Patrick Anderson on Debut Novel “Riders in Disguise”

My job as a creative writing professor at Miami Dade College is to help students dissect the narratives that intrigue them by breaking down how the author constructed a given story using the major elements of fiction: plot, character, setting, point of view, and theme.

It’s a mantra at this point, those words.

I’ve studied and lectured about them so much they’ve seeped into the very fabric of my being. With my career aspirations as both a teacher and an author becoming intricately intertwined over the last decade and a half, my way of thinking about almost everything is framed around those elements, including the reasons why I wrote my debut novel, Riders in Disguise.

Set in Miami in the eighties, Riders in Disguise follows four characters from different walks of life as they navigate one of the most tumultuous decades in Miami’s century-plus history. It’s easy to explain the location choice. I was born in South Miami in December 1983 and therefore lived through the era in question, albeit too young to grasp the complexities and contradictions of a city experiencing a boom like no other.

When I think about 1980’s Miami,

I feel like a child at his parents’ house while they’re throwing a party, forced to watch curiously from his bedroom doorway as the adults dance around the living room having the time of their lives. This curiosity stuck with me through college and found renewed fuel in 2006 when I first watched Billy Corben’s iconic documentary, Cocaine Cowboys. Admittedly, the film’s descriptions of brazen acts of violence are what initially piqued my interest in the topic. But as the lure of bloodshed faded, my fascination lingered on Miami’s symbiotic relationship with that specific decade, cementing a truth that I hadn’t really grasped before: Miami as I know it—the place where I was raised and which I love wholeheartedly—literally grew out of the eighties.

Beyond the MiamiVice-meets-Scarface glitz and glamour and carnage, the eighties and everything it’s known for—parties and cocaine, the crack epidemic, skyrocketing murder rates, Mariel, Liberty City riots, cultural shifts that bore a Miami hip hop scene—shaped today’s South Florida.

During that first viewing of Cocaine Cowboys, I realized my base knowledge of Miami’s history was cursory at best. I still saw Miami just as the city I was born, nothing more.

The desire to write something like Riders in Disguise was there,

I just didn’t have enough details yet. I look back now and feel a bit naïve, like that child in his room again, sleeping soundly in bed while the party outside rages on and the city he looks to for comfort snorts a line off a coffee table.

As the years passed and I read more into Miami’s dramatic history, I realized that the narrative of the story I was trying to tell had to be driven by a combination of its main characters and the momentum of the decade. Riders in Disguise is divided into three parts, each taking place on a single day in 1979, 1980, and 1981 respectively.

Through the main characters, the reader gets a glimpse into four very different Miami communities. Tina Pacheco is a budding photo-journalist who lands a gig at the most prestigious newspaper in Miami after capturing images of the 1979 Dadeland Mall Massacre. Ralph Williams is a seasoned homicide detective and Vietnam war veteran trying to do his job amid a historic crime wave and growing corruption within his own department. Tommy Muñoz is a Pedro Pan survivor who is unwittingly (and violently) dragged into the world of drug trafficking when his wife’s uncle hires him as a driver. And then there’s Rig Lopez-Campbell, an impoverished middle-schooler growing up in Liberty City as the crack epidemic gets underway.

Each characters’ individual tale is a branch of the larger overarching narrative in Riders in Disguise. Their trajectories throughout the novel (and the planned trilogy) aim to shed light on the multifaceted storylines Miami residents experienced throughout the eighties, with the burgeoning drug war and its long-term impact lying center stage.

As I was plotting out the initial version of Riders in Disguise over a decade ago,

I quickly realized that I was one of dozens upon dozens of writers choosing to tackle the subject of drugs and violence in the eighties. This lack of distinctiveness almost made me abandon the project. I actually did put my pen down for a while. I continued researching though, and happened upon a couple of different works that gave me some perspective and an angle I could claim as my own.

One of these works was Don Winslow’s Border Trilogy (The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border). In this collection of novels, Winslow explores the War on Drug and its effects on Southern California and Mexico, combining research and masterful storytelling to great effect. As I read (and re-read) the trilogy, it occurred to me that I wanted to do what Winslow was doing, except in Miami. The scope and character choice for Riders in Disguise was also inspired by The Wire, David Simon’s five season epic that I like to consider a visual novel more than a simple TV show.

But while these works and others like it helped me see how I could better incorporate years of research into a single narrative, it was one particular film that cemented the theme of Riders in Disguise in my mind: 2016’s Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins and adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”

Sitting in a theater on a random Tuesday evening (prime movie-going time, let me tell you) I found myself immersed in a narrative that seemed both familiar and foreign to me; familiar in that I grew up around these types of characters, and foreign in that I’d never seen them portrayed on the big screen in such a manner. It was the first major film production I’d ever seen where the writers and directors handled the story of a destitute kid from the ghetto with such respect and compassion for its protagonist. Walking out of the theater that evening, it hit me that Riders in Disguise was primarily the story of Rig and—through him—Miami’s black community.

In Riders in Disguise, Rig’s perspective is the antithesis to one-sided narratives about people from his background, offering an empathetic window into the life of an individual thrust into unsavory circumstances by the harsh reality of this country’s historical legacy. Where the other three main characters’ lives and stories are inspired by everything from newspaper articles to historical documents to real life interviews with a largely white community, Rig’s story is firmly entrenched in Miami’s black history, with much of his narrative inspired by the autobiographies of Miami legends like Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell (The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City) and Maurice “Trick Daddy” Young (Magic City: Trials of a Native Son).

A lot of Rig’s story is also loosely based on my own personal experiences.

Cousins who served jail time for drug possession only for those same drugs to now be legal where they live. Myself and friends and acquaintances perpetually harassed by law enforcement throughout the years for seemingly no other reason than our being young and black. Though my parents live in a middle-class part of the city, going to public school in Miami makes nearly all of us “hood-adjacent.” As a result, I grew up with many people suffering through the same challenging circumstances as Rig experiences in Riders in Disguise, circumstances frequently exacerbated by the absurdity of outdated drug laws that have unjustly destroyed families, neighborhoods, and entire communities.

Riders in Disguise is really a story for and about them.

Each semester I end my creative writing classes with a discussion of revision tactics, looking at how they put together the first drafts of their stories, the commentary they received during workshop, and how they can use that commentary to improve their story for final draft submission. In constructing the many (many) drafts of Riders in Disguise over the years, the narrative remained foggy for a while. At first I thought this murkiness was a result of me trying to do too much, telling too epic of a story to handle on my own.

Then it occurred to me that I just hadn’t had the right experiences yet to visualize the point I was trying to make. The type of experiences that could give me the perspective I needed to know how to arrange the elements of fiction around that point. I’m thankful now that it’s all come together, and I look forward to hearing Miami’s thoughts on the result.

You can buy Riders in Disguise online here.  Come  out to hear Patrick Anderson speak at Books & Books Friday, September 15 at 7 p.m.

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Patrick Anderson Jr.

Patrick Anderson Jr. was born in Miami to Jamaican immigrants. He is currently a creative writing professor at Miami Dade College where he has taught for over a decade.