A Conversation with Philip Caputo about Crossers
Was there a particular idea or event that was the genesis of this novel?
In 2006 I'd started doing research and interviews for a nonfiction piece about border issues for
the Virginia Quarterly Review. In the course of that work, I'd stumbled on historical material and was
fascinated to learn that what we think of as contemporary problems on the Mexican border illegal
immigration, smuggling, violence go back at least a hundred years. I was also struck by the
similarities between the Mexican drug cartels and today's Islamist terrorists. The former are
motivated by greed, the latter by religious and political fanaticism, but they are alike in the atrocities
they commit, in their utter lack of compassion and conscience. The stories illegal immigrants told
me about their sufferings moved me as well. One of those tales involved a man who was abandoned
by his coyote (as immigrant smugglers are called), got lost in the mountains, and nearly died before
he was rescued by a rancher I know. Moral conflict and moral ambiguity are themes that have
consumed me throughout my career, and there is plenty of both on the border. All of this seemed a
rich vein for a novel. I never experienced a "eureka" moment, but various experiences and
impressions began to flow together, like tributary streams into a river, and I started writing.
You spend several months of the year living in Arizona, very close to the Mexican border. How
long have you been doing that and what first drew you to Arizona?
My wife and I started to spend time in Arizona in 1996 at the urging of good friends who live
there. Our part of the state, in the southeast, is a kind of the anti-Phoenix hundreds of thousands
of acres of high desert plateaus and mountains, most of them public land. Room to roam, a certain
stark beauty. The San Rafael valley, which is near the little town where we own an old adobe house,
is gorgeous. I hunt desert quail there behind a pair of English setters, and those days bring me great
joy. Leslie and I ride the valley quite a lot on horseback when I'm not hunting. Ranging through
those wide-open spaces on foot or in the saddle is the essence of freedom.
Q: What kind of research did you need to dointo the history of the border but also on such
things as cattle ranching, drug smuggling, etc.?
I did a lot in historical society archives, sifting through old newspaper stories and personal
accounts. A good friend who is a Border Patrol agent gave me tutorials in the drug trade. I
accompanied him on two undercover assignments in Mexico and on a few missions on this side of
the border. Three other friends are cowboys or cattlemen, whom I joined on roundups and
brandings and other ranch work. I learned quite a bit from them, and a had a great deal of fun doing
How did you decide to structure this novel as a multi-generational story, incorporating family
history, oral transcripts, etc.?
Originally, I intended to write two novels. The first was going to be set in the past, from 1903 to
1951, and was going to be titled A Dangerous Man. The second was going to take place in the present
and pick up the stories of the historical characters' descendants. I was well into the first book when it
came to me that this was the wrong approach. Somehow, one tale set in yesterday and another in
today lost power standing alone. So I decided to fuse the two. At first, the historical story was going
to be part one, the contemporary story was going to be part two; but that seemed too linear, too
mechanical and schematic. It also violated the spirit of the book I wanted to show that the past is
never dead, that it constantly affects the present, rather like the gravitational field of one heavenly
body affecting the orbit of another. It would be better to tell both stories in alternating chapters. Well,
that proved very difficult until I had one of those moments that makes writing such an adventure.
One day, a voice started to speak in my head, the voice of an old Arizona cowboy, T.J. Babcock,
relating his adventures in the Mexican Revolution an oral history. T.J. led me to the solution to the
length problem. By framing the historical narrative as a series of oral histories, I could tell a story
spanning half a century in a relatively brief fashion.
You chronicle some real historical events in the novel. Are any of your characters based on
actual historical figures?
The protagonist of the historical story is Benjamin Erskine, grandfather of the two main characters
in the modern-day story, Gil Castle and his first cousin, Blaine Erskine. Ben is modeled on a real
person, Jim Hathaway, who was a legendary cattleman, deputy sheriff, and soldier of fortune in
southern Arizona in the early-to-mid 20th century.
Ben Erskine seems like he was a fascinating character to create, especially in that so many of his
actions remain morally ambiguous--to his family and also to history. Is that so? Was he a challenge
to bring to life?
Ben did captivate me. Making him come alive was probably the least difficult thing about writing
this novel. Many of his actions were admirable, others were morally questionable. A contemporary
American (like Ben's daughter, Grace, Gil Castle's mother) would find them reprehensible. Ben was
a violent, dangerous man who tried to keep his devil in check, though he wasn't always successful.
