Latest Title: The Painted Gun
Synopsis: A washed-up ex-journalist looking for a missing girl in San Francisco is framed by a Guatemalan hit man for a series of murders.
Publisher: Akashic Books
Release Date: March 2017
Like a weak Hollywood pitch, I had barely half a movie when I left San Francisco: a detective, a painting, and a missing girl. Four years - and another novel - later, in New York, I came up with the mechanics of a frame job to power the plot, and I was ready to get to work.
With two weeks off and an unrelated itch to see Lake Atitlán, I flew to Guatemala City with my backpack and no set plans. After a night in Antigua, two Mexicans joined my breakfast table at a busy café and we hit it off. They asked where I was going, and I said, The Lake, but admitted I didn't know where to land. One of them - a reclaimed-glass artist named Patik who died far too young - told me to come to the village where he lived.
I had always been a reckless, furtive backpacker - one or two nights somewhere and then off to anywhere. But I fell in love with the village, with views of three volcanoes and morning swims in the bracing, volcanically-charged water (which, sadly, is now wracked with algae from decades of pollution). I would revisit this place almost annually for the next fifteen years - and counting - to work and relax and absorb the antidote to New York.
I wrote almost half a book on that first visit. A week later, I would arrive in New York just in time for 9/11, which temporarily destroyed my interest in the project - but that's another story. What happened before I left the lake was that the heavy rains of August turn the hills lush and verdant and give everyone a reason to stay indoors. With nothing to read but The Big Sleep and Lonely Planet's La Ruta Maya, I finished the novel and flipped through the guidebook, reading about other parts of the region I aimed to explore: the underground river of Semuc Champey, the city of Xela, San Cristobal and Palenque in Chiapas... and in a darkened text box at the bottom of a page, found the words: United Fruit.
It's easy to forget how much less access we had to information, even as recently as 2001. The Internet hadn't yet taken control of public opinion; we didn't yet carry computers in our pockets that could instantly settle a bar bet, or tell the NSA where we were and what we were thinking. Maybe I still had a little innocence in me. I found it hard to swallow that the CIA had manufactured a coup in Guatemala in the 1950s. It seemed unbelievable that I'd never heard about it: an American corporation, with interests in a sovereign foreign nation, so successfully wagged the dog of the U.S. government that the country was thrown into a thirty-six-year civil war. I knew how dangerous Guatemala had been only a few years before - I had friends who had visited - but hadn't thought about it much, like any arrogant American.
Bananas. All for the sake of cheap bananas. This seeped into my pores, bred under my skin. This was real-life intrigue. The second progenitor of my novel raised his intimidating stare: James Ellroy. I had the dark undercurrent that could give the book both life and verisimilitude - the fearful threat of reality.
A couple of years later, I came back to the project and back to Guatemala. I read up on El Pulpo - "the Octopus" - and visited the dusty port town of Puerto Barrios. I squeezed my friend Balam Sapper for his view of Guatemala City as a high school student in the '90s. And I swam in Lake Atitlán and ate pitayas, which hardly qualifies as working, but is certainly living.
The tropics boast many varieties of bananas, from flavorful miniature yellows that pop in your mouth, to large, meaty reds that are meals in themselves. Sadly, some Americans only know one banana - the long yellow ones. They're usually still green in the grocery store because they're picked unripe to survive shipping, a devastating practice to the flavor of the fruit. A banana tree should be harvested the moment the fruit is ripe: the stalk droops with the weight of the bunch, and one bends the plant towards the earth to chop off the bunch with a machete.
It's fitting that this book should come out in this time, when the taste of power, influence, and corruption are fresh on the tongues of so many Americans. Worldwide, these concepts are fermenting, growing tentacular arms of conspiracy.
I can't stop thinking about bananas.