Tag Archives: Óscar Martínez

An Interview with Óscar Martínez

12 Feb
Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.

In this interview, Martínez discusses telling violent stories, the verisimilitude of a hit man, and planning trips into areas controlled by drug cartels. You can read Martínez’s original answers in Spanish, along with English translations. (Thanks to Chris Dammert for helping with translation and interpretation.)

To read the first chapter of The Beast and exercises on ending stories and distinguishing fact from fiction in essays, click here.

Michael Noll

You write about Saúl, a 19-year-old who is deported from Los Angeles to Guatemala. He is beaten and captured by a gang led by a man who turns out to be his father. The story ends this way: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.” That last sentence is stunningly short. How did you know or figure out which details to leave out and which to include?

Óscar Martínez

For me, there is a logic to the narration of violence: don’t embellish or elaborate what is already a very heavy subject. To add my assessment to Saul’s already convincing story would have been a distraction. His story is valuable just for that: how distinct and forceful it is. The only proof I have that it is true is because he told it to me in such a very frank way and with a context that made it plausible. I obviously never knew his father. Sometimes the narrator of nonfiction puts the reader in this dilemma: do you believe me or not believe me? It’s your decision.

Para mí hay una lógica en la narración de la violencia: no pretendas exagerar, no pretendas engordar lo que ya es pesado de por sí. Agregar mis valoraciones a la contundente historia de Saúl hubiera estado de más. Hubiera generado distracción. Su historia-mínima es valiosa por eso, por lo contundente, por lo integral, por lo sucinta. La única prueba que tengo de que es verdad es que así lo creo, que me lo contó de una manera que me pareció franca y que en el contexto su historia es verosímil. Yo, evidentemente, nunca conocí a su padre. A veces, un narrador de no ficción pone en ese dilema a su lector: ¿me crees o no me crees? Es tu decisión.

Michael Noll

You describe a migrant on the train as crucified on the front of the car and talking with his cousin and two Nicaraguans. Other writers might have focused on the danger but not the dull routine. How were you able to find this balance?

Óscar Martínez

Other writers would have ruined the story. This is how it happened, how it was told to me. It was right this way. The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo?  Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist. We take pieces of them that are thrilling. But that kind of story, without those real moments of calm, would be boring, empty.

Otros escritores habrían arruinado entonces la escena. Así ocurrió, así me lo relató. Así era justo contarlo. Lo cotidiano de la escena agrega verosimilitud a las vidas de estas personas: ¿Quién demonios huye, mata, muere todo el tiempo? Los personajes necesitan cagar, estar cansados, jugar cartas, comer, discutir, enamorarse, peinarse. Si no, no existen. ¿Alguien puede sentir empatía por Rambo? ¿Alguien puede ver reflejado a su hermano o a su padre en un sicario a tiempo completo? No lo creo. A veces, en la no ficción creamos marcianos, gente que no puede existir, de quienes solo recortamos aquello que es emocionante. La acción, sin sus remansos reales, es aburrida, vacía.

Michael Noll

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

You often became a participant in your story. For example, your photographer frightened bandits off the train by shining all of his lights at them. As a result, I wondered why the cartels allowed you to move about in their areas. Are they so powerful that they simply don’t care if anyone finds out what they’re doing? Are they so focused on drugs that someone interested in migrants doesn’t matter? Now, you’re working with Sala Negra. Have the cartels and organized crime organizations become less tolerant of your reporting?

Óscar Martínez

The simple reason: time. I had time, we created a project with my paper that allowed me to do pre-production on each one of my trips. I had time to find a reliable source to plan my route, to find hostels. In short, to crack the system of the criminal world. Sometimes we would get counterintelligence against the mafias in order to penetrate their areas. With respect to life at Sala Negra: yes, it is more difficult. El Salvador is not Mexico, where I could take a trip to Tamaulipas or a trip by train to Tenosique and then return to a city like Mexico City, where I was anonymous. We would go one month and then we would take time to write what we had seen, to edit the photographs. In San Salvador, even though I live a privileged life, I live much closer to that black mass all the time.

La respuesta es sencilla: tiempo. Tuve tiempo, creamos un proyecto junto a mi periódico que me permitió hacer pre-producción de cada uno de mis viajes. Yo tenía el tiempo que deseaba para encontrar a la fuente de confianza, para planificar mi ruta, para permanecer en un albergue. En fin: para quebrar esa lógica de dominio criminal. A veces, hacíamos contra-inteligencia ante las mafias para poder penetrar en sus zonas. Respecto a la vida ahora en Sala Negra: sí, es más difícil. El Salvador no es México, donde yo realizaba una incursión a Tamaulipas o un viaje en tren o una visita a Tenosique y luego volvía a una ciudad como DF, donde era anónimo. Íbamos un mes y luego nos retirábamos para escribir lo que habíamos visto, para editar las fotografías. En San Salvador, aunque mi vida es privilegiada, vives mucho más cerca de esa masa oscura todo el tiempo.

