Sam Hawken has made the Texas borderlands his own unique home in a number of well received and hard-hiting crime novels. His first novel, the 2011 work, The Dead Women of Juarez, was published in the UK and used the real-life tragedy of female homicides in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez as the stepping-off point for a story of corruption, despair and redemption. It was shortlisted by the Crime Writers Association for the John Creasy New Blood Dagger.
Tequila Sunset followed in 2012, returning once again to Ciudad Juárez and its sister city, El Paso, Texas. This time Hawken drew upon the legacy of the infamous gang Barrio Azteca, at one time responsible for over 80% of the murders in Juárez, formerly the murder capital of the world. Once again, the Crime Writers Association recognized Hawken’s work, nominating the novel for the Gold Dagger (best crime novel of the year).
Though he no longer counts Texas as his home, he has not left the American Southwest behind. His third traditionally published novel, La Fronetera appeared in December 2013, with a fourth, Missing, just out.
Hard work pays off: Sam recently signed a two-book deal with Mullholland books. First of a new series, The Night Charter, will be out next year.
I was born in and spent half my life in south Texas, and the Mexican border was simply a part of my life. I lived among a Latino population in the United States and going over the bridge into Mexico didn’t provide the culture shock it does for some people. As I got older, I went farther and farther into the country, culminating in a weeks-long journey through the interior of the country, finally ending up on a beach in Mazatlán.
My time in Ciudad Juárez was, by contrast, fairly brief, but I visited there repeatedly in the ‘70s and ‘80s and got the impressions that have lasted until today. From what I understand from reading Mexican newspapers and books, the fundamental character of the city hasn’t changed. It’s considerably more violent than it was in “my day,” but it is still the same place. I doubt I’ll return until the drug war is over.
What things about Juárez make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Juárez is a city of industry, which is not something most people associate with Mexico. The maquiladoras, which are factories servicing American companies from GM to Dell, are the economic lifeblood of that community. People come from all over Mexico for a chance to work for a few dollars a day, making Juárez a place of strangers quite unlike most other cities in Mexico, where familial ties run deep.
I’ve also recently published a book, Missing, that takes place in Nuevo Laredo, a border town across from the Texas city of Laredo. I am intimately familiar with the atmosphere and cadence of Nuevo Laredo from my many visits there, but I’ve seen from afar as drug violence has torn this place, once a day-tourist haven, to pieces. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of violence on all of Mexico, but it is felt most acutely along the border, which used to be one of the more peaceful and prosperous places in the country.
I’ve gotten a lot of comment over three books about Mexico concerning the verisimilitude of my novels, with people praising the authentic detail. Truth to tell, I never intended the books to be a travelogue or anything of the sort. I simply set out to tell a story that could only be told in those places at this time. I’m not displeased that the setting has become a sort of character of its own, but it was purely unintentional.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I try to make reference to the features that are unique to the cities where my books take place. In The Dead Women of Juárez and Tequila Sunset, I talked about the marked contrast between the city at war on the Mexican side, with its trucks with mounted machine guns and armed and armored soldiers in the streets, and the almost total peace experienced on the American side in El Paso. In Missing I wanted to talk about Boy’s Town, the infamous “red light” district of the city where prostitution is concentrated on a couple of blocks of strip clubs and live sex shows and pretty much whatever else you can think of. I also tried to make note of the cross-border tourist traffic, which is hanging on by a thread.
These things make the settings unique and help sell the stories as true-to-life. I suspect this is a point of primary interest for my readership, as I hear back from them quite often about how they really felt transported to the locales where everything takes place.
During the course of three Mexico novels I’ve had seven main characters. These characters run the gamut from American expatriate (Kelly Couter in The Dead Women), burnt-out Mexican cop (Rafael Sevilla of the same), El Paso native working the gang beat (Cristina Salas in Tequila Sunset), a Mexican federal agent targeting the brutal work of cartel-affiliated gangs (Matías Segura, Tequila Sunset), Latino gang member in El Paso (Flip Morales, also of Tequila Sunset), ordinary American living on north bank of the Rio Grande (Jack Searle, Missing) and idealistic Mexican police investigator (Gonzalo Soler, Missing). As you can see from that list, that’s a whopping chunk of humanity, all of them coming at the setting of Mexico from more than a half-dozen different points of view. Some are steeped in the violence, some overwhelmed by it, some deliberately distant from it and others drawn in against their will. It’s enabled me to take on Mexico from every angle: insider, outsider, Mexican, American, cop, criminal.
