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.


Continuing with English translations of new interviews I've given recently 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.


I've been doing a lot of interviews with newspapers and radio stations in Mexico recently in support of the Spanish language release of HEAD GAMES (LA CABEZA DE PANCHO VILLA) there.

Here is the translation of one of those exchanges, with a couple more to follow over the next day or two:


Q) Why the figure of Pancho Villa?

A) I knew a couple of old men in my hometown who rode into Mexico behind General “Black” Jack Pershing, chasing Villa after the attack on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916. That led me to novels about Villa, which in turn led me to biographies and histories about the man. Villa’s personal story and his idealism speak to me, and he’s one of those larger-than-life, very masculine figures who appeals to me as a character study, much like Ernest Hemingway, to name another “character” who figures in much of my fiction.

Q) How much fiction and how much of reality is in your novel?

A) A surprising amount of the novel is rooted in history. Most all the material about Villa, with the exception of the treasure map attached to his stolen head, is rooted in the historical record. The material about Skull and Bones—the secret society believed to have engineered the theft of Villa’s head as depicted in my novel—is also based on some fairly convincing documentation. Emil Holmdahl, a character in the novel, was actually arrested for raiding Villa’s grave. George W. Bush’s family has repeatedly been linked to the theft of Villa’s head, as well as that of Geronimo, and it became a campaign issue for his father, George H.W. Bush.

Q) "La Cabeza de Pancho Villa" — can it be considered a historical novel?

A) I believe it is an historical novel. I try to look for voids in the historical record and insert my fiction into those cavities while not violating the history too much if I can. In the end, I’ll bend fact to further fiction, but I rarely find myself doing that in my Villa book, or its three historically-grounded sequels featuring narrator, Hector Lassiter, known as, “The man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives.”

Q) Cinema is a very important element in your book, why?

A) The protagonist/narrator, Hector, is a man noted for drawing on his life for his fiction, in a manner similar to Hemingway, who appears in the three novels that follow “La Cabeza de Pancho Villa”. Hector is also a screenwriter who is friends with such legendary movie directors as Orson Welles, another character in the novel. At the end of the day, one of the themes of this novel is that of legend and myth and also of being a man. Our attitudes toward those topics, particularly when it comes to noted figures like Villa, are unfortunately too often shaped by cinema, which in the case of Villa, has not been very kind in terms of casting or Villa’s reputation.

Q) How has the American public received your book?

A) The novel was my American debut, and was nominated for the Edgar Award, the highest honor in American crime fiction, as well as several other key awards. There was some early movie interest but nothing has come together yet. It has gone on to be translated into French, Russian and Japanese, as well as Spanish, among other languages. At this writing, an artist in Austin, Texas, is finishing up artwork for a graphic novel of the book from a script I wrote. The main character of Mr. Lassiter has gone on to appear in three sequels, all of which have also been translated in many languages. Four more are yet to be printed. I wrote all eight Lassiter novels before the Villa book appeared, doing so with the notion of having a fully integrated and executed series with a beginning, a middle and an end.