The Writeliving interview series kicks off its first foray into genre fiction with journalist and internet professional turned mystery author Dmitri Ragano. I had the pleasure a few years ago to read part of a manuscript by Dmitri from a mystery called The Fugitive Grandma, and I’ve been a fan ever since. His first novel Employee of the Year, is a mystery must-read, and he is now releasing his second novel The Voting Machine.
Tell us about the new novel.
It’s a thriller set during an election in Las Vegas. Two political activists are killed as they cast their votes in a critical swing state Senate race. The murder victims are rival campaigners on opposite sides of the liberal – conservative divide. One is a retired school teacher, an ex-hippie who remains active in progressive causes. The other is a rich Tea Party supporter whose son served in Iraq.
Temo McCarthy, the hero of the story, is a volunteer in a voter registration drive and he knows both of the murdered men. The FBI asks Temo to assist their investigation based on his experience canvassing Las Vegas during the election campaign. The killings are then linked to broader threats of a terrorist attack on the general election. Temo has experience with main suspects in the attack: a mysterious Middle Eastern charity, a Mexican drug cartel and anti-government, white-supremacist militia.
What inspired you to write this story?
I love elections. I love politics. Social studies was always my favorite subject in grade school. I worked as a voter registration volunteer in Las Vegas in 2008 and it was an amazing experience. You put yourself out there in front of strangers and try to persuade them to take an action because you believe in the ideas behind democracy. Some people admire what you’re doing and some people hate you for it. One day you’re going door to door in a neighborhood full of rich retirees with Jaguars and BMWs in the driveway. The next day you are block walking with your clipboard in a rough part of town, talking to homeless and ex-felons who can’t vote until they get off probation.
It’s a big, sprawling country and it’s easy for us to become disconnected from the majority of our fellow citizens. We are rarely drawn into civic collaboration or public discussion beyond our own social/professional network. But elections are one of the ways we engage around ideas and common themes in public life. It’s a messy, bitter process but it is fascinating. It shows you all the different things that either motivate people or make them apathetic. It shows you how individuals construct their relationship to other people and society as a whole.
I want to emphasize that while I may have my own personal politics, this book isn’t a polemic. It merely aims to tell a good story that is rooted in real experiences. It’s about the human needs and the contradictory emotions that fuel our participation in politics.
This is your second novel featuring Temo McCarthy. He was also the protagonist the first book, Employee of the Year. Tell us the background behind this character.
The idea for this character was to create a kind of everyman in a modern urban setting. I wanted a hero who was flawed, humble and recognizable… He shouldn’t have exceptional skills or talents like say a Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. Temo isn’t particularly smart or tough and he has no elite training or background. His awareness of his limitations becomes an advantage. He’s spent most of his life as a loser and he goes into most situations expecting things to work against him. And yet he never gives up, just like his historical namesake Cuauhtemoc, who kept on fighting as his whole civilization collapsed in a way that must have been unimaginably horrific. Temo never loses his will to survive and maintain some kind of integrity.
Why did you choose to self-publish your novels?
I’ve been working around the Internet space since 1995, first as a HTML programmer, then in start-ups and more recently as a product manager. I think if you come from that background it’s always your first instinct to try and do something yourself – get it our there in front of an audience and get feedback. That iterative, interactive process is how you are used to working. I wanted to be able to have a book I could share with readers in a relatively short cycle and I knew the process of finding a traditional agent and traditional publisher can take years. At the same time, there’s this massive sea change going on in the book industry with the push towards e-book distribution and marketing so I thought it would be useful to get first-hand experience even if I ended up partnering with a traditional publisher in the future.