Back in 2005 or so, I was under contract to write a sequel to All the Beautiful Sinners for Rugged Land — they’re gone now, but they were hot for a while, and produced some gorgeous books, and, as far as I know, did the first ever serious book trailer, too (For Henry’s List of Wrongs) — and it was supposed to be a sequel, this “Seven Spanish Angels,” a title I was of course ripping off, but also, it was a title that I felt would keep me honest. Becuase, I mean, you don’t abscond with something like that and then not treat it seriously, right? At least I couldn’t. I remember when that song came out, I was twelve, and didn’t have the record, of course, but could dial it in out in the parents’ and uncles’ trucks some lucky times, and I’d close my eyes and just be there in that song. It was the same as listening to Marty Robbins sing “El Paso,” to me — and of course, six years before, I’d listened to “El Paso” probably ten thousand times on a cassette player by my 25mhz Compaq, writing The Fast Red Road. This was that again, for me.
So, anyway, I turned in the first draft, and, I don’t know, I don’t think it was complete, but it was a good three hundred pages, I’d guess. And the editor — also the publisher of Rugged Land — Shawn Coyne, he read it in like twelve seconds (he can do this), kind of nodded and said, Well, what if this wasn’t a sequel? Which was the right call, I think. I mean, I had a ragged Jim Doe camped out in El Paso, writing in a diary for some reason, and the Texas Rangers Maines and McKirkle were still dogging his backtrail — or, they were until whoever was killing these women in El Paso up and killed them. So, yeah, their mentor “Dove” stood up from his rocking chair, came as far west as you can in Texas to dispense some Colt-specific justice, and he was something. It was like I’d gotten permission to dress Optimus Prime up like Sam Elliot, I mean. I was completely in love with Dove. However, I was also doing this new thing, that could have been me just feeling around on the page for traction in the story, I don’t know. What it was, it was each victim, I’d give her her own chapter, like. I’d introduce her, contextualize her, make her real, then just mercilessly — though, I thought, lyrically (which should have rung some alarm bells . . .) — have about the worst thing possible happen to her.
Shawn Coyne’s suspicions, as I recall, were that I was giving these victims too much time, and that I was pulling too much ATBS baggage. And he was right. So, he put his finger in the manuscript at about page 2 or so and said Let’s start here, do it all over again. So I did, and then, next time, he stuck his finger in about page 10, said start here now — this after another two- or three-hundred pages — and I did, and what started to happen was this crime-scene tech who’d just been kind of smart-alecky and fun to write, and a good “new person on the scene” to use for exposition, she started more and more to take center stage. Marta Villarreal. My first female protagonist. I mean, there’d been Chassis Jones in The Bird is Gone, yeah, who was the investigator in a novel that’s an investigation, but of course she was kind of just a mask LP Deal was trying to hide behind. Marta was there and she didn’t care who knew it.
I kind of fell in love with her, yeah.
However, this novel, this story, this material — where it started for me was I used to hang out with the Nuestra Palabra people around Texas, hit the cons, the festivals, all that. And I’d started seeing these fliers. For people dying in the desert just trying to get across (this would become It Came from Del Rio, yes), but also for these women dying in Juarez and El Paso. It fascinated me. And was another thing keeping me honest. Because Seven Spanish Angels was set there, and kind of unavoidably using some of the iconography associated with these women, I felt . . . not loyal, but like there were lines I couldn’t cross, if that makes any sense. Or lines I shouldn’t? I didn’t want to come across as riding some wave of national interest or sensationalism, anyway, didn’t want to be topical (in 2005, these women were in the news a lot). So maybe it’s a good thing that Seven Spanish Angels got delayed six years. Now it can just be its own thing, maybe. Not that those women are any less immediate, or that anything’s really stopped (if it’s not on the news it’s not happening as far as America’s concerned, all that), but Bolano’s already been through this territory ahead of me, now. So maybe people can jump on me for trying to play on his success, I don’t know. Not to compare myself with him either, though. Seven Spanish Angels is pure thriller. I wrote it right on the tail of, first, reading so many thrillers, at Rugged Land’s request, and, second, cycling through all of Robert McKee’s seminars (NY, LA, Las Vegas, I think, and in that order. Also SF, I guess, but that was later). So I had a pretty tight grip on the way the story needed to develop, and, when I needed reminding, Shawn Coyne was there. He’d been instrumental in the careers of both Robert Crais and Donald Harstad, I mean; I’d have been stupid not to take his advice.
