Interview: Sebastian Rotella, author of The Convert’s Song

sebastianrotellaPlease give a warm welcome to Sebastian Rotella, whose new book, The Convert’s Song (the followup to Triple Crossing), just came out in December. He kindly answered a few of my questions about the new book, and more!

Congratulations on the new book! Will you tell us a bit about what we can expect from The Convert’s Song and its hero Valentine Pescatore?
Thanks much, and thanks for the invitation. You can expect a crime and espionage story that plays out on an international stage. The novel explores the geopolitical underworld in which gangsters, spies and terrorists converge, and the manipulation, treachery and intrigue that rule that underworld. It looks at the psychology and subcultures of terrorists and terrorist-hunters. It’s also about identity, friendship, loyalty and morality. The action moves from Buenos Aires to the Bolivian jungle to the housing projects of Paris to the battlegrounds of Baghdad. This is the second novel featuring Pescatore, who in Triple Crossing was a U.S. Border Patrol agent of Italo-Argentine-Mexican descent. He has resigned from the Patrol and moved to Argentina to work for a private investigation firm. He is pulled back into his problematic past by the sudden appearance of Raymond, a close boyhood friend he hasn’t seen in ten years. Raymond was a wildly charming and manipulative con man, a sometime jazz singer, a drug dealer who came close to getting Pescatore in trouble with the law when they were kids. Now Raymond says he has cleaned up his act and converted to Islam. Days after the strange encounter, a terrorist attack hits Buenos Aires; Raymond is implicated. Pescatore finds himself helping U.S. and French law enforcement pursue the enigmatic Raymond across the globe while they try to prevent new attacks and figure out if Raymond is a gangster, terrorist or a spy–or some combination of all three. The reader can also expect a lot of music. Because Raymond is a singer, songs are a recurring motif as the book moves from among locales and genres: jazz, blues, tango, French rap.

Why do you think readers will root for Valentine? What have you enjoyed most about writing his character?
I think readers will root for Valentine because he has, I hope, a kind of unpretentious, streetwise charm. He’s tough and sharp, but he’s not a strutting, all-knowing super-sleuth. I think he’s more realistic and human than the average action hero. He constantly struggles with ethical dilemmas; he’s a basically decent and dedicated cop with a deep, instinctive sense of justice. But he also has a fascination with outlaws—as embodied by his bond with Raymond—that gets him into trouble. Like Raymond, Pescatore is a born border-crosser. He’s multilingual, adept at adapting and blending in among different cultures and tribes. That makes him agile and good at what he does, but also solitary. I enjoy writing about Pescatore because he was 25 in the first book and is close to 30 now, so the character is developing and maturing as I grow as a writer. It’s fun to look at the world through his eyes, especially foreign locales, because he mixes a Chicago street sensibility with a certain worldliness. The two things I most like about him are his voice and his volatility. He’s multilingual and his dialogue blends all kinds of street and ethnic slang; cop talk; Latino, Italian-American and African-American influences; Spanglish; Latin American regionalisms ranging from Tijuana to Buenos Aires. And although he does his best to follow the rules, he tends to improvise and he has a impulsive, hot-tempered quality that erupts in interesting ways.

You’re a senior reporter specializing in international security issues for ProPublica, and also spent 23 years with the LA Times. It’s a hugely impressive resume and I imagine quite an interesting career, but have you always wanted to write fiction?
I have always wanted to write fiction, though journalism always appealed to me as well. I studied in college with the great Jim Shepard, now a professor and a master of the American short story, the fiction writers George Garret and William Holinger, and the playwright Milan Stitt. I was accepted at the MFA program at Columbia University, but ultimately decided that it was hard to imagine spending more time on a campus. I was attracted to the idea of being a reporter because it combined the worlds of the street and ideas, I had an appetite for action and adventure. And because of my background as the son of Spanish and Italian immigrants, I aspired to be a foreign correspondent. Although it postponed the fiction-writing, I have had a lot of fun being a newspaper reporter and learned a great deal, especially when the dream of becoming a foreign correspondent came true. Wherever I reported, I was drawn to certain recurring issues: crime, justice, intelligence, immigration, human rights. After writing a nonfiction book in the 90s, I decided the time had come to write fiction. And I was able to mine a wealth of experience and knowledge I had accumulated as a journalist.

