I first came across Carmen Amato’s work, via the global connector that is Twitter. The titles of her books intrigued me and the way she wrote about them intrigued me even more. I tried to get her books, but it was a bit tricky from Oaxaca. Luckily I found her short story The Beast on Huffignton Post and I loved it! By this point I was even keener to read more. Then Carmen contacted me to talk about collaborating and I was delighted when she really kindly sent me two of her books from her Emilia Cruz mystery series about a female detective in Acapulco . From the moment I started the first one, I couldn’t put it down and it wasn’t until right towards the end that I started to suspect the killer. Her work touches on important issues affecting Mexico in a real, human way and is exciting, fast paced and utterly gripping. My interview with Carmen Amato was fascinating and insightful. We talk writing styles, inspiration and even favourite Mexican foods…
No longer available on Huffington Post, I am very excited that Carmen has offered Mexico Retold readers and EXCLUSIVE download of her short story The Beast (available until 15th March). I hope you enjoy it and thank you Carmen!
What first drew you to writing about Mexico?
First, thanks so much for inviting me over to chat. Mexico Retold is one of my favorite blogs. I’m still trying to score 100% on one of your famous quizzes!
As to your question: Despite all the connections between the two countries, there isn’t a lot of commercial fiction set in Mexico that is popular in the United States. Translations of books by heavy-hitting Latino authors like Carlos Fuentes are well-known within literary reading circles, but don’t reach the mainstream commercial fiction reader. But Mexico is full of stories!
I wanted to portray the Mexico I had encountered, which I don’t think is well known to the US reader. Mexico is such a richly layered place of culture, traditions, and history. Popular fiction can be a way to show all that.
I think it is working. Many reviewers have noted how much they learn about Mexico by reading my books. Even Kirkus Reviews applauded the way Mexican food is an element in the first Emilia Cruz mystery!
I love that your protagonist is a strong and honest female cop. What inspired you to create this character?
I was still working on my first book, the political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, when I decided to try my hand at a short story. It was for my writer’s group in which most of the members were short story authors. They were a daunting audience.
Acapulco gave the story a strong dramatic setting (Cliffs! Crashing waves!) Heart in hand, I submitted a draft that would become “The Cliff,” which is part of the MADE IN ACAPULCO collection. The writer’s group gave it a thumbs up and the series was born.
The main characters in all my books are female. Each is a different balance of tough and vulnerable and all experience change and growth, just like all of us. Emilia is both the most physical and the most calculating.
Someone asked me what Emilia’s biggest vice was and I immediately answered “She’s a liar.” But for a good cause. I love creating this kind of paradox.
My husband wanted me to make Emilia a private investigator (we both love Robert B. Parker novels) but I felt that placing Emilia into a potentially charged situation (first and only female detective on the Acapulco police force) would create more tension than in a situation where she was a free agent.
Carmen’s outside working space
You touch upon some very serious issues that are affecting Mexico in your novel (disappearances, corruption, kidnappings among others). What drew you to writing about these issues?
Mexico has a beautiful, rich culture, which is some ways, is under siege by the drug cartels and the violence they bring. I wanted to show the impact on individual lives. How the drug violence affects Mexico at the personal level, which is an issue that often gets lost. One of the short stories in the MADE IN ACAPULCO collection was inspired by poet Javier Sicilia’s rallies, which brought the issue of missing persons out into the open.
I love your use of detail to illustrate how difficult it is for Detective Cruz to be taken seriously by the male detectives in her department. Did you have any contact with Mexican female detectives when researching the book?
I have two identical tee shirts that say “Careful or you might end up in my next novel.” They were gifts from two different friends who know me well.
I’m a people-watcher and an avid researcher. I tend to notice little things–gestures, body language, offhand comments—and store them up for later use. Plus I’ve done research on gender income and education disparities. So while I didn’t directly interact with any Mexican female detectives, I had a lot to work with when it came to creating the relationship between Emilia and her male counterparts.
Are you a writer who plans every detail of the story before starting to write, or do you see what happens once you sit down to begin?
I’m rigorous about having an outline before writing, otherwise I just wallow in words. My outline technique depends heavily on sticky notes. Often, because each novel has several storylines, I’ll use different colors to keep them straight and the action sprinkled evenly. I’ll arrange the stickies on a big posterboard that gets taped over my desk. About a third of the way through the outline will be overtaken by events and redone. Once the draft is finished, I edit and edit, both to add layers of detail and to polish the prose.
Trajectory plotting for pivotal dialogue scenes is also key. Do the characters start off angry and reach resolution? Do they have competing agendas that must be revealed? Some of my favorite scenes are between Emilia and the senior detective Franco Silvio. They have a real love-hate relationship that is revealed in arguments, discussions, and mutual mocking.
Hat Dance Outline
How much time do you spend in Mexico?
We lived in Mexico City for three years and in many ways left our hearts there. I’ve been back numerous times and our house is full of lacquerware, Otomi cloth, pewter, and other pieces of Mexican art we have collected over the years.
What do you miss most about Mexico when you are away?
I miss the way art is part of everyday life in Mexico. Maybe it is something in the air. All I know is that, from grand architecture to paintings for sale on the street to a unique way flowers are displayed in a neighborhood mercado, there is something to appreciate everywhere you look. Mexico is in the same class as France and Italy when it comes to the way that even the most humble items and details can reflect a national artistic sensibility.
What is your favourite Mexican city?
This is not a fair question! Here are my Top 5, all of which have figured in my books:
1. Mexico City: It’s a big, modern city with a growing international vibe. You can get anything there, meet people from around the world, visit first class museums, hotels, restaurants, stores. Distinct neighborhoods keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
2. Acapulco: Always gorgeous and there is always a party going on. Punta Diamante is breathtaking. Some parts of Cancún can feel like Miami but Acapulco has never lost its Mexican personality.
3. Oaxaca: This was our first foray out of Mexico City and we fell in love with all of the history on display. Not just the Spanish architecture but Monte Alban, too. We stayed at the beautiful boutique hotel Hacienda de los Laureles when it first opened and continue to recommend it.
4. San Miguel de Allende: This is the mecca for Mexican art and colonial architecture. I have never heard of anyone who went to San Miguel and came home empty-handed. I would go bankrupt if I lived there.
5. Puebla: Probably the easiest city in Mexico to navigate because of the grid layout, Puebla is a talavera shopping dream. Everybody needs more talavera.
What is your favourite Mexican dish?
Another difficult question! It might be arroz rojo. I love trying other people’s versions and am continually refining my own recipe. My trick is to go light on the tomatoes and make sure the pulp is completely squeezed out of them, plus add a touch of Herdez chipotle salsa.
What can we expect from you next?
The next full length Emilia Cruz novel, DIABLO NIGHTS, is slated for a June 2014 release. This one draws inspiration from Mexico’s Cristero War of the late 1920’s during which the government tried to squeeze out the Catholic Church. It’s a mystery-within-a-mystery and Emilia has an unexpected link to the conflict. I’m also working on a short story in which Emilia goes undercover as a taxi driver but gets burned by her own boss. Lt. Inocente features in all the short stories and is the guy you love to hate.
Susannah, thanks so much for hosting me and asking about the books. Mexico Retold readers are invited to join my mailing list to get updates on the Emilia Cruz series, as well as a free copy of “The Beast,” the first story in MADE IN ACAPULCO: The Emilia Cruz Stories, which is available on Amazon. “The Beast” explains how Emilia fought her way into the detectives squad room in the first place and introduces readers to the whole series. Click here to sign up for the free story and Happy Reading to all!
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, The Independent UK, Afar and The New Worlder among others. Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.