Orlando Ortega-Medina is an award-winning short story writer who practices US immigration law in London. He told me recently that he enjoys the diversity his two career trajectories bring. His debut collection, Jerusalem Ablaze: Stories of Love and Other Obsessions, was nominated for Britain’s acclaimed Polari First Book Prize. Ortega-Medina and I spoke recently about his life and work. He will be hosting a discussion at Diesel Books in Los Angeles on August 31.
CLEAVER PATTERSON: Jerusalem Ablaze is your first book. What writing experience did you have previously and what was the catalyst that kicked off your interest? At university you won the National Society of Arts and Letters award for Short Stories — how did that come about?
ORLANDO ORTEGA-MEDINA: I’ve been writing creatively for as long as I can remember and excelled in my English and Literature classes in high school. Following high school, I was accepted into UCLA’s creative writing program where I studied under some excellent professors including novelists Carolyn See and Gerald Gay Goldberg and then-New Yorker Fiction Editor Daniel Menaker. Whilst at UCLA, I was quite prolific, producing nearly 50 short stories, two screenplays, and four novel treatments. The editors of UCLA’s Westwind Journal of the Arts featured a couple of my short stories. As for the NSAL Award, Professor Goldberg encouraged me to submit one of my stories for the competition. Winning the award was obviously a proud moment. After leaving UCLA, I went on to study law, and the writing of fiction took a back seat — although I never stopped writing in my spare time. But it wasn’t until 2014 that I decided to pursue shopping around my work for commercial publication.
Do you prefer the short story medium, or is this just the start of something bigger?
I used the short story medium to develop a variety of voices and storytelling techniques. I’m now working on longer-format fiction.
What do you hope readers will get from Jerusalem Ablaze?
I’m hoping that the stories will capture the hearts and imaginations of my readers and will remain with them for a lifetime.
The book’s cover design (by design studio La Boca) is very distinctive — how does this represent the stories, and what involvement did you have with its conception?
I understand that La Boca presented the publisher with eight concepts, which were narrowed down to five and then three. When I finally saw it, they were already working on versions of the present cover, which, as I understand it, represents an unraveling personality. I’m really pleased with it, as I feel that it fits the general theme of obsession.
The cover won the Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze Medal for Cover Design (Fiction). That must have been exciting?
I was happy when I heard about the award. I especially enjoyed traveling to New York to pick it up for the publisher.
The British horror and crime author Christopher Fowler has referred to Jerusalem Ablaze as “atmospheric and enticingly mysterious.” Many of the stories are peculiar in flavor — not quite horror stories, but certainly macabre. What is it about the “darker” side of humanity that appeals to you?
There’s something dark inside of all of us — some more than others, of course. Many of us, however, suppress the very idea that we have a dark side, as if admitting to this will somehow make us worse human beings. I think it’s the same sort of mental game many of us play when it comes to the subject of death. We’re all marked for death, but we do everything we can to avoid thinking about it. In my view, hiding from something that is so close only makes us more vulnerable to it when it inevitably asserts itself. I have chosen to work out my dark side in my stories, casting out my demons on paper.
The stories in the collection take place in as disparate environments as Tokyo, Quebec, and Israel. What drew you to these settings?
These are all places that are special to me and that have shaped me over the years. I drew on my memories of these places and, in effect, turned them into characters that interact with the human and inhuman characters in my stories.
You’re British-Canadian, were born in America, and also have Judeo-Spanish and Cuban heritage. How are cultural identity and ethnicity important to you and your writing?
Yes, I was born with an excess of identity. At first, it was like having a closet crammed full of costumes and not knowing which one to wear. I think it’s fair to say that my life has been about learning which costume to wear. I clothe my characters in the hand-me-downs.
Your stories feature an eclectic, cosmopolitan mix of characters and cultures. Do you think this broadens their appeal, and how did it shape the stories?
At the time I was selecting the stories for the collection, I faced the choice of whether to assemble a cohesive set of stories all set in either Japan or Israel or Quebec, or whether to go for a more eclectic approach reflecting a variety of styles and locales. In the end, I went for the eclectic approach, something that better represents who and what I am today. As for how the book has been received, I’ve found that different stories in the collection appeal to different readers. Some are drawn to the darker, more dramatic stories; others prefer the more mainstream, “human” ones. So, in that sense, it does seem that the eclectic, cosmopolitan nature of the collection makes for a work that appeals broadly, as there’s something in the book for everyone.
How deliberate was the focus on relationships — both physical and psychological — that lies at the core of the book?
