Harold Rogers, TROPICÁLIA

Harold Rogers, TROPICÁLIA

Zibby is joined by boxing coach, stand-up comedian, and debut author Harold Rogers to discuss Tropicália, a sizzling and fearless story of a Rio de Janeiro family and the chaos that ensues in the days before a New Year’s Eve party in Copacabana Beach. Harold describes his childhood living between Ohio and Rio, the theme of loss and coping with absence in his novel, how much of his own life is portrayed in his story, and what his MFA and publishing journeys were like. He also shares what he enjoys reading and his best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Harold. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, Tropicália. Tropicália? What do you think?

Harold Rogers: Tropicália. Yeah, that’s right.

Zibby: Wonderful. Tell listeners about your book. What’s it about? Why’d you write it? All the good stuff.

Harold: Really, it’s about two siblings, Daniel and Lucia, who are in their twenties. They’re living in Rio with their grandparents and their young cousin. Their dad is dead. Their mom left several years ago to marry some guy in the United States and kind of ditched them. They’ve been estranged for several years. After their grandpa dies, Lucia called her mom and invites her back into town. She comes back with her husband. Chaos ensues from there. It takes place over the New Year’s Eve holiday in Copacabana, which is kind of a big deal. It’s a huge event. A million people are on the beach. It’s crazy. It’s told mostly from Daniel and Lucia’s perspective, but the grandparents have a chapter. The mom has a chapter. The young cousin has a chapter. It’s told in several first-person voices.

Zibby: Interesting. You chose some interesting devices with no quotes and this train-of-thought dialogue style. Very cool.

Harold: The no quotes was something that it seems to — people really mention that. I think when I was writing it, I wasn’t even thinking that it would have that kind of jarring impact like that. With the no quotes, what I was doing is — there’s some chapters that are no quotes and some chapters where the quotations are in em-dash quotation marks. What I was going for was, the chapters with no quotes, I wanted it to seem like everything was being talked. Daniel’s chapters are all him talking, so there’s no quotations marks. It’s all him talking. In the em dash, I think of those chapters as more written. In Brazil, there’s no quotation marks. It’s em dash dialogue in all the books. That’s why I did that.

Zibby: So it was not intentional at all. You’re like, I just forgot the quotes, and now that’s all anybody wants to talk about.

Harold: Some people are reading the galleys like, I think there’s an error here. It’s a typo. There’s no quotes.

Zibby: Where did this novel come from? Actually, before that, where did you come from? You’re from Rio. You’re from Rio? No. . How old are you? Can I even ask how old you are?

Harold: I’m twenty-six.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, okay. Twenty-six.

Harold: My mom is from Rio. My dad is from Ohio. Growing up, I kind of had a strange upbringing where I was born in the United States in Ohio, but —

Zibby: — What part of Ohio?

Harold: Steubenville, Ohio. Have you ever heard of it?

Zibby: My mom’s family is from Dayton.

Harold: That’s on the other side. I know a lot of people from Dayton. My dad was working out of the country a lot when I was young, so my mom would take me and my sister to Brazil because her parents were there and just have some support taking care of us. Then it became, up until high school, she would take us out of school for several months at a time and homeschool us in Brazil. I was really going back and forth from Ohio and Rio. In high school too, I would go there twice a year. I spent a lot of time in Rio and in Ohio. I really think of myself as Brazilian American.

Zibby: Awesome. I can’t imagine there’s a direct flight from Ohio to Rio.

Harold: No. From Pittsburgh, actually. Pittsburgh’s pretty close to Steubenville. It worked out like that.

Zibby: Who knew? There you go. When did you start writing?

Harold: Writing in general?

Zibby: Yeah. When did you realize you liked writing? How did you end up with a novel? Why are we even talking? How did this happen?

Harold: I started writing in high school. My senior year, probably, is when I got into literature and stuff like that. I felt unprepared for college, so I just looked up “hundred best novels” and was trying to read whatever I could. I just liked writing and making stuff up. It was kind of a secret pursuit for a long time. No one in my life even knew I was writing this novel until it was in galley form. I ended up getting my MFA kind of as an accident. I applied to one program, and I got in. I was like, maybe I should try this. The novel came together. It really came together during the pandemic. That was the longest time I’d ever been away from Brazil. I had a couple chapters of this. I really was focusing in. It just felt good to live in those memories, live in Rio in that way. I had some family members die in Rio during that time. It was nice to live in the book for a while.

Zibby: You didn’t do any pandemic time there? You were in Ohio the whole time?

Harold: I was in Ohio the whole time, yeah.

Zibby: Did your dad stay back with you, or was he traveling?

Harold: My parents were both in Ohio at the time.

