Juan Pablo Villalobos is the author of Down the Rabbit Hole and Quesadillas. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. He was born in Mexico and currently lives in Brazil.
McSWEENEY’S: So how did you approach the idea of writing a crime story? Did you start with a character, or a particular situation, or something else?
JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS: I started with the idea that I was going to write the “skeleton” of a novel that I would never actually finish. Which is to say, this story could become a novel, if you were to develop the characters and deepen the plots, but I wasn’t really interested in letting it be that. The idea was to open up a bunch of plots and sketch out a series of characters in a short text, knowing that, writing in this manner, it would be impossible to produce a story that felt “whole.” This was what interested me, to write a story that the reader would perceive as unfinished, like something was missing, hurried, frustrated, which is the sensation I have when I encounter the reality of Mexico, particularly when it comes to issues of justice.
McSWEENEY’S: How much did you think about that Mexican setting, as you were working on this? Do you think a story like this can tell us something about a particular place, or a particular country?
JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS: Despite the fact that it’s been ten years since I lived there, Mexico continues to be the geographic focal point for my fiction. All three of my novels have been set there (I’m finishing the third now), and the majority of my stories take place there, as well. I have a novella about soccer that’s set in Brazil, which I wrote for the World Cup, and a few stories set in Barcelona, where I lived for some time, but without a doubt Mexico continues to be the sentimental and intellectual space in which I feel least comfortable, the one which generates the most conflicts, the most contradictions and incongruences: all things that give me the urge to write. I would argue that a story needs to be powerfully based in a place, rooted to the ground, to be able to say something universal. When I read stories that try to speak of a non-specific place, I end up feeling like they have nothing to say.
McSWEENEY’S: Is there a Mexican author, or a particular Mexican book, or even a movie or a TV show, that you think takes on the genre particularly well?
JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS: In the last few years in Mexico, due to the violence created by drug trafficking, a number of novels that deal with that subject matter have emerged. They have even given the genre a name—narcoliteratura. I’m not fully on board with this label, which seems like a marketing phenomenon that only exists to help some people sell books. It also seems to encourage critics to negatively lump books into a single category, without distinction, simply because they deal with drugs or drug trafficking. The reality is that, polemics aside, there have been several excellent books written about the situation there. They are not necessarily crime fiction, but they are the type of crime fiction that you can write in Mexico in this particular moment. Among those books, I would mention two novels that I think are wonderful: Los trabajos del reino, by Yuri Herrera, and El lenguaje del juego, by Daniel Sada.
McSWEENEY’S: While we were working on this story, you mentioned that one of the ideas you wanted to get across was that “in Mexico you never know exactly what’s happening.” Can you say a bit about what you meant by that?
JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS: From a political point of view, I was trying to say that we have a system of justice that is totally broken, corrupt, and manipulated. This impedes a reasonable Mexican writer from writing “well.” I wouldn’t be able to write a “complete" crime story—it has to be, necessarily, frayed. I’m not speaking about an open ending, or about antiheroes; I’m speaking about chaos. From a stylistic point of view, what interested me was exploring the ellipsis as a narrative resource that would allow me to produce, in the reader, the type of frustration that the common Mexican citizen feels when he tries to understand who is manipulating him. From this feeling, the necessity to find an explanation is born, and many times, the most absurd explanation, the one with the least verisimilitude, is the true one. A title from a Mexican novel sums it up perfectly: Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (Because It Seems Like a Lie You Never Know the Truth). A novel which is also by Daniel Sada—a writer I deeply admire. He died a couple of years ago.
McSWEENEY’S: Pens and guns play similar roles in your story. How did you decide on that parallel?
JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS: It wasn’t anything premeditated. It began with the guns, and it was mostly a stylistic thing. (I had done something similar in my first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole.) I liked the sound of the sentences that explained the complete names of the weapons, their origin, their history, where they were used (those lists of police departments and armies). When the idea for the character called “the shitty journalist” came to me, I decided I would do the same thing with pens. The parallels are not as obvious as they might immediately appear: it’s not simply that pens combat weapons. One of the pens in my story is in the hands of a presidential candidate, and it ends up being used to write information about a negotiation with drug traffickers. I wanted the weapons and pens, after establishing who manufactured them and for whom, to be reduced to their condition as objects to be bought and sold in the marketplace.