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Texas Observer, you said that people in the United States have “no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis.” The same is true in Mexico. Many people don’t know or don’t want to know. How does it affect the way you tell the story when you’re one of the first people to tell this story?

Óscar Martínez

For me it was a luxury. Being one of the first was what gave us such a wide, panoramic view, unlimited possibility, virgin territory in many places. Tenosique criminals never imagined that an international reporter would be interested in getting to Ranch La Victoria or Macuspana, which was why they didn’t have any way to detect us. That being said, it was a ninth-month process to organize the book. To tell what hasn’t been told much makes the task even greater because you have a blank page and the possibilities are unlimited. You have notebooks that are full, hours of recording, videos, photographs, and yet a blank page that’s asking, from all of this, what will you tell? And what will you leave out?

Para mí eso fue un lujo. Ser de los primeros fue justamente lo que nos dio un panorama tan amplio, unas posibilidades ilimitadas, un terreno virgen en muchos lugares. Los criminales de Tenosique nunca se imaginaron que un reportero internacional se interesaría por llegar al Rancho La Victoria o a Macuspana, por eso no tenían controles para detectarlo. Eso sí, fue un reto de nueve meses ordenar el libro. Contar lo que se ha contado poco duplica el reto ante la página en blanco, porque las posibilidades siguen siendo interminables. Tienes libretas llenas, horas de grabación, videos, fotografías, y una página en blanco que te pregunta: ¿Qué de todo eso contarás? Y por tanto, ¿qué dejarás de contar?

Originally published in May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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12 Writing Exercises from 2014

30 Dec

It’s often said that when you learn to read as a writer, you’re no longer able to read for enjoyment. I disagree. I find that the pleasure is doubled. Not only do you enjoy the art for art’s sake, but you’ve also gained the ability to appreciate the craft behind the art. Here are 12 moments of exceptional craft from the stories, novels, and essays featured at Read to Write Stories in 2015.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

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Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. How to Write a Story Ending

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. One of the migrants he meets is a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The beginning of the story is pretty simple. He’s beaten by thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and taken to their leader, who, in turns out, is Saúl’s father. Watch how Martínez ends the story:

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane. (From The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trial by Óscar Martínez. Find the entire exercise here.)

An Interview with Óscar Martínez

1 May
Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. He visited places and people (sites of cartel massacres, coyotes who work for the cartels, mountain trails where migrants take their chances) that almost no journalist had ever seen. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.

In this interview, Martínez discusses telling violent stories, the verisimilitude of a hit man, and planning trips into areas controlled by drug cartels. You can read Martínez’s original answers in Spanish, along with English translations. (Thanks to Chris Dammert for helping with translation and interpretation.)

To read the first chapter of The Beast and exercises on ending stories and distinguishing fact from fiction in essays, click here.

Michael Noll

You write about Saúl, a 19-year-old who is deported from Los Angeles to Guatemala. He is beaten and captured by a gang led by a man who turns out to be his father. The story ends this way: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.” That last sentence is stunningly short. How did you know or figure out which details to leave out and which to include?

Óscar Martínez

For me, there is a logic to the narration of violence: don’t embellish or elaborate what is already a very heavy subject. To add my assessment to Saul’s already convincing story would have been a distraction. His story is valuable just for that: how distinct and forceful it is. The only proof I have that it is true is because he told it to me in such a very frank way and with a context that made it plausible. I obviously never knew his father. Sometimes the narrator of nonfiction puts the reader in this dilemma: do you believe me or not believe me? It’s your decision.

Para mí hay una lógica en la narración de la violencia: no pretendas exagerar, no pretendas engordar lo que ya es pesado de por sí. Agregar mis valoraciones a la contundente historia de Saúl hubiera estado de más. Hubiera generado distracción. Su historia-mínima es valiosa por eso, por lo contundente, por lo integral, por lo sucinta. La única prueba que tengo de que es verdad es que así lo creo, que me lo contó de una manera que me pareció franca y que en el contexto su historia es verosímil. Yo, evidentemente, nunca conocí a su padre. A veces, un narrador de no ficción pone en ese dilema a su lector: ¿me crees o no me crees? Es tu decisión.

