BENJAMIN WHITMER: I’ll start with a question Pierre Lemaitre asked me in France recently: which literary mother or father would you kill? Like when Flannery O’Connor said, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Who’s the Dixie Limited for you?
GABINO IGLESIAS: I would kill many. The first one would be Hemingway. You can’t write violence without someone bringing him up. You can’t bring up fighting or war or fishing or hunting or drinking. If you do, the comparisons will start, even from people who haven’t read him. Plus, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” I know, Mr. Hemingway, but writing is also the best thing in the world and something that keeps some of us going. I don't have to become a master of anything to enjoy it with every ounce of my soul. Oh, and never bring up boxing either. Don’t try to write a six-word story. Stay away from guns and suicide. Hemingway owns all of that and more. He is the quintessential literary macho and everyone else will be measured in comparison to him. Just imagine a friend of yours comes up to you and tells you he just nicknamed himself “Papa.” What would you say? If your friend’s name is Hemingway, you say nothing. I know it’s heresy, but for such a great writer (and he was amazing, don’t get me wrong), he wrote some lines that strike me as bland platitudes. Not as bland as some of Franzen’s rules for novelists, but bland nonetheless. Example: “I know now that there is no one thing that is true — it is all true.” There are a few writers working in Hemingway’s shadow. There are a lot of writers who other people think are working in his shadow. If we took him out, we’d regain a lot.
Are there any of those literary mothers/fathers that we might never guess from your work?
Most people can see the Gloria Anzaldúa in my work, but few see Julia de Burgos, a Puerto Rican poet who died in 1953 in a gutter in New York. Her work was Afro-Caribbean, feminist, and concerned with social justice. I devoured her poetry in my early teens. And then there’s Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. When I started writing noir and pondering what the edge was so I could work there and push it further out, I found his novels. He showed me that raw, gritty, and blunt don’t necessarily mean there is no feeling. He showed me that destruction of the soul, of someone’s will, could be as brutal as physical torture. He also wrote about barrios that were closer to my reality than the stuff in old American pulp novels. I’d never been to Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago. He wrote about Cuba, and that made me realize I could write about anywhere and make it work as long as I put in the effort and told a story worth telling.
Also, speaking of France: What the fuck is going on over there? Do you have any idea? Almost every single one of my favorite writers has a huge readership there and is barely known here. Do you have any idea what’s driving the difference between American readers and French readers?
I’m currently writing a piece for CrimeReads to try to figure it out. I’ve interviewed half a dozen American authors who have books out there, folks who go to conferences and book festivals. From what I gather, they have a passion for superb fiction that is the equivalent of this country’s passion for football. Reading is cool over there. The ability to tell a story is appreciated. Years ago, I had a conversation with author Mark SaFranko, and he was the same as folks like you, David Joy, William Boyle, and Jake Hinkson now; known here, but huge in France. I think the French collectively accept a truth: good writers are stars, and entertaining, well-written narratives should get the recognition they deserve. In this country, we prefer reality shows, series, and literature “written” by celebrities.
There are these beautiful sentences in Coyote Songs that are almost epigrams, but more like Cioran than Yogi Berra, if you know what I mean. Like, “Since then, she had been lying to herself, pretending that the memory of that thought didn’t exist, feigning that survival is morally superior to a voluntary exit from this plane of existence.” Are there folks you read yourself for those? And does that reading change novel to novel? Like were you on a different philosophical track in Zero Saints than in Coyote Songs?
I don’t read anyone for those, but some of the novels I read are packed with beautiful writing. They inspire me to write better. They challenge me to flex new writing muscles. I’m always reading, so there are different books in my life whenever I’m working on something. As for the philosophical track, I’d say yes. I wanted to do different things with both novels. Zero Saints was about establishing the elements of barrio noir and then getting people to read it. Coyote Songs is about continuing to do that while doing new things and showing that, just like we use the same notes to make very different music, the elements of barrio noir can be used in different ways. Those lines you mention are there because I was writing and realized writers like you, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and David Joy have breathtaking lines sprinkled in their bloody, gritty, scary, hyperviolent narratives. I’m not as good as any of you, but you gave me the confidence to try it out. I’ve said this since the book came out: Coyote Songs is proof that pulp can walk into a bar and smash a bottle in the face of literary fiction. They can share the same space. Poetry and blood can dance together on the same page. It’s been done by many writers; I’m just trying to do it my way.
