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.