Zibby: You have a scene early in the book where a lot of people are coping with all different kinds of loss all at once, the grandmother, the parent. People are actually even kind of joking about it because it’s so awful that you sometimes just have to laugh type of thing, and how loss actually can really bond people together quicker than anything, almost, shorthand. I lost a parent. I lost a parent. I lost this. Tell me a bit about the role of loss in the book and how you chose that.

Harold: Loss plays an enormous role in the book. I think everyone has someone missing from their life in a big way, a big hole to fill. My parents are both alive, thankfully. While I was writing the book, my grandpa died. My uncle died. My uncle had a young daughter at the time. I saw the impact of that. There’s a lot of people in my life who have lost parents at an early age. It’s such a profound impact not having that guidance there. I think that the book is really about how to cope with those absences. Daniel and Lucia’s mom left. They don’t have a dad. Who do you cling onto? Lucia does it in better ways than Daniel where she’s trying to be responsible for her young cousin who doesn’t have either of her parents. She’s responsible for her grandma. They have a close-knit thing. Daniel’s just kind of running away from the whole loss the whole time. He’s trying to go forward and then romp around and have fun. Eventually, that catches up to him. Toward the end, he finds that connection with Lucia that I think they both need from each other.

Zibby: Where did the characters come from? Where did the book start? Was it the idea of Rio and this time of year? When you started working on it, what was the driving force? I know you said you were missing Rio and far apart and loss and all of that. Where did the characters themselves come from? Which one came first? Was it all just a messy thing?

Harold: Daniel and Lucia, they came first. I was dabbling around with some stories that involved them. I knew they were siblings. It’s kind of silhouettes of my own family in a certain extent that took on a life of their own. Daniel and Lucia live in the building where I grew up in in Rio, the same exact address, but they live on a different floor, which I think is a metaphor that holds for the whole relationship to my life. I have a twin sister. Lucia is younger. I was kind of thinking, in counterfactual to my own life, what if I didn’t have a twin sister? What if I had a younger sister and her paternity is in question like Lucia’s is? What if instead of my dad sticking around and being a good man, what if he just ditched my mom and left her to deal with — there’s an economic disparity when an American man marries a Brazilian woman. The dad in the book, he wasn’t interested in being a support to his Brazilian family. That creates a whole different set of circumstances. I started with these little silhouettes and just started thinking through how my life could’ve been different in different respects. The book came together out of that.

Zibby: It’s smart. I just finished this novel. I was like, I’m just going to model this after this person, but I’m going to change this little thing. I wonder if they’re even going to notice. Oh, my goodness. I have boy/girl twins, actually.

Harold: Oh, really?

Zibby: Yes, they’re sixteen.

Harold: Cool.

Zibby: I know. They’re closer in age to you than I am. How is your relationship with your twin? How has that been as you’ve gotten to this age?

Harold: We’re really close now. We’re really good friends. We work together, so we’re really good friends. Growing up, there was certainly some strife there. It’s a complicated relationship, having a twin sister like that. I really think that the sibling relationships are the core of the book. Daniel and Lucia are the main two. Their mom’s relationship with her sister is a huge part of the book, and how they never got along at all. It was always strife. It became a tragedy for them because they were just separate like that. I was hoping the arc was like, Daniel and Lucia would end up tight and then choose that family relationship in a way that their mother and her sister didn’t.

Zibby: Amazing. You go to your MFA program. You work on this book. Tell me about the whole publishing journey. How did this become a book deal? Tell me the story.

Harold: This was the only thing I worked on throughout the whole MFA. I thought I was done with it. One year in the MFA, I was like, I’m going to leave here with a book deal. I’m so glad I stayed because the book was not ready at all. I finished. I had this book. It was my thesis. I was trying to query agents. The book wasn’t ready. I thought it was ready a lot sooner than — if I had known how many drafts it would take I would’ve continued, really. I had one professor, , who knew the work really well. She was a real supporter of it. After a long time querying people and not getting anything, I hit her up. She connected me with somebody. He read it. He liked it. He really got the book. He became my agent. Then a long process of revision again. Then sent it out to publishers. When I sent it out, it was ready, but it got a lot of rejections. Only one house wanted it. Atria was the only one that wanted it. After I sold it, I rewrote every single word of the book from zero, which I really needed to do. It finally turned into what I wanted. It was a lot of rewriting.

Zibby: So you basically never want to see this book again, pretty much?

Harold: Yeah.

Zibby: That’s amazing. By the way, only one, you don’t need more than one.

Harold: No. Exactly.

Zibby: amazing. Otherwise, it’s just an embarrassment of riches. I think it’s good because all the publishers really are looking for slightly different things. You know what? I’m not even going to . I think that’s great. Tell me the story of when you found out that it sold. Were you over-the-moon excited? Do you even remember? Was it a whole thing?

