This episode of the Crime Cafe podcast features my interview with crime writer Verónica Gutiérrez.
Verónica has had an inspiring career. Learn more about that, as well as how she’s used her experiences to inform her first novel, As You Look.
Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two eBooks for sale: the nine book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy inks for both on my website, debbimack.com under the Crime Cafe link. You can also get a free copy of either book if you become a Patreon supporter. You’ll get that and much more if you support the podcast on Patreon, along with our eternal gratitude for doing so.
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Download a PDF copy of the interview here.
Debbi: Hi everyone. Today our guest is a former community organizer, civil rights attorney and corporate executive. Originally from the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles where her protagonist Yolanda Avila lives, she and her wife are home bar enthusiasts and avid travelers. I can get into that, boy! They host cocktail-lesson-themed fundraisers. Now, that’s something I can imagine are popular. She is the author of the book As You Look, which I believe is her debut novel, a Yolanda Avila mystery. It’s my pleasure to introduce Veronica Gutierrez. Hi, Veronica. How are you doing today?
Veronica: Hi there. I’m well. Thank you for having me.
Debbi: Excellent. Good to have you on. Thank you. You have had the most interesting career or series of careers. Which one of those things did you start with?
Veronica: Well, probably the work in politics. I worked in local government for quite a while before I practiced law, and then I went off and moved into public affairs, doing work similar to what I did in public service.
Debbi: Interesting. How were you involved in politics?
Veronica: I worked on various campaigns for local government in Los Angeles. I helped the first Latina councilwoman in Los Angeles get elected and worked on her staff for a bit. I also worked on a campaign to get her elected as the first county supervisor, where she served for more than 20 years, and was just fantastic. Then I also worked for another council member who became president of the school board and who was actually the president of the school board twice. Worked with her in the city for a little bit. And then most recently, a friend of mine asked if I could help Mayor Karen Bass set up her office when she was first elected, and I did that for about five months or so at the beginning of her administration, which was a lot of fun.
I worked on various campaigns for local government in Los Angeles. I helped the first Latina councilwoman in Los Angeles get elected and worked on her staff for a bit.
Debbi: Wow. Bet it was a lot of work too, huh?
Veronica: Oh absolutely. Yes. it’s definitely a young person’s sport, let me put it that way..
Debbi: Yes. And you were a civil rights attorney. Who did you work for?
Veronica: I worked for a small firm that focused on civil rights. It was called Litt & Marquez at the time. Litt & Associates it became later. They focused on employment discrimination, on slumlord litigation, police abuse, civil rights, those types of things and that was a lot of fun. I really, really enjoyed working with my clients in that world.
Debbi: Interesting. Yes, and I really admire you for doing that work. Did you handle specific types of those cases, or did you kind of cover the waterfront?
Veronica: It was pretty much all of them. Multi-plaintiff cases involving slumlords, which received really good settlements for our clients who were living under very difficult conditions, and a couple of police abuse cases, one of which involved another big multi-plaintiff lawsuit where the LAPD got kind of out of hand during a union protest that they had permits for. That actually resulted in some pretty good changes within the LAPD, I think. I also represented a police officer who was subject to some pretty bad discrimination in a local police department, who suffered some pretty bad anti-Semitic harassment, and that was a very rewarding case to win as well.
Debbi: I can imagine, yes. And you were also a corporate executive. How did you get into that, and who did you work for in that capacity?
Veronica: I ended up being recruited by the local utility company from the city of Los Angeles when I was working for Jackie Goldberg, who was the council member at that time, and I learned that I could do a lot of similar work, but with more resources. So I joined their public affairs department and stayed on for quite a while. Did some regulatory work as well, and had an opportunity to work in Washington D.C. and in San Francisco and Sacramento for that company, and was fortunate to be able to retire early from that and get on with my writing career.
I ended up being recruited by the local utility company from the city of Los Angeles when I was working for Jackie Goldberg, who’s the council member at that time, and I learned that I could do a lot of similar work, but with more resources.
Debbi: That’s fantastic. All of that is wonderful stuff. That is really great. Tell us about As You Look. What inspired you to write the story?
Veronica: Well, I had been thinking about the story since early in my days working for the city of Los Angeles. I was just coming across so many characters, so many life stories, and it just kind of came to me and I modified it over the years, but I kept thinking about the story before I actually put pen to paper. It’s basically a novel that centers on a woman’s balance or attempt to balance grief and guilt and nascent psychic tendencies, who happened to grow up where I grew up in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, and, dealt with a lot of the ins and outs of some of the political and union issues and neighborhood issues as well.
I was just coming across so many characters, so many life stories, and it just kind of came to me and I modified it over the years, but I kept thinking about the story before I actually put pen to paper.
Debbi: That kind of stuff always interests me. I have started your book actually, and I have to say – and this is totally not a spoiler – wow, does guilt play a role in it!
