Saturday, August 17, 2013


Original illustration from
Zócalo Saltillo
Number three in a series of English translations of new interviews I've given to newspapers and radio stations in Mexico over the past several weeks in support of the first Spanish-language edition of HEAD GAMES (Or, in Mexico, LA CABEZA DE PANCHO VILLA).

This interview is with Sylvia Georgina Estrada who is based in Saltillo, Coahuila (north Mexico) and it appeared originally in Zócalo Saltillo. (You can read it in the original Spanish here.)

Q) How did your interest in Pancho Villa’s life start? Why did you decide to write a book about the stolen head of this brave man?

A) I first heard of Villa because a famous fiction writer from my birth state, Ambrose Bierce, disappeared into Mexico allegedly trying to meet Villa. To this day, nobody knows what became of Bierce. There were also two men in my hometown (I use their names in the novel) who were part of the Pershing Expedition, and who chased Pancho Villa through Mexico after the 1916 attack on Columbus, New Mexico. One of them shared a photo album of that campaign with me one afternoon when I was a young reporter. That started me reading novels and histories in which Villa figured, and I became fascinated by him.

Ambrose Bierce

I was also seized by the robbing of Villa’s grave and the theft of his still missing head. As I began to write my novel, I ran across this newish biography about the man who was arrested for stealing the head, and the fact he supposedly did so under the payment of President George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush. That suggested the entire plot, in a flash.

Q) Sometimes we forget that people could move history. Do you think that Pancho Villa changed, one way or another, the perception of US about Mexico?

A) In a word, yes. It’s interesting to me to read contemporary newspaper accounts of Villa and his early efforts in the Revolution when he was kind of America’s great hope or favorite son in terms of the various players in your Revolution.

There’s that famous photo of Villa with General Pershing (and Rodolfo Fierro lurking in the background) when Pershing was taking Villa’s measure as an ally or figure to potentially support. Villa was regarded as a kind of Robin Hood crossed with George Washington here, at the time. Then President Wilson chose poorly in casting his lot with other, less worthy figures in the Revolution and the attack on Columbus ensued. And, of course, of all men sent to lead the chase for Villa, it was Pershing. I think Villa has a very mixed reputation in the borderlands and American Southwest to this day. Elsewhere in America, his reputation has drifted back into a more romantic/heroic light.

Rodolfo Fierro

Q) What kind of research did you require to write this book? Did you find something unusual? I like the references to the golden age of American cinema or Yale fraternities such as Skull and Bones.

A) In a way, all the many college years and those after I spent reading about Villa and the Revolution represent my research efforts. All of my (eight) novels with Hector Lassiter turn on historic events to one extent or another, but I don’t really choose topics or events and then research them to write about them. I have longstanding preoccupations I write books around, so I end up doing more fact checking against memory than digging around for materials.

On that note, Orson Welles is another of my preoccupations, and in his classic film, TOUCH OF EVIL, that is featured in my novel, Welles doesn’t just direct, but stars in the film as an aging, once macho, grieving widower moving through a dark border town on a dubious quest. In a sense, that pretty much describes my narrator Hector Lassiter’s status in the novel, as well. Skull and Bones required a bit of light research, but it’s a self-declared Secret Society, so it lends itself to informed invention.

Hector Lassiter, by Kevin Singles, from the forthcoming
graphic novel of HEAD GAMES.

Q) Hector Lassiter is a veteran writer and also daredevil, How did you create this character?

A) I first created Hector for a short story contest and that story got a fair amount of attention and was anthologized in a book or two. I decided to take the character and put him in a novel, which quickly grew into a series. Hector started as a kind of blend of the great crime writer James Crumley and a bit of Ernest Hemingway, but evolved quickly into being his own man, who has become known, to his frustration, as “the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives.”

As the Lassiter series unfolds, I also explore the life of the writer and this notion of a man who lives his life with an eye to how it will play on the page, and more frighteningly, how those around him start to adopt the same attitude and strategies in terms of how they will appear in Hector’s novels. You get some of that in the Villa novel, particularly with the character of Alicia, who starts to model herself after a Lassiter heroine.

Character concept
sketch of "Alicia"
by Kevin Singles
for forthcoming
graphic novel.

Q) What are the satisfactions behind Head Games? The novel was a finalist for the Edgar, Anthony, Gumshoe and Crimespree Magazine Awards for best first novel. I read that you also have more books about Hector Lassiter…

A) I spent many years and wrote a number of other novels before Hector’s first book found an agent, a publisher, and then went on to be translated in many languages. Hector is an engaging character who I never seemed to run out of material about and who constantly surprised me when I was writing him. He appeals strongly to male and female readers who “get” the books and the character. Hector has opened the world up to me and my family, as we’ve gone here and there (Paris, Quebec and other wonderful places), as Hector has gone out into the world through translations and I’ve had to promote the books.

I wrote a total of eight novels about Hector (four have been published here in the States and in Europe; four are pending). Seven of them were complete before the first even appeared. The series is tightly interconnected, yet isn’t chronological in its presentation. I wanted to do what nobody else to my knowledge has ever done, and essentially write a planned, contained series with a beginning, a middle and an end. For me, too many genre writers just reel off an endless cycle of novels around the same character, and, sometimes, the author dies and the series passes into other hands. I’m offering eight novels about this man, his life and times, and that’s all. I don’t want Hector or the series to wind down like some boxer who doesn’t know when to leave the ring.

Q) What do you like about Mexico and the Mexican border? It’s a recurrent theme in your books.

A) I love Mexican culture, art, music…everything. The second Lassiter novel published here in the States, in fact, uses a painting by Diego Rivera, whose rights I negotiated for myself with the Bank of Mexico. Like Hector, one of my favorite songs in life is “Cancion Mixteca,” and my iPod is jammed with various versions of that song ranging from Mexican folk singers, to pub performers, to the great Tom Russell and the American actor Harry Dean Stanton.

Also, immigration is a huge issue where I live, even now, in this still-shattered Obama economy, and it drove much of the news I have covered as a journalist. Most of all, I have a deep regard for Mexican literature and poetry, and read as much of it as I can get my hands on.

(By the way, Hector Lassiter ventures into Mexico, significantly in two others of the seven books remaining.)

A) Head Games is available in the libraries of Mexico and is about a character who is in love, particularly, with the north of Mexico. What would you like to say to your readers?

A) I would thank them first and foremost for being readers. As a journalist and an author, I value every person who still finds the time and takes joy in reading.

Like my character, I am an ardent student and lover of your culture and history, and while I’m writing fiction, I do so always with the notion that fiction can bring us closer to truth than history or nonfiction. That might be a startling assertion for some, coming as it does from a man who is still a fulltime journalist, but it is what I truly believe, and, as they say, journalism is, at best, merely history’s first draft.

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