A warm Messy Business welcome to Carmen Amato, the excellent author of three political/crime books: The Hidden Light of Mexico City, Cliff Diver, and the upcoming Hat Dance due out late July/early August.
Hi Carmen, could you give us some background about yourself.
Originally from New York, I was educated there as well as Paris, France, and Virginia. I married the smartest man I could find and together we’ve lived in some unexpected places. Mexico and Central America provided the impetus for my writing career and my mystery and thriller books draw on my experiences there. I don’t flinch from issues like corruption, cartels and the region’s social inequalities.
You’ve written three books. Which was the easiest to write, which the hardest?
The Hidden Light of Mexico City was the hardest book; it was my first real novel (I’d previously written two YA adventure novels that have never been published) and the initial draft was 800 pages. It was all seen from one point of view and there were pages of explanation to that one character! It took me a long time to refine the story into a political thriller with the punch it needed.
Is Emilia a product of your imagination, or is she based on somebody you know or read about?
Detective Emilia Cruz is a product of my imagination. The character first appeared in a short story I wrote after reading a news report of cars being retrofitted to carry drugs. The story was supposed to focus on the drug smuggling but my critique group really liked Emilia and Kurt, the main characters, and I expanded the story into Cliff Diver. I chose Acapulco as the locale because I thought it would have the greatest resonance for the US audience; plus I have had some great vacations there!
Could Emilia, though tough as nails, exist in Mexican law enforcement? Does such a character exist?
Absolutely. There are honest people in Mexico’s civil institutions, law enforcement, armed forces, and government, and they have to be very tough. The drug cartels have corrupted many layers of those institutions but not all. There are good people fighting hard for Mexico’s future.
In Cliff Diver you subtly contrast Mexican cops with a Nortamericano, but it’s not stereotyping either – you seem to suggest that political stability defines national character. The American is assured because he comes from a country where people are sure of the rules. Mexican cops are constantly looking over their shoulder because their rules shift in the sand.
Is that a fair assessment?
I find this question very interesting! Other readers besides yourself have found a deeper story line than I ever intended. I don’t feel qualified to say anything about confidence on a national level, but do think that Mexican law enforcement exists in an environment of continual suspicion.
Does the Mexican police need more women? Are women less corruptible than men? I wonder, because the female town mayor in Cliff Diver is more concerned with politics than justice.
The Mexican police need to be paid and trained better for a start. Women are making inroads into law enforcement in Mexico, it is not uncommon to see female traffic cops in Mexico City.
I had a lot of fun writing the character of Carlota, the mayor of Acapulco and if there is ever an Emilia Cruz movie I hope Salma Hayek plays Carlota. She’s an amalgam of every Mexican and US minor politician who is more concerned with their own career than anything else.
Is Mexico defined by its history? You have noted that it has a history of social injustice. Is it perpetual?
Mexico’s history is more complex and bitter than many realize. I think that much of that history has contributed to an unspoken “screw them before they screw you” mindset. It is not everywhere but often surfaces in respect to authority, even down to the toll taker in the parking lot who takes your pesos then insists you didn’t pay enough. You know you gave her the exact change, but she’s not lifting the barrier to let you out unless you pay her another 5 pesos. There are a line of cars behind you so you end up paying.
I have to admit, I get nervous thinking of going to Mexico because of the violence. Do you go often? Do you recommend others to go?
We lived in Mexico for three years and I’ve been back for visits about 5 times, the last time about a year ago. It is a place with much to offer, from beaches to museums and fabulous architecture and food. That being said, visiting Mexico means being smart and alert. Travelers should stick to well-known spots and pay attention to US State Department warnings.
Do you consider your novels crime or political thrillers? Does it matter?
The Hidden Light of Mexico City is a political thriller with a large crime element in it. The Emilia Cruz novels are considered Police Procedurals. They are also listed in the International Mystery category alongside novels by Leighton Gage, Donna Leon, and Jo Nesbo, which is pretty exciting. But as long as the headlines out of Mexico provide inspiration the Emilia Cruz books will have a major crime component.
Would you agree with past surveys that reading fiction makes a person more empathetic? If so, do you trust people who don’t read fiction?
I don’t know if fiction makes you more empathetic, but I think it is a reflection of someone’s imagination! As for trust, I tend to judge people by their actions so I’ll probably see those actions before I find out what is on their reading list.
What’s the best book you ever read? Why?
I have to narrow this down to the best thriller I ever read and that is The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett. This book should be the bible for anyone who writes in the thriller genre. Dramatic WWII plot, everyman hero, damsel in distress, complex villain. Follett builds both character and drama with different points of view, superb location description, and unflagging action.
What’s the best crime movie you ever saw? Why?
Best crime movie, hands down, is the first Godfather. Best scene is when Sonny (James Caan) gets shot up at the toll booth.
Tell us about Hat Dance.
Hat Dance is the second full-length Emilia Cruz novel. Emilia will grapple with both an arson investigation–that quickly becomes politicized–as well as the hunt for a girl missing from her own neighborhood. She is also stuck with a new partner and their relationship is rocky at best. Kurt Rucker makes a return appearance but has been offered a job in Belize and Emilia cannot bring herself to ask him to stay in Acapulco. As Kurt mulls his decision, Emilia’s dual investigations will get her on the wrong side of a dirty Vice cop and force her to make deals that come with a very high price.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
In 10 years I hope to have published 5-6 more Emilia Cruz novels, as well as several thrillers that are not part of a series. Eva Mendez will have won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Luz de Maria in the movie version of The Hidden Light of Mexico City and the Cliff Diver television series starring either America Ferrera or Jessica Alba is the #1 rated nighttime drama.
Thanks to Carmen, who clearly loves a bloody shooting scene.
You can find Carmen at: