Whether you’re new to Marcus Sedgwick or a longtime fan of his work, you’ve likely heard the buzz around his newest novel, Saint Death. It tells the story of Arturo, a young man living near the US-Mexico border. When an old friend shows up, begging for help after stealing from a violent gang, Arturo must decide if he’ll risk his own life to save his friend’s. All the while, the boys are watched by Saint Death. Here, Sedgwick chats with Bookish about his new novel, mortality, and choices.
Bookish: Can you take us through the research process for this book? Did you know much about Juárez before you decided to start writing about it?
Marcus Sedgwick: Although the book is set in Mexico, the idea behind it began when I saw firsthand migrants and refugees on the French coast, trying to get into the United Kingdom. A long series of reasons (which you can read in full here) made me realize that the story I wanted to tell would be better played out on the Mexico-US border. I knew a bit about Mexico; I knew very little about Juárez aside from where it was. So there was a lot of research for the book. I relied a lot on a friend of mine, a young Mexican academic and writer, who had first introduced me to the emerging folk saint: Santa Muerte. Obviously, I read a stack of books, not just about Mexico but countries to the south, and accounts of the US side of the border too. There were newspapers and magazine articles, not just about Juárez, but about things like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Santa Muerte, and so on.
It quickly became apparent, however, that some very basic facts were hard to come by–the reason being that the non-Mexican press doesn’t report from on the ground in a place like Juárez, and the Mexican press is unable to, because to do so will very often cost the journalist his or her life. Upsetting a narco-lord is a dangerous thing to do. Even to find out which cartel is currently “in charge” of Juárez was tricky–I found some answers by following a number of (anonymous) blogs by people living either side of the border. After about 18 months, I was finally able to make a trip to the city, and visit both Juárez and Anapra (the township just to the northwest of the city, where the book begins) in the care of two very different guides. Both were from the city: I spent some time with an oldish guy called Sergio and then, later, a younger man called Roberto. Each had a very different view of what was happening in Juárez; but it was Sergio’s testimony that I found closer to reality. I could go on, but this is getting long…
Bookish: Can you talk about your decision to write the novel in the Spanish style, using em dashes instead of quotation marks, and Spanish punctuation? As a writer, was it challenging to adapt to a new style?
MS: I wanted to signal to the English-speaking reader in a subtle(ish!) way that we’re in a Spanish-speaking world. Conversely, I didn’t want to italicize the words of Spanish that I include in the book, because this is Arturo and Faustino’s world, and Spanish is their language. But here’s the thing: All of fiction is artificial. People sometimes make the mistake (I think) of believing that realistic fiction is in some way actually real. What fiction has to do is tell the truth, but everything about a novel is actually a construct of some kind, especially dialogue. So in Saint Death I use a false construct of dialogue that is designed to suggest (paradoxically) both familiarity and otherness at the same time.
Bookish: The word “our” is used frequently in the prose, written to include the reader in this journey. It’s our town, our heartache, our fate. Why did you make that choice?
MS: Yes, you’re absolutely right, it’s a deliberate choice to include the reader in the world. One of the thoughts in the book is the belief that no matter how much we might be tempted to see the world as them and us, it’s just not true. Call it globalization or internationalism, the world we live in now is a connected one, and all our actions affect everyone, ultimately. This is why I chose the preface for the book, taken from a book by Charles Bowden: “This book is about other stories, that occur over there, across the river. The comfortable way to deal with these stories is to say they are about them. The way to understand these stories is to say they are about us.”
Bookish: In some ways, this book is about choices: What do we do at the crossroads, for ourselves or for others? It’s also about inevitability: “Don’t worry where you’re going; you will die where you have to.” What was the hardest thing about balancing these two elements?
MS: Yes, you’re right, both these things were in my mind as I wrote, but I like to balance opposites in my books, so it wasn’t too hard to do. One of the things that lies underneath lots of my books is trying to show that life is full of opposites–and that very often sanity lies in the position of balance, rather than extremes. As you say, there’s also the concept in the book of bridges–both literally (in terms of the border crossings) but also metaphorically– representing those moments when we move from one thing to another. The book features some thoughts of Carl Jung (hidden in the character of Carlos)–Jung saw the number five as symbolizing the bridge. Five is halfway from one to nine, after all, so I used the number five a lot in the book. Jung also wrote a lot about transformations, so there are many oppositional transformations depicted, most notably in the chapter called “Arturo’s Dream.”
Bookish: We never find out exactly how old Arturo is. He shows incredible maturity at points, but then we’re reminded through other characters that he is young, not a kid, not quite a man yet. Why did you choose to not disclose his age?