Debbi: What inspired you to create this particular private eye ex-cop who happens to be Latina and feels such a crushing guilt over what I won’t say? I’ll leave that as a teaser.
Veronica: Well, part of it I think really is an outgrowth of the mystery novels that I love to read, the strong, female characters in them. Sara Paretsky and Cara Black were among the first that I really loved. The V.I. Warshawski novels and the Leduc novels, I really enjoyed those and I thought I especially liked the focus on the location. The fact that Chicago in Sara Paretsky’s novels is another character. Paris is another character in the Cara Black novels. Your own novels, the Sam McRae novels featuring Baltimore and the D.C. Area. I love novels that focus on place, and I wanted to do that because you don’t really see the neighborhood where I grew up being featured in the general media, at least not in a positive way, and it’s a wonderful neighborhood. So I wanted to make sure I captured it somehow, and that’s part of what got me going on it.
The V.I. Warshawski novels and the Leduc novels, I really enjoyed those and I thought I especially liked the focus on the location.
And then as for the character, the main character, she happens to be lesbian, and it’s just a matter of fact. It’s not a central part to the story necessarily. It just happens to be who she is, and she and her friends reflect a lot of my friends and my community, so I was looking forward to writing that as well, because I haven’t read anyone like her in other novels.
Debbi: It’s nice to be able to write the kind of story you want to see out there, the kind of book you want to read. And when other people want to read it, it’s like, ooh, you get it.
Debbi: Isn’t it awesome?
Veronica: It really is.
Debbi: It is. What authors have most inspired you? You named a couple. Sara Paretsky, I know. Talk about an inspiring writer. Totally. Is there anyone else you would name as particular favorites?
Veronica: Sure. Cheryl Head writes a Charlie Mack series focused in Detroit. Tracy Clark also has a great series – the Cassandra Raines series in Chicago. Naomi Hirahara who has focused in the past on Pasadena branched out and recently had one focused in Chicago and now again in LA. They are historical novels, the latest ones, the Aki Ito novels. So all of them are great inspiration, I think, for writing. And then the authors that I meet at the author conferences too. You make friends there and you see them struggling with their own writing and it has actually inspired me as well to get back beyond the research so I could start writing again for my second novel.
Debbi: Absolutely. Well, that’s great. Are you working on the sequel?
Veronica: Yes, that’s part of what I need to get back to. The neighborhood where I grew up is an entry point for a lot of immigrants in Los Angeles. I don’t have a whole lot of that in the first novel, other than the Latino aspect, but a lot of Japanese who basically moved over from Little Tokyo, which is across the river, made a living and a life there before they were taken off to the camps in World War II. Many of them returned, and the culture is still there. It’s very evident and their influence in Boyle Heights as is the Jewish community. So, in my second novel, I want to work a little bit on the Japanese influence there and have a character who came back from one of the camps, and how his life intersects with the Latino community there as well, that helped his family.
I don’t have a whole lot of that in the first novel, other than the Latino aspect, but a lot of Japanese who basically moved over from Little Tokyo, which is across the river, made a living and a life there before they were taken off to the camps in World War II.
Debbi: That sounds interesting. Very interesting. You also have another book called My Little Black Cocktail Book. Tell us about that.
Veronica: Oh, that’s actually a journal. It’s a blank book. It’s a journal that a friend of mine encouraged me to publish when I was looking at the self-publishing process. What is the self-publishing process like? I didn’t have a book with a lot of content, but I thought, okay, well, I’m going to try and publish this journal because it’s something that I could use. As you mentioned earlier, I’m a bar enthusiast. My wife and I are bar enthusiasts, and we find that bartenders are like authors. They are the most generous people in the world. When you go to a bar, if you sit at the bar and talk up the bartender, they’ll share recipes with you. So I had all of these recipes and a lot of cocktail napkins and little pieces of papers and all. So I put it all together in a book so that it’ll be easier to write down the recipe and keep it all in one place, and I did that. I had it self-published essentially, and I actually give it away a lot at our fundraisers, and I gave it away at a conference recently as well. It’s usually a pretty big hit.
[B]artenders are like authors. They are the most generous people in the world. When you go to a bar, if you sit at the bar and talk up the bartender, they’ll share recipes with you.
Debbi: I was going to say that’s a great approach, I’ll bet. Yeah. If your novel were made into a movie, who could you picture playing Yolanda?
Veronica: Oh, goodness. Maybe someone like Eva Longoria could probably pull it off well. Maybe, oh … America … what is her name?
Debbi: Oh, yeah.
Veronica: Who is in Barbie.
Veronica: She can pull it off as well.
Debbi: I can’t think of her last name for some reason. I know I’ve seen her in the show about the big box store.
Veronica: Right. America Ferrara, I think it is. Yeah.
Debbi: I think that’s it. Yeah. Yes, yes. Since you like to travel, have you ever considered travel writing?
Veronica: I have considered blogging about it. You know, one of the things that really encouraged me to combine the two was Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc series. She’s from the Bay Area, but she writes about Paris and writes about a different arrondissement in every novel. I love Paris. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. So, every time I travel, I try to read one of her novels on the way there, so that I can go and visit that neighborhood when I’m in Paris. So I have considered that, but probably more for blogging than for an actual novel.
Debbi: Yeah. Well, that’s a good approach too. I mean, blogging about your travels is fantastic. I’ve done it before. It’s fun. Tell us a little bit about Mixology on a Mission. How did that start and how do you keep it going?
Veronica: Well, it’s actually been a lot of fun to do, like I said, and bartenders are very generous with their recipes, and I generally take the Little Black Cocktail Book with me when I go to a bar, and if the bartender’s especially engaging, I’ll give them a copy. My wife and I did a trip to Mexico City where we visited a lot of the cocktail bars there, and the bartenders were really friendly. They were adorable, and they provided a lot of recipes. I came back and bought a hydrator as a result of one of the recipes that they gave me to hydrate citrus. We host parties all the time and we wanted to make sure that we were doing something good. So we ended up hosting a couple of fundraisers at our home and then thought, you know what? Why don’t we just do a cocktail lesson? It gives a different feature to the fundraiser, and so we came up with it and we decided to help small nonprofits that are trying to develop their donor base. A lot of people, younger people especially, aren’t used to donating to nonprofits so this is one way to get them in the door with something interesting. It’s better than the rubber chicken circuit that I did when I was working. You go and it’s a boring sit down dinner at a hotel somewhere. And here instead, what we do is we provide the food, the entertainment, which is a cocktail lesson. We provide the drink, and we provide a cocktail recipe book. All we ask is that the nonprofit invite people and take the money so we don’t deal with any of the money ourselves, and it makes it very easy. It’s basically a one stop shop approach to their fundraiser. So we’ve been very fortunate to be able to support quite a few nonprofits that way.
A lot of people, younger people especially, aren’t used to donating to nonprofits so this is one way to get them in the door with something interesting.
Debbi: That’s a great approach. Doing a complete pass through to the organization, and what a great way to draw people in too, and young people at that. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to write for a living?
Veronica: You know, I don’t know that I’m the best person to ask that because I’m not actually writing for a living as much since I started off late in life, but I would think that just writing and don’t stop. Just keep going. Whether or not you feel inspired one day or another, get the product out, and keep writing. I think it makes a huge difference to be able to produce the books. I mean, you yourself have produced quite a few books and provided several series. So I would ask you what the advice would be too.
Debbi: I only have two series at this point, although I do have a couple of books that are sort of related to each other that are out there. Let’s see. Your giveaway is really awesome. You’re doing a giveaway of a Zoom mixology lesson, right?
Veronica: That’s right, that’s right. I did those during the pandemic, where we were able to support fundraisers with a Zoom lesson. Basically, the way that works is that people get their own ingredients and I teach them how to make the cocktails. What I generally do is I work with whoever the host is to develop the menu of cocktails that we’re going to do, depending on what kind of spirit or what kind of cocktail they like. It can be anything from – I’ve done birthday parties, I’ve done zoom birthday parties. I’ve done fundraisers, and I’ve done just get-togethers. So, I’m offering that as a prize for anybody who might be interested. If they can just show up with a picture of themselves with my book on some of the social media that I listed on – Facebook, Instagram, or Threads – and I’ll pick somebody and then I’ll contact them and we’ll work out how we can do it, whether they want to do it as a fundraiser for their favorite charity or just a get-together. It can all work out.
Debbi: Great. That sounds fantastic. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish up?
Veronica: Well, my book is available on Amazon, as are many others. I do encourage folks to try to request it at an independent bookstore. That’s a great way to support the bookstores that are in your neighborhood as well. So I encourage that.
Debbi: Very, very good. Well, I want to thank you again, Veronica, for your time. Muchas gracias por tu tiempo. Did I say that right?
Veronica: Yes, you did. De nada!
Debbi: Oh, gracias, gracias. It has been a pleasure meeting you. And, let’s see, let me see if I can do this right. Okay, here I am. And with that, let me just add my thanks to everyone for listening, for watching on YouTube if you’re watching, and along with the perks I’m offering on Patreon, I’ve now set up a shop there actually. You can actually buy my Sam McRae 3-book box set there for a very low price actually. Anyone can buy it there, or you can get it for free if you become a patron on Patreon. Check it out. So that’s my Patreon page. It’s under Shop. And on that note, our next guest will be Naomi Hirahara, interestingly enough.
Debbi: She’ll be on next time. So until then, take care and happy reading.