Novelist, US Marine, and lifelong student of the American Southwest.
David, please tell us how a Marine became a novelist. I sort of fell into writing by my former profession. Part of my career in the Marines included several tours as a staff officer. The principal duty of a staff officer is to read and write all sorts of documents for the commanding officer. Over the years, several of my seniors told me I was a good writer. I was hooked!
I live in a three-bedroom condo, and one of those rooms is my office. I have it decorated with Native American artifacts of all kinds, which serve not only as items of beauty but items that express the colorful history of the Southwest. I am inspired by the suggestion these artifacts bring of people who were able to live in a harsh land and survive there to this day. I allow no distractions, but they pay no attention to my wishes.
The hardest part of my writing process is sitting in a chair and grinding for five to six hours a day, five days a week. Every now and then, I get a flash of inspiration, but the burst of ideas is soon overshadowed by the research, analysis, and crafting needed to support the idea. In the end, my brain surge delivers new things I did not know before, and that’s where the fun of writing comes in.
My favorite author has to be Michael Connelly, followed by Robert Crais.
I travel to the scene of my crimes. My main character, Peter Romero, lives in New Mexico, and Poisoned by God’s Flesh start there. I’ve lost count of my visits to New Mexico since 1963, and I never cease to marvel at its beauty. My first novel, Mining Sacred Ground, takes place in the wilds of Arizona, a place I’ve visited annually (almost) since 1956. Animal Parts sends Romero to Oklahoma, a location I was stationed at while in the Marines. Twice. My newest novel, Dead Horses, takes place in Southern Colorado, a state I’ve loved since graduating from CU Boulder in 1965. My next novel will take place in Nevada, and that’s about all I know about the story. Many Vegas trips coming up? Of course.
How long did it take to get your first book finished? The Smoked Mirror took ten years, but it was a training vehicle and may never see the light of day.
When does your newest novel become available? Dead Horses – A Peter Romero Mystery, will be released by Amazon on October 9, 2020.
My historical characters are based on Native American legends. The problem with legends is that they are often embellished by succeeding generations of storytellers and listeners. Research will get you either a lack of information on a particular legend or confusing, contradictory stories without attribution to a source. It’s sort of a Wild West in a sense. This is where imagination and artistry come in.
My character names are out of the phone book or from the internet. If I need a character, say the sheriff of a certain county, I look up that person online. Let’s say his name is Johnson. The fictitious character’s name I will use is Jonsson. Nobody gets hurt.
Do you ever use real people for your characters? In my first novel, I tried to base my main character on people I know. It didn’t work for me, so I switched to modeling my characters after imaginary people I have developed. It works a lot better for me.
What can you tell us about your protagonist? My character is somewhere in between introspective and strong-willed. He pushes until push comes to shove, then he attacks. He is a bulldog who is not afraid to bite. How about your antagonists. My antagonists are spiritual in nature and have human characteristics, more often have animal characteristics. To make them human, I give them a sense of humor.
Do you work in any subplot? I usually have two subplots that present complications that challenge the main character and reveal more of his inner strengths.
Pantser or plotter? I am definitely a seat-of-the-pants plotter. The last paragraph leads me to the next. I tried outlining once, but it was only distracting work.
Where do you conduct your research? Most of my research is on the internet. I also have an extensive library on the main interest in my writing life – Native Americana. I have attended classes on Native Americana for the past 25 years and sob up everything I can on the subject, including membership in the Archeological Conservancy. I also write about places I know, which enhances my research online and in reading.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West. 2010 Modern Library Edition ed. New York, NY: Modern Library, 2010. Print.
Many consider Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian too violent to read. Violence begins on the second page and continues unabated to the end. McCarthy delivers a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man in the form of genocide. Blood is a constant theme as blood is spilled in one senseless massacre after another. Blood is not the result of conflict, but the reason for it.
McCarthy weaves what could be a series of short stories describing the worth or lack of indigenous people’s lives in the latter half of the nineteenth century west. The story, seen through the eyes of the narrator, follows the Kid and a gang of killers. McCarthy’s narrator never allows the reader inside the mind of the characters. We learn only what McCarthy wants as he develops his characters. He forces the reader to imagine one’s vision of the murderous thoughts. He is masterful in constructing his performers while forcing his readers to judge them.
McCarthy uses understated allegory to deliver messages that express what the characters are or what they represent. Spitting is used throughout as a symbol of the low regard the men have for anything, including human life. The insult of the act says more than dialogue could deliver. Wolves are symbolic actors. Almost daily, we see wolves. The humans and the wolves are representative of hunters looking for easy prey. The only difference, wolves kill for survival.
