Joseph Edwin Haeger interviews Gabino Iglesias about his novel Coyote Songs, gaining insights into this brilliant book, his approach, and establishing a genre all his own.
No one hustles harder than Gabino Iglesias. I’m constantly looking at what he’s doing—whether it’s reviews, commentary, promoting, or just flat out writing—and then I try to figure out if there is more time in his day, or if I’m that lazy, or if he’s superman (my belief is it’s a little bit of each). And then he announces he has a new book coming out in a few weeks.
When did he have time to write a novel? And then I think, I must get it, of course.
I’ve been following Gabino on Twitter (which I highly recommend) for quite a while and have read (and loved) his novel Zero Saints. He has a no-bullshit way about him that is alluring and pulls you in, even when you don’t totally agree with what he’s saying.
With Zero Saints, I was introduced to the world of “barrio noir,” which is a bilingual blending of the crime genre with horror elements. I was initially intimidated considering I don’t speak Spanish or Russian, but the book flowed beautifully regardless. My lack of language skills didn’t hinder the overall story; and after that book I was left wanting more.
And now, a few years later, I get it with Coyote Songs. This is a mosaic novel following myriad characters along the Mexico/United States border. They’re all trying to escape something; and from their different vantage point we are given a full and clear view of how events will mold and influence someone’s life. And, of course there is crime, horror, and violence.
Gabino was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had about his new novel. Enjoy this. And if you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Coyote Songs.
Joseph Edwin Haeger for The Big Smoke: While reading Coyote Songs, I saw magical realism moments as interpretive from the characters’ point of view. They’re all going through mental strain because of their situations. I was curious how definite these otherworldly moments are to be taken, or if it could be a deeper mental breakdown happening in an otherwise grounded story?
Gabino Iglesias: In barrio noir, what I put on the page is happening. Magic is real. Monsters are real. I’ve never been a fan of narratives who turn out to be a dream at the end or blame it all on a disturbed mind. These characters are inhabiting unique realities. The weirdness is real. In the words of poet Isaac Kirkman, “If you haven’t seen something really weird in the streets, you haven’t been in the streets long enough.”
The structure of Coyote Songs reminds me of Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World (and I noticed you gave him a shout out in the acknowledgments). The first half is almost exclusively a setup where you’re stretching the tension for each of these different character threads. How do you position it so these stories have significant weight and a satisfying payoff?
Yes, Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World kind of gave me the courage to tackle a mosaic novel. I’m not as good as Carr, but I knew I could pull it off.
The narratives could work as longer works, without me having to chop them up. However, the best thing that happens to me as a writer from being a reviewer is that I can switch hats at any time and think as a reader. A book has to hold my interest. I want to read the type of books that make me want to turn the page, to read another chapter, to find out what happens next. Fragmenting each story allowed me to do that (hopefully!).
There is action in every chapter, but also the sense that things are building up to something. Tension is a good thing. Tension keeps readers hooked. Each one has a different end, and there is no trick to that. I’m sure some people will dislike some of them and others will find the very ending satisfying. I went with what worked for me as a reader. The rest of the process boils down to crossing your fingers and hoping you stuck the landing with enough readers.
And a follow-up, how do you also work each thread into the greater workings of the novel?
La Bruja was always at the center of everything for me. She is the core, the reason, the power. A shattered woman is the rock that breaks the calm waters of a dangerous lake, and everything else is the ripple effect in motion. Once I had the idea in mind, writing rhizomatically was much easier than I expected. I’m thankful for that.
How do you think your writing has developed over the years? Do you feel like a different writer now than when you wrote Zero Saints?
Yes! Every book is different. I think I get a bit better with each one. At least I hope so. As a writer, you try and try and try. You can never be good enough. Whenever I feel like I wrote a halfway decent line, I crack open a book by Caroline Kepnes or David Joy or Jennifer Hillier or Julia de Burgos or Benjamin Whitmer or Paul Tremblay or someone else I admire and immediately realize how much I need to improve just to be on the same level. Then I get back to work.
In a way, Zero Saints was me taking a step forward and saying, “This is barrio noir. This is what I do. It’s bilingual and syncretic and multicultural. I have found my voice.” With Coyote Songs, I want to say, “You already know what I write. This is a different approach. I wrote a different story with some of the same elements. Thank you for reading. The next one will be faster, more violent, and better.”
An impressive aspect of Coyote Songs is that the pace is quick-moving, but the stories all feel fully formed. Jaime, specifically, has a fast story that comes to a close a lot quicker than the rest. What made you choose that conclusion so early on?
I grew up on a steady horror diet that included a lot of Richard Laymon paperbacks. Laymon would give you a character, make you like him or her, and then brutally end them. Death is part of life. If you write about hyper-violence, death needs to be present. I wanted every story to be different, and Jaime needed to be unique, explosive. He dreams of new freedom and the system crushes him. The rest of the narrative goes on. Other lives go on. That’s how it works in real life. Having him end that way was a tribute to Laymon and a tribute to the cold-blooded nature of Santa Muter in real life.
I saw an underlying theme about saving the next generation and teaching them to take responsibility. But when they try to enact justice, the well-meaning older generation puts a stop to it. Is there a moment in your life, or in the news, that influenced this theme?
We want the next generation to be better than us, but most people fail to be better for them. I feel like kids today are growing in a world that’s just as ugly and racist as it was when my grandparents were coming up. We pass on the poison inside us with each indoctrinating word, with each insult and explanation.
If we want to leave the future in good hands, we have to be better so that we can educate those hands, so that we can teach them how to do things the right way. Watching the news nowadays is depressing. It’s like watching the future die before it’s had a chance to do its thing. Other days I’m more hopeful and want to fight so that every kid has a chance to get a slice of the American Dream. Some of the stuff that happens in Coyote Songs was a way of saying, “Is this what you want? If it isn’t, wake up and let’s do better.”
Is there a thread that ended up on the cutting room floor, or any false starts that couldn’t make it into the final book?
At the beginning I thought Santos was going to have his own chapters, but then Pedrito took over and having them work together made much more sense.
Five best books you’ve read in this past year?
Oh, man, this is tough! Off the top of my head I’m going to say:
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
The Line That Held Us by David Joy
The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut