Philip Caputo Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Philip Caputo
Photo: Michael Priest

Philip Caputo

An interview with Philip Caputo

A conversation with Philip Caputo about Crossers, set in a remote corner of the American Southwest close to the Mexican border where violence is a constant presence.

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 do—into 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 it.

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. Accurate?

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 you?

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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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