Gina Cruz is the author of Friend or Foe, Crime of Passion, and Lipstick Killah, all of which she has put out herself under the pen name “Mimi.” Cruz knows a thing or two about selling books, and I should know: we both work at the same location of a well-known bookstore. Cruz, who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn and currently lives in upstate New York, is currently in the process of completing part three of her Friend or Foe series. I’ve wanted to ask Cruz about her work for a long time, and in this interview, conducted over email, we discuss her journey self-publishing, her work, the hustle of selling books, the importance of urban fiction, and how she turns traumatic life experiences into fiction.
At the bookstore we both work at, we have to wear name tags. I remember when I first started working there, I was very dependent on looking at the name tags of our coworkers so I could learn people’s names. Before we were on a first-name basis, I recall being confused why “Mimi” was on one side and “Gina” was on the other. But then you told me that Mimi was only your pen name. Those were both on your name tag then and still is to this day. So what made you put your pen name on your name tag?
I decided to put my pen name on my name tag because I wanted customers who purchased my books to know that the author was standing right in front of them. All of my life, one of my biggest dreams was to have my books on a shelf in a bookstore. It was my biggest accomplishment and I wanted it to be known.
Is there a story behind your pen name, “Mimi”?
Mimi wasn’t supposed to be my pen name. I was going to just use “Gina,” but then someone suggested that I come up with something more catchy. It was then when I was in a relationship and the person told me that I needed to change my name to “Me Me” because I thought everything was about me LOL, which isn’t the whole truth. From there I changed the spelling, added a last name “Rose,” and began publishing books. My current publisher, who I am signed with now, asked me how I felt dropping the last name. I had previously been signed with a company that didn’t uphold their end of the contract, and when my publisher asked what my thoughts were about dropping the name “Rose,” I took the change as a new opportunity.
Your author page on Amazon Books says that you started writing at 13 years old, and by the time you were 24 you started to self-publish your work. What was the inspiration for you to start writing so young? Also, what led you to the path of being self-published? How did you promote yourself from that point?
I remember I was in eighth grade, and my English teacher, Ms. Silver, assigned the class to write a short story. I don’t recall what the short story was based on, but I knew I was dreading the assignment. I went home and began to write. And I didn’t stop. I allowed my imagination to use me, and my short story turned into a 42-chapter book.
I never thought about publishing any of my work until my family began to read my work and they encouraged me to look into self-publishing. And I did. I didn’t do any research, I just dove right into it, and it didn’t work too well for me. My number one way of promoting myself then is still the same that I use today. Because I didn’t do my research I didn’t know anything about promoting. Word of mouth was all I used then. Now, there are ways through social media to promote myself, and both techniques work for me.
At work, most of the time you are behind the registers. Personally, I find it difficult to make recommendations to customers. Sometimes they are in a rush. They don’t want to make conversation with you. Or there is a line of people waiting behind them. Do you remember the first time a customer purchased one of your books from you? I can almost imagine it would feel like a “breaking of the fourth wall” situation.
The first time a customer bought my book without me recommending the book was exhilarating. I noticed that the customer was on her way to the register to purchase my book and I remember that I wanted to shout “Hey that’s my book right there!” But I kept my composure.
Luckily, she ended up coming to my register. I asked her the normal questions that we have to ask and once that was out of the way, I asked her, “Would you like for me to sign your book?” She looked at me like I had lost my mind and I could tell that she was going to protest. I quickly let her know that I was the author of the book and she got excited. Any time someone is purchasing one of my books, I ask the same question and it never gets old when the customer’s face drops at the realization that I am the author.
Recommending my books to customers is a lot harder due to me being at the register, but I have amazing coworkers (such as you) who help with recommending my books. It’s like the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and everyone at the store is my village.
Your Crime of Passion series focuses on domestic abuse. The covers of the books foreshadow what they will be about. I found the scenes whenever the main character, Quinn, would get beaten or recall the times she did to be chilling. You told me that some events are based on your actual life. If you’re comfortable with it, can you tell me what was going through your mind when writing it?
It was hard writing this particular series. Domestic violence is never OK and I wanted to portray that. There are tons of men and women who are in this type of situation who feel like they can’t leave. I wrote the series to let people who are in those situations know that it is OK to go. It’s OK for you to fight back and regain control over your life and live the best way you know how for you. Because I didn’t want to write just about fictional characters dealing with domestic violence, I wanted to share my story. To show I left even when I felt like I couldn’t, I had to for the safety of my children.
I cried so many times while writing this series. I don’t understand how I got through it. When it was time for me to write the third part, I went back and forth on trying to decide if I wanted to put myself out there. I always thought, ‘Well, if this series touches at least one person I am OK with that.’
Thank you for sharing that. I’m writing this question at the end of February, Black History Month. I noticed you were setting up a mini-display where the fiction section begins. The display had a variety of books written by Black authors alongside yours as well. What does this genre mean to you? Do you think it attracts a specific type of audience?
Urban fiction to me means real life for African American men and women. The things that are portrayed inside of those books are things that have most likely happened to the author or to someone that they know. I write from this standpoint and in every book that I have written.
I have personally gone through what I am writing about. Not saying that this is how other urban fiction authors write, but most times that is the case. There are so many books under the urban fiction genre that I can pick up and relate to because our struggles are between those words.
I have definitely gotten my fair share of customers who ask if we carry urban fiction books. The display is helpful to know what to recommend to people who ask! What does it mean to you to have that sort of representation in literature?
I started reading a lot of urban fiction books when I was in my early teens. I was young, but my mind was mature enough to grasp what was being said. Once I started reading the genre, it was like I couldn’t get enough. When I would go into libraries and bookstores to look for the genre, my heart would sink due to them either not having a section or having a minimal section with books that I had already read. It’s important to have a display of urban fiction books set up in a local bookstore because there are several people who come in who don’t ask for help and never could seem to find them. It also helps because there has never ever been just one popular author on the display due to always introducing new authors to customers so they can come in and buy again.
You once told a coworker that you were afraid that your writing would corrupt me. After reading a couple of books, I definitely wouldn’t suggest them to anyone younger than 16, in my opinion.
Of course it was in a joking manner, but I don’t think that anyone that I am close to should read any of my books LOL. I say that because I do allow my imagination run away while writing and sometimes things get a little hectic. I always want people to see me as the sweet, kind, nice person that they meet as opposed to the person who kills off a character just because LOL. Because I will do it. I don’t write fairy tales. I curse explicitly. I have people shoot other people. Those alone aren’t for someone who is younger than 16. I don’t think anyone under 18 should read any of my books.
Kayla DeMicco is a recent graduate at The College of Saint Rose. She received her Bachelor’s of Arts in communications with a concentration in journalism. On top of writing for Pine Hills Review, she worked for Saint Rose’s student newspaper, The Chronicle. She also works part-time at a local bookstore.