Michael Noll

You describe a migrant on the train as crucified on the front of the car and talking with his cousin and two Nicaraguans. Other writers might have focused on the danger but not the dull routine. How were you able to find this balance?

Óscar Martínez

Other writers would have ruined the story. This is how it happened, how it was told to me. It was right this way. The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo?  Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist. We take pieces of them that are thrilling. But that kind of story, without those real moments of calm, would be boring, empty.

Otros escritores habrían arruinado entonces la escena. Así ocurrió, así me lo relató. Así era justo contarlo. Lo cotidiano de la escena agrega verosimilitud a las vidas de estas personas: ¿Quién demonios huye, mata, muere todo el tiempo? Los personajes necesitan cagar, estar cansados, jugar cartas, comer, discutir, enamorarse, peinarse. Si no, no existen. ¿Alguien puede sentir empatía por Rambo? ¿Alguien puede ver reflejado a su hermano o a su padre en un sicario a tiempo completo? No lo creo. A veces, en la no ficción creamos marcianos, gente que no puede existir, de quienes solo recortamos aquello que es emocionante. La acción, sin sus remansos reales, es aburrida, vacía.

Michael Noll

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

You often became a participant in your story. For example, your photographer frightened bandits off the train by shining all of his lights at them. As a result, I wondered why the cartels allowed you to move about in their areas. Are they so powerful that they simply don’t care if anyone finds out what they’re doing? Are they so focused on drugs that someone interested in migrants doesn’t matter? Now, you’re working with Sala Negra. Have the cartels and organized crime organizations become less tolerant of your reporting?

Óscar Martínez

The simple reason: time. I had time, we created a project with my paper that allowed me to do pre-production on each one of my trips. I had time to find a reliable source to plan my route, to find hostels. In short, to crack the system of the criminal world. Sometimes we would get counterintelligence against the mafias in order to penetrate their areas. With respect to life at Sala Negra: yes, it is more difficult. El Salvador is not Mexico, where I could take a trip to Tamaulipas or a trip by train to Tenosique and then return to a city like Mexico City, where I was anonymous. We would go one month and then we would take time to write what we had seen, to edit the photographs. In San Salvador, even though I live a privileged life, I live much closer to that black mass all the time.

La respuesta es sencilla: tiempo. Tuve tiempo, creamos un proyecto junto a mi periódico que me permitió hacer pre-producción de cada uno de mis viajes. Yo tenía el tiempo que deseaba para encontrar a la fuente de confianza, para planificar mi ruta, para permanecer en un albergue. En fin: para quebrar esa lógica de dominio criminal. A veces, hacíamos contra-inteligencia ante las mafias para poder penetrar en sus zonas. Respecto a la vida ahora en Sala Negra: sí, es más difícil. El Salvador no es México, donde yo realizaba una incursión a Tamaulipas o un viaje en tren o una visita a Tenosique y luego volvía a una ciudad como DF, donde era anónimo. Íbamos un mes y luego nos retirábamos para escribir lo que habíamos visto, para editar las fotografías. En San Salvador, aunque mi vida es privilegiada, vives mucho más cerca de esa masa oscura todo el tiempo.

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Texas Observer, you said that people in the United States have “no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis.” The same is true in Mexico. Many people don’t know or don’t want to know. How does it affect the way you tell the story when you’re one of the first people to tell this story?

Óscar Martínez

For me it was a luxury. Being one of the first was what gave us such a wide, panoramic view, unlimited possibility, virgin territory in many places. Tenosique criminals never imagined that an international reporter would be interested in getting to Ranch La Victoria or Macuspana, which was why they didn’t have any way to detect us. That being said, it was a ninth-month process to organize the book. To tell what hasn’t been told much makes the task even greater because you have a blank page and the possibilities are unlimited. You have notebooks that are full, hours of recording, videos, photographs, and yet a blank page that’s asking, from all of this, what will you tell? And what will you leave out?

Para mí eso fue un lujo. Ser de los primeros fue justamente lo que nos dio un panorama tan amplio, unas posibilidades ilimitadas, un terreno virgen en muchos lugares. Los criminales de Tenosique nunca se imaginaron que un reportero internacional se interesaría por llegar al Rancho La Victoria o a Macuspana, por eso no tenían controles para detectarlo. Eso sí, fue un reto de nueve meses ordenar el libro. Contar lo que se ha contado poco duplica el reto ante la página en blanco, porque las posibilidades siguen siendo interminables. Tienes libretas llenas, horas de grabación, videos, fotografías, y una página en blanco que te pregunta: ¿Qué de todo eso contarás? Y por tanto, ¿qué dejarás de contar?

