J.J. Colagrande is an adjunct professor at Miami Dade College. His first novel, Headz, was just released by Buffalo, New York-based publishing house BlazeVox Books, and this Tuesday, Colagrande will give his first official reading in Miami at -- where else? -- Books & Books in the Gables (265 Aragon Ave.) at 8 p.m. We sat down with J.J. to talk literature, Miami's characters, and what it feels like to finally publish that first book.
What is Headz about?
It's about a group of coming-of-age characters in New York, Miami, and San Francisco who venture to Chicago for the dopest music festival of the summer. All the characters have real-life problems they struggle with, relationships and jobs they rebel against, and a wanderlust that forces them to travel. At the festie in Chicago, paths converge, trouble ensues, and it's on like Donkey Kong. There's a solid plot and a fast pace. It's funny and easily relatable. So far, the feedback has been great!
This novel was a long time coming for you.
It was a long time cometh, for sure. I spent five years composing, editing, and rewriting the book, four to six hours a day, every day. I lived in DPlace, in Little Haiti, but I also moved to San Francisco to write about that section. I also moved to NYC to do the same. And I flew to Chicago to scout locations. It was crazy.
Then it took another two years to find a publisher.
People are right when they say publishing a book is like birthing a child. Now I have this baby, who I love, and it's my job to surround her with the right people and the right environment.
Who are your literary heroes? Do you think any of their work is reflected in the book?
Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, and their fingerprints are absolutely present. I also love Carlos Casteneda, Tom Robbins, Nabokov, Kafka, Carver, and John Dufresne, a local superhero whom I consider my mentor and the hardest-working writer today.
If you could choose one person to read Headz, who would it be?
You. That's right, you. Yeah, you. You right there. Sitting at your computer, chillin', looking and feeling as fine as fine wine.
When did you know you wanted to be a novelist?
When I felt like I had a story worth telling.
What's the best/worst advice you ever got regarding writing?
The best advice: Writing is rewriting. Follow your mistakes. Character is destiny. Writing is an act of discovery. It's a lot, I know. I guess over the years, I got some pretty good advice.
The worst advice: Try to get a two-book deal with a major publisher. That was a major waste of time. The industry is wacky.
Can you tell us about any setbacks or potentially soul-crushing moments that made you almost quit?
I never felt like quitting. One should fail until they succeed.
What does it mean to be a writer in Miami?
It means we are straight chillin' in the 3-0-5, representin'. It also means -- I'm quoting Umberto Eco here -- we have access to a slew of rogues of every stripe, forgers, scoundrels, cardsharps, rascals, bullies, reprobates, recreants, frauds, hooligans, simoniacal and embezzling canons and priests, people who live off the credulity of others, counterfeiters, peddlers of indulgences, paralytics who lay at church doors, vagrants, vagabonds, relic-sellers, pardoners, fortunetellers, necromancers, healers, bogus alms-seekers, fornicators of every sort, corruptors of maidens by deception or violence, carriers of disease, as well as melancholy madness.
Some of the novel takes place in Miami, right? Tell us about that.
The Miami section is probably filled with the most nonfiction. Many of the side characters are based on people you may know.
Also, the plot of the Miami section follows a pound of weed around as it is sold off in increments. I think there are a lot of drugs down here, and I also feel that a city's characteristics take on a personality of their own, just like another character.
How did you find a publisher?
Trial and error. And also good advice. I look to our elders for advice. David Amram, who is like a living legend you should Google, told me to go indie, which I did, and Tom Robbins, another living legend, told me every book eventually finds its right home, and that advice turned out to be right the fuck on.
Has getting the book published changed your life at all?
Can you describe your writing process?
I listened to John Coltrane's album A Love Supreme a thousand times.
Any other reading suggestions, besides Headz of course?
Where can people order your book?
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Where can people find information about you and follow updates about your work?
I'm an illusion. I don't really exist.
Next book in the works?
I have a collection of stories I will release next year, and I'm outlining a novel, a period piece, set in New York in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. It's sort of a gangsta story. Maybe I'll write a sequel to Headz. I kind of leave the story up in the air. We'll see.