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The Real Cats Behind the Ridge

Sep 06, 2012 in Uncategorized

Today we celebrate the publication of Michael Koryta’s THE RIDGE, now available in paperback in bookstores everywhere, with the below essay from Koryta included as bonus content in the new edition.

Don’t miss the novel that James Patterson calls “one of the scariest and most touching horror tales in years!”

One of the truly wonderful things about the business of writing is getting the chance to step into a different world and see it through the eyes of those who inhabit it. The Ridge was already written and nearing publication when I went along as an observer on a big-cat rescue, largely out of curiosity. It was an experience that left me wanting to step out of the observation role and lend some sort of help, because the animals are amazing to be near and the people affiliated with the center are compelling to work with. Over the course of a year I had the chance to participate in several rescues, offering the kind of involvement for which I am qualified: grunt labor, frequent mistakes, and a plethora of dumb questions.

Along the way, over several thousand miles and through several states, I gained hands-on experience with one of the most impressive animal-rescue operations in the country. I have just come back from helping with the rescue of a pair of lions from a refuge in the Kentucky mountains. Talk about full circle. I haven’t heard reports of any blue torches nearby. But I kept my eye out, I assure you.

The big-cat rescue depicted in The Ridge is a fictional recreation  of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana. The center is currently home to cats of nine species, ranging from six-hundred-pound tigers to a six-pound Asian leopard cat. “Home” is the key word, because that is the main purpose for the center’s existence. Founder and director Joe Taft, who opened the center in 1991, wanted to provide a permanent home for big cats who had been abandoned or abused or were otherwise in need. At the time, he thought his mission would be a success if he could provide homes for 100 cats. He estimated there might be that many needy cats in the country.

He was wrong.

The current number of cats at the center is 227. In 2011, the rescue center took in 25 cats from six states. Reviewing my notes from the year, I estimated that for each cat that was taken in, at least five more requests could not be met due to limits of budget, time, and space. Taft guessed it was closer to ten, and I’m sure he’s right. It’s his phone that rings, and it rings often.

The center only takes in cats who are in need of a home. These situations are varied. Some cats have been confiscated by law enforcement; others come from refuges that have exceeded their capacity or their ability to deliver care; and some are personal pets, their owners overwhelmed by the reality of caring for a huge, hungry, potentially dangerous animal. Continue reading ›



Sep 05, 2012 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Scott Spencer wrote BREED under the pseudonym of Chase Novak. Keep reading to find out why.

When, after writing ten novels, a writer decides to publish under a different name, there will inevitably be some curiosity about what is behind the sudden change.

Thinking about my becoming Chase Novak, three things occur to me.   The first is, I have always (and I mean always) wanted a second identity.  I could go on and on about why, but, really, isn’t it more or less self-explanatory –and practically a universal fantasy?  (In other words: wouldn’t you like to be someone else, and also remain yourself?)

The second thing that occurs to me is that I have been assuming new identities my whole writing life.  Especially when I write novels in the first person, in which the narrator does all he can do to make a reader believe that “I” have burned down my girlfriend’s house, or run for Congress, or that someone very much like Bob Dylan is “my” father.

And, finally, Chase Novak stepped forward because “he” was willing –and eager! –to go places in a novel that Spencer would not have been able to reach.  Spencer is limited by the fact that he stands atop (or perhaps is buried beneath) the high, tottering stack of pages he has already written.  Novak has nothing on his mind but a mania to follow the nightmare logic of his most troubled thoughts and memories.  In other words, Spencer could not have written BREED.  It was up to Chase.

CHASE NOVAK is the pseudonym for Scott Spencer. Spencer is the author of ten novels, including Endless Love, which has sold over two million copies to date, and the National Book Award finalist A Ship Made of Paper. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, and Harper’s.

BREED, praised by Janet Maslin of the New York Times as “a foray into urbane horror, chicly ghoulish, with a malevolent emphasis on family values, is his debut novel as Chase Novak.


Dark Inspiration

Aug 29, 2012 in Books, Guest Posts, Writing

Echo Railroad Bridge over Sabine River, north of I-10, Orange, Texas 1031091315BWI can’t think about Edgar Allan Poe without thinking about my life, because he was there in dark spirit, in my room and in my head. He was out there in the shadows of the East Texas pines, roaming along the creeks and the Sabine River, a friendly specter with gothic tales to tell. It was a perfect place for him. East Texas. It’s the part of Texas that is behind the pine curtain, down here in the damp dark. It’s Poe country, hands down.

These thoughts were in my mind as I toured the Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. The Center, at the University of Texas at Austin, is celebrating the bicentennial of Poe’s birth with an exhibition that includes original manuscripts and illustrations. Looking at these artifacts, it occurred to me that Poe reached out from the grave and saved this East Texan from the aluminum chair factory. I know there are those who will say working in an aluminum chair factory is good honest work, and I’m going to agree. But I will say without hesitation and with no concern of insult that it damn sure wasn’t work of my choosing, and that it takes the skill of a trained raccoon and the I.Q. of a can of green beans, minus the label, to get it done.

Like Sisyphus forever rolling his rock uphill, I feared I would spend my time on Earth matching up aluminum runners, or linking chain to be pinned together by hissing and snapping and cutting and crimping machines, which in turn would be forklifted away in shiny piles of bent rods and flexible seats. Something to be sold and brought out on hot days at barbecues, and on hot nights to give mosquito-attacked, beer-drinking drive-in theater patrons a place for their butts to nestle.

Continue reading ›


Start Reading Breed by Chase Novak

Aug 27, 2012 in Excerpts, Fiction, Mulholland Authors, Uncategorized

Next month we publish the hotly anticipated horror novel from Chase Novak, the pseudonymous debut of Scott Spencer’s alter ego hailed by Stephen King as “The best horror novel I’ve read since Peter Straub’s Ghost Story…by turns terrifying and blackly funny…a total blast.”

Copies are already on their way to bookstores–but you can start the wild ride right here. Let the buzz begin!

Part One


Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father


It’s well known—part fact, part punch line—that people in New York think a great deal about real estate. In the case of Leslie Kramer, she actually was aware of the house Alex Twisden lived in before she had ever met him, or even knew his name. Leslie would often pass by the house on days she chose to walk to Gardenia Press, where, though single and childless herself, she edited children’s books.

The house was a piece of pure old New York, from before taxes, before unions, back when the propertied classes had money for the finest stonework, the finest carpentry, and for a multitude of servants, including people to put straw in the streets so the wagon wheels of passing merchants would not clatter on the cobblestones. It was a four-story townhouse on East Sixty-Ninth Street, an often-photographed Federal-style dwelling made of pale salmon bricks, with windows that turned bursts of light into prismatic fans of color framed by pale green shutters.

It was one of the few residences on this block that had not been broken up into apartments, and the only house in the neighborhood owned by the same family since its construction. It was one of those places that seem immune to change, ever lovely, and ever redolent of privilege and the provenance that justifies the continuation of those privileges. The front of the house bore a polished brass plaque announcing the year of the house’s construction, 1840. The window boxes were almost always in bloom, with snowdrops in the spring, and then with tulips, impatiens, geraniums, and various decorative cabbages, some of them so unusual and obscure that often passersby would stop on the sidewalk and wonder about them. The light post next to the eight-step porch was entwined with twinkling blue lights twelve months a year. Recycling was set out at the curbside inside of cases that once held bottles of Château Beychevelle or Tattinger’s.

Twisdens have been born and have died in these rooms. The first President Roosevelt dined there on several occasions and once famously played the ukulele and sang Cuban folk songs for a dinner party that included the mayor, the ambassador to the Court of King James’s, and a Russian ballerina who, it turned out, was embroiled in an affair with the host, Abraham Twisden. Twisdens who practiced law and medicine lived here, political Twisdens, bohemian Twisdens, drunken and idle Twisdens, one of whom lost the house in a card game on West Fourteenth Street, a debt that was nullified by the sudden death of the lucky winner, who turned out not to be so lucky after all.