However — El Paso. I hadn’t been there in a paying attention way in a few years, by 2005. Sure, I’d gone there in high school for stock shows, and come back with a spider egg in my arm and a system way polluted with beer (and no ribbon), and I’d been through just Joading it out to Arizona or California (came through once in a big fat Mercedes, which was so cool), but, for Seven Spanish Angels, I needed more than my dialup internet and my seriously meager search capabilities could pull off. I read what El Paso lit I could — Richard Yanez (I knew him through Nuestra Palabra; everybody should read him), Elizabeth Flacker (Patricide), Cormac McCarthy — and even hit the non-fiction section of the library off and on, and roadmaps and atlases. But still, I needed to go there. And, since Rugged Land was cool, they (again) footed the bill. Or, I was in Cloudcroft, New Mexico for a week or so, and had the novel mostly in the can, so I rented a Dodge Intrepid and sneaked down there for a day, traced out the routes I had Marta and everybody taking. And they worked. The pics are all tacked in here, though, why I only have six now is beyond me. And, I mean, one of them’s this bad El Camino I had to go to great pains to park by (thus protecting it from door dings) in a Furr’s parking lot. My best memory of that research trip, though, aside from lucking onto a Furr’s Cafateria, was sweating so much under that sun that I had to get out on the edge of town, drive fast holding my shirt out the window to dry it.
But, yeah, even though Seven Spanish Angels has been on Amazon since 2005 (for $200-plus dollars?), and has that gorgeous red cover, and even though I flew up to NYC for a photo shoot with Michael Mundy and went down into the bowels of some abandoned subway tunnel to take pics in a monotone bathroom that was so short I couldn’t even stand up in it, and even though I’d written in the area of two-thousand pages to get down to a very tight three-fifty (first/third person, epistolary, all tenses, etc), and — probably most important—even though I’d already been paid very nicely for it, still, we signed termination papers, effectively killing it. Why?
Trick was, the editor/publisher, Shawn Coyne, he finally liked all of the novel except the very-very (very) end, where, if I just did this one thing, then the rest of the story would lock into place, be magic and eternal and slippery on bottom, sticky on front, as all good shelf-stock should be. And it was a fix that would take me twenty seconds of typing to accommodate, maybe, it was that easy. Except it wasn’t. I stuck at that last edit, couldn’t change Seven Spanish Angels even one word more. Because I’d lived in it so long, I suspect: these were no longer characters to me, but people, and I had obligations to them that didn’t involve anybody else, even to the point of killing what I thought then was going to be my one shot. I mean, Rugged Land, they had a revved-up marketing engine, and had a couple of excellent publicists (for Seven Spanish Angels it was to have been Jeanine Pepler), and were interested in me cranking out a thriller or crime novel a year, on schedule, until I took over the world by hook or by crook. Except I couldn’t make that one last change.
But, I got to keep Seven Spanish Angels, yeah. Maybe not the best career move, but you can’t always do the right thing, either, I don’t think. If I’d betrayed Marta — if it felt like I had, no matter whether it was the right fix or not — then I don’t know if any other characters would have ever trusted me enough to let me write them down.
Now, fast-forward five years. Dzanc’s happened, and they’re changing the face of what we used to consider indie publishing. They’re making it commercial, but are somehow keeping the heart and idealism and dedication that you often don’t find in the high-rise offices. Or that we, not in those offices, like to think is missing, anyway, as it makes us into some sort of Robin Hood group of writers. But, I’d signed on with them to do Flushboy and Not For Nothing in 2013 and 2014 — I so love each of those novels — and was cooking along, writing more books, selling more books, having various unsurprising surgeries, and then Dzanc started their rEprint line. To jump into the e-book world with both feet, yeah (well, they were already there), but to do it in a way that would breathe new life into authors’ back catalogues, into stuff that was out of print. They asked what I had rights to, and it turned out The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti and All the Beautiful Sinners were both mine again. And, ATBS, I’d been itching to burn back through it for years, ever since the day it was published. And the version coming in December, man, it’s lean like it should have been the first time. I’m in love with it all over again.
