Realistic, If Not Real




I’M PRETTY CERTAIN that I’d be just as happy to read a novel about the actual Sebastian Rotella as I was to dive into his latest thriller featuring his fictional counterpart Valentine Pescatore. Rotella, an award-winning journalist for ProPublica whose beat includes counter-terrorism, human rights, and migration, has an awe-inspiring arsenal of knowledge and thrilling hands-on experiences to draw from for his brilliant series starring the dashing, multilingual Pescatore. But don’t expect conventional ripped-from-the-headlines fare. Rotella’s work is much more than that — his thrillers are compelling and probing, each one managing to create a complex panorama of international relations, religious extremism, human strength and fragility, as well as personal, political, and institutional greed. His latest, Rip Crew, is no exception. Set in a particularly nasty crevice of the shadowy world of Mexican border smugglers, the third novel in Rotella’s series is an impressive synthesis of lightning-quick action, multi-national intrigue, profound geopolitical insight, as well as a dash of realistic romance — a balancing act I’m not sure many other authors could so effortlessly achieve. Rotella was kind enough to answer a few questions and let me know why fiction can take him where journalism cannot. 

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IVY POCHODA: Like your previous novels, Rip Crew is very much entrenched in our current political climate — in our national border and international refugee crises, to name a couple — but still is an exciting and thrilling work of fiction. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool than journalism for shining a light into these extremely fraught and often complex situations?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Ivy, first let me say what a pleasure it is to have this conversation with you. I liked your novel Wonder Valley even more than I liked Visitation Street, which was a masterpiece. More on that shortly. I look forward to this cross-country exchange. I will try to imagine I am sitting across a cafe table from you armed with an espresso.

You raise a good question. I still work as both a journalist and a novelist. I do my best to enforce the border between those worlds. When I am reporting, the project consumes me. I’ve had the opportunity at ProPublica to write in-depth articles such as “Finding Oscar,” which was about the odyssey of the survivor of a war crime in Guatemala. It called for a literary approach. We decided to remove the source attributions from the text, embedding them as footnotes instead, to make the story immediate and compelling. It was an example of the power of journalism.

But yes, I think fiction can be more powerful. It lets you bring out the essence of a story, and of the themes, in a more human, vivid, and complete way. That’s particularly true when it comes to international issues. If you are reporting about foreign affairs, you have limits and restrictions: access, resources, story length, finding an American angle. You have to be disciplined and focused. You end up excluding hard-won material, whether colorful details or entire stories that are fascinating but not quite on point. There are also the inevitable questions of the facts and sources, of how specifically and emphatically you can write what you reported.

Fiction gives you more liberty and authority. The novel is a bigger canvas. I can fill it with experience and knowledge accumulated as a reporter: images, voices, faces, people, landscapes, emotions, sensations. I can revisit and do justice to details that an article could perhaps depict in a sentence or a paragraph, even if they were the anecdotes that I would most want to tell you about if we sat down to talk over drinks.

In Rip Crew, I wanted to explore the underworlds of migration, smuggling, and mafias that I have learned about as a reporter. I wanted to show how those underworlds connect remote and disparate locales, making them closer than they might seem. The action in the book moves among borders, from the northern and southern boundaries of Mexico to Lampedusa, the Italian island that is the destination of desperate flotillas carrying migrants from Africa and the Middle East. The reader travels to outposts of different kinds of mafias and migrant communities, from Southern California to a favela in Brazil to the bleak Italian towns where Africans live on the turf of the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. It would be harder to make that kind of journey in an article and to show the connections and repercussions for American readers. Despite the globetrotting, much of the novel actually takes place in the United States, more than in the previous two books in the series.

Another advantage of fiction is that you can show rather than tell. Many of the issues in the novel are on TV and in the newspaper every day, but I avoid talking about politics in a direct way. Politics is all about people yelling at each other. Maximum vitriol and — especially when it comes to immigration — minimum facts. I’d rather write about what is actually going on out there on the ground. I’d rather paint pictures of realistic, if not real, people and their struggles, such as the Eritrean sister and brother who are key characters, and let the readers reach their own conclusions.

