A few years back my friend, author Craig McDonald, defined for me what he called borderland noir, a kind of crime storytelling that borrowed from the uniqueness of the landscape and the culture of the United States/Mexico border. There is no shortage of material there, from illegal border crossers (which I’m writing about now) to kidnappings, rapes and murders of every sort. The hardest part is just figuring out what aspect of the ongoing tragedy you want to dramatize.
I was intrigued by a story I’d heard about the mass murder of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. I don’t remember where I came across it first, but Amnesty International USA began a campaign aimed directly at the problem and put the spurs to the nascent idea, providing the first steps in the research that eventually yielded The Dead Women of Juárez.
As a born-and-raised Texan, I’d spent my share of time south of the border and in Juárez itself, but it became clear in a hurry that Mexico had changed a lot since I’d shopped tourist districts without worrying about my safety or traveled deep into the interior just because I could. The drug war was just starting to heat up as I began to write, and suddenly the idea of hundreds of murdered women was no longer something I had to convince people of; people were dying in their hundreds already and it would only get worse.
The drug war actually turned out to be something of an impediment to the writing, because more than once I asked myself, why these murders and why this story? As las muertas de Juárez were buried further and further back in the public consciousness, I realized that I had to go on, in the perhaps vain hope that people would remember it had happened — was still happening — and something should be done about it by someone, somewhere. The first step is knowledge.
Even though I had a moral purpose driving the creation of The Dead Women, it wasn’t smooth sailing. I wrote the entire manuscript only to scrap the second half of it because I didn’t like the way I was telling my own story. It was too action-y, too cut-and-dried and I wanted there to be the murkiness of the borderland reflected in the prose. So I sat on what I had written for almost a year, pondering how to fix this problem, while my agent patiently waited for me to produce something she could sell.
The Dead Women tells its story from the perspective of two men, a decision I began to question. If the feminicidios of Juárez was a women’s issue, shouldn’t it be told from a woman’s point of view? I went round and round on that, until finally I decided that because I’m a man telling the story as an outsider — times two, as I’m also an American — the story should likewise be told by outsiders of a sort. And outsiders aren’t always the best representatives of justice, which lent me the impetus to recreate my own characters as deeply flawed human beings, not icons. Lead characters Kelly Courter and Rafael Sevilla are not traditional heroes in any sense, and their character arcs do not follow that path. Freed from the constraints of creating protagonists in that mold, I was able to complete work on The Dead Women a second time and be happy with what I’d written.
I still knew it would be an uphill battle to place The Dead Women with a publisher. Though I’ve been writing professionally for years, I had yet to publish a novel, and the subject matter here was markedly out of the norm. Luckily another author friend of mine, Dave Zeltserman, had a look at the manuscript and was impressed enough to pass it on to his editor at Serpent’s Tail. And the rest sort of fell together, faster and with greater ease than I ever could have anticipated.
I remain curious how The Dead Women will resonate with readers. I maintain that the feminicidios are a serious, ongoing issue that deserves to be addressed, quite apart from the violence ravaging cities all along the US/Mexico border. As one of my characters asks during the course of the book, ” What’s one more dead woman on the pile? It’s not like there’s not a hundred other things to worry about.” I think it matters. Being female should not mean being a target for rape and murder. And I hope that The Dead Women does some small part in illuminating the problem despite the carnage.
The Dead Women of Juárez is due for a January 2011 release from Serpent’s Tail.