But, talking to Dan Wickett, I asked what about other books? That maybe wouldn’t be exactly reprints, but would kind of be reprint-ish? Because, you know, I had this one that people were always asking for, that they always thought they could buy, except it had never existed in a real way. Seven Spanish Angels. Dan said sure, and I dove back into El Paso, expecting to do a complete overhaul, what with all the new writing tricks and experience I had to have stole and earned over the last five years.
Except, I don’t think I changed anything. I wrote Seven Spanish Angels enough times the first time that it was already there, didn’t need me any more at all. Well, Matt Bell caught a few typos, and Dan caught a couple, but nothing big at all changed. Too, reading back through, I can remember that, writing it, I either had or was just getting my first cell phone. For me and my wife to share, only for emergencies, all those things you pretend. But it was still so new to me, and, in 2005, I thought, man, I’m cutting edge, using cell phones, yeah?
Well. The other option this time back through it would be to pull Seven Spanish Angels all the way up to 2011. Except that was too far from the Juarez murders. I needed Marta to have grown up during that era; I needed her to have grown up always hyper-aware of how long her hair was, and how it looked to some guy pacing her across the street.
Anyway, to get back a little to where I meant to be — I thanked everybody in the acknowledgements already, I hope, though it’s been six years — my real best memory of cruising shirtless through El Paso City on the Rio Grande that day in 2005, it’s of chancing on this big angel painted on the side of the building, just down from where I had something bad happening. It was perfect. I pulled over right there, with that angel up on the wall before me, and rewrote a couple pieces of the book, so she could be in it. And it was like she had been all along.
As for the El Camino, though? I don’t think it’s in here, except in spirit. You do what you can, I mean, right? However, what is in this book, it’s every last bit of my heart, I think. I’m surprised I was able to keep writing books after this one, and I’m so glad it’s finally getting out in the world:
Life isn’t easy in El Paso, Texas. Neither is death. Caught between them is crime-scene tech in-training Marta Villarreal, trying to work a case that may very well be her last. And she’s having to work it without her assigned homicide escort, who’s also kind of her boyfriend, and would look a lot more innocent if he would just come in, answer some questions about all these dead girls. Have the Juarez murders come north of the border now, or is it a copycat? And, why these women, why now? For as long as Marta can remember, the El Paso sun has baked the ground into a hard shell, so the dead can’t climb out. Not this week, though. This week the dead are all over town. And Marta may be among them.
And, below, just to do it publicly, I’ll paste the (slightly unspoilered) acknowledgements in. Just because I do owe a lot of people for a lot of help, not least of all my agent, who has to deal with the headache of a stubborn author who refuses to stay in one genre, just keeps leaving bloody tracks between them all. Kate Garrick, thanks. And, everybody else (I hope):
Marta. I think you were my first female lead in a novel. And Richard: you were my secret favorite. That’s why I could never let you on the page too much. You were based on too many people I’ve known and lived for, so I couldn’t really look at you straight on. And Sean Coyne, whom I wrote this novel for over and over: it worked, I think. And, Granddad: it’s you behind those headlights, yes. It’s you sitting on that wood bench in the diner. And Patricia Trujillo and Rose Rodriguez-Rabin and Brenda Mills: the early reads, the help, the catches, thank you. And Spot, my brother: that time you told me you thought your fingernails were melting in the sun, I think that’s maybe where this story comes from. Or where it is. But it’s also in a junkyard a big brother named Odale chased me and Asael through once. And it’s also in the way I’ve always walked through those baked pastures of Texas, sure I was about to walk up on a dead person. If I can get it down on the page, though, then maybe it won’t have to happen, right? Except of course the only way to write, it’s to live in both places at once. To send back telegrams, then pretend you made them up. And to write yourself notes so you can try to keep straight what’s from one side, what’s from another, knowing the whole time that the only way to really write’s to burn all those notes, use them to light your way back and forth. But still, some nights you get caught in between. That’s when it’s good that your study’s also your bedroom, like it was for this book. Because then, at three in the morning, at five, at daybreak, there’s somebody just a few feet away, who can extend a hand, pull you back across for a few hours and not ask any questions, even though all the questions are so obvious. Nancy: you’re my somebody. I’d never make it back if not for you. Thank you.