Also, in a novel I don’t have to worry about the safety of my sources. The Mexican reporter/cop Mendez, the Italian prosecutor Maio, and other characters are inspired by sources who became friends. I got to know them and their work very well. They were my guides to the underworlds. But I couldn’t write much about them — or sometimes even mention them — because of the risks to their lives and jobs. Rip Crew tells the human stories behind what you might see at a press conference. I try to show what it’s like to be an investigator or a reporter in a place like Latin America. The experience of the “armored life”: moving around each day surrounded by menace, suffocated by paranoia, subjecting your family and bodyguards to the danger, solitude, and sadness of the fight against mafias and corruption. I am fascinated by the mindset of someone like Mendez who keeps fighting every day, who goes to his son’s morning soccer game knowing this could be the day the enemies who have sworn to wipe him off the face of the earth decide to keep their promise. Rip Crew is a tribute to people like that. One of them appears in a photo in Mendez’s office: Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a brave Mexican reporter I knew who the narcos killed in Sinaloa last year.

Your story is geopolitical, international, but also personal. How did you decided on the person story of Abrihet to be the one that was going to shine a light onto the refugee crisis?

I decided to tell her story for several reasons. A few years ago, I went on a reporting trip to the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala. That region has become the front line for illegal immigration to the United States because Mexican migration has plummeted — contrary to what you hear from politicians. Most US-bound migrants today come from Central America, Haiti, Africa, Asia, et cetera. They are what the Border Patrol, with that federal penchant for acronyms, calls OTMs (Other Than Mexicans) and SIAs (Special Interest Aliens). In Chiapas, I talked to migrants, migrant advocates, and Mexican and US authorities. I heard some of the worst stories I’ve ever heard about cruelty and violence — and I’ve covered my share of grim stories. The migrants told me about the gauntlet of dangers: rape, robbery, kidnapping, extortion, torture, murder. Police and intelligence officials told me about the massacres of migrants by the cartels in Mexico. As I knew from reporting over the years, the women migrants suffered the worst abuses of all. Even when they make it to the safety of the United States, female migrants are vulnerable to sexual abuse in the workplace.

During a visit to a crowded detention center in Tapachula near the Pacific Coast, I met an Eritrean woman sitting on a mattress. She had left home four years earlier headed for Chicago. She traveled via Sudan, South Africa, Brazil, and Guatemala to southern Mexico, where police arrested her. She had her son with her, a toddler, a cheerful little guy. He had been born during the journey, so he didn’t have a passport; he was stateless. I didn’t get a chance to talk to them as long as I wanted, but the faces of that woman and her son stayed with me. Her journey became a seed for the book. Many Eritreans risk their lives going to other destinations: they sail on perilous smuggling boats from Libya to Lampedusa, or they trek through the Sinai Desert to Israel. The smugglers and the authorities are just as vicious and venal along those routes as they are in Latin America. There was another personal reason for the choice of Abrihet. My father grew up in Eritrea when it was an Italian colony. He immigrated to the United States and became a college administrator, but remained very attached to Eritrea. When Eritrea became an independent nation in the 1990s, he visited several times to help create the university system there. So I know a bit about the Eritrean diaspora, which is desperate but dignified. Eritreans are tough and resourceful and they usually thrive if they make it to their destination. I decided to use Eritrean characters to show how a single diaspora connects so many places around the globe, to take the readers through that underworld. The odyssey of Abrihet becomes representative of the larger experience.

Okay, a total pivot here. The first panel I ever did as an author was at ThrillerFest, where I was so at sea it was ludicrous. I was sitting next to a major thriller writer whom everyone had come to see. A female fan, who was clearly in love with his main character, asked why he could never have a love interest. To which this writer replied: “He’s too busy saving the world to have sex.” I thought this was amusing and ridiculous. Your Valentine is a passionate man, who is torn between two rather impressive women, right? (He’s lucky, I’ll say.) Can you tell me what inspires you to develop this side of his character? How does the romantic plot inform the propulsive one?

Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but Pescatore definitely does not see saving the world and having sex as mutually exclusive. The romantic aspect is important to the character’s arc. In the first book, he was a rookie Border Patrol agent, a street kid on the line between cop and criminal. His romance intertwined with his mission. He was an informant, Isabel was his handler. A recruitment-seduction. There was adrenaline and passion, but also doubt and suspicion. Was she setting him up? Was he playing both sides? In The Convert’s Song, the relationship didn’t survive the transition to everyday routine. The heartbreak made him go to Argentina to become a private eye. He got involved in a terrorism case and met another formidable cop, Fatima. The emotions were racing and the bullets were flying, and the partnership became a romance.