You set the bar for barrio noir with Zero Saints, to my mind. But I’m not sure Coyote Songs — which to be clear, I love even more — is quite noir. Yeah, it’s still got crime and violence, but its movement seems to be more thematic. Was this a conscious decision on your part to push the genre? Or are you moving away from noir altogether?
I’ll never move away from noir. Noir is home. So is weird literature and horror. I need all of them together to do what I do. This time around, other elements took over. I had the guns and bad guys and cartels, but the underlying themes required more of other things, so I wrote more of other things. For example, there is a fair amount of body horror here, especially in The Mother, a character that slowly morphs into a human cocoon while playing host to a monster that lives in her womb. Violence and guns are an integral part of barrio noir, but so is supernatural stuff, horror, and syncretism. I was clear on one thing as I started to write Coyote Songs: I couldn’t write Zero Saints again. Doing so would’ve been letting readers down. People who have supported me deserve better than a rehash. I will never give them the same book again. For the next one, I’m going back to the atmosphere of Zero Saints, and taking things underground. I’ll explore the way drugs are keeping the border porous. I’ll talk some more about good people doing horrible things for all the right reasons, which I think is what beats at the core of all noir. I can’t stay away from it. What am I gonna do, write about a well-off straight white guy finding himself in Brooklyn?
Authenticity is a tension that’s always at work in noir. There’s forever this question about how real the world is that’s being represented, and if the author knows it well enough to portray it adequately. It’s something I find myself irritated with, while at the same time judging authors by it in a kneejerk fashion. How do you work with that tension? Is it something you embrace? Reject? Greet with ambivalence?
Sit down and watch me get in trouble! I used to think that was kind of silly. Anyone can write whatever they want. Then I became a book reviewer and realized too many folks with cozy jobs in academia who hadn’t spent a single day on the streets were writing some of the most clichéd crime novels ever. Then I read great stuff, and the great stuff came from hustlers. I’m sick of being poor and not being insured and facing eviction twice left scars on my soul, but going through those things makes you a better writer. If this was a tweet, I’d add “fight me” to that. Real people with real problems write narratives that feel real, and if noir doesn’t feel real, I don’t read it. I’m not saying you need to be poor to be good, but when it comes to crime, having suffered somehow helps you write believable characters. I sometimes read a few lines in Spanish in a book and they’re wrong. Why not ask? Why just throw them in there like that? Ah, because you don't know and you don’t care. Every barrio has a feel, a set of truths, a code of ethics. From Barrio Obrero and Luis Lloréns Torres (the biggest projects in the Caribbean, which were about a mile and a half from my house) serenading me to sleep with gunshots to the mayhem described in the best rural noir American literature has to offer, the fact remains: those who know deeply communicate effectively. You can’t write superb crime fiction without understanding the psychogeography of the people you’re writing about. When you know, it’s storytelling and I buy it. When you don’t, I can see the writing, the technical stuff, on the page. I hate seeing it. I write what I write, and after I decided to add Spanglish, I haven’t thought about authenticity once. You also find a prime example when it comes to accents. Writers with accents (and accents range from the plethora of Caribbean accents, including mine, to accents as distinct as that of Joe Lansdale) who write about specific places know there is something unique in the rhythm of the people from there. Those who only want to show the accent actually spell words differently to make sure readers get it. That, to me, is a failure. So, yeah, authenticity matters, and you can’t fake it.
I’m fascinated with writers who work and have to hustle for every minute of their writing. Any chance you’d lay out what a day looks like for you? What’s your routine?
My days are pretty simple. I wake up at 4:00 a.m., read for half an hour to start the day right and then hit the gym. I’m at school (I teach high school) at around 7:20 a.m. I teach until 4:00 p.m. Depending on the day, I have one or two hours at school to do grading and other things. That time is usually spent grading and pitching or writing reviews, essays, or sending out interview questions to other writers. Some venues I can write a review for in 10 minutes because I know what they want. Other reviews take more time. Writing for NPR and Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, demands more time. I have to bring my best stuff to the plate for them. Anyway, then I go home, eat, play, do house stuff, and answer emails/spend time on social media platforms laughing and getting angry. I work on stuff for PANK Magazine, work on reviews some more, read, and bang out columns for LitReactor and CASH Media. At around 10:00 p.m. I sit down to grade, edit, and send comments to my MFA students (I teach creative writing online for SNHU). Then I usually crash because I have to be up at 4:00 a.m. again. Weekends are more or less the same but with no school, less online work, and more reading and writing. Vacations are for writing. Always. In any case, hustling pays off. I now have insurance for the first time in half a decade! Oh, and I do book stuff throughout the day. I have to keep Coyote Songs out there. I have to sell books. Sell books or die trying.
