Q&A with James Carlos Blake

I’ve been talking about James Carlos Blake here on the blog for the last couple of weeks. I recently read his latest novel, Country of the Bad Wolfes, in preparation for his event here on Sunday, January 22nd. In this new book, he looks at his own ancestry with two generations of twins who dueled, loved, and built fortunes in both the US and Mexico, and also looks at the relationship we have with those South of the border, as well as eighteenth century (and possibly current) manifest destiny.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Blake about what it was like to tell a story of his own family, his research, his influences, and what the border means to him as a writer.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: While this book is as rough, brutal, and unflinching as your previous work, with characters who you have to accept on their own terms, it has a slightly more romantic quality than the other books. Did writing about people that were a part of your own lineage have a different effect on you?

JAMES CARLOS BLAKE: Not that I’m aware of. While the skeleton of the story is formed of my family’s history, the book is a novel, a work of invention, and I freely altered family facts to suit my tale. I think the “more romantic quality” you perceive in it may derive from there being so many women in it. One of the joys of writing this book was that it so naturally involved many women of every age and kind — from a wise and ancient crone to  a truly bad-ass 16-year-old.

MP: What kind of research did you have to do for a story you’re so connected to?

JCB: There wasn’t much research necessary by the time I decided to write the book . I’ve been familiar with my family’s history since I was a boy, and over the years I’ve read a good deal about 19th-century Mexican and American history. If there’s one general subject of study that benefits a fiction writer, it’s history, whether or not he writes historical fiction. History is human nature writ large, and the better you understand the past, the better you’ll understand people in general, including those of our own day. What’s more, I’ve lived, at one time or another, in almost every place in the book, and I have a good memory for places, for their weather, landscape, character. Together with imagination, those memories served me well in creating the physical and cultural worlds of the Wolfes.

Besides wanting to write a book based on my family, I’ve also long wanted to write about Porfirio Diaz, one of the most fascinating figures in Mexican history. And for some time I’ve wanted to write a sequel to my third novel, In the Rogue Blood, whose main character, Edward Little, was only 19 at the end of the book. In Country of the Bad Wolfes I write all three stories.

MP: These two sets of twins have adventures for a dozen books. How did you keep the narrative thread from being overly episodic?

JCB: The book’s original title was A Natural History of the Bad Wolfes, because, like most family stories, the Wolfes’ is a kind of history. Moreover, “natural history” generally implies a non-academic presentation of facts and events about your subject. Because so much of the story is told in narrative summary — the mode of most good histories — I thought the title was apt and might also help the reader understand why the book is written the way it is. You’re right that there are countless episodes, but rather than develop all of them with “real-time” pacing (that is, with lots of specific details of manner and direct dialog), I present many of the episodes more compactly through summary description and indirect dialog. It’s a style that strikes me as much truer to the tradition of storytelling. Plus, it keeps the story moving along at a pretty good clip.

MP: What did you want to express about these four men?

JCB: I simply wanted to present the most interesting characters I could. And I’ve always been fascinated by twins. I think twinhood may be the most intimate connection possible between two people, though of course not all twins share the same degrees of intimacy. Both sets of Wolfe twins are close to each other, but the first set begins to diverge in both looks and in character by the time they’re in their teens, while the second set is not only physically identical all their lives, they are like a single soul in two bodies.

MP: Even though you use innovative approaches in some of your novels and stories, there is a classic feel to your work. Who are your influences?

JCB: Probably every writer whose work I’ve enjoyed has taught me something. William Goldman’s early novels had a great effect on me and taught me much about point-of-view before I even knew what that term meant — especially in his use of the third-person in a way that seems almost first person. Hemingway has taught me more than I can adequately credit, just as he has taught most writers who came after him. Steinbeck is another influence. Robert Stone. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many others who don’t leap to mind at the moment, and probably many whose influence I’m not even aware of.

MP: Many of your books take place in the past and deal with historical figures both legendary and minor. What brings you to the past so often?

JCB: My love of it for one thing, my acquaintance with it for another. Aspiring novelists should be taught that the old adage, “Write about what you know,” isn’t limited to what you have personally experienced. Vicarious experience is also a great part of what you know. Read a lot of history and it becomes part of your store of knowledge, part of what you’re prepared to write about. The same goes for stories and memories that other people share with you. A crime story set in the past has the advantage of not having to deal with the high-tech detail that has to be dealt with in present-day stories. I like that the past doesn’t change, though there are arguments against that view. Despite all that, the book I’m writing now is set in our own time. It’s also about the Wolfe family but takes place a hundred years after the end of Bad Wolfes.

MP: Many of your books move between the Mexico and Texas. What does that border mean to you as a writer?

JCB: Brownsville is the place of my childhood and elementary schooling, and I still have a great affection for the town. In some inexplicable way, even though I haven’t lived there since boyhood, I feel that Brownsville’s my true home. It was inevitable that I’d someday write a big novel set in large part in that region. The Tex-Mex border has its own special character, an amalgam of two cultures and languages and outlooks, and its effect on me is undeniable. As a writer I feel lucky to have lived there at the impressionable age I did.

