of it. The funny thing is that I had never seen a born-again Christian mariachi [one of ¡Caramba!'s central characters]. But one day, I was at the flea market in San Jose, and I saw this guy. He was a mariachi, a trumpet player, and I swear to God, the back of his shirt said, "I blow the horn for Jesus." So maybe one exists.
Do you envision your readers as having an interest in Mexican or Hispanic culture?
I'm from California, so it's hard for me to imagine a world where people don't speak a little bit of Spanish. But I would imagine that readers would have some interest in Hispanic culture. Then again, I think that the book is a lot of fun, and I hope to reach a non-Hispanic audience, too. Natalie is Anglo; my mother is German; my father is a first-generation Mexican-American. And I speak English, Spanish and Spanglish. I always say when you mix all these languages together, you get another one.
This book has a very nostalgic, almost timeless feel—the artifacts contribute to that, as well as Lava Landing's somewhat insular, removed-from-reality ambience. For a while (until you referred to Kmart, at least) I was wondering when it took place. Was this intentional?
No, it wasn't. But then again, I didn't want to pin the book down to any specific date. My intention was the idea that there are people in the world who have the sort of sensibility that they wish they were in another era. There's a whole sector of my generation [Martínez is 34] that doesn't really feel like they fit into middle-class America. People who want to buy their clothes at thrift shops and have a different sense of values.
Can you explain the book's title?
I really got behind the name when I listened to the different manifestations of the word caramba. You can say caramba because you can't say something profane; that's one use. It's sort of like "darn it," but a little stronger. I also heard it in a Mexican song meaning sort of like a free-for-all. People use it in Cuba, in Mexico, in Spain and all these different places. It's a word that lots of Spanish speakers agree upon.