I’m also fascinated with writers’ other passions, and how they feed into the writing. Is there an interplay between your weightlifting and your writing? Lessons learned?
They are almost the same in a few ways. You can always do more. Both things require effort and are done mostly alone. Also, you can’t get better by not writing, just like you can’t get bigger or stronger by not training. And no one is good at it from the start. You hustle. You keep at it. Day in and day out. You won’t write a great novel out of the blue and you can’t walk into a gym for the first time in your life and bench three plates. You want it? Be patient and do the work. And get used to the fact that no one cares about the work. You wrote for four hours yesterday? Who cares, man? Let me know when the book is ready. The gym is the same way. Oh, you’re eating iron before the sun comes out? Good for you … but so what?
Noir is violent and tragic and often sexy, but it’s also one of the only places in America where class and race are discussed where most of us live — outside the oft-rarefied world of literary fiction. You have this great line about your performance artist: “Alma knew that blood and sex were the way to sell. The title for her next piece had been the first thing to come to her: ‘Fucking/Gringos/Fucking/Me.’ She wanted to critique white culture under Trump, to eviscerate bland arguments that tried to veil latent xenophobia.” It reminded me of Jim Thompson’s self-critique in Savage Night. Is that a similar move for you? A way to nod at the game you’re playing while playing it?
I’m a brown migrant with an accent writing bilingual narratives in Trump’s America. I am Otherness, and so is my work. There is only so much I can accomplish with a novel, but I’m going to try to get the maximum out of it. That said, I also want to entertain. If I didn’t and only wanted facts and statistics, I’d write a nonfiction book. Coyote Songs is a scream against racism, an invitation to understand the motivations behind migration, and a look at the border with a supernatural twist. It’s also a look at pain that’s honest and ugly. Yeah, my political discourse is in there, so I guess there is a bit of that playfulness/seriousness going on. As with everything else in the book, each reader will ultimately decide what I was trying to say …
I like what you said, that “Coyote Songs is a scream against racism.” One of the characters you enlist in the fight against racism is Padre Frank, an ex-Nazi who’s one of my favorite characters in any book ever. What brought him into the fight?
There are some lines in the book about changing your mind. I was kidding with the publisher that we could take the pompous road and title the book The Dissolution of Absolutes. Changing your mind is human. At 15, I would’ve pushed anyone who mentioned country music away. Now I love me some Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. I can listen to blues, reggae, salsa, rock, flamenco, and a bit of country on the same day. I think some people can go through something and grow, change. If you’re a racist and stay a racist, then fuck you. I have no problem stomping your head. If you change, then you deserve a break. It would’ve been too easy to put a racist in the book and then kill him or her. It was harder to create a character whose tattoos would’ve made me clench my fists and then put him on the right side of things, to make him an agent of good. Accepting we’re all flawed is hard. Writing about it is just as hard. Padre Frank was a challenge to myself. It sounds ridiculous, but I had to forgive him before I could write him into the book. Hah.
I also love your coyote. I kept thinking of this line from Ed Abbey in The Brave Cowboy which features another coyote protagonist: “A westerner likes open country. That means he's got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them.” When I see people espouse their love for border walls and freedom at the same time, I always assume they’re leaking a little brain matter somewhere. Can you talk about that?
This country is all about freedom, but it’s a limited freedom. It’s a freedom tied to certain types of privilege. It’s my freedom, not yours. It’s freedom for everyone … except members of the LGBTQ community and trans people and black people and brown people and Native Americans and Appalachians and poor people. Maybe you’re white and straight, but you’re Appalachian. Sorry, you don’t get full benefits or full freedom. Maybe you have money and a PhD, but you’re from India and have an accent. Sorry, you get some benefits at best. It’s a weird, selective freedom that is fine with building walls, putting people in jail for years for petty crimes, and tear-gassing mothers and children. It’s freedom in the shape of an angry-looking eagle in a T-shirt holding a watery light beer in one hand and a figurine of a white, blue-eyed baby Jesus in the other. It’s a freedom that’s mostly a discourse owned by a few. My work deals with the nonsense that is a problematized frontera. A thing that shouldn’t be but somehow is. Every frontera is porous, made and destroyed by humans. Ours is especially messy. It’s cruel and has been politicized to a ridiculous extreme. However, there are stories taking place there every day. Crossing la frontera changes lives. I just read about Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, a trans woman from Honduras who died in May while under ICE custody. She was dehydrated and physically abused. Where was her freedom? Folks can keep screaming about freedom all they want. I will keep writing about the blood spilled for it, the inequality surrounding it, and the lengths people will go to in order to get a taste of it. I am the migrant son of a migrant, and every migrant is my kin, my shared blood, my brother and sister in the struggle.
