To mark the launch of the Betimes Books' reissue of Head Games in trade paperback and eBook formats, I'm sharing the second of three English translations of interviews I not so long ago gave to media in Mexico regarding the release of HEAD GAMES (LA CABEZA DE PANCHO VILLA) there.
This one is with journalist Laura Luz Morales for Vanguardia (Original version in Spanish can be read here). We talk about movies, TOUCH OF EVIL, the continuing mystique of Pancho Villa, Borderland Noir, Latin American literature and poetry, among other wide-ranging topics.
Q) For the people of the United States, who is Pancho Villa? Why do they find him an interesting character?
A) Villa is more of a historical figure of renown in the American southwest, where his legend and actions still resonate. Otherwise, he is unfortunately known to most Americans through films, where he has never really been well or accurately portrayed.
Q) What did you discover about the legends of Villa? What most attracted your attention?
A) I heard tales from old men in my hometown who were among the last of the horse soldiers who chased Villa and they filled my head with his legend and what was, in a way, a kind of last gasp of romance of the mythic American West. Most of the men who rode into Mexico in pursuit of Villa were then quickly shipped to Europe to fight in the trenches of WWI. The notion of this man evading the American Army, then retiring to prosperity, being assassinated many years later, and then having his tomb raided and his head stolen years after that suggested many story possibilities.
Q) Although not the main character or even a character itself (only the head), Villa is present throughout the novel. What is the narrative power of Pancho Villa, 90 years after his death?
A) He speaks to Americans, particularly, in a way I don’t think Zapata or others of the Revolution can because Villa was raised a peasant, supposedly became an outlaw avenging a sister’s assault, was self-schooled and became this natural leader of men and a cunning tactician. He’s one of these larger-than-life figures who fortunately, you don’t have to invent. In many ways, he emerges or is portrayed in most histories as a real life Robin Hood. He’s also a very appealing masculine figure, and my novel, among other things, tries to explore the issue of masculinity—its price and cost—particularly in the 20th Century.
Q) It was a great chapter! Why did you bring death to Rodolfo Fierro?
A) As romantic a figure as Pancho Villa is, warts and all, I’ve never found an appealing portrayal or description of Fierro. He appears to have been, by nearly all accounts, an extremely bloodthirsty man and one devoid of conscience. For the purposes of my story, I decided to allow Fierro to fake his drowning and allow him a few more decades of inflicting misery upon the world. His death, as depicted in the novel, was a nod at one of the many brutal means of execution employed during the Revolution by some of its fiercer participants.
Pancho Villa (center) with Black Jack Pershing. Rodolfo Fierro is looking over Villa's left shoulder.
Q) In Head Games, how much of the historical elements are real and how much is fiction, as required by the crime novel or a thriller?
A) The novel—one of eight featuring Hector Lassiter—does what I try to do in all the Lassiter books, which is to find voids in history where I can insert fictional elements, attempting to tie them into the historical record. When push comes to shove, I’ll opt for fiction over reality for story reasons, but so far, I’ve never really bent history much for my novels. The Skull and Bones materials in my book are based on nonfiction accounts of that secret society. Shortly after my novel appeared, there were actual lawsuits filed here in an attempt to get Skull and Bones to surrender the head of Geronimo, which allegedly is held by them, along with Villa’s skull and perhaps Che Guevara’s hands.
Q) Head Games is a pretty surreal novel, how did you get the ideas to write this book?
A) It was strange serendipity. I wanted to write a novel with Hector, who I had used in a short story that had won praise, and I wanted to do something tying him in with Pancho Villa. About the time I was toying with this idea, I found a biography of Emil Holmdahl, who supposedly stole Villa’s head. Then I found this story about Prescott Bush, grandfather of the most recent President Bush, supposedly hiring Pancho Villa’s head stolen for Skull and Bones’ trophy room. One afternoon, I was listening to a song about Villa’s raid of New Mexico, a song written by Tom Russell, who lives in El Paso right at the border, and it all came together very quickly. The first chapter just flowed and the book flowed from that.
Q) What is the secret to fitting in the same story to Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway and Pancho Villa?
A) A couple of years before I wrote the novel, I edited an online magazine of fiction set along the border that I called, “Borderland Noir,” (a phrase since co-opted and almost turned into a branding slogan by others) and it shorthanded many of the elements of the novel. “Touch of Evil,” the last great noir movie written and directed by Orson Welles, was in a similar vein as my novel, and set in a fictional Mexican border town. The film is about compromise, loss, widowhood and the tension between Mexico and the United States—all themes I wanted to explore in this book. All of the Lassiter novels involve historical figures, particularly in terms of film and literature. In the three novels following my Villa book, Hemingway is an on-the-page character, or even sidekick. Hemingway and Welles were also both fascinated with Latin culture, and the bullfight (Hemingway more with Spanish bullfighting; Welles with Mexico’s version of the fight.)
Q) Hector Lassiter is also a crime novelist. How much can we find of you in this character?
A) Hector was inspired in the early going by some other crime novelists, including the great James Crumley. By the second novel, one titled in America TOROS & TORSOS, about surrealist art and murder, the distance between Hector and myself narrowed alarmingly. There’s a line in that second novel, one modeled after a telling observation about two famous crime writers. It’s said crime novelist Raymond Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be; Dashiell Hammett wrote the man he feared he was. In Hector, I’m sometimes writing the man I wish I had the courage to be, and sometimes the man I’m afraid I might become. There comes a point, I fear, where life and the page can blur in a dangerous way, if a writer isn’t wary to keep his characters at a safe distance.
Q) In Mexico, this year Discovery Channel presented a documentary on the assassination of Pancho Villa. After investigating, although for a novel, do you have your own theory?
A) I’ve read some stories about that documentary but haven’t seen it or heard its final thesis on who killed Villa. As the anniversary of his death approaches, my own guess would probably lay the blame at the feet of American oil interests.
Q) How much you delved into Mexican culture to write this book? Have you visited Mexico? What do you like about Mexican culture?
A) Mexico fascinates me on nearly every level—its music, its art; its geography and its culture. (I actually negotiated with the Bank of Mexico for use of a Diego Rivera painting for the cover of my second novel’s American cover.) There is something at once reckless and life affirming, it seems to me, in so much of Mexican culture; a swooning bravado. The history of the United States and Mexico are also entwined, deeply and fundamentally, in my mind, and I believe our countries will ultimately rise or fall together. My most recent novel here in the States is entitled EL GAVILAN, and is about Mexican immigration tensions in a small Ohio town. It’s based on my own observations as a journalist and things I’ve observed or reported on related to the issue over the past several years. I’ve been to the edge of the border, but have not crossed, although I look forward to doing so.
Q) Do you know Mexican thriller novelists or any crime novelists of Mexico? Do you like Mexican or Latin American authors?
A) I’ve read many Latin American and Mexican authors and poets (particularly Octavio Paz, among the latter). I’ve read much of Carlos Fuentes and I love Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s mysteries and own many of them, as well as his Villa biography and his non-mystery works. Manuel Ramos was one of the authors in my Borderland Noir project, and we’re still in touch here and there. Luis Alberto Urrea is a favorite and THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY a masterpiece. While touring in Texas, I picked up a copy of Martín Solares’ THE BLACK MINUTES in Austin and read that throughout my book tour and admire if very, very much. I had the honor of meeting Martín a few months later at a crime writers’ festival in Lyon, France. Right now, I’m reading through all of James Carlos Blake’s novels, and I am very much taken with them.