James Carlos Blake will speak & sign Country of the Bad Wolfes here at BookPeople on Sunday, January 22, 3pm. We’ll have refreshments, and beer on hand from Saint Arnold Brewing Company.

Book Review: ‘Country of the Bad Wolfes’

Blake will speak & sign 'Country of the Bad Wolfes' at BookPeople on Jan 22, 3p.

James Carlos Blake has looked at men who mirror our nation’s past, starting with his look at gunman John Wesely Hardin (The Pistoleer). He’s looked at Civil war guerrilla Bloody Bill Anderson in the lyrical The Wildwood Boys and John Dillinger in the tough and funny Handsome Harry. His worlds are filled with brutal crime and adventure and men that must be accepted own their own terms. Sam Pekinpah would have loved adapting any of his novels of earthy poetry. In his latest, Country Of the Bad Wolfes, he takes story to a grander and more personal scale, basing the novel on two sets of twins who are his own ancestors and covering two countries and one century.

Born of a New England pirate in 1828, Samuel and Roger Wolfe have a wanderlust and need for fortune in their blood. Their lusts and their disposition to get into a fight put them into one adventure after another, and on the other side of the law many a time. To avoid imprisonment, Samuel joins the army and fights in The Mexican War while his brother attends Dartmouth. Their skills, will, and fate lead them to Little, a mysterious businessman who sets them up in Mexico. There they find themselves involved in US adventurism and Diaz, the country’s president. Both find themselves in more than a few duels and seducing a more than a few lovely ladies.

One such woman, Alma Rodriguez, saves Samuel’s life in a duel and marries him. From that union come another set of twins, Sebastian and John. The two grow to be like their father and uncle, but even bolder and more free minded. Running from the law brings them back to the US via Texas, where they found their own town. Samuel also begets a bastard son, Blake Cortez, sealing the fate of his other sons.

Blake employs a style that is a mix of historical account and legend handed down from generation to generation. This allows him to move through time to focus on the the events that define the family. It also works well when he weaves Diaz’s history in with the Wolfe’s, showing how their fates are tied. Blake also employs his trademark realism and immediacy in his portrayal of violence.

Combined with his humor and pathos, Country of the Bad Wolfes has a more epic feel than some of his previous work. His female characters also bring a different perspective to this work. They have a greater impact on the story than in previous novels, influencing the four men we follow as both lovers and nurturers. A stand out character is Marina, a scarred servant girl Sebastian and John both fall in love with. Blake Cortez’s mother sets the climax Lady Macbeth-style.

What makes Country Of Bad Wolfes such an exciting read is the feeling that this is a book of transition for James Carlos Blake. There is shading of character, skillful shifts in tone and ambition, from an author who has already delivered solid novels time and time again. Country of the Bad Wolfes tells us the best is yet to come.

James Carlos Blake will speak & sign Country of the Bad Wolfes here at BookPeople on Sunday, January 22, 3p. We’ll have beer on hand from Saint Arnold Brewing Company and snacks to enjoy.

America the Brutal – A Look at James Carlos Blake

MysteryPeople welcomes James Carlos Blake to BookPeople on Sunday, Jan 22, 3pm.

James Carlos Blake is to fiction what John Prine and Steve Earle are to music. His writing is impeccably crafted, and what that craft portrays is a rough and raw Americana. Much of his work mixes history with legend, injecting a very human honesty. He’s been compared to Cormac McCarthy, James Harrison, and other “masculine fiction writers”, but holds more humor than many branded with the label. He examines our country and it’s history of love, but not a young romantic love; his is knowing, weathered, experienced, and that much deeper.

His approaches to narrative are unique. His first book, The Pistoleer, followed the life of South Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin. Each chapter is an anecdote from someone who knew him. He used the same approach for his next book, The Friends Of Pancho Villa. The life of Handsome Harry is told through several “confessions” by John Dillinger’s partner that are often hilarious.

However he approaches the writing, it’s the subject and the subject’s relationship to the times that shine through. Many of his protagonists are violent men who have to be taken on their own terms, such as Missouri border guerilla Bloody Bill Anderson in The Wildwood Boys or the Galveston gangsters in Under The Skin. Usually it’s the characters’ actions that seals their fate, much like the society of their time. His last book, The Killings Of Stanley Ketchel, the poignant and brutal story of the forgotten ragtime era boxer, truly shows this. The book is a favorite of many authors, including Daniel Woodrell.

His latest look at history is a bit more personal this time around. Country Of Bad Wolfes uses Blake’s own ancestors as it follows the lineage of two sets of twins whose lives cover most of the eighteenth century in hunts for fortune and glory in the United States and Mexico. Their adventures intertwine with Mexican President Diaz, whose reign influences his dealings with the family. The book is trademark Blake with rogue heroes, duels, and demons and angels of human nature locked in a violent dance with one another. It’s a look at the United States and Mexico and the bloodshed, politics, and history that lies between the borders.

As a whole, James Carlos Blake’s work has the feel of lived-in legend. It’s a collection of old folk ballads singing to a new present. And I highly recommend you listen.

MysteryPeople welcomes James Carlos Blake to BookPeople to speak and sign Country of the Bad Wolfes on Sunday, January 22, 3pm. We’ll have complimentary beer and snacks on hand. Hope you can join us.