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Jennine Capó Crucet aimed to write an elegy of Miami in new 'Scarface'-inspired novel


If you've seen the 1983 movie "Scarface," you may remember an iconic line by Al Pacino. He says...


AL PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Say hello to my new friend.

PFEIFFER: ...Say hello to my little friend. That same line is now the title of a new book by Jennine Capo Crucet. And in both her book and the movie, the city of Miami is a central character. The novel tells the story of a young Cuban exile named Izzy who's trying to make a life for himself while also trying to figure out a mystery from his past. Author Jennine Capo Crucet is with us. Welcome.

JENNINE CAPO CRUCET: Thank you so much for having me, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: We're glad to have you. Your book is not a violent crime drama like "Scarface," but the movie is a major theme of the book, and it factors into how your main character sees the world. What is your relationship with the movie "Scarface," and why make it such a big part of your novel?

CAPO CRUCET: I just feel like "Scarface" has always existed. The movie came out around the time I was born. I think I might have seen it for the first time at age - far too young, maybe age 9 or 10, which is not the age you should be watching a movie like that.

PFEIFFER: No. Very gory, very heavy-duty movie.

CAPO CRUCET: Yeah. My relationship with the movie is very much love-hate, probably more towards hate. I think my goal with this book was in part, if anyone's never seen "Scarface," they can read this book and then never have to actually watch it 'cause they got everything they needed to know. But I went off to college and found out that "Scarface" was kind of a touchstone for folks about what Miami was and who Cuban Americans were, and I found that deeply troubling.

PFEIFFER: Troubling because it felt like unfair stereotypes of Miami...

CAPO CRUCET: Oh, absolutely.

PFEIFFER: ...And Cubans?

CAPO CRUCET: And then on top of that, it's - I mean, for me, "Scarface" is a comedy just 'cause it's so ridiculous. And then when people take the movie seriously, I'm always really confused by that because, like, Al Pacino's accent, for instance, doesn't sound even remotely Spanish or Cuban to our ears, right? So I - that's part of what the book takes up is sort of pointing out all the places where the movie is very silly and playfully engage with the film that way.

PFEIFFER: The main character, Izzy, has been trying to make a living by impersonating the Miami singer Pitbull, but for legal reasons, that comes to an end. So he's - instead, he's trying to become a real-life Tony Montana, Al Pacino's character in "Scarface." There is this running theme in your book of young men in Miami who have lost their way or who can't find their way. It's tough on men. The book kind of portrays a lot of them as ridiculous. Why? What does that tell us about your view of Miami and what it does to men?

CAPO CRUCET: Oh, man. I think I was interested in seeing the ways that people sort of think they've got to become something, but they don't exactly know what that something is. And I think that's a real - that's a quality or a characteristic of growing up in Miami, I think for - and I can only speak for myself, but it's my experience that as a young woman, the answer was sort of education and pushing yourself really hard and going to school and going to college and really excelling in that world. And that was sort of your way through or a way out. And I didn't see that the same for guys. There seemed to be bigger temptations, bigger risks. And really, I couldn't figure out Izzy until I figured out Lolita, the captive orca who sort of his story gets filtered through. And the novel, you know, actually begins with her and her capture from her home.

PFEIFFER: Let's talk about Lolita. As you said, she's a whale, an orca. She's been living for decades, tragically, in a cramped tank at a Miami aquarium. We also learn what she's thinking as she swims around, and basically, she's trying not to lose her mind. What did you want to do by making a whale a central character?

CAPO CRUCET: I don't know what I wanted to do.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

CAPO CRUCET: I think she sort of emerged. When I started writing this novel in 2013, it was Izzy's story, and it definitely was coming from a place of, like, satire, sarcasm, a sense of, like, you know, if this - if the publishing industry wants "Scarface" lite, why don't I just give it to them? And it wasn't until I realized that so much of the way the novel was going to be told was through the voice of Miami but specifically Miami's water. I know it sounds a little wacky.

PFEIFFER: There's a climate change element to this. Yeah, exactly.

CAPO CRUCET: Absolutely. Right. You know, the water is coming through the city, and anywhere that water can go, the story can go. And that led me to the Miami Seaquarium. It was a place I visited as a child, a place that I think is deeply connected to a sense of Miami childhood for a lot of people. And putting her in the book - she was a real surprise, but she was sort of the key to unlocking the whole thing. And it's one of the moments in the writing of the book that just felt like, one, the story was really alive and, to some extent, very much out of my control.

PFEIFFER: We should emphasize here, Lolita was real. Lolita died relatively recently, I think while you were in the process, about to publish your book. And I'm wondering, because you became, I assume, attached to her in a way by making her a character and get into her mind, how did you feel when you learned out that she had passed away?

CAPO CRUCET: I was really devastated. I don't know how much of a right I had to feel devastated about it, but I had spent many years trying to think what it must be like to have that sort of existence. And it didn't start to crystallize for me as an experience until early pandemic, when we were all in deep isolation.

PFEIFFER: Oh, interesting.

CAPO CRUCET: In my early pandemic months, I was completely alone in a house. I was not living in an area where I felt safe. I was just sort of, like, moving around the house in circles all day, sort of going a little wacky. And I sort of made that connection - this thing that I'd been struggling with in the novel, like, that that experience was something that would inform how I would write those Lolita chapters. I mean, orca are animals that can swim, like, 80 to 100 miles a day. Through the research and writing of this book, I would say they are more intelligent than we are. But I just hope that it brings awareness to the plight of captive marine mammals everywhere and that the people who are holding these animals realize they're not there for our edutainment or for our entertainment at all. And that - I hope that, if anything, the novel is, in some ways, a memorial to her.

PFEIFFER: The human main character, Izzy - he's a migrant from Cuba. His mother died while trying to cross the Straits of Florida. That part turns into a really fascinating mystery with quite a surprising answer to what unfolded. You yourself were born in Miami to Cuban exiles. How much of your own life story is in this novel?

CAPO CRUCET: Very little. And I think that's a reaction to my last novel, where people sort of conflated me with the main character. And I think this time I was like, I'm going to make somebody so different from me that it couldn't possibly come from my life story. And yet here we are, right? Like, those experiences still find a way in. But it's mostly in the small things, the sort of asides, the neighborhood that Izzy goes to in his first sort of, like, search for the folks who've been on the raft with him, the first people he runs into. That's my neighborhood, Palm Springs North - shoutout to PSN. So those kinds of things, like, those small moments.

PFEIFFER: It's clear you know Miami very intimately. And it - in some ways, it reads a bit like a love letter to Miami, in other ways, a harsh critique of Miami. Would you say you have a conflicted relationship with the city?

CAPO CRUCET: Well, I mean, I think any place that you love - James Baldwin said this much more eloquently than I am right now - but any place that you love, you reserve the right to be critical of it as well. It's definitely a sense of goodbye to Miami. I know when I started writing this book, I really wanted to be done writing about Miami. This is my fourth book. I think the difference here is, like, all my other books have been set in Miami, at least to some extent. This one I take Miami on as a subject - right? - not just a setting. And I just wanted to be like, everything I've ever wanted to say about this place, I want it in one spot, as an elegy, as a goodbye, but also as an archive, as a city that'll be underwater in my lifetime. I just want people to be able to read this and say, oh, look at what we lost. But any kind of affection or love has to come with a side of criticism. You know, my Venus is in Virgo, so I show - my love is through criticism.

PFEIFFER: That's Jennine Capo Crucet. Her new novel is "Say Hello To My Little Friend." It's out now. Thank you, Jennine.

CAPO CRUCET: Thank you, Sacha.


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William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.