Alma also represents a tension between discourse and violence, right? Like what kind of artistic statement does it take to effect actual change in the world? Can you do it bloodlessly? Or is something necessary more like Breton’s notion of “dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd”? Without giving too much away about what happens, you don’t really seem to settle on answer. Is that correct? Or have you nailed it down for everybody, and I just missed it?
You didn’t miss it because I don’t have the answer. I hope we can effect change bloodlessly, but I’m ready for whatever. We pretend discourse and violence occupy different spaces. I admit I do it all the time. Then racists on Twitter call me spic or beaner or someone makes fun of trans folks and suddenly I don’t feel like their discourse should be far from violent repercussions. Coyote Songs is a bundle of statements wrapped in blood. Some folks will identify them. Some won’t. Both things are okay. I try to entertain and show truths, to make you laugh and cry and cringe. Somewhere in there are my brain and my heart. Those two are all I have. Wish I had some answers, but in the meantime, giving everything else feels right.
Right. Violence can be a necessary, even positive, force. Anybody denying that is soft on their history. Speaking of, I keep getting a firsthand glimpse of these racist minor writers who come after you. What do you think it is about noir that brings out this specific kind of asshole? We seem to get a lot of them.
I think folks assume all noir writers live in either a juke joint bar stool or prison and we want to pick fights all the time. They scream at us because they think we are hyperviolent. Meanwhile we’re over here saying, “I have no idea who you are and I’m trying to finish this novel. Fuck off.” Also, and this is something I learned very recently, some of these nobodies think anyone with a book and a platform is a somebody, so they try to get attention by picking on someone whose tweet has 12 times more likes than they have followers. Folks will pick a fight with me over tweets about a taco if I let them. They are writers published by unknown presses who have no platform, no readers, and no life. They won’t pick on someone who’s white and famous. That person will surely ignore them. But I’m nobody. Maybe I’ll engage! I’ve seen the kind of crazies you get every time you say something about guns, for example. Whatever you say, someone will try to start beef with you. It’s one of those sadfunny things. I have too much to do. I have to fight for every minute of writing I get. No one is taking those away from me. If you want to come out to a reading and be racist, then let’s party. I have seven broken teeth from heated exchanges of opinion and teaching folks to be nice. One more won’t change my smile much. My goal has always been to look like a brown version of old Jim Harrison before I’m done anyway.
Coyote Songs is infused with supernatural creatures, spirits and chupacabra, but there’s one freakshow that squats at the center of the book, a malevolent and grotesque presence that we never really see. I mean, of course, the “orange man.” Anything you’d like to say about him?
Insulting that man doesn’t work. His followers will praise him a second after he beats his own record and says the dumbest, most misogynist, racist, awful thing. Most politicians fail to offer solutions, but this one just creates problems. He is as ill-equipped to lead this country as most folks with a working brain knew he was. Plus, his racism has emboldened bigots. But I’m not worried. We are here. Working folks tired of being poor. Folks who have lost their jobs. Black and white and brown folks. LGBTQ folks. We’ll make it through this. We’ve never had privilege, so we’re not losing anything. In the meantime, I made him a very real monster in my book. That he decided to start tear-gassing children on the other side of the border while this book, which presents him as the monster he is, is still taking off might just be the best/cruelest/most accurate promotion for the novel because he's basically screaming, “Iglesias is right! I am a monster who hates migrants!” My only wish is that it explodes. Let me get on TV and talk about him and la frontera! America loves experts, right? Well, I have a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and my dissertation had to do with DREAMers. Let me talk about this if you dare.
Benjamin Whitmer is the author of the novels Cry Father, Pike, and Evasion, and co-author (with Charlie Louvin) of Satan Is Real.