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write a Story Ending

17 Apr
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Distinguish Fact from Fiction in an Essay

15 Apr
Óscar Martínez's book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Photo Credit: Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau                                 Óscar Martínez’s book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso Books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Some stories have been told so many times that they become a genre with rules: when a particular thing happens, the character reacts a particular way. But what if those rules are wrong? For some stories, it’s not enough to tell the truth. You must also consciously distinguish the facts from the fiction that your readers expect. What hangs in the balance is often the humanity of the people you’re writing about.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez is telling this kind of story in his book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and collected in an edition published first in Mexico and now, in English, by Verso Books. The original title in Spanish—Los migrantes que no importan (The Migrants Who Don’t Matter)—gives a sense for what is as stake in the essays. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many migrants, and, taken as a summary with only names and basic events, some of these stories begin to sound like a certain kind of fiction. For instance, Martínez interviews three Salvadoran brothers traveling to the U.S. to escape gang violence. The youngest brother is Pitbull, a 17-year-old who watched his friend Juan Carlos get shot in broad daylight. The next day, he found and put on a police uniform and “went to downtown Chalchuapa looking for the murderer’s accomplice who had gotten away. All day he searched through alleyways and makeshift street shops.” He eventually identified the killers to the police, but the killers recognized him, too, and soon threats were made against his life. If you’ve watched any gang movies, you may have an expectation for what comes next, but this is the point where fact and fiction part ways, as Martínez explains:

If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.

But Pitbull lives in the real world. He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.

Once Martínez establishes that this story will depart from the usual story line, he explains why this departure matters:

What’s more, not even the police reports contain many details. When they killed Juan Carlos—January or February, he doesn’t exactly remember – nine other men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were killed, just in Chalchuapa. And Pitbull doesn’t even know if Juan Carlos was his friend’s real name.

“That’s what he called himself,” Pitbull says. “But he was in a gang and he had problems in some of the other barrios. I heard people call him a lot of different names.”

William, José, Miguel, Carlos, Ronal, Unidentified, any of these could have been Juan Carlos. All of these young men were murdered in Chalchuapa in the same month. And even if one were to know the facts of the murder, I have a hunch that, like the facts of so many other migrant murder cases, the details would be so scarce they’d simply disappear. Evaporate. It’d be as if nothing had ever happened.

The risk of turning “true” stories into a fictional genre is that the real people involved are turned into stock characters. When Martínez distinguishes fact from fiction, then, he is, in a way, giving life to the people in his stories.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to distinguish fact from fiction, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model. This exercise may be most useful as a tool for revision:

  1. Boil a character and story down to a tagline. To do this, choose a character and story (or person and essay) you’ve created and simplify everything about them. What is the quickest version you could tell someone. For help, think of movie posters. They use simple images that show you the essence of the main character and a phrase or short sentence to state the stakes. For instance, the new movie Draft Day has a poster that shows Kevin Costner in a suit and holding a football in front of signs for the NFL draft. The tagline is “The Greatest Victories Don’t Always Happen on the Field.”
  2. State the movie version. Imagine if your character and tagline were put in the hands of a movie producer hoping for a blockbuster—in other words, someone who will likely hew to convention. How would that person pitch your story, especially the conflict? Try to write the pitch as a series of actions in a single sentence. Here’s how Martínez does it: “If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.”
  3. Explain how your character lives in the real world. Keep the explanation short and focused on the nature of the world and how it’s different from the world of movies. You’re basically tweaking the tagline you wrote earlier. Martínez started with barrio contacts and turned them into this: “He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.” How can you sum up your tagline so that it’s not about a character’s individual action but, instead, about the larger forces that operate around that character.
  4. Show how the world impacts the character(s). What choices do the characters make in reaction to the world you’ve just described? In Martínez’s essay, Juan Carlos created aliases to avoid the pockets of violence all around him. These aliases have the effect of making him hard to officially identify by the authorities—or even by the people closest to him. As a result, when he’s found murdered, no one can say for certain who he is. His identify has been spread so thin that he’s rendered almost invisible. Think about the choices your characters make. What are the consequences of these simple, necessary decisions? What impact do they have later on? Or, how do these choices affect the character’s actions once he/she is dropped into the plot or story you’re writing about?

This exercise should work for both fiction and nonfiction. In both, you’re keeping in mind the readers’ expectations about your story due to the previous way it’s been told.

Good luck!

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