MS: I have always resisted the belief that we need to give a precise age to our characters. Obviously sometimes it’s necessary, but mostly I don’t think it is. I could write an essay about this deceptively simple question, but I’ll try to keep it short! For one thing, it’s not necessary to know exactly how old Arturo, Faustino, and Eva are; we know they’re young people, not little kids, on the way to being adults. There’s a concept called “masking” in the comic book world which argues that an illustrative style that shows characters’ faces more simply (and less “realistically”) enables the reader to project themselves into the shoes of those characters. In addition, I don’t think someone’s age is the most interesting thing about them, it’s enough to have a rough idea. In the same way, I rarely give much physical description of how my characters look–how someone looks is again (very often) the least interesting thing about them. What makes people people, and what makes characters become real, is seeing what they think, what they say, how they interact with others, and so on. In Arturo’s case, I often find young people in difficult situations show unbelievable maturity—because they have to—but then again, he is still just a kid, after all.
Bookish: Santa Muerte never speaks or takes corporeal form, but she is a character in this book—one that is awed, feared, and respected. Were there challenges to writing characters, like Arturo, who are constantly aware of their own mortality?
MS: There’s a long relationship with Death in Mexico, stretching way back to the form of worship of the Aztecs and so on. In the modern world, we have the Days of the Dead, the worship of Santa Muerte (small but rising rapidly) and the image of Catrina (depictions of a pretty, skull-faced lady). Some people argued that it’s because Mexican people are less afraid of Death, some that it’s because they’re more afraid of Death. Whatever the truth of that, it’s certainly the case that Mexico has a more open dialogue with Death than many other cultures. So I found it “fun” (because I like thinking about Death) to have my characters pondering mortality, which is a common enough thing in a violent world, as well as having Santa Muerte drifting in and out of the book, and their lives. By the way, if you want the best account of this subject, I recommend Death and the Idea of Mexico by Claudio Lomnitz.
Bookish: This novel tackles a number of complicated topics (everything from American-funded cartels to immigration to environmental change), but it never feels overstuffed. How did you go about weaving these together without overwhelming the story or the reader?
MS: It was important to me that the book was more than just a tragedy set on the border. I wanted the reader to have a sense at least of the context of events which is causing problems in these areas, because I want the reader to get the sense that we will be seeing many more such flashpoints around the world (and often close to home) unless we start to take a radically different view of how the world should be composed. In order to do that successfully in a traditional manner, I would have had to write a book that was five times as long, and which probably very few people would have read. Instead I used a sort of Greek chorus of small (less than one page) chapters, which are interspersed between the main chapters of the book: These offer a range of views about all sorts of things that have and are affecting the borderland.
Bookish: We see two figures being referred to as kings in this book: Jesus and Arturo. Is that because you see Arturo as a Christ-figure or more because Jesus represents the humanity in God?
MS: I had a long conversation with someone about this when the book first appeared in the UK. Her view was that the book could either be read as a condemnation of the idea of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, or, in fact, an endorsement of it. I agree with her view. I called Arturo the King because of the decisions he is faced with taking, but I cannot say more without giving away very large spoilers!
Bookish: Siggy says to Arturo at one point, “You are at the hardest point of all. You are not a kid. You are not a man. You are somewhere in the middle.” What do you think it is that makes life so difficult when you’re at that point?
MS: Being a teenager is a pretty intense experience for most people. For some it’s a breeze, yes, but for many more people it’s a crazy time in which your body changes, your mind changes, in which you almost literally become a new person. It’s also accompanied by lots of new thoughts and experiences: things like sex, thoughts about mortality maybe. This time of life is that bridge I was talking about earlier—it’s the bridge between childhood and adulthood. And the kind of adult we become is very dependent on how we survived our teenage years. I believe many adults neglect that fact, intentionally or otherwise, but if we are really to understand who we are as adults, we can do no better than see how we got there.
Bookish: The book explores one of the reasons for the refugee crisis, while also explaining that natural disasters (resulting from climate change) will cause more displacement in the future. What is a resource that you recommend for readers wanting to educate themselves about these problems, and get involved in finding solutions?
MS: I guess I’m not alone in feeling that the world is in an especially fine mess at the moment. It can feel hopeless and as a result, it can feel depressing. But I think that ironically it also means we are in a time when it might be possible to change things. If you look at how close the elections in the US and the UK last year were, how close the French election is turning out to be, a couple of percent either way can make all the difference. Even if you’re not old enough to vote yet, you can have conversations with people who are; engage them, debate with them. I think part of the reason we’ve come to this place is that too many people haven’t been engaged with politics (in the broadest sense of the word). Now, we’re seeing a rise in membership and grassroots funding of organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to give just one example; an example that shows that people are realizing not only that we have to try and make a difference, but that we can, too. To do that, we have to educate ourselves: read quality newspapers and join organizations like Amnesty International, and so help them raise funds; or in the case of climate change, follow the work that NASA has been doing. There are lots of good sources for news about the climate and theirs is among the best.
Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in Kent in South East England, but now lives in the French Alps. His books have won and been shortlisted for many awards; most notably, he has been shortlisted for Britain’s Carnegie Medal six times, has received two Printz Honors, for Revolver and Ghosts of Heaven, and in 2013 won the Printz Award for Midwinterblood.