Alex was raised in this house along with his sisters, Katherine and Cecile. Their world was this house, with its mahogany globes the size of cantaloupes on the newel posts of every stairway, with wedding-cake plaster on the ceilings, and wainscoting in the parlor, and the library, and antique Persian carpets of red and purple and blue and gold on the wide plank floors, rugs knotted by little hands that had long since turned to dust.

Katherine lives now as a Buddhist nun in Thailand and has renounced the family; she has a brain tumor that has shortened her temper but seems not to be shortening her life. Cecile died at thirteen, of a staph infection following the removal of her appendix, and when their parents died in Corfu, in 1970, the house on Sixty-Ninth Street passed without contest directly to Alex.

In point of fact, it was the house that brought Alex and Leslie together in the first place. One drizzly spring morning, Alex noticed her stopped in front of his house, and he said, “Haven’t I seen you before?”

“Oh, I like to stop here. It’s on my way to work. And it’s such a beautiful house.”

“I’m afraid I’m its prisoner,” Alex said. “I just don’t like anyplace else in the world half so much.”

“I can see why,” Leslie said. The ends of her blunt-cut auburn hair touched the dark red, rain-spotted wool of her coat. She had the plain but lovely face of a pioneer; he could imagine her sitting at the back of a covered wagon, looking longingly east as her family headed west. Her eyes were bright green, and though she was smiling, there seemed something temperamental, easily wounded about her.

Alex, dressed for work in thousands of dollars’ worth of English tailoring and, even in a more overtly social situation, tending toward the reticent, surprised himself by asking, “Would you be interested in seeing the inside?”

From there to courtship to wedding was a mere five months and it did not escape Leslie’s attention that some people (well: many) thought of her as Alex Twisden’s midlife trophy wife. Never mind that she loved him, and never mind that (of this she was certain) he loved her, and never mind that she was almost thirty (well: twenty-eight) and had an excellent (well: good) job at a great (well: up and coming) New York publishing company—the fact that she was seventeen years younger than Alex, and that he was wealthy, and childless and probably (well: definitely) in the hunt for an heir, made Leslie a trophy wife, which, in the parlance of well-off Manhattanites, suggested she was practicing some high-end, socially sanctioned form of prostitution.

But now the shining trophy wife has a very significant ding in her. She has been trying to have a baby for three years, which is why she and Alex are currently sitting in the annex of Herald Church on West Ninetieth Street, a depressing, claustrophobic, smelly, badly lit, terrible, and depressing (yes, it is worth a second mention) basement in which they are attending the biweekly meeting of the Uptown Infertility Support Group. As Leslie looks around at the scuffed linoleum floors, the plasterboard walls, the strip lighting, and the metal folding chairs, she uncrosses and recrosses her legs and tries to read the expression on her husband’s long, narrow, solemn face. But he is as unreadable here as he is when he rides the elevator to the top floor of the Erskine Building, where the venerable firm of Bailey, Twisden, Kaufman, and Chang go about their hushed business, a kind of law that seems to Leslie far closer to accountancy than anything she has ever seen on TV. In TV law, lives hang in the balance, wrongs are redressed, and the system blindly gropes its way toward justice. At BTK&C, all that matters in the orderly transfer of property, and the golden rule seems to be “Don’t ever touch the principal.”

Neither Alex nor Leslie really wants or needs the psychological or moral support of other couples dealing with infertility. They attend because it is Alex’s theory that these meetings, aside from being sobfests and weirdly twelve-steppy in their confessional nature, operate as a kind of clearinghouse for information about fertility treatments and fertility doctors. So far they have not met anyone who has done anything different from what Alex and Leslie have tried, often at the very same clinics, with the very same doctors, and even with the same kindhearted nurses. Tonight’s meeting was particularly useless. Two of the nine couples in the group have already separated—infertility can wreak havoc on a marriage—yet both the husbands from these defunct unions continue not only to show up for meetings but to dominate the discussions. The Featherstones, a chubby, cheerful duo—he a second-grade teacher, she a pastry chef—want to share their fabulous news. Chelsea is, or at least was, pregnant, and even though she miscarried in the third week, both the Featherstones are ebullient, feeling they have their problem, if not defeated, then at least on the run, and they somehow induce the group to share their excitement. As the basement echoes with applause, Leslie pretends to look for something in her purse, and Alex simply sits there with his hands folded in his lap.