It’s definitely deliberate, as I’m deeply interested in relationships. Given that we’re all trapped in these vessels of flesh, unable to truly know what is going on inside the heads of even those we are closest to, I’m amazed that they work at all. It’s this trying to connect with another person, sometimes succeeding, at other times miserably failing, that lies at the core of my fiction.
Hoe much of your own experience as a gay man did you bring to your characters, many of whom are also gay?
All my characters are versions of me, the gay ones, the straight ones, the in-between ones, the men, the women, the old, the young — even the werewolf. Everyone is struggling to come to terms with who they are and what they are, culturally, ethnically, religiously, sexually. That’s me.
The Polari First Book Prize is one of the premier literary prizes, awarded to writers whose books deal with the LGBT community and their experiences. How important is an award like this for the LGBT community?
In my view, The Polari First Book Prize is critically important, as it encourages LGBT writers of every stripe to bring forward their first published works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, memoirs — regardless of whether they are published by large or indie presses. The award grew out of the Polari Literary Salon, which has been championing LGBT voices in the UK for the past 10 years. The fact that the award is co-sponsored by WH Smith Travel [an established British high-street stationer and bookseller] helps bring the shortlisted books to the attention of the mainstream reading public.
To be short-listed for this major literary prize with your first book is quite an achievement. What’s been your experience from the public at large in relation to the award and towards your book specifically?
I’m delighted and honored that the Polari judges selected Jerusalem Ablaze for this year’s shortlist, alongside five other fantastic titles. The attention the book has received following the announcement has resulted in several excellent feature articles, including in the Times of Israel, Jewish Renaissance, and the UCLA Daily Bruin. I was also recently interviewed on London Live News. So, no complaints.
How hard is it for books featuring homosexual subjects to be accepted by mainstream audiences? Would you say the general public are becoming more accepting of such themes?
My perception is that the general public is increasingly open to LGBT subject matter in mainstream literature. Put another way, what was once considered to be a fringe subject is becoming increasingly mainstream. One recent title that springs to my mind is Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, which is about a gay subculture unfamiliar (I would think) to most straight readers. From what I understand, even the author has been surprised by the enthusiastic reception his book has received from mainstream literary circles.
The publishing world can be a difficult place for new writers to get their voice heard. What was your experience with Jerusalem Ablaze, and what’s your advice to others starting out?
I like to think that agents and publishers will recognize an outstanding manuscript when it comes across their desks. That said, publishing is generally a for-profit business. So if one’s manuscript doesn’t have commercial appeal, excellent as it may be, one may expect to knock on many doors before finding someone who is willing to invest in one’s manuscript. My best advice to new writers is make sure your manuscript is professionally edited and that you consider the feedback of several Beta Readers before you even dare to send it out.
How do you think US readers will take to the book and its themes?
I’m very much looking forward to the book’s North American release. I have no idea how US readers will react; one never does. So, it’s a bit “pins and needles” right now. That said, we North Americans are a sophisticated, well-read lot, despite what you may have heard. My hope is that my North American readers will enjoy reading the stories as much as I enjoyed writing them.
What do you get from writing that your other career as a lawyer doesn’t provide, and which — if either — do you prefer?
As a lawyer, I solve problems and strategize preventative measures for my clients. As an author, I create worlds. My author-ability to think creatively and outside the box makes me a better lawyer. My lawyer-ability to think systematically, foresee problems, and create preemption regimes, makes me a better writer. I can’t imagine one without the other.
The new US president and his attitudes towards immigration must have thrown up some challenges, especially when dealing with such concerns from outside the US.
The challenges are faced by my clients. My job is to help them navigate the legal minefields. This is more so the case when the ground is daily shifting under their feet. I wouldn’t have a job if it were not for those challenges.
You’re clearly not afraid to tackle what some might see as contentious topics in your work. Are issues like immigration and cultural diversity — with your experience working in the field of Immigration Law — something you’d tackle in your writing?
I’m working on something now that specifically touches on the immigrant experience in the United States. Being a product of a long line of immigration myself spanning over 500 years, I feel I’m uniquely placed to write about this subject.
With Jerusalem Ablaze’s success do you see the law practice taking more of a back seat?
Not quite yet.
What’s next on the horizon?
I’ve just completed the first draft of a novel. It’s a three-part black comedy about star worship, a search for identity and, of course, religion. It’s set in the seventies and eighties in Los Angeles, Jerusalem, and Tijuana, Mexico. I’m hoping to shop it around early next year.