Monday, 5 November 2012

PUSH-UPS: Sam Hawken

So, what are you pushing right now?
The object of primary interest in my latest book, Tequila Sunset, releasing on 1 November in the UK, however I continue to encourage people to check out my debut novel, The Dead Women of Juárez, which got its American release in September but has been available in the UK, Germany and France for some time.  So wherever anyone happens to be when they’re reading this, there’s something on the shelves (physical and virtual) for their reading pleasure.

What’s the hook?
Tequila Sunset is about the Barrio Azteca gang in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.  Originally formed inside the Coffield Unit (a prison in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice) as a federation of convicts from El Paso, Barrio Azteca metastasized into a street gang in their hometown and then spread across the border.  At the time of Tequila Sunset’s writing, Barrio Azteca was estimated to be responsible for up to 85% of the murders in Ciudad Juárez, thanks to their alliance with the Juárez Cartel.  To put that in perspective: 10,000 people have been killed in Ciudad Juárez since 2008.

The book follows three characters in interlocking stories: a reluctant member of Barrio Azteca in way over his head, a police detective and single mother in El Paso’s gang unit, and a Mexican federal agent whose area of specialization is Barrio Azteca.  There’s violence, betrayal, hope and despair.  In the end everybody dies.  Some of that may be a lie.

And why’s that floating your boat?
I just finished a three-year stretch during which I wrote almost exclusively about Mexican issues.  Three of the six manuscripts I’ve written on Mexico have sold.  I find the woes of Mexico to be of particular fascination, not only because they are often so inconceivably horrible, but because they happen literally a stone’s throw away from the United States where, no matter how much people here might complain about crime, things are about as close to perfect as they can be.

It’s almost impossible to turn away from Mexico once you start looking at it closely, which explains why it’s captured my imagination for so long.  An eternity in writing terms, for certain.

When did you turn to crime?
Completely by accident.  Prior to The Dead Women of Juárez, which established me as a crime writer, I’d written an international thriller (not great) and a literary horror novel about medical murders in Germany during the Second World War (much better).  Neither one had gotten any traction at all with publishers, and following some success writing and publishing short-form crime fiction, I thought I’d give it a shot at novel-length.  Now it’s pretty much all I think about, though I do plan to write another international thriller just because I like the genre and want people to read/like my take on it.

Hardboiled or Noir, classic or contemporary?
I don’t have a lot of use for hardboiled fiction, particularly the way its elements have been fetishized to the point of self-parody.  Noir fiction also falls into the same pit more often than not.  I don’t think contemporary authors have the same facility with those forms as the originators do.  There are no more Jim Thompsons or Charles Williamses because the landscape has already been mapped.

This is not to say there are no good crime novels anymore, because that’s clearly untrue, but I much, much prefer authors do something unique to themselves rather than try to mimic what has been done and done to death.

And, what’s blown you away lately?
I hate to say it, but I can’t remember the last time I was really blown away by something.  When I originally read No Country for Old Men in 2005, a book that completely changed my perception about writing contemporary fiction, I was most assuredly blown away.  I haven’t read anything since then that had the same impact on me.

It doesn’t help that I read and watch disposable books and movies.  I’m reading a collection of Judge Dredd novels right now.  They’re good, but they’re not good in the sense that they are heartbreaking works of staggering genius that will affect generations to come.  However, they do what they’re intended to do and do it well, which is sometimes the most important thing of all.

See any books as movies waiting to happen?
Besides my own?  I don’t know.  As I say, my media diet consists heavily of what some people would call trash, and lately (Judge Dredd aside) I’ve been reading a lot of men’s adventure from the 1980s.  Those may have made good cheap-o flicks back in the decade they came from, but would be totally impossible to make now, not least because audiences would be guaranteed to hate them.

Mainstream or indie - paper or digital?
My publisher, Serpent’s Tail, is considered independent, so I have to lean in that direction.  They’ve been very good to me, and open to the kind of stuff I write.  Despite a nibble or two, the mainstream publishers don’t seem all that interested in what I have to offer.  I guess I need to up the amount of scary, borderline-abusive “romance” and sexual deviance of certain bestselling novels to make a breakthrough into that world.

As for paper versus digital, I’m still very much a paper kind of guy in terms of my personal reading habits.  I have read ebooks and I’m sure I’ll read more, but I just like to hold a book in my hands and put my ratty old bookmark between its pages when I’m done reading for the night.  That said, I plan on releasing a couple of Kindle exclusives next year to tide people over until my third Serpent’s Tail book, Missing, hits the shelves in 2014.  Times change and we must change with them.  I don’t know that ebooks will ever replace their paper counterparts completely, but they will become significantly more common over the next decade.

Shout us a website worth visiting.
There’s a blog called Glorious Trash ( that I read religiously.  It covers the kind of throwaway entertainment that dominated the bookshelves of the 1970s and 1980s and I love the writer, Joe Kenney, for his in-depth and often very amusing reviews.

Finally, tell us any old shit about yourself.
I have tried and failed to follow many paths in my life, but I have never had any significant success on any of them.  Getting my break with The Dead Women of Juárez made me feel like I might have some skill at something after all, and Tequila Sunset has reinforced that notion, for good or ill.  So people should know when they buy and read my books, they’re holding a piece of a dream I had for a long time before even the smallest part of it came true.