NTN: Sam Hawken interviewed

We’ve reviewed several borderland noir books here on Crime Fiction Lover, and one of the most striking was Sam Hawken’s debut novel, The Dead Women of Juárez. It was nominated for a dagger last year, and the other day his second book Tequila Sunset was released. We invited the former academic, who used to study the Holocaust, to talk about his new career as a crime author, which seems to be going full steam ahead.

First of all, what will we find in Tequila Sunset?
Tequila Sunset is an ambitious book with three stories told in tandem. One follows a paroled convict named Felipe ‘Flip’ Morales, who served time in one of Texas’ maximum security prisons for a crime that readers will have to delve into the book to discover. While in prison, Flip joined the infamous Barrio Azteca gang. Returning home to El Paso, he finds himself indebted to the gang for his protection while inside and begins a dark journey down a path he did not choose or desire.

The second thread involves Cristina Salas, an El Paso police detective assigned to the gang unit. A single mother of an autistic child, she becomes part of a cross-border law enforcement operation meant to take down a major piece of Barrio Azteca’s drug-and-violence activity.

Lastly the book tells the tale of Matías Segura, a member of the Policía Federal Ministerial – or PFM, essentially the Mexican FBI — whose bailiwick is Barrio Azteca activity in Ciudad Juárez. Police of all stripes are in mortal danger every day in Juárez, but Matías refuses to be turned from his task.

All of these plotlines intersect at various points and hopefully readers will be intrigued by the turns they take, none of which I’ll spoil here.

Does it follow on from The Dead Women of Juárez in any way?
Barrio Azteca – or Los Aztecas, as they are called in Juárez – is real and at the time I wrote the book they were responsible for an estimated 85 per cent of all murders committed in the city. I became intrigued by the story of such an incredibly violent gang and the end result of playing with their tale is Tequila Sunset. As for following on The Dead Women, I’m afraid there’s no crossover at all. This book concerns itself with the rest of Juárez’s murders, not just those of the city’s women, which is a big enough tale all by itself.

There are plenty of reasons why it’s interesting to set books on the Texas/Mexico border. What are yours?
I’ve always had a fascination with Mexico, reaching all the way back to my childhood when my family would visit various its cities and towns regularly. Here was this place that existed just across the river that had an entirely different language, culture and laws. I do think most Americans are unaware of the myriad of ways our country and their country intermingle and diverge.

The tragedy of Mexico’s crime scene is what has brought me back time and again in my writing. The explosion of murder all along the border, all of which is neatly contained by the Rio Grande and never spills over, is too significant a thing to ignore. Mexico is in the grips of a civil war and the United States does only a little bit to help its government and people and much to hinder. How can you not write about that?

What are the challenges of dealing with such brutal material without trivializing the awfulness of it, or appearing to exploit its notoriety?
For me it’s a matter of picking and choosing. There are so many awful things that happen in Mexico that whole books can and have been written that simply contain a litany of orgiastic violence. I try to select representative examples and weave fiction around them, being careful not to wallow in their gory excess and retaining as much of the human factor as possible.  Real people are profoundly affected by Mexico’s violence, so it’s irresponsible to present that as bloody exploitation.  Better to show the effects through the eyes of characters with whom the reader can identify so that he or she can get a taste of what it must be like to be confronted with such things.

How did you get started in crime writing?
I came into crime writing kind of backwardly. Author Craig McDonald was guest-editing an online ‘zine called Hardluck Stories and put out a call for what he called ‘borderland noir’. I had an idea I thought was pretty good and wrote it for the issue. Luckily, Craig went wild for it and he told his agent all about me. I had the manuscript for The Guilty ready, and when she read it she knew I was worth representing. I wrote only one other piece of crime fiction, a short story called Amigo, which also appeared in Hardluck Stories, and then I kind of kicked around trying to find a book idea that I could develop.

Since the noir thing had worked out as short fiction, I tried to put together a boxing noir set along the border, not intending to do anything involving the dead women of Juárez at all. Something sparked once I started outlining and the end result is what you got with my debut novel.

What’s next from Sam Hawken?
Well, Serpent’s Tail has bought a third novel from me for publication in 2013. That one is called Missing and is about a kidnapping in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo. A determined father plunges into the chaos of the city to find the missing girl, and though he has an ally in a virtuous Mexican cop, things take a dark turn. I have also finished two other novels in 2012 – a book about a journalist in Ciudad Juárez, and another about dog-fighting in the city of Baltimore – and I’m in the middle of another Juárez-related novel about a fugitive being pursued by the US Marshals.  My next project will be an international thriller set in the Balkans. I’m going to try my hand at this whole self-publishing thing too with a Kindle exclusive called Juárez Dance. It involves a gun for hire whose brush with the moneyed elite of Ciudad Juárez leads to twisted loyalties and murder.

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