Trace the circle:
El Gavilan, my new novel about illegal immigration and a murder that rocks an Ohio town, is my fifth published piece of long-form fiction. It’s my first standalone novel.
After four installments of the Hector Lassiter series — and the fact that the last four of the planned eight Lassiter novels are already written — I’ve been asked repeatedly, “Why publish something non-Lassiter and why now?”
As it happens, El Gavilan is inextricably bound up with Hector Lassiter, overtly and covertly.
In 2005, in a kind of writing frenzy, I wrote four book manuscripts: Head Games, Rogue Males, El Gavilan and Toros & Torsos.
Head Games, the novel that also introduced Hector Lassiter, was a presumed standalone novel set along both sides of the Mexican border. I had no idea when I finished it that later that same year I’d write Toros, still another Latin-culture inflected novel extending Hector’s story. Rogue Males was a piece of nonfiction that mandated a trip to the Arizona desert to interview Ken Bruen and James Sallis.
In fiction, nonfiction and, as a journalist, Mexico and border stresses loomed large. I was dwelling in a kind of Borderland Noir culture pressure cooker, marinating to a soundtrack of Tom Russell tunes studded with mariachi horns and Spanish guitar riffs.
As I wrote Head Games, and while I roamed the desert between interview sessions with Bruen and Sallis, El Gavilan was already taking shape in my mind—so much so that in my emerging manuscript of Head Games I had my crime novelist protagonist Hector Lassiter in full throes of the launch phase of his own new La Frontera-set novel, The Land of Dread and Fear, a scorching tale involving a Border Patrol agent and a lovely young Latina.
Hector variously reflects on his novel: “My most recent book . . . written in a fever dream of guilt and liquor and whoring along La Frontera in the weeks following my family’s death. I got too cute with it: tried to “subtly” use a love affair between my border agent and an unwed Mexican mother to mask a meditation on U.S. and Mexican relations. Not sure I pulled it off.”
And . . .
“It’s important to me, and to the audience, to see Mexico how she is, not as we would wish her to be. We need to see the squalor . . . the deprivation that drives her people — people like Marita, the young unwed mother in my new novel — to risk everything crossing the Sonoran Desert, or trying to swim the Rio Grande. We need to see those real Mexican faces . . . to hear authentic voices.”
Because Hector is also an author and we occasionally get snatches of his prose in my books, I’m often asked to compose a full Hector Lassiter novel — a novel as written by Hector. In a real sense, El Gavilan is that book. When I finished Head Games, as a kind of cooling off exercise, I decided to actually write The Land of Dread and Fear. If you boil it down, El Gavilan is the love story of a Border Patrol agent and a pretty young Latina woman and the political forces that close in on them . . . just like Hector’s 1950s-era novel.
My publication sequence has to be one of the oddest around. Nearly all of the books in the planned-to-be-finite Lassiter series were written before Head Games was optioned. So was El Gavilan. Consequently, the books have appeared in haphazard sequence as editors have favored one over another for marketing or tea-leave-reading reasons.
There were points along the way when I figured El Gavilan would actually be my debut novel.
But when Hector made the publishing scene, and got some prominent awards attention, the course was set: more Lassiters were mandated before I would be allowed to venture down other paths.
There’s one more Lassiter connection to El Gavilan that bears mentioning, one a bit more subtle.
The hero of El Gavilan is a guy named Tell Lyon. He has a cousin named Chris who has a few cameos in the novel. Chris Lyon was actually the protagonist of eight or nine manuscripts I wrote before Head Games. Chris was actually my first fictional character . . . a guy who carried a first piece of fiction I tried to write at about the age of eight or nine.
But as it happens, El Gavilan isn’t Chris’ first appearance in a published novel with my byline.
In my third-published novel, Print the Legend, Hector Lassiter encounters and eventually marries an aspiring young writer named Hannah Paulsen. Hector and Hannah eventually divorce. As many would-be writers do to make their scratch, Hannah drifts into teaching.
Near the end of Print the Legend, we see Hannah with a promising young Ohio State University writing student who she takes on as an occasional lover . . . an aspiring young fiction writer named Chris Lyon.
Close the circle.
© 2011 Craig McDonald, author of El Gavilan