The Dead Women of Juarez was one of my favourite summer reads of 2012. It’s a hard-boiled crime novel set against the backdrop of the real life horror taking place in the Mexican city of Juárez, across the US border, where as many as 5000 women have been murdered since 1993.
I recently posted a review of this book here. The book’s author, Sam Hawken, was kind enough to agree to answer some questions by e-mail from Texas about his work.
What was the inspiration for writing The Dead Women of Juárez?
The story of the dead women is inspiration all by itself. I first found out about the problem while visiting Amnesty International’s site looking for something else entirely and immediately I thought it would make for a good story. It’s hard to beat real life when you’re coming up with ways people make other people miserable.
One of the things I liked about your book was the way you were able to set a hard boiled crime story against the backdrop of such horrific real life events, without trivialising or sensationalising them. Crime fiction is an excellent way of holding up a mirror to society’s problems but it can be hard to do. Was that something you were conscious of when you were writing and was it difficult to pull off?
The only thing I really thought about was making sure that everything that happened revolved around a key event in the book, an event that related directly to the plight of the dead women. I didn’t want to write something that tried to wrap the whole problem up in a bow, which is something Jennifer Lopez tried to do in her 2006 film, Bordertown. I felt that if I could make the larger issue relatable on a personal level, it would be more real to the reader. I’m not sure how difficult it was, but I can say that I didn’t enjoy the experience.
I think the key characters in the book are very well drawn, particularly Kelly Courter, the washed up boxer, and Sevilla the grizzled Mexican cop. Did you base either of them on real life characters?
They are not, though Kelly gets his name from middleweight boxer Kelly Pavlik, who was on my mind in 2007 when I wrote the book. He’d just beaten Jermain Taylor to become WBO/WBC middleweight champion.
Sevilla is not based on a real person, per se. I was, however, thinking of Giancarlo Giannini when I described him physically, and in my dreams if/when The Dead Women of Juárez makes it to the TV or movie screens, he’s playing the part.
Your bio says you are a Texas native. Your depiction of life in Mexico seems pretty graphic and realistic. I assume you have spent time in Mexico? If so, was that in Juárez? Tell me about that.
I was born in Texas in 1970, so I had many years to visit Mexico before the narco trouble started in 2003. I once spent three weeks traveling through the heart of the country, visiting lots of small towns and villages, so I feel I know Mexico fairly well. I still do not speak the language well enough to make myself understood, however, and that’s something I very much want to correct.
As for Ciudad Juárez, I have been there, though not since before 2003 and definitely not since 2006, when the city exploded. It happens that Juárez just recently (within the last couple of weeks), lost its title as the murder capital of the world, with a 38% drop in killings in 2011. It’s still averaging more than five deaths a day, so I don’t plan on going back anytime soon, but maybe things are finally starting to get better.
What was involved in researching the back ground to what has occurred in Juárez?
It all started with the meager information Amnesty International had on their site. From there I went on to visit the sites of various groups inside and outside Mexico that advocate for women’s issues, including the feminicidios. After that it was a matter of reading Mexican media, which can be extremely gruesome. I also must acknowledge the book, The Daughters of Juárez, by Teresa Rodriguez and Diana Montane with Lisa Pulitzer. It’s a tremendous book and required reading for anyone interested in the deaths. I referred to it often while writing.
The Dead Women of Juárez is a pretty accomplished effort for a first book. While it may be your first published book, I’m curious to know is it first one you tried to write? What do you think helped you get it right?
I started writing novel-length fiction in the early ‘90s that could not be more different from what I write today. Back then I wrote lots of cyberpunk, a science fiction subgenre that was going out of style before I even put my fingers on the keyboard. I was, as you can imagine, not very successful. I then took a break from writing anything for about ten years (1996-2006), and returned to it with a couple of novels that have not, to this date, sold. So it kind of depends on how you count as to how many manuscripts I produced before The Dead Women. I call it number three, disregarding my first efforts from the ‘90s.
As far as how I got it right, I’m still in the dark about that. I genuinely hated writing The Dead Women and I thought it was terrible when I finished it. When I heard back from my agent that she thought it was “brilliant,” and authors like Dave Zeltserman raved, I was bewildered. Every time a good review comes in, I’m always a little bit amazed, because clearly these readers are seeing something in the writing that I did not, which makes me doubt my own judgment regarding the quality of my work.
Every time I read a story about the rape and murder of women in Juárez, I am left wondering why it is that no has been brought to justice. No justice system, including Australia’s, is perfect and justice systems are particularly imperfect in parts of the developing world. Even so, I find the notion that so many people can be killed, so brutally without anyone being caught, mind-boggling. What, in your opinion has led to this situation? Why have the police proven so inept in catching some of those responsible? Why do these killings continue with such impunity?
Well, depending on whom you talk to, the perpetrators of many hundreds of these killings have been caught. A bunch of bus drivers were rightly convicted of murdering women they singled out on their routes, and a (probably innocent) Egyptian man had over a hundred killings attributed to him, though murders with the same MO occurred after he had been jailed. The authorities explained this away by saying he was somehow paying street gangs to carry out additional killings to make him look guiltless. There are a few others I’m aware of, but those accusations and guilty verdicts are deeply tainted by stories of police brutality leading to false confessions.
After finishing the book and sending it on its merry way, I checked out the aforementioned movie, Borderlands. In that film it’s postulated that the authorities don’t do much to solve these murders because it’s bad for business. Ciudad Juárez is a major locale for maquiladoras, factories where all sorts of goods, high tech or otherwise, are made for the American market, and by and large the women who vanish are working girls who toil in these places for dollars a day. While that makes for a nice, conspiratorial theory, I suspect the answer is a little simpler and actually somewhat more unpleasant: women just aren’t valued as much as men, and the oftentimes sexual nature of these crimes makes the women look guilty of something even though they are the victims. It’s akin to rape victims being castigated during trials for their sexual behavior, as if they were “asking for it.”
You have mentioned that you are working on another book, due out later this year. Tell me about that.
Tequila Sunset is all done and bound proofs are due in February, so the wheels are already well in motion for a September 2012 release date. In this one we return to Ciudad Juárez, but we also spend time on the American side of the border in El Paso, Texas. El Paso is, somewhat bizarrely, the safest city in the United States though it is a literal stone’s throw away from one of the most violent cities in the world. Bullets from Ciudad Juárez sometimes fall in El Paso.
The book follows three characters: Flip Morales, a paroled convict involved with the infamous Barrio Azteca street gang of El Paso/Juárez; Cristina Salas, an El Paso detective who works the city’s gang unit; and Matías Segura, a Mexican federal agent whose purview is Azteca activity in Juárez. It is estimated that Barrio Azteca is responsible for as much as 85% of the murders in Ciudad Juárez, and these three are caught up in the middle of that activity. There’s more, of course, but I don’t want to spoil potential readers. Expect a broader picture of the situation and an expansion of the human element already present in The Dead Women.