Harold: I remember it because the week before, I was in the pits of despair. I was like, is this ever going to sell? If I can’t sell this one, I’m going to have to write another one. I was really low. The next week, it sold. It was just a huge relief. I was really happy about it.

Zibby: Are you working on another novel, or are you like, I never want to do this again?

Harold: No, this is what I like to do. I love novels. I’m working on one now. I don’t like to talk about it too much until it’s done. I don’t want to jinx it, but I am working on another novel. Hopefully, continue to do that for a long time.

Zibby: You’ll rewrite it fifty-seven times. You said you work with your sister. What do you do when you’re not writing?

Harold: I’m a boxing coach.

Zibby: You’re a boxing coach?

Harold: Yeah, that’s my day job, at Church Street Boxing Gym in Manhattan.

Zibby: Oh, no way.

Harold: Yeah. Do you know that gym?

Zibby: No, but I used to go to Punch. Do you know where that is East Side?

Harold: Yeah.

Zibby: Actually, I remember — this is a while ago. I used to work out a lot when I wasn’t working at a job and I was at home with my kids. That was my one escape. I remember I accidentally got this black eye because my daughter flipped her head at this weird angle and just happened to catch my eye. I had this horrific black eye. I remember going into the gym. All the guys swarmed around me. They’re like, no, you got to get a cold spoon. You have to do this. They had all these tricks for making my face .

Harold: That’s funny.

Zibby: Boxing is fun. How did you get into boxing?

Harold: I was a kid. I was getting bullied. There was a gym across the street in Rio where I was living. My parents were like, “You should try boxing, maybe.” Then I tried it. I loved it. I ended up fighting in college. I fought. I had sixteen amateur fights. Then actually, when I was boxing, my sister was my trainer. She would corner me for my fights. She ended up getting a job at this gym while I was in school. Then she got me the job , which is good.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so great. You could really just have people who rejected your manuscript come into the ring and just .

Harold: They want a piece of me.

Zibby: Funny. What an interesting whole background and story. It’s so cool. What do you like to read in your spare time?

Harold: I like to read a lot of different stuff. I try to balance reading in English and Portuguese. I’ll go one month here and then another month there. There’s a whole backlog of old books that I’m still trying to work through, of the world and and balancing that with more contemporary stuff, but a lot of different things. Some people say they can’t read novels and stuff while they’re writing because it affects — I like reading stuff, and then you get that energy from that person, especially if it’s something good. You see it come out in your own writing. Maybe you’re writing a little like them. Then later on, you iron it out, try and make it more yourself. I think that energy is good, taking that energy .

Zibby: I like that. Very cool. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Harold: Just do it. Keep working. That’s it. You might have to rewrite it a million times, but it’ll be worthwhile eventually. Don’t think about how much you’ll have to do it. Just keep doing it. Think it’s wonderful after every line. Persistence is the biggest thing with this.

Zibby: I’m just curious, from your take on entering into this industry, what has it been — I know the book has not come out, but it will have been out by the time this airs. What have your impressions been of this industry and how it’s all working? Is this kind of what you thought of publishing and all of that?

Harold: It’s been interesting. My agent and my editor are so smart. I think I was surprised at how much they would get the book and understand the things I was trying to do and be able to even give me good ideas on what I should do. I didn’t think I was going to get good editorial notes like that. I didn’t know anything about publishing at all, anything at all, even coming out of the MFA. I was surprised at the long silence before I ended up getting connected with people. There can be a lot of silence in it, but when you find some people — there’s a lot of smart people in the industry that know books. They love books. They’re good at what they do. I was impressed by that.

Zibby: Awesome. Have you met other authors? Do you know other authors?

Harold: Yeah, I know a few. I have some friends from school. I’ve met some people that my agent works with too. Someone was asking me about sharing my work with other people, like a writing community. I’m so shy about my writing that I don’t like to share it. When we’d have workshops in school, I hated that a lot, so many people reading it like that.

Zibby: I’m like, don’t give me any changes. Just tell me it’s perfect.

Harold: Exactly. That’s all you need.

Zibby: That’s what I want you there for, or else this has to magically change itself. staring at it and being like, what now? Oh, my goodness. Great. Congratulations. It’s exciting to welcome — I feel like I should be this, welcome to the world of publishing.

Harold: Thank you for the welcome.

Zibby: It’s so fun to have someone young. I’m going to take your book and give it to my son upstairs, who’s practicing his driving, and just being like, all right, read this book. You could do this in just a couple years.

Harold: Nice.

Zibby: It’s inspiring for younger people, for not younger people. It can be done. You can just do it. It happens. It does happen.

Harold: It can definitely be done. I was surprised that it could be done.

Zibby: Living to tell, there you go. Good luck with your launch. Congratulations.

Harold: Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: No problem. Take care.

Harold: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

TROPICÁLIA by Harold Rogers

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