The one thing all of these characters have in common is that they are poisoned by Mexico’s atmosphere of violence. Eventually all things lead back to the drug war and this attitude that life doesn’t matter. Not everything ends well for every one of my protagonists, but I hope those who read the books will feel it ends appropriately. There’s no escaping the gravitational pull of Mexico’s culture of death.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I haven’t ever heard anything from anyone currently living in Mexico, though I’ve been in touch with a couple of folks who have in the past. One was an American expatriate who spent a year living in war-torn Juárez and he took exception to my focus on the feminicidios, or female homicides, of the city. In Juárez, which is highly patriarchal along with most of Mexico, the issue of the female homicides is considered offensive to talk about in any serious way, and I got some of that in my emails with him.
Another contact came from a gentleman who comes from Juárez, but now lives in the United States. He praised my work for its authenticity and unflinching examination of the problems in his country of birth, so I guess I did well? I suppose it depends on what your experience was in Mexico’s borderland as to whether or not my books strike you as true to place. Those with an axe to grind will find plenty to get exercised about. Those who have different memories understand where I’m coming from.
I don’t know that it’s humorous, but I did make a kinda-sorta mistake in The Dead Women of Juárez. I talked about the city’s cross-border tourist trade and the party scene, but if you read the book from the perspective of the time it was published, that cross-border traffic had all but vanished and the party scene was dead. I had a reviewer ding me on that. In my defense, though, the book never does say when it takes place, so if one is feeling generous one may grant that the events of the The Dead Women occur in the early 2000s and not 2011 when the book was released. That said, I’d probably change that section of the book if I were writing it today.
Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Probably the scene that most typifies the level of violence in Mexico is a scene from Tequila Sunset, in which federal investigator Matías Segura is summoned to the scene of a crime where gang members have grotesquely dispensed with their enemies.
“Let’s have a look,” Matías said.
They rounded the fire-pit. The heat coming from it was substantial and Matías felt for the PF agents in their black uniforms, digging in the ashes for more cooked bits. Near the pit were three discarded plastic gasoline cans and a box of matches that had hit the ground and spilled. Away from the property, perhaps ten meters off, there was a thick stand of mesquite trees.
“How many?” Matías asked.
“You can see the three. I think that’s a fourth one there.”
“Who called it in?”
“Anonymous. There’s not a public phone within five kilometers of this place, so it was probably someone on their mobile. We’ll trace the number, but I don’t have high hopes.”
“They probably called it in themselves,” Matías said.
Matías watched as one of the PF men dislodged a heavy chunk of blackened flesh from underneath a bed of roasting mesquite. This one still had a head attached, though the features were burnt into obscurity. When he circled completely around to the sheet, he saw the remains of three torsos and most of five legs. The heads came separately, severed through the neck. One section of arm was only elbow and the flesh immediately above and below the joint.
“They were dismembered first,” Matías remarked.
“At least they didn’t go into the fire alive,” Felix said.
These fires are a real thing and are about as foul as you can imagine. Mexico is not for the faint-hearted. I think this scene really brings that home for the readers. This is not America and the criminals who populate Mexico’s drug-fueled underground are not the criminals of our American prisons.
I freely cop to having terrible taste in books and read a lot of trash. However, I don’t read all trash and my favorite authors in the “real” literary scene are Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. Hemingway had a gift for granting sense of place to his readers, as anyone who’s read pretty much anything of his can tell you. His language is also beautiful and nothing like the staccato parodies you read all the time.
Cormac McCarthy wrote the single most influential book in my library, and that’s No Country for Old Men. Much of what I’ve written over the past four years has been midwifed by that book, what with its sparse prose and unflinching narrative. I’d argue that No Country does a nominally worse job of conveying place — did most people even realize it took place in the ‘80s? — but it’s just so damned good that I really don’t care.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I would probably live in Portland, Oregon or somewhere nearby. I like cool temperatures and I like rain and forests, so Oregon is a perfect place for me. Right now I live in a heavily populated area in the mid-Atlantic region and I dislike it pretty thoroughly. It lacks the character of a real city (everyone’s scattered everywhere at random) and its climate doesn’t agree with me. Though we do regularly get snow, which is something Oregon doesn’t get.
What’s next for you?
I have put away Mexico for the time being, and possibly forever. After publishing four books set in the country, three with Serpent’s Tail and a fourth with small press Betimes Books, and having written a few more than haven’t been published, I’m pretty much done everything I care to do south of the border. Luckily I’ve been picked up by Mulholland Books and have a new series of action thrillers coming out in 2016 starring Camaro Espinoza, a damaged Army veteran whose history of violence comes bubbling to the surface when bad things happen to the wrong people. The first book is set in Miami and goes into some detail about the leftover anti-communist movement among the Cuban community, so I’m still trying to give readers a taste of setting with their story.
Thanks for having me on your blog!
And thanks for taking the time to be with us, Sam. Good luck to you.
To learn more about the work of Sam Hawken, visit his author page.