When she looked over at him he silently mouths the words I love you.

*** Continue reading ›


A Review of Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off

Aug 23, 2012 in Guest Posts

This review first appeared at Grift Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

I thought I’d burn through Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off, but I read the first half at an incredibly slow pace, partly out of necessity (I was moving) and partly because the narrative demanded my attention in a way I hadn’t expected.

The first chapters are weighted down with exposition about Michel Khoury, the book’s narrator, a young PLO operative whose family was murdered by extremists at a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The short, Sallis-like chapters kept me reading when my attention waned. My first impression was that the book was trying unsuccessfully to balance being a spy novel and a history lesson. But those early chapters are merely a foundation for a story that gets moving around 70 pages in and then is impossible to put down once you reach the halfway mark.

Michel is an agent for a man named Abu Leila, who has taught him all that he knows and has become his surrogate father. I won’t go into great detail about their relationship except to say that what at first seems ordinary is later revealed as the great mysterious core of the book. Michel believes that he, as Abu Leila’s pawn, is working to resolve the Middle East conflict peacefully. Needless to say, nothing in this book is that easy.

Part of the book’s charm is that there are no simple heroes and villains. We have questions about every character that we meet, including Michel, who—in a couple of very surprising scenes—uncovers his true motives for becoming an intelligence agent. When he’s forced to go rogue and face his demons, Michel becomes even more intense and complicated.

One of the most compelling characters here is Helen, a young postgraduate anthropology student who Michel lives next door to and falls in love with. Helen, even more than Michel and Abu Leila, was a mystery to me as I read. I wondered about her motives constantly. Was she an agent? What was her endgame? When I realized I had taken on Michel’s anxiety about her, I felt that Hiller had succeeded in a significant way.

The book is, in some ways, about paranoia. Early on, Michel tells us how he sees the world: “Everyday objects must be considered potential concealers of microphones or cameras. Every person you meet could either be an agent waiting to get close or a possible recruit to the cause. Every woman that talks to you wants to trap you with the promise of sex. Every postcard has a hidden meaning. Everybody behind you could be following you, and it is your job to shake them off.” I was put in mind of Trelkovsky in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (based on Roland Topor’s novel) in terms of how Hiller portrayed Michel’s pathological alienation. Unlike Trelkovsky, though, Michel’s search leads him away from madness. Ultimately, Shake Off is all the things it’s billed as—infectious, thought-provoking, and entertaining—because Michel is a character who exposes the dark complexities of being human.


An Interview with Michael Koryta

Aug 22, 2012 in Guest Posts, Writing

[This conversation first appeared at MysteryPeople's blog and is reprinted here with their kind permission]

While The Prophet definitely has your voice, it’s a bit different from your Lincoln Perry series and the five other thrillers you wrote. How did it come about?

The Prophet is a book I’d wanted to write for a long time, actually, and I couldn’t find the right way in. I knew the starting point – a kid who was supposed to get his sister home from school safely and didn’t. She was abducted while walking a short distance home, killed by a guy who was supposed to be in jail and had skipped out on bond. As an adult, the older brother is a bond agent, he’s made his life a mission of atonement for something he can never set right. But I wanted to pair him against another brother who had gone another way. At first I started with a minister. That didn’t take, though, it was too on-the-nose, I think. So it wasn’t until I found the other brother, Kent, as the high school football coach and community hero and who has involved himself with prison outreach programs that I really got the story rolling. I needed that dramatic tension between the two of them.