Glanton and his gang are inherently immoral, evil, clichés of bad guys in black hats. The governments of Mexico and the United States, equally evil, legitimatize genocide. This allowed for the ferocious and persistent murder and attempted extermination of the native peoples of both countries.
Genocide is the predominant theme. Except for the Delaware’s, the Indians are shown as savages. This holds even when the Diegueño Indians rescue the Kid and the ex-priest. “They would have died if the indians had not found them” (312). The narrator refers to these people as savages, as aborigines. “they saw the halfnaked savages crouched…” (312).
Two central characters, Glanton and the Judge, build upon the theme of genocide. Glanton, when he kills an old Indian woman sitting in the square of an impoverished Mexican village. When he sees three of his men squatting with her, he dismounts and kills her. “The woman looked up. Neither courage nor heartsink in those old eyes. He . . . put the pistol to her head and fired” (102). On the very next page, he confirms his complete contempt for life when he tells the only Mexican in his band to scalp the woman’s corpse with these chilling words, “Get that receipt for us” (103). She is nothing more than a hundred-dollar bounty.
The reader becomes almost inured to the violence. Once the butchery began, it seems as though there can be nothing more disturbing—there is—the Judge is evil incarnate. The gang surprises and attacks a large Indian encampment, “the partisans [Glanton’s men] nineteen in number bearing down upon the encampment where there lay sleeping upward of a thousand souls” (161). The Judge leaves the devastated village with a captured child, a ten-year-old boy. He treats the child humanely, and the boy becomes somewhat of a mascot. Three days later, the depth of the Judge’s evil is shown. “Toadvine saw him with the child as he passed with his saddle, but when he came back ten minutes later leading his horse the child was dead and the judge had scalped it” (170). The reader is left to wonder if the Judge killed the boy because he thrives on murder, or if he defiled the child and killed him afterward.
McCarthy’s colorful and graphic language adds significantly to the ability of the reader to see, understand, and experience the scenes and settings. Short and straightforward, his portrayal of the gang as they cross the desert, conveys in a few easy to read lines, in which the reader can feel, and smell the riders. “They rode on, and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of graybeards, gray men, gray horses” (259).
The Kid, born into a violent world, dies a violent death forty-five years later. Some assume that the Judge, a pedophile, and sexual deviant, rapes the Kid and leaves him for dead. We’ll never know the answer.
McCarthy’s final message to the reader, evil cannot be eradicated; it lives forever.
Berlin, Lucia. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories. London: Picador, 2015. Print.
Berlin’s stories are interwoven, almost as a memoir. The old writers’ saw, ‘write what you know’ is visible throughout the work. She brings her story to life in a manner that enables the reader to feel the emotions that her characters’ experience. “It has been seven years since you died” (386). The emotional pull hits like a hammer.
Berlin has no fear of reflecting on life as she addresses addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, suicide, and depression. Throughout the stories, she weaves a web about an abusive, alcoholic, and suicidal mother.
Her work is dark, depression laden. We see this darkness when the protagonist is contemplating her sister’s death. “Every day you’ve said good-bye a little. Oh just get it over with, for God’s sake” (381). Her multifaceted characters can turn an otherwise sad scene into one of joy. While waiting for the sister to die, she moves her under the bedroom window where she sees the sky and feels the warmth of the sun. The reader shares the feeling of beauty and warmth.
Berlin uses imagery to show contradiction, despair, and lack of hope within her characters. Through it all, her work is believable and full of imagery. No more so than in this paragraph from “Electric Car, El Paso”.
Mrs. Snowden … passed me fig newtons wrapped in talcum Kleenex. The cookie expanded in my mouth like Japanese flowers, like a burst pillow. I gagged and wept. Mamie smiled and passed me a sachet-dusted handkerchief, whispered to Mrs. Snowden, who was shaking her head (157).
Not only does she bring scenes to life through imagery, she does the same with objects such as her mother’s ratty old coat. “It had a fur collar. Oh the poor matted fur, once silver, yellowed now like the peed-on backsides of polar bears in zoos” (245).
Everything she writes is realistic. Her characters are believable, imbued with human traits, blemishes, and goodness. All are flawed, allowing the reader to understand their actions and motives.
Many of the characters in this collection reappear in various stories. We have plenty of time to get to know them. But even in stories about one character, she develops them in-depth, with simple phrases and words. In “Mijito” we learn a great deal about the young Mexican girl Amelia. Berlin puts us into the girl’s life as she cares for her infant son. We experience abandonment, abuse, unintended child abuse, hopelessness, and terror. We know Amelia before she accidentally kills the infant. “’ Amelia. Do you know that Jesus is dead?’ ‘Yes, I know. Lo se.’ And then in English she said, ‘Fuck a duck. I’m sorry’” (355).
Berlin is non-judgmental. She presents the world as it is, blemishes and all.