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Immigrant Smuggling Is Basis For Novel

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Aired 3/22/10

The characters in David Corbett's novel "Do They Know I'm Running" try to navigate the immigrant smuggling routes from Central America through Mexico to California. They must deal with the ruthless gangs that control the routes and ferry immigrants across the border.

Book cover for "Do They Know I'm Running?" by, David Corbett.

Above: Book cover for "Do They Know I'm Running?" by, David Corbett.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Washington over the weekend to urge lawmakers to enact immigration reform. Protesters want to see a federal law that would give undocumented immigrants a chance at legal residency. It is the very issue of residency without documentation and subsequent deportation that begins a chain of events in the new novel "Do They Know I'm Running?" The story follows the treacherous journey taken by an unlikely lawbreaker from El Salvador back to the United States. The book's author, David Corbett, has taken some unlikely journeys himself to his present status as one of America's most highly praised mystery and thriller writers. We'll talk about his career and his new book this morning. And, David, welcome to These Days

DAVID CORBETT (Author): Well, thank you very much for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Your new novel, “Do They Know I’m Running?” opens with this harrowing scene near the border where a man and woman are confronted in the darkness by an angry rancher with a shotgun. Now who are these two people that we meet in this way?

CORBETT: Well, that’s the book. We actually start from the rancher’s point of view, and I actually chose a pair of older – a rancher and his wife, because – as sort of an embodiment of a metaphor, that America is aging, and it’s a young pair of individuals coming from the mountains out of Mexico onto their ranch and that’s very much the demographic that’s happening. A great many of the young people in America are actually – are immigrants and these two in particular. But one is an American and he calls out to the rancher saying, you know, please, don’t harm us, I’m an American. And the rancher doesn’t know whether to trust him or not. And from that point of view, then we go back six weeks to figure out who that young man is.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly, as I was saying, your story, which of course is a fiction, actually begins three months earlier or thereabouts…

CORBETT: Oh, you’re right, three months. It’s been awhile since I wrote it. Yes.

CAVANAUGH: When our hero, Roque, his uncle, is deported by U.S. Immigration officials from California. Tell us about that.

CORBETT: Well, my last book, “Blood of Paradise,” took place in El Salvador and I finished that in 2006. And as I was wrapping that up—and it got me very in tune to Latin American issues, mainly because I had met some people from El Salvador and had befriended them and gotten to know in particular one family very closely. And so I was very attuned to the immigration debate as it unfolded in 2006. And it – as it became increasingly heated, I noticed also that Iraq was heating up. And I saw, when you looked at the casualty lists of the men and women being injured and killed in Iraq, I was astonished by how many of those names were Latino. And so I began to do a little digging and I found that, in fact, Latino service men and women were being killed and wounded in combat in higher percentages than their actual proportion in the armed services as a whole. And the Rand Corporation did a study of Latino service men and women and asked them what their reasons were for enlisting. And the assumption was, I mean, the common sense assumption, was that they had joined up in large part to expedite citizenship because the Bush administration had authorized expedited citizenship for illegal residents who wanted to join the military. But that wasn’t the reason the recruits gave. The four top reasons that Latino recruits gave for joining up were patriotism, service to country, duty and honor. And they said their families were proud of them even if they had questions about the war. And so these men and women were – they believe in this country and they contributed incredibly to this country, and sometimes suffered incredible damage if not gave up their lives for us. And yet at the same time, many of them returned from Iraq to find out that a family member was in jeopardy or had actually been deported. And I had read a couple of stories of that sort, and my books generally start with a situation that troubles me, that I – sort of an intractable problem that I don’t know how to solve, and this was one where I imagined – Imagine a Salvadoran-American family and I chose that because, like I said, I knew a family very well in these – in this sort of circumstance. And imagine that just as a – one of the sons comes back from Iraq terribly wounded and psychologically damaged and as they’re gearing up to – for his care, the family breadwinner gets deported in an Immigration raid. And I chose the Port of Oakland because “Blood of Paradise,” again, my previous book, was dedicated to a Teamster who had been murdered in El Salvador in 2004. And that was an entrée to his boss inside the Teamsters, who embraced the book wonderfully. He’s been a one-man ad campaign for the book and has actually given it to human rights and labor rights leaders around the country and gave a copy to President Funes in El Salvador and…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

CORBETT: …and Representative McGovern from Massachusetts. He’s always been very engaged with the Salvadoran community here. And so he introduced me to some port truck drivers, which was a real eye-opener, these guys who carry the containers off of – from the ports into the warehouses around the area. And it was an eye-opener as far as what sort of work they performed and I just – and I figured I wanted to write about that and that was the job I gave my father figure in this family.

CAVANAUGH: Tio Faustino.

CORBETT: Right. He’s an uncle, that’s why he’s Tio.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now the Iraqi war veteran in this book is a character named Godo, and could you tell us more about him? How was he injured?

CORBETT: Well, Godo—and it’s short for Gordofredo—but I chose the name Godo, first of all, because it had sort of a clown element. And Godo is sort of a clown but he’s also got a little bit of a hot streak and he’s the kind of guy who just naturally falls into trouble. And every character has a little bit of yourself in him and I – there was a bit of me in Godo where there are times if I simply would’ve had better judgment I could’ve gotten myself out of a couple of fixes I got myself into, and Godo has that trait. He’s basically a good-natured guy but got himself into a really bad situation, which I don’t want to give away because it’s a crucial part of the book, but for that reason he decides to join up. And I had an opportunity to meet a lot of Latino servicemen because I keep on referring back to the last book but it’s important. In “Blood of Paradise” I was—this is kind of a cute story, so I’ll tell it.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

CORBETT: I mean, I got an e-mail one day and it was from an Admiral James Stavridis and it said – the subject line was “Blood of Paradise,” the name of the book, and it just said, dear David, loved the book. Before I saw more I want to confirm this is a valid e-mail address. All the best, Jim. And I thought, I am so screwed. Because the book was sort of – it was very acidic about our policies in Central America but it was very favorable to service people. And he actually loved the book and invited me to come down. He picked it for his reading list so I was there with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende and Hemingway, and so it was very flattering. And then I spoke to the officers down there at the southern command and met some of the Latino service people who really work with Latin America and us, and I was – It was a real eye opener in realizing their – one, their dedication to the country and, two, they’re being torn because, you know, obviously the policy at that time was very much in flux regarding immigrants. So with that in mind, I had individuals I can actually base Godo on, people that I actually met who – And a number of them were saying, you know, if it weren’t for the Marines, I’d be in prison. Or, if it weren’t for whatever, and Godo sort of falls into that category. He’s a little bit rough on the edges but the Marines make him a man. But then when he’s there, he’s at a checkpoint and it’s a SUV full of contractors who just don’t want to comply, and this was a constant problem, you found out. One of the main problems we had in Iraq was that contractors in the battle space were not strictly responsible to the chain of command. And, you know, so like who do they report to? Sometimes they were great and they were – they’re all former soldiers, you know, themselves, by and large, and sometimes they would comply. But when they wouldn’t, what authority did the soldiers have? And there was a lot of tension. And this incident in which Godo was injured results from that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in your book, “Do They Know I’m Running?” after Tio Faustino is deported to El Salvador, Roque is the one who is the unlikely coyote who is not only going to bring his uncle back but a couple of other people, this treacherous journey from El Salvador to the United States. Do you have a sense of how his journey resembles the actual journey of people trying to make their way to the U.S.?

CORBETT: Oh, very much so. I chose Roque as being the person through whose eyes we basically see this journey because I wanted to choose, first of all, an American citizen. Roque’s born here, and so is his brother Godo; they’re both American citizens. And he’s the golden child in the family. He’s gifted. People liken him to the next Carlos Santana. He’s a brilliant guitarist. And that’s – for that reason, the aunt has not pressed him to get a job because she thinks that, you know, he’s – he has this gift and she has always wanted to nurture it. But when this crisis hits the family, the only two others that could go down to get Tio Faustino are Godo—and he’s too injured to do it—or another cousin named Happy, and he’s nicknamed Happy because he’s never happy. It’s how street handles work, and he’s just this sullen, brooding, you know, presence in the book. And he is undocumented so he can’t go back and forth across the border at ease. So it’s up to Roque who has a passport, who can travel the borders relatively easily. And they don’t want Tio Faustino to have to ride the trains, which is what so many immigrants have to do and it’s treacherous on a number of scores. One, you can fall off; two, you can injure yourself getting on board; and, three, of course, you can get robbed en route, which happens increasingly. And this is – the story I really wanted to tell was that it’s always been a difficult journey to reach the United States but it’s perilous now because organized crime and the gangs now control so much of the – so many of the traveling and smuggling routes that come from Central America through Mexico to the border, and the border is by and large controlled by organized crime so that you cannot get here without in some way or another making a pact with the devil. And pacts with the devil almost always turn out other than you had planned, and that’s certainly the case in the book.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with novelist David Corbett about his new book “Do They Know I’m Running?” And as I mentioned in introducing this book and you, David, you have made quite a personal journey of your own on the road to becoming a bestselling novelist. You toured as a musician, you were…

CORBETT: Well, tour is a bit of a reach. I was in a bar band in the Midwest.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

CORBETT: And we played in such, you know, musical meccas as, let me think, Kokomo, Indiana and Midland, Michigan…

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

CORBETT: …and Beckley, West Virginia and Findlay, Ohio. So, you know, don’t – Somebody asked me the other day, said, where did you guys play? I said, any place where divorcees wanted to pick up an attractive young woman.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so I don’t want to – I don’t want to give that too much…

CORBETT: So on tour is a little bit lofty for what I was doing.

CAVANAUGH: How about stand-up comic?

CORBETT: That was very short lived. There was something – I think I did that for just a couple ventures and I thought do you really want to be doing this when you’re 40? And I thought, nah, I don’t. I think I’d rather write…

CAVANAUGH: It seems like one of the hardest jobs in the world.

CORBETT: Not only that but a lot of the comics I met just seemed always to be on…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

CORBETT: …and I thought, you know, there’s almost something a little off – Now, and this is unfair to comedians but I just thought, you know, I’m – I’m probably talented in a different way.

CAVANAUGH: So then you went from those to – occupations to being a private investigator in San Francisco. You worked on some very high profile cases like the Jim Jones case, back – if people remember the Delorian case. What’s it like being a private eye?

CORBETT: It’s a lot more like being a journalist…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

CORBETT: …that it is like being a cop. You know, cops have to control situations, they have to control people. You don’t. Your job is to find people, talk to them, find out what they have to say—it’s called unpacking the witness—and then write it up so that a lawyer can actually use that information, you know, reasonably well in court and decide whether he wants this person as a witness in the courtroom or not. And so that’s really – your job is really finding people and – You can teach people a lot of the various skills they need but the one thing you can’t teach is getting people to talk to you. You’re either good at that or not. And I was fortunate, I just had that skill, so I did it for a while.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if the intricacies of some of the cases that you followed inspired you maybe to start thinking about your own crime stories?

CORBETT: Well, actually I had – I’m a writer who became a P.I. as opposed to…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, really?

CORBETT: …a P.I. who became a writer. Yeah, I was actually studying acting and writing short stories in my late twenties when two other of my acting student friends said we’re working for a P.I. firm. And when they realized that I was thinking of writing, they said, well, you should get a job here because you can’t beat it for material. And that was an understatement. And, in fact, it was a San Diego case, a series of San Diego cases resulting from a group of guys called the Coronado Company that inspired my first book, “The Devil’s Redhead.” It’s about one of those guys, the old ‘70s smugglers who were more wild than they were evil and, you know, were just a really interesting breed of cat and I really liked them a lot. And around 1988, I had a conversation with my boss, I said, you know, we’re not getting the kind of clients we used to and he said, if those guys were still in the business, they’d be betrayed or killed.

CAVANAUGH: Aha.

CORBETT: And that was the inspiration for the first novel. I thought now there’s a story there and…

CAVANAUGH: Now, you’ve mentioned your book “Blood of Paradise,” which was – also used El Salvador as a backdrop for the novel and now in this novel, “Do They Know I’m Running?” At the end of the book, you have an afterword you call “Going Humbly” and it addresses the question of how an Anglo, such as yourself, can write a book about the Latino experience. Tell us a little bit about what you have to say on that subject.

