Q&A: Alex Segura Talks to Hilary Davidson About His New Novel, Secret Identity

Anthony Award-winning writer Alex Segura chats with Hilary Davidson about Alex's new book, Secret Identity, a rollicking literary mystery set in the world of comic books. Read on for their full conversation, and look for Secret Identity, available in stores now!

Hilary Davidson: Writers are often told to write what they know, and Secret Identity is set in the world of comic book publishing. That’s a world you know intimately, having worked for DC, Archie Comics, and now Oni Press. You’ve also written a number of comic books, including the superhero noir The Black Ghost. But Secret Identity is set in the 1970s when comic book publishing was going through a tumultuous time. What was the appeal of setting the novel in that era?

Alex Segura: In terms of setting and time, I wanted to spotlight an era that was in stark contrast to the world of comics books as we know it today. In terms of awareness, comics—and their characters—are everywhere. Movies, television, podcasts—people who’ve never read a comic book know who characters like Ant-Man or Peacemaker are. It’s honestly amazing. But there was a time when comics were, for lack of a better term, dying. Before comic shops existed. When the people working in the industry either did it for the love of the game or as a means to an end. I wanted to give readers a snapshot of that era, and also contrast it with Carmen’s passion and love for the medium.

Hilary Davidson: Carmen’s passion really shines through the novel. Comics influenced her artistically and emotionally, and they also were an essential part of her introduction to American culture. You and Carmen share Cuban roots, and I’m wondering how comic books influenced you when you were growing up?

Alex Segura: That’s a great question. I was always—and still am—an avid reader. Comics were my introduction to that passion. My first comic was an Archie digest my mom bought me at the grocery store, and that opened my eyes to not only this amazing medium, but to a culture I was only tangentially aware of as a Cuban-American kid in Miami. We didn’t have winter or fall there (laughs). I was hooked, and comics have always been a part of my reading or pop culture consumption. My comics helped me through the challenges of childhood—like my parents getting divorced, or the usual school stuff kids deal with. They were an escape and a comfort to me, and I wanted to reflect that in Carmen as well. No matter what was going on in my world, I could crack open a comic and experience something wild and amazing, like Batman capturing a villain or a cosmic adventure involving the X-Men. It taught me so much about narrative, character, and conflict, too—things that I still rely on to this day.

Hilary Davidson: Carmen’s love for the medium is so strong that she’s willing to create an innovative new hero, the Lynx, write six comic books’ worth of story for her, and then allow a male colleague to take all the credit. It’s a key plot point, and a 1970s reality check. You make it clear that the comic book club wasn’t generally open to women, except for the secretarial work Carmen does by day. Gender politics are vividly rendered in Secret Identity, and I’d love to know what made you want to write about them, and how you researched the subject.

Alex Segura: That’s a great question. When I went into the book, I was confident in what I knew about comic book history—in general terms. That said, I still dove in and read or reread a ton of books about the industry, New York at the time, and so on. But I also wanted to speak to people who’d been there and experienced to some degree what I wanted to capture for Carmen. I have a journalism background, so this wasn’t alien to me. I wanted to speak to women that worked in comics around the time, and I reached out to a few friends and just bounced the big plot points by them to get an idea if I was even in the ballpark of what might happen, murder notwithstanding. The answers I got were illuminating, and the context and stories they shared with me helped mold the final draft. As you know, research involves a lot of digging and reading and the end result is hard to quantify, but it was helpful to get it directly from people who’d experienced the period and industry, and that helped me try to make Carmen as genuine as possible.

Hilary Davidson: All that research paid off because Carmen is such an authentic, memorable character. Whether she’s dealing with unwanted sexual advances from a male colleague, being hounded by the police, hanging out at CBGB’s with her musician roommate, or tangling with her former lover, Katherine, she feels real. I know that you worked with some sensitivity readers. What was that process like, and did it make Carmen change or evolve as a character?

Alex Segura: I always have a core of superb, sharp beta readers, but I knew that I’d need to enlist some sensitivity readers to make sure that I was portraying Carmen as accurately as possible. They gave me great insights, and I was eager to reflect their notes and make sure I listened. In terms of using sensitivity readers, I think it’s something we should all consider when writing outside of our own experience. And while Carmen and I have a lot in common, we’re also very different. I’m a straight man, and Carmen is a queer woman. So while that’s how she appeared to me as a character when the book was in its formative stages, it also meant I had to do my homework to make sure I presented her as accurately as I could. I think, as writers, one of the things we have to be mindful of when writing characters that are not like us is that we shouldn’t make it seem like we’re somehow using a perceived trauma or defining experience as a plot point or way to get attention for the work. That’s just not my story to tell. I believe in diversity and making sure the protagonists we see in books reflect the world and not just more of the same, so I wanted to show that in this book, in as thoughtful a way as I could. At the end of the day, it’s a mystery novel and that’s what propels the plot and world, but that doesn’t give writers a free pass in terms of representation. The feedback I got from my sensitivity readers really helped me shape Carmen’s story and I’m really grateful they took the time, because like I said, it’s not an experience or life Carmen and I shared, so I needed to get their insight and context to make sure I was as close to the mark as possible.

Hilary Davidson: I loved the fact that Secret Identity includes comic book art, which make the Lynx—and her archenemy Mr. Void—vivid and real to the reader. Can you talk about how you created those panels, and how you found the artist to bring your vision to life?

Alex Segura: I’m so glad the art resonated! When we were shopping the book, before I’d finished writing it, I knew I wanted comic book sequences in the story—to literally show the reader the characters and vision Carmen has for the Lynx. I’m not exaggerating when I say Sandy Jarrell was my first choice. I’ve known him for years and he did lots of covers for me at Archie, and he’s just amazing—a truly gifted storyteller with a sense of history. He got what I was trying to do with the story and was as energized as I was. The way we worked was loose—as opposed to me writing a full script, I’d craft a few sentences describing what each sequence would be, and then Sandy would come back and lay out the artwork as he saw fit. I’d give some minimal notes, then I’d write the scripts: the dialogue, captions, and sound effects. Once his final art came in, our amazing letterer Taylor Esposito, who I’d worked with on The Black Ghost, dropped in the letters. It was a pretty seamless process with two super-pros, and I’m so grateful they were able to be a part of it, because I think the art sequences really add to the story—the prose and art are almost in conversation with each other in a cool way.

Hilary Davidson: In addition to Secret Identity and numerous comic books, you’ve written the noirish Pete Fernandez mystery series, a Star Wars novel, and many short stories. Can you talk about what’s next for you? And, honestly, how do you find time to write when you have two kids and a day job?

Alex Segura: I am in the weeds on my next novel, which is due soon—I can’t say much more about it, but I’m really excited to be writing it! I also wrote a comic book in partnership with NPR’s Planet Money podcast, The Mysterious Micro-Face, with art by Jamal Igle. I have other comic projects coming this year—The Awakened, The Dusk, and some stuff that isn’t announced. So it’ll be a busy year! As for how…I don’t know, honestly. I just try to stay focused and not ceremonialize the work too much, if that makes sense. I find little pockets of time and dive in as quickly as I can, because if I don’t, I’ll get lost just getting to the blank page.

*Author Photo Credit: Robert Kidd

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