Were you able to draw mostly from your experience or did you do additional research for the books? If so, what was one of the most interesting things you discovered?
I drew mainly from experience and memory. My research was limited and focused, mainly reviewing old files and checking details for authenticity and timeliness. In Triple Crossing, for example, I tried to reflect the changes in the defenses and immigration flows that had occurred in the years since I had been at the Mexican border. But I took the creative license of retaining a trend from the past that had since declined: the powerful, desperate spectacle of dozens of illegal border-crossers hiking north on the freeway median in San Diego. My fiction is not thinly disguised journalism; I draw from many cases and events and mix them together. Characters are often composites inspired by three or four real people with added details of my own concoction. What’s important to me is authenticity: I create a story and test aspects of it against my real-world knowledge to see if it is credible. The big and small details have to ring true to me, almost like a melody being in tune.

Sometimes I do unintentional research: when I was well into the writing of The Convert’s Song, I was coincidentally talking to a source about Iraq. The source told me about how the US had given the Iraqi border police expensive, state-of-the art scanners and trained them in their operation, but the machines were gathering dust in border checkpoints because the Iraqis didn’t use them. That was such a strong image–so representative of the heartbreak of Iraq, the waste of life, money and effort—that it made its way into the book.

Occasionally I do informal linguistic research: I speak French and Spanish, so when I write dialogue spoken in those languages I imagine it first in the original, then translate into English. It is fun but challenging to try to recreate the rhythm of those languages and find equivalents for slang terms.

What authors have inspired you the most in your writing? What are you currently reading?
It’s a long list because, in your life as a reader and writer, authors inspire you at different times in different ways. Early influences were Alexander Dumas, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. Also the Latin Americans, especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Jim Shepard and George Garrett as teachers. An international smattering: Albert Camus, V.S Naipaul, Leonardo Sciascia. But I think the strongest influences have probably been Robert Stone, Tom Wolfe and Richard Price: at its best, their work epitomizes serious literary fiction presented in the structure of a crime story or thriller.

In recent months I read The Drop, by Dennis Lehane; The Burning Room by my friend the great Mike Connelly; Arab Jazz, by a French writer named Karim Miske; Thank You, Jeeves, one of P.G. Wodehouse’s silly masterpieces; and Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda. I also reread Gambler’s Tale (Cuento para Tahures) by Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentine short story writer and journalist. And I just finished The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. It blew me away because of the subject matter—unsavory intrigue in Africa—and his remarkable style. Reading him is like listening to John Coltrane play saxophone.

What’s next for you? Will there be more books featuring Valentine Pescatore?
Pescatore shall return! As I said, I like developing the character from book to book and roaming the world with him as an international private investigator. I am toying with the idea of bringing back Leo Mendez, the Mexican journalist-turned-cop from Triple Crossing, and teaming him with Pescatore again. I am wrestling with a story that combines the usual foreign suspects with villains closer to home: U.S. white-collar criminals. I’ve spent years writing about exotic terrorists and gangsters and spy chiefs and how they enjoy monstrous impunity. But the Wall Street and corporate scandals of recent years, and the inability to punish anyone important, make me think I’ve spent too much time on the wrong badguys. At least gangsters go to prison once in a while. I wonder if Wall Street’s code of ethics is any stronger than that of the world’s mafias. I don’t think that’s a rightwing or leftwing sentiment, it’s based on an inescapable reality.

Keep up with Sebastian: Mulholland Author Page

About The Convert’s Song:
A global manhunt sweeps up a former federal agent when his childhood friend becomes the chief suspect in a terrorist rampage.

His hazardous stint in U.S. law enforcement behind him, Valentine Pescatore has started over as a private investigator in Buenos Aires. Then he runs into a long-lost friend: Raymond Mercer, a charismatic, troubled singer who has converted to Islam. After a terrorist attack kills hundreds, suspicion falls on Raymond—and Pescatore.

Angry and bewildered, Pescatore joins forces with Fatima Belhaj, an alluring French agent. They pursue the enigmatic Raymond into a global labyrinth of intrigue. Is he a terrorist, a gangster, a spy? Is his loyalty to Pescatore genuine, or just another lethal scam?

From the jungles of South America to the streets of Paris to the battlegrounds of Baghdad, THE CONVERT’S SONG leads Pescatore on a race to stop a high-stakes campaign of terror.

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