Saturday, May 7, 2011

Valentine's Cafe by Anthony Schmitz

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The higher powers send the God of Love, Victor Valentine, to a frozen northern wasteland. His mission: spread the love.

Valentine's strategy is to open a restaurant. The food and wine, the potions at Valentine's disposal, the music, the waiters — all of it is directed at inspiring libidinous feeling among the clientele. Valentine's partner in scheming is his chef, the towering and volcanic beauty, Elevana Natasha Demidova. Nats. Together they succeed too well in turning the cafe into a wildly popular destination.

Inevitably, Valentine and the former Russian Mafia moll launch a tempestuous relationship of their own. Betrayal isn't far behind. By then, love trouble is just one of Valentine's problems. The minister across the street is eyeing Valentine's Cafe as a site for his mega-church. Picketers are on the sidewalk, the city councilman is aligned against him, and even the Governor has reason to help bring Valentine down.

The conclusion is a showdown between Valentine, Nats and her mobster pals, the councilman, the governor and half the neighborhood, all within the richly appointed confines of Valentine's Cafe. In this novel, if not in life itself, everyone gets approximately what they deserve.

I've had a few novels published over the years — Darkest Desire: The Wolf's Own Tale (Ecco) and Lost Souls (Random House/Available Press). I've worked as a journalist for big national magazines, but also ran the newspaper in the immigrant community where in St. Paul, MN, where I live with my wife, a couple dogs. I'm a boat builder — I make traditional skin-on-frame kayaks — and a kayak instructor. My wife and I also run a small business, helping health care operations meet the needs of non-English speakers.

What will readers like about Valentine's Cafe?
The novel confirms that everyone has problems with romance — even the God of Love himself. Valentine loves his life, loves being in love, loves throwing words around. He's an enthusiast, eternally hopeful even when the world is out to get him. I hope those are appealing qualities that will engage readers.

Why self publish?
I've done it both ways, with agents and big publishing firms, and now via Smashwords and Amazon. It's sweet to have your manuscript found, recognized and then stamped with the imprimatur of a big publishing house. But it takes almost forever if everything is working right, and it can easily be that nothing will ever happen at all. So much depends on the whim of people you don't know and will never see. And in the end, even if some house decides to publish your book, you'll still be obliged to sell it yourself. So why not eliminate all the middle people, take a 70 or 80 percent cut of the sale price instead of 10 percent, try to make something happen now and feel, however irrationally, that you are at least nominally in control of the process? Plus, there are all the trees that won't be slain to make a physical book, not to mention all the shipping that will never need to happen.

Writing process?
I try to get down 500 words or so a day when I'm writing. Then it's rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

It takes me about a year to do a first draft.

Inspiration for this story?
This is a little nuts for a guy of my age, but the idea of having Victor Valentine, the God of Love, as a narrator, struck me while listening to an Outkast tune. Can't remember the title, but it was a similar idea. The cultural collisions that Valentine endures are the outgrowth of the 30-odd years I've spent living in my neighborhood, which is a little like the United Nations.


Chapter One

They wait outside, as always. They stamp on the sidewalk, trying to beat some warmth into their feet. A hatchet-faced woman in a sensible coat raps on the glass door, as if that might do some good. Of course I ignore her. She is shouting something — it’sfreezingouthere!can’tyousee?letusinforGod’ssake!!, etc., etc. — and the steam that shoots from her angry, thin lips freezes against the gold, italic lettering painted so artfully on the door.

Valentine’s Café.

C’est moi!

I love these moments, I do, the last few minutes before I send Jimmy, finally, to the door, and he extracts from the cummerbund of his tuxedo a polished brass skeleton key that’s nearly as long as his hand. With a flourish he displays it to the frozen mob outside —the key to a treasure room, the key to your most vivid dreams, the key to… well, why get ahead of myself? At any rate, Jimmy slides the worn key gently into the ancient lock and gives the door a tug, because it sticks and I refuse to repair it. I enjoy the idea of it, the door that opens reluctantly, requires a little coaxing, a little force, but opens nightly nonetheless. And then the warmth of Valentine’s Café spills out into the street, the warmth and the aromas of a day’s worth of cooking, a bouquet that is never quite possible to fully describe. Butter and garlic, onions carmelized, wine splashed in a hot, heavy pan, cardamom and basil, but more, always more. Beneath this perfume lurks another palette, not quite detectable, like a word you can’t remember, like a dream just out of reach. The smell of moss turned over on the rain forest floor, thick and rich, living and rotten, too much alive and too much dead. My own special touches, passed down, you might say, through the family. I gesture to Antonio, my Argentine accordionist, who begins to play as the mob pushes inside. They elbow their way in as if they have never felt warmth, never heard music, never eaten such a morsel of food as will be served up to them tonight.

The last of which is true.

But for now they remain outside in the cold and I am inside in a room that I purposely keep too warm. A bit close, a little sticky, so that as my patrons eat, a veneer of sweat rises to their brows. In the perfect light their skin glows. The marks of age are blurred and instead you see experience, experience that in the beholding stirs your blood, sends a faint prickle down your spine and beyond.

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