Tucsonan James Carlos Blake, acclaimed writer of novellas, short stories, essays, and historic and “border noir” novels, has won literary awards that include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Southwest Book Award, the Quarterly West Novella Prize, and Chautauqua South Book Award.
He answered questions from the Star shortly after the recent publication of his fourth Wolfe family novel, “The Ways of Wolfe.”
C W-H: In addition to college professor and writer, your biography cites “Volkswagen mechanic, swimming pool maintenance man, county jail properties officer” as well as “snake-catcher,” as your occupations.
“Snake-catcher”? That’s an interesting skill set for a novelist.
J C B : First paying job I ever had. When I was a junior high kid in Miami, we lived at the edge of the Everglades, where a buddy taught me how to catch poisonous snakes. We’d sell them for 25 cents apiece to the Serpentarium, a local tourist attraction and research facility that worked at using snake venom for medical purposes. Rattlesnakes were the easiest to catch and coral snakes the hardest to find, but the fiercest were the water moccasins. Rattlers will try to avoid you if they can, and coral snakes are shy little things, but an angry moccasin will come at you. And unlike any other snake I ever knew, they gave off a stink. You could smell them before you’d see them.
Everything a novelist has experienced makes it into his work, one way or another, and can lend it authenticity. Imagination can’t carry the whole load. A writer who’s never fired a gun or been in a fistfight can’t convey such experiences with the sensory or emotional authority of one who has.
C W-H Guns and fistfights in mind, for about a decade, you wrote fiction from a relative distance about violent, often unlawful, historical figures like John Wesley Hardin, Pancho Villa, gangster Harry Pierpont, boxer Stanley Ketchel. Then you closed that distance and opened the Wolfe family series with the 2012 novel “Country of the Bad Wolfes” inspired by your own family’s at times sketchy relationship with the law. Would you talk about that shift?
J C B The historical characters are “distant” only in time and place, not emotionally or psychologically. I inhabit them to the same degree I do the Wolfe characters.
‘Country of the Bad Wolfes’ is based on the fact that my family landed in the U.S. by way of a British pirate who married in New Hampshire, sired two sons, then ventured to Mexico, where he was captured and executed. The story spans almost a century and ends in 1911, setting the stage for subsequent books about the generations to follow. But I couldn’t resist the drama of the present-day borderland and cartels, so I jumped directly to the 21st-century and the Wolfe “border noirs.” However, I still intend to write Wolfe books that fill in the generational gaps.
C W-H In the Wolfe books, lust and violence are frequently as cited as being “in the (family’s) blood.” Do you believe there are, in fact, inherited drives (just as inherited hair and eye color)?
J C B It certainly seems so, judging by so many people I’ve known or read about—“chips off the old block,” even though the “old block” had nothing to do with the chip’s nurture, having been dead or missing ever since the chip was born.
C W-H Well, Axel Prince Wolfe displays the family appetites in your new novel, and he acts against his better judgment: He has a family and isn’t supposed to participate in the “shade (criminal) trade” until he’s finished college, but he can’t resist joining a buddy to rob a jewelry store. Then he knows he could be in prison for the rest of his life, but he can’t resist attempting to escape prison.
What is it about the allure of the unlawful that overwhelms the reason of smart characters like Axel?
J C B I love that phrase—“the allure of the unlawful.” That’s exactly why young Axel can’t wait to join the family’s “shade trade,” and why he joins in the robbery that puts him in prison. I suspect the allure is rooted in pride, in a readiness to risk punishment rather than submit to the will of another. That outlook is best expressed in “Paradise Lost,” when Satan, the boss gangster of them all, says, “I’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.” Pride has long been the darkest angel in human nature.
C W-H In a 2013 New York Times personal op-ed, “My Other Self,” you wrote that all of your life you’ve experienced an “almost chronic loneliness,” and then as an adult you learned that you had a twin brother who died as an infant. Could you talk about that loneliness and your decision to have twins pay significant roles in “Country of the Bad Wolfes?”
J C B It was a peculiar loneliness that had nothing to do with a lack of love or companionship or had any relation to existential angst. It was an inexplicable condition until I learned the truth about my twin. I’ve since come to know of others who lost a twin in early childhood but didn’t know it until adulthood, and they describe having grown up with the same puzzling sense of an “incomplete self” that I had.
The most fun in writing “Country of the Bad Wolfes” was in creating the two sets of twins that dominate the novel, especially the younger set, whose relationship to each other borders on the supernatural. They’re like a single soul in identical bodies.
C W-H You were born in eastern Mexico, and lived and studied and taught in Texas and Florida, and a large portion of your Wolfe books are set along the steamy Gulf of Mexico. How has moving west affected your work?
J C B The Wolfe novels range all over the border, and the Sonoran Desert is one of its most dramatic and narrative-rich regions. Like the crime gangs that prowl its expanse, the desert can kill you quick. All we need to do to be reminded of that is go for a walk at high noon in mid-July or venture to a nearby wash in the midst of a monsoon storm and regard the current roaring like a runaway train. The desert itself is an awesome character.
C W-H In a 1998 Los Angeles Times memoir piece, “The Outsider,” you wrote that you felt most “at home” as a grade school child in Brownsville, Texas, where you could be fully bilingual and bicultural. How is that?
J C B I’m sure there are border kids right now living in the same sort of bilingual, bicultural world I did who as adults will look back on it with the same sense of nostalgic comfort I do.
It’s worth noting I wasn’t a “typical” Mexican. My family is of Anglo descent and we look it. None of the neighborhood Anglo kids, who had known only mestizos, believed I was really Mexican until they heard me conversing in Spanish with other Mexican kids on the block. The occasion prompted my blond neighbor Danny to proclaim, “Dang if you ain’t the un-Mexicanest Mexican I ever seen.”
C W-H Now, where are you going with the next Wolfe novel? (And how about those lusty and not-violent-averse 21st century women Jessie and Rayo?)
J C B Expect a story ignited by Catalina Wolfe, the 115-year-old grande dame of the family. And yes, Rayo Luna Wolfe has a major role in it. I am hopelessly in love with Rayo, but even if I were young enough to woo her I would do it very, very cautiously.