In Rip Crew, Pescatore has matured. The romantic plot reflects that. He and Isabel have a genuine trust and friendship that is central to the story. Old feelings rekindle. But he’s still in his long-distance relationship with Fatima, who is independent and French in a way that entices and frustrates him. So he’s torn. Even if he’s kind of wild, he has a deep sense of loyalty and honor. He wants to do the right thing. To use an old-fashioned word, he’s a gentleman. In this book, he once again confronts ethical dilemmas in a world full of corruption, and the romantic plot adds another dimension to that. Also, his restraint and inner conflict establish a contrast to the villains. Perry Blake, the corporate executive, and Chiclet, the Honduran smuggler, are similar in their treatment of women. They’re animals ruled by their appetites.

Sadly, it seems there is going to be no shortage of international crises for Pescatore to become involved in. I know you don’t set out to write ripped-from-the-headlines novels, but you keep doing so! At the risk of asking the typical what are you working on next closer, let me go about it a different way. Do you think that the current political, er, situation, is going to lead you somewhere new for your next book?

It’s true that Rip Crew has resonance with today’s politics. To borrow your line, I didn’t plan that! Something similar happened with The Convert’s Song. It was inspired partly by my coverage of French jihadis who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq in the early 2000s. Soon after the novel came out in late 2014, some of those French guys resurfaced as plotters in the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Islamic State attacks in France and Belgium. And a trend the novel depicted, the blurring of crime and terrorism, erupted in Europe with even more speed and fury than I had expected.

Although you could say the subject matter is political, I hope my novels show rather than tell. I like the attitude of Felipe Esparza, a very funny comedian from Los Angeles. He riffs about crossing the border illegally, growing up poor, filling out his parents’ tax forms as a kid because they didn’t speak English. Very topical, right? But I saw an interview where he said, “I try to stay away from politics because it’s only going to be funny for about five minutes till something new comes along. I try to tell jokes that will make people laugh for many, many years.” Fiction is similar. It risks becoming dated if it’s ideological.

Still, the super-heated geopolitical situation has an inevitable impact on themes that interest me. I’ll give you an example. I’ve been reporting on a topic that is relatively new for me: the way Russia’s international networks mix mafias, intelligence, politics, and business. It overlaps with issues I’ve covered in Latin America, Europe, and the Muslim world. Russian forces support the Taliban and Hezbollah. Russian spies attack dissidents with weapons of mass destruction in England. Russian gangsters operate in Germany, Turkey, and Argentina. Not to mention the US angles we all know about. The Russia story is a relentlessly grim labyrinth of intrigue and rapacity on an epic scale. A spy novel come to life.

My approach as a reporter is to learn from the front-line sources. They do me the honor of trusting me; I do my best to listen carefully and write rigorously. My approach as a novelist is to sift through that knowledge and experience and develop a story that is entertaining and instructive. Rip Crew is inspired by people, places, and events I’ve seen up-close: what it feels like to live through a car-to-car gunfight, to be an anti-mafia investigator marooned in a town full of enemies. I want the action and the emotions, the details and the big picture, to be authentic.

I wrestled with what to write next. I am very fond of Pescatore, and I definitely intend to continue the series. But I’ve decided to take a break and challenge myself with something different. I’m working on a stand-alone novel with a new protagonist. Because Pescatore is relatively young and a private investigator, he tends to get swept up in cases and figure things out as they happen to him. In the tradition of espionage writers such as Eric Ambler, he’s an outsider hero. The hero of the new book has a different perspective and status: he’s older, more experienced, more in control of events. An insider. He’s a veteran American counterterrorism agent based in a European country, a place where he was born and left as a child. The story is about the worlds of terrorism and counterterrorism and the fact that, as much as we talk about non-state actors and lone-wolf threats, it’s a dark game dominated and manipulated by governments, often ruthlessly. There are conflicts involving identity, loyalty, and morality, so I guess those are echoes of Pescatore. We all have our obsessions.

Ivy, I am waiting eagerly for your next book. Thanks for a pleasant epistolary conversation.

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Ivy Pochoda is the author, most recently, of Wonder Valley, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and NPR Best Book of 2017.


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