CORBETT: Well, I am the classic American mutt. I mean, I know I’m a quarter Irish, a quarter German and the other half I really just don’t know. My dad was always very quiet about it. He always said, well, we’re Heinz 57 varieties. And so I’m – I just – You know, my ancestry is rather vague. I am the quintessential American in that regard. But because I’d met these Latino fam – this Latino family and had become very close to them and knew that they were going through a situation very similar to this – Most Latino families or a great many of them are mixed status, meaning someone – You have citizens, legal residents, and undocumented residents all in the same household, so somebody’s always at risk. And very often, I think one of the key things about the immigrant experience is somebody’s almost always missing. There’s a key family member, and that sense of longing, that sense of incompleteness is very true to immigrant experience. And it just touched me. And – but I felt, you know, so how can I do this reasonably well because I see it from the outside? And there’s a – the reason I titled the essay “Going Humbly” is there’s a quote from Coltrane, John Coltrane that I love and it’s, ‘when there is something you do not understand, you must go humbly to it.’ And so it was with a sense of love and respect and underneath was a sort of sense that, you know, I – the problem with our immigration debate is there are too few people who look like me trying to plumb deeply the experience of people going through what the people in my book go through. And so I felt that, in a certain sense, I would be the canary in the coal mine for all my readers and anybody else who wanted to address the subject and I teach character in – at the UCLA Extension and some other places. And I always tell my students, you need to see the character reflected in you and you need to see yourself reflected in the character. So I brought a lot of myself. Roque’s a musician because I was at 18. And he’s also the youngest in a family of boys and so was I. And I assure you, crap does roll downhill and it increases velocity as it gets closer to the bottom. And so, I mean, that’s – Roque’s been dealing with this his whole life, and so he does have a bit of a chip on his shoulder and he does want to prove himself to his older brothers, but he also gets the sense that they’re going to be really hard to be convinced. And I mentioned Godo has sort of my aspect as well. Tia Lucia, the aunt in the family, is very much based on actually one of my neighbors who was a Italian but she was a woman who had to ride herd in a family of men just like Tia Lucia does. And Faustino, the uncle, is based on a truck driver I met but also my father who had been a truck driver and a mechanic as a young man and wanted to run his own trucking company but his father once said, you know, you’ll never be anything but a grease monkey and it ticked my father off so bad he put himself through college during the Depression and – but he was a very gentle, stubborn, wistful man. And Faustino’s very much in that character. It was like – I was very – When reading, someone pointed out, you know, I think Faustino is really the soul of this book because there’s a gentle decency to him that in the midst of all this criminality, there’s this one human being who just stands for, you know, all I want to do is work and care for my family and love them. And that’s really much the pulse, I think at the heart of this book.

CAVANAUGH: As part of your “Going Humbly” afterword, you make the case against the use of the term illegal immigrant and I wonder if you would tell us why you dislike that term?

CORBETT: Well, I dislike it because it’s an attempt to characterize human beings by caste. As, you know, one thing you learn when you do criminal defense is that, you know, good people can do, you know, can make mistakes. They can do bad things. And it doesn’t change the fact that they’re complete human beings that also have good sides. And it’s – There’s times I wonder if the use of the term illegal immigrant or illegal alien is an attempt to create an untermention. I actually wrote an op-ed that my editor said, you know, I don’t think we want to publish this, it’s a little bit too devisive. And it was, you know, is illegal immigration our Jewish question, and the whole idea of trying to create a scapegoat class to blame for everything that’s going wrong in this country. I mean, the whole notion of build a wall and deport them all. I mean, the whole idea if somehow you just build a wall, Latin America and all of its problems disappear. It’s – Especially when Iran, China and Russia are there trying to increase their influence. I mean, it would be an insane move to be so blind to just what a negative impact that could have on our relationship in Latin America. So I don’t know, I just felt compelled to humanize this story as much as I could. I can’t solve the illegal immigration issue and I don’t try to but I do try to convey what it would feel like from the inside to have to face this – this issue.

CAVANAUGH: And as you’ve watched the debate over illegal immigration unfold in recent years, do you think that anger against undocumented aliens is coming because they’re being scapegoated?

