Note from Keenan. I was blown away by Secret Identity. It has a fresh premise and an authenticity that can’t be faked. So, I contacted Alex to guest on Miss Demeanors. What I wanted to know was: how did he come up with story? And this is what he said.
BY ALEX SEGURA
Ideas come at you fast – and at weird times. Sometimes the best books take years to bake.
Jump back over two decades. I’m in college, sitting on a bus to class – reading a copy of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. AsI turn to the end, I’m struck by a fleeting thought – How cool would it be if they’d included actual comic pages in the novel, featuring the character created in the prose, The Escapist?
I’m in a creative writing class in college. My short story, “Sometimes Blue,” about an entry-level comic book company employee who discovers a lost character in the publisher’s massive archives, is never completed.
Flash forward a handful of years. I’m working at my local paper as an editor for the website. In my free time, I’m still writing about comics and thinking about creating my own. I come up with a new character, The Lynx. The idea doesn’t go anywhere.
A few years ago. I’m finishing up my acclaimed Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series. I start to ponder what my next move is. As a reader, I’m always fascinated by books that transport you – to another time, another perspective, another world. One author who does this particularly well, Megan Abbott, comes to mind. She’s written novels steeped in noir that exist in places readers might not consider noir – cheerleading, gymnastics, science, and so on. The idea hits me: a murder mystery set in comic books.
What’s the point of this cross-cutting? It’s simple – to show you, dear reader, that ideas are not linear and don’t often pay off when you think they’re supposed to. What was a fleeting, tiny thought – “Oh, comics and prose would be neat” – turned into a key element of Secret Identity, my 1975 comic book noir, which features entire sequences in graphic novel form illustrated by artist Sandy Jarrell. The root idea of that failed short story – that an junior employee would be central to the plot – was also something I’d forgotten about for literal decades. And the Lynx? Just another of many comic book ideas that were collecting dust in the slushpile of my mind.
So what was the catalyst that allowed me to not only remember these threads, but weave them into the narrative whole that would become Secret Identity? Character. Carmen Valdez, in particular.
I’m not alone in thinking this, but plot doesn’t matter without character. If a reader doesn’t care about the people they’re reading about, the story itself is void. As a writer, everything starts with the people I’m writing about – their conflicts, their goals, and, most importantly – their arc. Where they start and where they end up by the last page. When Carmen appeared to me, I saw her fully – and understood who she was right away. She was a passionate fan of comics and eager to become part of that creative community. So what would be the biggest thing I, as the writer, could take away from her to create a compelling conflict? Ideas. Particularly one idea – a character she created, based on her years as a fan. That’s when the idea for the Lynx returned.
As I started working on the novel outline, now set during a particular low point for comics (1975), at least in terms of business, I had another realization. What if, as we followed Carmen’s detective work, we also experienced her subconscious, via her comic book creation, the Lynx? The idea of having comics blended with a novel finally wound its way back to me, twenty years later. I’d never expected to be the person who brought that idea to life, but it’s amazing that it turned out to be so.
No time is wasted. No ideas are ever dead. The brain is a weird, winding muscle that can surprise you and add to whatever you’re doing. You just need to be open to it.
Alex Segura is the bestselling and award-winning author of Secret Identity, which the New York Times called “wittily original” and named an Editor’s Choice. NPR described the novel as “masterful,” and it received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. Alex is also the author of Star Wars Poe Dameron: Free Fall, the Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series, and a number of comic books – including The Mysterious Micro-Face (in partnership with NPR), The Black Ghost, The Archies, The Dusk, The Awakened, and more. His short story, “90 Miles” was included in The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories for 2021 and won the Anthony Award for Best Short Story. By day he is the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Oni Press, with previous stints at Archie Comics and DC Comics. A Miami native, he lives in New York with his wife and children.
Thank you so much for visiting us. I love reading about the long and windy road from idea to finished novel. Can’t wait to read this. (I was just at the Mysterious Book Shop and it was very prominently displayed!)
The voice! You’re going to love it!
I am already hooked by the premise. Putting this on my list ASAP. I loved Kavalier & Clay. Thank you for visiting and sharing your story’s genesis!
Poe Dameron is excellent too. My grandkids love it.
Thanks so much for having me! This was fun.
Keenan, I totally agree with you. I was blown away by reading Secret Identity. Such a fun, fresh hybrid of comics & noir with a protagonist to root for. Secret Identity is one of my top reads of 2022. I have been gushing about it online.
Alex, thank you for joining us. That last paragraph is brilliant and is getting posted prominently above my desk. Your entire post is inspiring. I love “No time is wasted.”
Encouraging for those of us who have been storing up experience, if you know what I mean!
I often try to trace the workings of my brain–started with this thought, led here, then, etc.–so I’m enchanted by your ability to follow the crumbs of your thoughts over the years to the finished novel. Which sounds terrific.
I’m on my way to ordering it.
Thanks for sharing this, Alex.
I often try to trace the workings of my brain–started with this thought, led here, then, etc.–so I’m enchanted by your ability to follow the crumbs of your thoughts over the years to the finished novel. Which sounds terrific. And I’ll definitely be reading it.
Thanks for sharing this, Alex.
It was fascinating, and inspiring, to see how he pulled all that together. I was struck at how authentically he described what it was like in 1975 to try to break into “a man’s world.” He nailed it.
Thanks, Alex. Very inspiring!
So cool reading about the journey of this exciting idea!