What I love about the book is that the emotions of Adam and Kent ring true for the violent situations they have to deal with. How difficult was it to deal with such sobering subject matter?

I appreciate hearing that, because it was certainly the goal. I told my editor early, this one has to hurt, it has to cut to the bone, or I didn’t do it right. If people ask me my favorite of my own work I’d probably say The Cypress House, and then I’d say that The Prophet is the best, and the reason would be that I think it does have a higher level of emotional reality and depth. Though you know an author is the worst judge of his own work. It was a damn sad book to write, though, it really was. I remember commenting on that a lot to the people close to me. I’d finish a writing session feeling wrung out and exhausted in a way I never had with a book. It wore on me emotionally and I was surprised by that. My emotional investment with Adam was very deep, and as you can imagine, that made it a painful story most of the time. He’s a pretty wounded guy, he’s very damaged. In this really bizarre way, I kept wishing I could save him, that I could force him to make different choices. Now, of course I could, I’m the writer. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels as if the characters have free will and you’re narrating a drama that you can’t stop. Continue reading ›

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TV Movies and Evil Women

Aug 21, 2012 in Guest Posts, Writing

Two of the best suspense novelists working today, one lively conversation–what more could you ask for? Goodreads was kind enough to let us excerpt a portion of Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott’s chat, more of which can be found here. And don’t miss Flynn’s GONE GIRL and Abbott’s DARE ME, both now in bookstores everywhere!

Megan Abbott: A couple years back we realized we both had been strongly influenced by watching, as kids in the 1980s, true-crime TV movies (the Golden Age for these kinds of movies). Do you have a favorite or two?

Gillian Flynn: Oh, sweet, sweet movies of the week. My all-time favorite (as in, I own it and watch it once a year or so) is A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story, a 1992 TV movie starring the sublime Meredith Baxter. It’s based on a real case: Betty Broderick, a wealthy Southern California housewife, began spiraling out of control when her influential lawyer husband left her (after she helped put him through law school and med school). She ultimately shot both her ex and his new wife while they were sleeping. The case is much more nuanced than these basic outlines, but let me say that it intrigues me because it’s about a relationship gone very toxic, escalating animosities, the perils of attaching one’s identity to someone else, and the dangers of righteousness. The movie is legitimately great—Baxter is fascinating. If you want to read about the case, check out Bella Stumbo’s true-crime book, Until the 12th of Never. It’s stunning.

That’s my long answer: And you, Megan? Your favorite, legitimately good, and your favorite guilty pleasure TV movie?

MA: Oh, what a great question! I think A Friend to Die For AKA Death of a Cheerleader with Kellie Martin and (yes) Tori Spelling would be right up there. It’s actually a very meaty tale (based on a true crime) and speaks volumes about the pressures of being a teenage girl. Second only to Small Sacrifices with Farrah Fawcett, which I haven’t seen in many years but terrified me for years (“Hungry Like the Wolf” never sounded the same thereafter…)

Gillian, what was that one with Hillary Swank we both had watched?

GF: Dying to Belong! Hilary Swank’s friend joins a sorority, is hazed by the evil queen bee (Scrubs’s Sarah Chalke) and mysteriously falls to her death from a clock tower. Hilary investigates. I remember girls writing mean things on freshmen pledges with magic marker (am I making this up?) and also Hilary Swank and Mark-Paul Gosselaar riding a lot of bikes to the tune of Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” This is starting to sound like a fever dream.

MA: Oh gosh, that’s totally right. They markered all over their body parts, telling them where they were too flabby. I never forgot that. If it’s a fever dream, it’s one that returns, like malaria!

GF: Megan, speaking of the evil girls do to each other, it reminds me of that fantastic line in DARE ME, “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”

Did that line come to you as you were writing, or was that a guiding theme early on of DARE ME?

MA: It came to me as I was writing, though originally it was buried later in the book. It kept sticking in my head, so I knew I had to move it forward.

I wonder with you about the notion of the “Cool Girl,” which is one of the most memorable passages in Gone Girl. (It begins: ““Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping…” and is quoted in full here.

