An Incredible Era: Mark Interviews Daniel Peña

Houston-based writer Daniel Peña's debut Bang! is a thrilling novel involving drug cartels, a plane crash and the fate of being born on one side (or the other) of the border. I had the chance to ask Daniel some questions about his exciting novel, from inspiration to translated writers to books a writer reads while writing their own book.

Mark: Were there certain writers or books that inspired you when writing Bang?

Daniel Peña: Roberto Bolaño was a huge early influence in the first draft. I felt like his writing gave me permission to wander within the narrative while, at the same time, ruminating on the specific—objects, ideas, traumas, and shades or blends of feeling. Also, the language is beautiful and dark and funny and in something like The Savage Detectives, you’re constantly rotating between different characters and voices to advance the plot (or non-plot). So much of my MFA training was about being concise, but with Bolaño it’s very messy and it works and I was fascinated by the way he pulls that stuff off. Naturally, after that came Column McCann and Helena Maria Viramontes. Let the Great World Spin and Their Dogs Came With Them are both big novels with sprawling prism narratives which are things I’m always studying. The prism narrative—many stories simultaneously progressing around a single event--is very much the engine of Bang and those works got me thinking about plot in a more structured way while still maintaining that messy energy.

In later stages of the novel, I was reading a lot of Jennifer Clement, Cormac McCarthy, Giaconda Belli, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, and Elena Poniatowska. Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit taught me how to write on Mexico without orientalizing it (to borrow a concept from Edward Said). Daniel Alarcón is also a master of craft who I think is very tactful about the way he writes about trauma and Latin America and I really admire him. I read everything he does. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story which is the book I tried imitate when I was learning how to write a novel in the first place.

MH: I know this book deals a lot with the border between Mexico and the United States, does Houston play a factor at all in the novel? If not, what places are important to Bang?

DP: Houston comes up exactly once in the book and the Woodlands make a cameo too. Lalo, a character in the novel, ponders his soft landing once his cartel cell implodes and of course he’s heard of the Woodlands. It’s kind of an open secret that a lot of narco money moves through the Woodlands which is a wealthier corner of the Houston metropolitan area. A lot of disgraced Mexican politicians and self-exhiled narcos have homes there. Also, a lot of wealthier Mexicans on the lam. Enrique Capitaine Marín, one of “Los Porkys,” lived in the Woodlands. Jose de Jesus Gallegos Alvarez, a Mexican millionaire who lived out his exile in the Woodlands, was assassinated shortly after returning to Jalisco.

So, there’s a lot of connective tissue there. To that end, that’s what the book is kind of exploring—the ways in which the uber wealthy and powerful can act with impunity and how the drug wars and U.S. Immigration policy are interlinked and very much symbiotic. The fallout from these kinds of systems the uber wealthy and powerful create is the systematic destruction of black and brown bodies. And I think it’s worth asking how those parties are invested in and/or profit from those systems.

We know now, in the wake of Ayotzinapa, that certain Mexican politicans are very much working with certain cartels. We know, too, that private prisons and detention centers here in the U.S. profit from our draconian immigration system and war on drugs. Bang attempts to explore how when systems fail people, they create their own systems. The black market machine in Mexico is something I’m increasingly fascinated with, especially its geographical patterns and the way it uses the people we deport.

In Bang I write a lot about the border cities of Harlingen and Matamoros and then later a large stretch of the book takes place in rural Coahuila, the Araceli chapters loosely based on a real town called Sabinas where they have this incredible feria every Spring. And then, of course, there’s San Miguel which is a fictional town in Chihuahua. But the joke is, and it’s a plot point in the novel, that there are, like, seven San Miguel’s in Mexico and Uli (her son) isn’t quite sure he bought a bus ticket to the right one after he finds himself in Mexico. Ciudad Juarez plays a strong presence in the end of the novel as does El Paso.

Come to think of it it now, I lied—Houston makes an appearance twice! Or at least the Houston Rockets do. The brothers in the novel, Cuauhtemoc and Uli, are painfully similar to one another and they differentiate themselves by picking different NBA teams. Uli goes for the Spurs. Cuauh for the Rockets.

MH: A lot of writers are superstitious, or rely on routine. Do you have a certain regiment or practice when you're in the middle of writing something of any length?

DP: In the first drafts, I wrote this novel pretty much everywhere—in my various apartments in Mexico City, Austin, Ithaca, Union City, Houston, and on buses, in hospitals, at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table in Nuremberg, Germany, in libraries at all hours of the day and night—everywhere. For my sins, I’ve become an academic and because of the nature of that kind of work (especially early in my career) I feel like I was never able to develop a writing routine until I got to Mexico City, where the novel really clicked.

In Mexico City, I’d wake up, pound a suero to rehydrate from the night before, and then stop to chat with my taquero in Roma Norte over tacos campechanos, which are handy if you want a heart attack, like, tomorrow. I’d eat two of those, drink a Peña-fiel Mineral water, and then write out of a café off of Parque España called Café Rococo where the waiter would bring me a Chemex for two and more mineral water (Ciel). My buddy, Ulices, who is maybe the smartest historian I know, would always join me and we’d write together for maybe 4 or 5 hours. We’d eat lunch—mostly from the street again—and then go back for another 4-5 hours which brought us into to the early evening until we’d switch to Mezcal or Tequila or Beer or whatever we had lying around to come down from the caffeine we’d ingest all day. We’d shoot ideas off of each other for our own work, eat some pozole, and then pick up where we’d left off the next day. And that worked pretty damn well. That pressure and routine to keep going, keep moving, helped me finish three drafts of the book in nine months which was magical. Terrible for the body though.

MH: Literature in translation seems to be gaining in popularity. Do you think it's an exciting time for Chicano literature?

DP: I think we’re living in an incredible era of Latinx Lit in translation. Most Latinx writers I know are devouring these translations—works from Rodrigo Hasbun or Liliana Colanzi or Edmundo Paz Soldan or Samanta Schweblin among so many others works that have come out in the past years.

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