He was born in 1890 and grew up in the twilight of the Old West. In his boyhood and early manhood,
the border was very wild and lawless and harsh. It wasn't the sort of place where you could not call
911 in an emergency or in a perilous situation. You had to rely on yourself, on your wits and quickness
with a gun. Ben's environment combined with his innate temperament to make him, in his daughter's
view, the personification of D.H. Lawrence's definition of the essential American soul as "hard,
isolate, stoic, and a killer." I would qualify that it describes a type of American male that has become
almost extinct in our highly-urbanized, high-tech culture, though updated versions of Lawrence's
agate-eyed stoic may be found in Navy SEALS and Special Forces troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of your characters describes the U.S. border efforts as "Star Wars joining hands with the
Old West, two myths linked by the gringo faith in technology to overcome . . ." Pretty strong words.
I think so. We conquered this vast continent with repeating rifles and railroads, the hi-tech of their
day. Americans love, they practically worship gadgets and gizmos. That line my character speaks
arose from a night I spent in a Border Patrol station in Naco, Arizona. TV screens linked to cameras
mounted on towers in the desert covered one entire wall. Agents manipulated the cameras with
joysticks and communicated with field agents by radio. On one screen, I saw a group of illegal aliens
creeping through the brush, while the operator talked to Border Patrolmen wearing cowboys hats and
night-vision goggles as they rode horseback. Pretty soon, directed by the operator from miles away,
the mounted agents galloped onto the screen and captured the intruders. The fusion of all that
electronic technology with that image, which looked like a scene from a western, was mindblowing.
Landscape has always played a starring role in your novels and you seem especially drawn
to places where beauty and violence intersect. In Acts o f Faith it was Africa and in Crossers it's
the Arizona and Mexican desert where as one of your characters describes, "borderland beauty
cohabited with violence .. . . [and the] world of cattle and horses and operatic landscapes, the
parallel world of drug lords and coyotes and murder. What is it about this contrast that intrigues
I think if I hadn't become a writer, I would have been a landscape painter, because landscape has
always struck me as somehow sentient, as a "character" if you will. As for the contrast, I think it's
inherently intriguing. When I was in Vietnam with the marines in the 1965 and 1966, the jungle
seemed to have a personality, a hostile one. At the same time, it was exceptionally beautiful. Thirty
years later, I returned to Vietnam on a magazine assignment, and found it as beautiful as ever; but
with the war long over, something was missing the danger lurking in the beauty. The landscape
had become just that. An attractive picture postcard. It had lost much of its allure. It's the same
tension that attracts some women to handsome bad boys, or men to dangerous women.
It's the events of 9/11, and the loss of his wife in that tragedy that sends Gil Castle from his
comfortable Wall Street career and suburban Connecticut home to seek escape in the Arizona
desert. What made you decide to incorporate the events of 9/11 into this novel and to connect
that act of terrorism with the border violence you write about?
Crossers is not a novel about 9/11, but that event and what's happening on our border with
Mexico are bloody clashes of culture. There is no moral difference between a drug boss who
commits mass murder in the name of greed and an extremist who does it in the name of Allah or
some political ideology. They draw their power off the same current of nihilistic violence. Narco
traffickers are doing things in Mexico as barbaric as what Al-Queda and the Taliban are doing in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I wanted to show that connection in this novel. Wherever it is and
from whomever it comes, terrorism is the evil of our age. As a foreign correspondent, I have learned
that millions of people in the world live with the threat of terror every day, and have done so for a
long time. Until 9/11, we Americans were insulated from its horrors.
I describe Gil Castle as a man
who, because of his privileged circumstances, believed that no grave misfortune could befall him
for the simple reason that none ever had until he lost his wife, a passenger on the plane that was
crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Castle would have been grief-stricken had
she died in, say, an auto accident, but the extraordinary manner of her doom catapults him into a
state of mind beyond sorrow. The foundations of his faith in human reason are destroyed, he can
no longer make sense of the world, and he flees to the ranch thinking that he can isolate himself
from that senselessness. He is a victim of "big" or public history who doesn't know that his family's
private history will force him into a confrontation with the very evil he seeks to escape.
How does your experience as a journalist inform your work as a novelist?
A great deal. Three of my novels, Horn of Africa, Equation for Evil, and Acts of Faith, grew out of
magazine or newspaper assignments. One of the novellas in the collection Exiles was inspired by a
reporting trip to Australia in 1985. And, as I've mentioned, the idea for Crossers came while I was
gathering material for an article.
The idea of exile, of strangers in a strange place, has recurred throughout your work. What is
it about people out of their home territory and caught up in forces beyond their control, that
fascinates you as a writer?
It all goes back to when I was a young marine in Vietnam. I found that when anyone finds
himself in a place where the familiar guideposts to his life are missing and where mortal threats are
ever-present, he discovers who he really is and that discovery can sometimes be unflattering,
obliterating the illusions he may have had about himself.