Was that an early idea? When I read it, I nearly gasped it was so perfect, so incisive.

GF: I actually had a lot of trouble getting Amy’s voice and nailing her down. In the final version, she writes quizzes for women’s magazines for a living, but originally I had her as a columnist. So to figure her out more, I wrote a lot of her columns in her voice—just as an exercise. But that one I liked so much I couldn’t bear to get rid of it, so I worked it into the book.

Reader Question:: It seems like the “evil” female keeps cropping up this summer. Before I read Gone Girl, I happened upon Serena by Ron Rash. Now that’s an evil anti-hero(ine). I keep hearing selfish women in my music as well. Could this be a manifestation of frustrated feminists, not satisfied with women’s true roles?

Serena is a beautiful, haunting novel, isn’t it? Fear any woman who has a pet eagle.

I like to write about evil women because I think truly frightening women are under-represented in literature. Not campy villainesses but truly dangerous, evil-minded women. For me, I suppose it is in a way a feminist statement: I get weary of the idea that women are naturally good and nurturing. I think women struggle with evil as mightily as men do. I don’t want that struggle to be dismissed. I want credit for it!

MA: Evil is such a subjective word. I admit I never really think of any of my characters (or yours) as “evil.” One of the things I find so compelling about good crime fiction is it shows the complexities behind people behaving badly. That actions may be destructive or even cruel but as the book unfolds the picture gets more complicated. What do you think?

Like this conversation? Read it in its entirety on


Summer Reading

Aug 20, 2012 in Guest Posts

Sunny readingI seem to be on a cycle in which I finish books in early summer for a late fall release. It happened again this year – much, I’m sure, to my editor’s frustration. I’ve just finished up my next novel The Black Box, blowing all kinds of deadlines in the process. The frustrating part for my editor and copyeditor is that the longer I take, the less time they have to work their magic and make the book better.

But I have no worry this year or any year. The team that works on these books is the best and the book is in very good hands.

What’s been nice for me is that it turns summer into a real vacation for me. I don’t want to start my next book, even though I am thinking about it all the time, until all the editing and polishing of The Black Box is finished. That gives me time to catch up on books and movies and other projects. So then, here is an update on how I spent my summer vacation.

First, reading list. Most people think that because I write books that I must be reading books all the time. Not true. On one hand, you have to always be reading. It refills the tank, stimulates ideas and inspires. It’s important. The only problem is it can be intrusive to your own work. So when I am writing I am usually reading sparingly. I am lucky in that I get sent a lot of books to read. I look them over and put the one I want to read to the side for later. That is, if I can wait. Sometimes I can’t wait to jump on a book as soon as I pick it up at the store or it comes in the mail.

This has been a good summer for me. Reading both old and new books and even new old books (I’ll explain later), I have not been disappointed. Continue reading ›

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Writing Through Horror

Aug 17, 2012 in Guest Posts, Writing

Post-Katrina New Orleans: The Empty ChurchWe hear a lot of debate about the impact of pop culture on society. Do violent video games provoke killers? Does visceral fiction desensitize an audience in dangerous ways? Wait for the first correlation between the wildly popular FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and sexual assault – it’s coming, I promise you. I’ve engaged in the debate at times, and never considered it from a reversed perspective: how does criminal stigma impact pop culture?

Then came Jerry Sandusky.

I spent 2011 with high school football coaches, following the Bloomington High School North Cougars through a season as research for my novel THE PROPHET. It’s a story about brothers, torn apart by crime, estranged by vehemently different opinions on how to cope with the loss, and then forced back together by another, fresh horror. One of the brothers, Kent Austin, is a high school coach who is active in prison ministry. I live in Bloomington, Indiana and St. Petersburg, Florida, regions where Tony Dungy is a revered figure. For as much success as Dungy had on the field, leading the Colts to a Super Bowl championship and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a conference title game, he was equally well-known for his work off the field, specifically in prison ministry. The concept interested me, the dual roles but particularly the notion of a football coach conducting prison outreach. How would a sociopath react to him, I wondered, and with that in mind I set off to write a crime novel featuring a high school coach and his bail bondsman brother.