CORBETT: I – Maybe not because they’re being scapegoated. Which one is cause and which one effect, I’m not totally sure. But I do believe that I think illegal immigration in a lot of ways is much like gay rights in that, you know, it’s like if you know a gay person—my brother was gay…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

CORBETT: …you don’t really have a problem with gay people. That’s not entirely true. I mean, I also have a brother who’s an evangelical who, you know, had an issue with my brother’s homosexuality. So it doesn’t solve all things but, by and large, people who know people who fall within a certain class, have a tendency not to see them in those stark, unrealistic, dehumanizing terms. And I think those of us who know and have friends and even loved ones within immigrant community know that this type of scapegoating, this type of labeling as an illegal human being is wrong and is inappropriate and doesn’t fit. So I – What scares me is that by using that term, we begin the process of dehumanization and, therefore, no matter what we do to them doesn’t matter because we’ve decided psychologically and emotionally that they’re less than us. And I’ve been very pleased to see how much of the Christian community has stepped up to the plate on this and said no. The very first issue to address, we have to realize we’re dealing with human beings. And that’s been very heartening.

CAVANAUGH: Have you gotten any negative feedback from Latino authors about your Latino characters?

CORBETT: Not yet.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

CORBETT: And, you know, I got in touch with Jimmy Santiago Baca, who I respect immensely and whose memoir, “A Place to Stand,” I think is one of the great Chicano stories in Latin American letters. And one of my good friends is Luis Alberto Urrea. I actually wrote a story with Luis and…

CAVANAUGH: He’s been on the show.

CORBETT: Yeah, oh, Luis is great.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

CORBETT: And he read the “Blood of Paradise” and gave it a very good review but he hasn’t had a chance to read this one yet. But I’d be interested in Luis’s take on this. And Luis’s Aunt Flaca, actually Tia Flaca, was sort of the insp – was one inspiration for Tia Lucia. He tells these hilarious stories about this aunt he had in Tijuana who was a chain smoker with these owl glasses and working in a tuna canning factory and it’s – they’re just a crack up. And so I sort of employed some of those in Lucia.

CAVANAUGH: You know, my final question to you is just in your discussing your family history here with your father taking the challenge and going to college during the Depression, one brother an evangelical, the other one gay, are you thinking of writing a novel that could – involves your personal upbringing?

CORBETT: I don’t think my upbringing but I was married to a woman here in California whose name was Cesidia Therese Tessicini and I just loved that name.

CAVANAUGH: Wonderful.

CORBETT: And Terry—we called her Terry—was an amazing story and I would love to write a memoir but you always in – sometimes memoirs often tread on the toes of people who really just want to maintain their privacy. So I don’t know whether I will ever be able to write that story but I think I can fictionalize it in a way that will still have some of the impact because she, as her uncle, who lives here in San Diego, once said – said at her memorial service, this is a girl who at age 16 turned herself 180 degrees and said I will not be the woman my past says I have to be. I’m going to be happy and I’m going to be successful. And she was, and she was just an amazing person and I really miss her.

CAVANAUGH: Is that what you’re working on now?

CORBETT: Yeah, a little bit. I’m working it into a story. I’m also – The story takes place in Vallejo, which is my hometown, which your listeners may know is the first major California city to file for bankruptcy. And it’s – it has a lot – It has a huge impact on how safe people feel and – because one of the main problems is police and firefighters’ salaries.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly, yes, yes.

CORBETT: And so I have a feeling we’re the tip of the spear, so I have a feeling there’s a story there and I’m working on that, and I’m going to weave Terry’s story into – I’m actually going to bring Dan Abatangelo, my hero, my former pot smuggler hero from “Devil’s Redhead” back and I’m going to use him as the vehicle to tell Terry’s story.

CAVANAUGH: Well, David, thank you so much for talking about this book and your subsequent books and for talking to us about everything this morning. Thanks so much.

CORBETT: Well, thanks, Maureen. I appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: David Corbett will be signing copies of his book, “Do They Know I’m Running” tonight at seven at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. And coming up, a conversation with former Police drummer, Stewart Copeland. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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