Akashic Books’s long-running noir series tasks writers with imagining the dark sides of their communities, spinning gritty, shocking tales atop the local landscape. Recently the publisher tapped writer and former Houston poet laureate Gwendolyn Zepeda to serve as editor on a collection of stories about her native Bayou City. The end result is Houston Noir, out this month, whose 14 entries explore the murder, betrayal, and brujería lurking everywhere from River Oaks to the Ship Channel to a trailer park off FM 1960. Here, Zepeda talks with us about the project.
You’re mostly known for lighter fare, like your children’s books, novels, and poetry. Was it hard to dive into noir?
My novels are classified as women’s contemporary fiction, so I was really used to editors telling me that the things I wrote needed to be more uplifting. Women need to be uplifted while they read on the beach, they said. I felt really constrained by that. It was super, super fun being the editor of this, to make something darker. I admit some of the stories did shock me, but I never had to dial any writer back.
The advance press has focused on how gruesome and over-the-top the Houston edition is. What’s your reaction to that?
The Kirkus review focused on how most of the crimes were happening to women—being committed by men upon women. I still don’t know if that was shocking because that’s what’s happening or because women were writing about it. Yes, the story with sex trafficking is gruesome. But we know those things happen in Houston because we read the news. I really appreciated getting into the mind of someone who would participate in that. These are systems in place people go through every day. What would drive someone to do this? You look at all the crime that happens, and it’s not all done by masterminds. Sometimes it’s because you’re evil and you want to be evil, but sometimes it’s because you’re in a bad place, and you don’t have a lot of choices.
Why did you choose to organize the stories based on neighborhood?
I always see the same things over and over where people are using these euphemisms to describe Houston to outsiders. They might as well say, “If you’re racist, move to The Woodlands.” Which isn’t exactly what they mean, but that always cracks me up when people talk about the “safest” places. The book’s sections [“Minutes from Downtown and Nightlife,” “Newly Revitalized,” etc.] are framed in a way that if any realtor knew about these stories, this is how they would describe it to someone they’re trying to sell a house.
Did these stories teach you anything about the city where you’ve lived for so many years?
Before I read the stories, I thought there would be a huge difference between the affluent neighborhoods and the non-affluent ones. And even though the book is divided by neighborhoods, I don’t think the crimes are falling into socioeconomic buckets. It completely ran the gamut of what the writers thought was the worst thing that could possibly happen. In a gruesome way, there’s something for everyone in this collection. You could be betrayed by someone you love. Or your child could be hurt. Or you could have a magic power to make things better but there’s so much awful stuff that your power isn’t enough.
How do you think people outside the city will receive the book?
I worry that it will frighten people and make them not want to visit Houston—but I think that it would also impress them how diverse it is. A lot of people have misconceptions about Houston and imagine it as more homogeneous and oil-money-based. But there are a million different lives around that. I hope that the book surprises readers a little.
Houston Noir editor Gwendolyn Zepeda appears with writers Tom Abrahams, Stephanie Jaye Evans, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, Reyes Ramirez, Icess Fernandez Rojas, Sehba Sarwar, and Leslie Contreras Schwartz for the launch of the collection, 6:30 p.m. May 7, at Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet St.