I’m a fan of the game but I didn’t play, and I certainly didn’t think I would be able to write about a coach without spending some time in the trenches. It was rewarding on levels I never expected. I learned from the coaches, became friends with them, saw the great work they were doing that carried over into the lives of their student athletes. This was the reality I had seen with my own eyes. Then came word of a different reality, in a place called Happy Valley. Continue reading ›


The Border Bosses: A Conversation with Sebastian Rotella and Luis Alberto Urrea: Part I

Aug 15, 2012 in Books, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

US-Mexico Border

Two great thrillers in just one week–this week we also celebrate the paperback publication of Sebastian Rotella’s acclaimed debut novel TRIPLE CROSSING. In bookstores now everywhere!

One of the first things we thought when we finished reading TRIPLE CROSSING was: we have to get Sebastian Rotella and Luis Urrea together. Of course, their conversation is fascinating, about borders, security, fear and the blurry line between “good” and “evil.”

Luis Urrea: Sebastian, you and I write about a lot of things, but I think we’re both seen as “Border writers” and I find in my experience that I kind of dislike a lot “Border experts” and “Border writers” because they come from outside the experience and bring in a lack of sympathy and empathy for the milieu. And I’m really curious about what I feel sets your work apart. How do you try to approach this? And am I full of hot air? Maybe I’m wrong about these guys, but you know it feels to me that much of the writing about this subject feels like a visit to the zoo.

Sebastian Rotella: Yeah, I remember you wrote about that eloquently in the past. You wrote about it in the very nice review you wrote of my previous book, TWILIGHT ON THE LINE. It’s a very good point. There’s this kind of parachute quality that happens with border coverage. I encountered that as a journalist. Obviously I had to be humble when I came to Tijuana, not having been there before. I had to learn that beat. But I had the advantage that I was based at the border. And I surprised that I was one of the few journalists covering the border who was based there working for major newspapers. This was a serious issue. You have pointed this out as well: even on the Mexican side, you’d get people parachuting in to cover the border from Mexico City or from Washington or from wherever they were coming from. And it makes such a difference to be based there full-time. What I went out of my way to do in those years, and the way I’ve tried to do my reporting in general, is to get out there and spend time on the ground with the migrants and with the cops and with the Border Patrol and with the human rights activists. There’s just so much to learn there and you only begin to understand the mysteries even if you are based at the border full time.

LU: Yeah, when I read TWILIGHT ON THE LINE, I thought, “Well this boy’s a homeboy, man.” You had the milieu down. And I actually stole from you. When you were talking about people going to the Big Boy and hanging out and so forth, I thought, “Dammit, I know that neighborhood. I know the restaurants around there. And it was really exciting to realize that there was a new sort of place to observe story happening. I always really responded to that in your work. I so often feel like (and I won’t name any names) that some of the people who have had very critically acclaimed books on the Border, a lot of them are filled with a sort of disdain and superiority held over their subjects. It really bothered me because I thought that there are so many levels of humanity striving and what moves me about that region is that, like you say, it’s kind of rejected by Mexico City as well as by Washington DC. It’s on its own.

SR: Yeah. And the problem is that we are attracted to (rightfully so) the dark side and the profound suffering and cruelty and heroism that is going on in arenas like the drug wars and illegal immigration. Those topics are so alluring and important that you end up writing about them. But when I was based there I also now and then tried in my coverage, and I tried to do it even in this novel (which is about crime and corruption), to demonstrate that there are so many other aspects. There is such energy at the border and such a rich culture: the music and the literature and the language that comes out of that encounter of cultures. People do sort of get a tunnel vision about focusing on the violence and despair. And it’s a struggle. Because as you become more of an expert, as you learn more about those secret worlds, you want to write about them. But at the same time you don’t want the border to be defined only by the dark side.

Continue reading ›

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