The Frontera is a land of monsters, cringeworthy creatures that sail the rivers and creep upon the desert, terrorize the villagers. They are born of human nature and of super-nature. And in Coyote Songs, author Gabino Iglesias brings the ghosts of the Frontera to life in the most spellbinding way.
Coyote Songs follows the groove of Gabino’s previous book, Zero Saints, but really evolves the landscape in every way. In fact, for Iglesias, evolution is really the best way to put Coyote Songs. A story about the many faces and experiences of Otherness on the border, it jumps from the imaginative and fanciful folklore personified, to the raw, emotionally stunning realities of the fate of children eaten up for the chance for something better.
I sit down with Gabino and have a few burning questions to ask.
LMS: Hey Gabino. As somebody who’s read your previous book, I of course was looking for similarities, and while maybe they’re in the same universe literarily, there are a lot of differences. Can you talk about what you see as the key differences you were aiming for when you started Coyote Songs? And did you find unintended differences when you’d finished?
GI: I knew I didn’t want to write Zero Saints again, but the universe of barrio noir contains some cohesive elements: pain, violence, multiculturalism, bilingualism, violence, crossing of all types of physical and imagined borders, etc. I knew from page one that those things would be in there, but the rest was entirely new. I wanted women at the core of the narrative. I wanted more magic and weirdness and horror than the first time around. I’ll always walk that line between horror and crime, and now that I knew readers would dig in despite the strangeness and gore, I went all in. The book I’m working on now is also barrio noir, but has nothing to do with Zero Saints or Coyote Songs.
LMS: There’s such a great synthesis between the fantastical and the raw visceral in this book. The Bruja is a perfect example of this. Without giving anything away, it really hit me in the feels, and when the more ephemeral part of it came into play, I was hooked. Did you have any underlying schema for mixing the natural and the supernatural, or was it an organic flow?
GI: Organic flow. Writing is not easy for me, but that part is relatively easy. I grew up immersed in Caribbean syncretism. My abuelita had an entire bathroom for the spirits that you weren’t supposed to use. It was full of candles and religious iconography. It was Catholicism and Santeria and a bunch of other stuff thrown together. She had milagritos sewn to the inside of her clothes. She wore saints on medals. I would find slaughtered chickens in my neighborhood. I had a good friend who acquired exotic birds that were illegal on the island and sold them to paleros and voodoo priestesses. In the immortal words of poet and visionary Issac Kirkman: “If you haven’t seen weird shit in the streets, you haven’t been in the streets long enough.” For me, supernatural and normal are the same thing.
LMS: Coyote Songs is many different parts and perspectives. Did you start this as separate works, or did you start out a single work, and plot it out intending to shift perspectives? And if you can talk specifically about influences for any of the perspectives, like Alma or Pedrito, the Coyote or even the Mother?
GI: I always wanted to write a mosaic novel, but never thought I had the skills. I also hadn’t seen it done much in the extremely pulpy way I wanted but with some decent writing thrown in as well. I think Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World opened my eyes. I read that and thought “Fuck yeah! This is it!” That book gave me confidence. I don’t have Brian Allen Carr-level chops, but this was my book, so I only needed my own chops. The perspectives just made sense. I thought about Pedrito first. I love revenge narratives. Then The Mother came to me as the reason and the glue to everything. The rest were born out of specific stories I’d hear or embodied points I wanted to get across.
LMS: Like Zero Saints, Coyote Songs has more than just passing phrases in Spanish. It is used very powerfully, and while it doesn’t detract from the book for non-Spanish speakers, it is indelibly a part of the story. Again, I love talking about methods, so did you set rules for when to use Spanish, or did you just feel for it?
GI: I published two novellas before Zero Saints, but Zero Saints was me finding my voice. I decided to write what I wanted to write and use Spanish and Spanglish to make it authentic. A lot of people hated it. You can go read the 1-star Amazon reviews to see how much the Spanish/Spanglish bothered them. I don’t care. This is my voice. These are my stories. Escribo como me da la gana. I start writing and the part that come to me in Spanish or Spanglish stay that way. J David Osborne, head honcho of Broken River Books, has never had a problem with it. If you buy a barrio noir packed with frontera people written by a dude named Gabino Iglesias and are surprised at the Spanish in its pages…
LMS: Somewhat related to the previous question, I know, as a writer myself, that the right word can have twelve dimensions, even when you have it in your head. I always assumed that if I knew another language, getting that idea-to-paper lightning strike would be so much easier. But, in having English and Spanish to choose from, is putting that powerful idea down easier… or harder?
GI: It’s easier…until you start the editing process. There’s a new theory out there that says young bilingual kids don’t have two language, that they don’t code switch. Instead, they have one gigantic language in their heads where everything has two or three words to describe it. I’m convinced reading and writing have shaped my brain in the same way. I’ve spent so many years talking to Spanglish speakers that I kinda know just fall into that discourse very easily.
LMS: This book wouldn’t be as good if it didn’t take into account our political realities. And how you did it, hitting it head on, while at the same time making it background to the main action, like horse-kicking racism and bigotry in the face. Do you think, in all the political noise and circuses, that the very real crisis affecting children on the border is forgotten?
GI: Society has a very short memory and equally short attention span. Things fade away very quickly. I dislike that. We need to stay angry. We can’t let border politics, inhumane immigration policies and attitudes, and things like the #MeToo movement fall by the wayside. I try to contribute to that with my fiction. Fuck racism. I see it everywhere. Hell, I get called a beaner and a spic regularly by guys who wouldn’t say it to my face, so I’m not worried about forgetting about it any time soon. And women are the core of Coyote Songs. There are many reasons for that. Hopefully readers can identify them without me having to spell it out.
LMS: The poetry in the book is fantastic. The visuals, and the flow of those visuals, I think, make this book an upper-echelon book. Take us through the time you were writing it. What was the music playlist? And were there any other writers, directors or cinematographers through whom you were putting yourself?
GI: Oh, man, I was submerged in darkness for this one. I do this thing where I listen to nothing but blues or flamenco or jazz for a month. For this book, I always went with heave, dark stuff. I listened to a lot of black atmospheric metal. And things like Loscil and Robert Rich. Weird mix, but it worked. Here’s a taste of albums that come to mind that were on repeat:
Eldamar – A Dark
Caladan Brood – Echoes of Battle
Loscil – Stases and Endless Falls
Robert Rich – Vestiges and Nest
Musk Ox – Woodfall
I also had Takuya Kuroda’s Rising Son and Ryo Fukui’s Scenery and A Letter From a Small Boat…and some other stiff because music is life. Then, when not writing, I would switch back to my everything schedule. Those are the few I remember, but there were more. Lots more.
Pick up Coyote Songs from Amazon in Kindle or paperback here.