Tag Archives: The Suitcases of San León

An Interview with Jane Hawley

19 Feb
Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San Leon," tells the story of Mexican bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of murdered passengers.

Jane Hawley’s story, “The Suitcases of San Leon,” tells the story of Mexican bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of murdered passengers.

Jane Hawley grew up in California, received her BA from the University of Wyoming, and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Texas State University, where she serves as the managing editor of Front Porch Journal. Her nonfiction has been published in the Pinch and Memoir Journal.

To read an excerpt from her story “The Suitcases of San León” and an exercise on writing from news headlines, click here.

In this interview, Hawley discusses the challenges presented by the “we” point of view, her approach to violence and memory in fiction, and the connection between geography and emotion.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the story’s setting. Ostensibly it’s set in Mexico, in a small town at the end of a bus route, but the setting also feels a bit like a fable—as if Gabriel Garcia Marquez decided to rewrite “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and set it in Mexico during the narco violence. The setting has an everywhere quality to it that doesn’t feel specific to any particular place. Was this intentional? How did you approach setting in the story?

Jane Hawley

I began the story with the intention of using first person plural point of view, which I think really lends itself to giving the setting an everywhere quality since the point of view is so artificial and communal. It was also important to me to set the story in a particular time and social-historical circumstance, but I wanted the focus to be more on how people are affected by violence, oppression, displacement, and abandonment. The drug war is a political reality, but I think the effects of the situation translate to a variety of historical and contemporary moments. I wanted to honor the very real troubles the Mexican people are facing regarding the drug war, but I also wanted to create my own story-world. I wanted readers to emotionally connect to the town—perhaps even more so than the characters. It’s the town that arguably experiences more change than anything or anyone else.

It only recently occurred to me that though the setting and point of view have a fablesque quality to them, but all of the story’s events are firmly based in reality. San León is modeled after San Fernando, a city about 85 miles away from Brownsville Texas where two of the largest recorded massacres of the Mexican Drug War took place. I initially came up with the concept of the story when I read an article about abandoned suitcases showing up in bus depots across the region that were eventually discovered to belong to the victims of the massacres.

Michael Noll

Speaking of the point of view, first person plural—we and us—is not easy to pull off, and I noticed that in the middle of the story, it shifts a bit to focus on the actions of a few particular individuals (Damacio, Juan Manuel, Alejandra). That shift seems inevitable, in a way, as it would seem difficult to create particular actions in a plot when the actors are we. Were these characters in the story from the earliest drafts? Or did you need to create them in order to move the plot forward?

Jane Hawley

Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San León," was published in Amazon's literary journal, Day One.

Jane Hawley’s story, “The Suitcases of San León,” was published in Amazon’s literary journal, Day One.

This is by far the most technically challenging story I’ve written because of the first person plural point of view, which I’ve always admired. It often seems to carry a tone of nostalgia, a fable-like quality and allows a writer to tell the story of a community. This is where the craft gets difficult. No one character feels the same as another. The characters are individuals, yet they’re also part of a group. This is an effect I wanted to capture with the point of view shifts. After following a particular character, the narrative always returns to the first person plural voice.

Two major inspirations for writing the story were The Virgin Suicides and The Buddha In The Attic. In the first novel, you almost forget you’re reading first person plural as you follow the Lisbon girls (or at least those lives as perceived by the neighborhood boys). The first person plural voice in The Buddha In The Attic is much stronger and more removed from the individual lives—readers never get to know characters individually. I decided to use a combination of these techniques because I wanted to be able to show the variety of the bus depot workers’ personal reactions to their situation while also retaining their membership in a collective experience of the historical moment.

Michael Noll

When I began the story, I thought that the suitcases provide a way to show the effects of Mexico’s narco violence without getting into the gory details of their murders. The story is about the rippling effects of the violence, but it also definitely describes how the violence is perpetrated. What was your thought process for showing that violence? In some ways, it’s so awful that it can seem unreal. Did you ever worry that details of the violence would overwhelm the more quotidian parts of the story?

Jane Hawley

Violence can be so difficult to approach in fiction because of how strongly visceral the details can and should be, and I think for many stories the less is more approach is probably the most effective, especially for authors who have not experienced violence firsthand. I see violent images all the time—both real and fictional—in movies and on the news, but I’ve never seen firsthand the kinds of things that my characters have ostensibly experienced in this particular story. I’ve never had a gun held to my chest. I’ve never seen a dismembered hand. I wanted to get those experiences right, though, so I tried to just depict them on the page as simply and honestly as I could. I had to trust that the details themselves would do the heavy lifting. However, I came to learn through the writing of this story is that the memory of violence, the constant returning to those moments and images, adds to the psychic terror of the initial violent experience. Memory is a curse. It weighs you down. It changes your identity, your perception of the world. I wanted readers not to be overwhelmed by the violence itself, but more by the “long-term” psychological and emotional trauma. That’s one of the reasons the end of the story occurs in a near-distant future when the characters are approaching the ends of their lives.

Michael Noll

This is your first published short story. How does it fit with the rest of your work?  Do you often write about Mexico? Does your work as a whole have a fable-like tone?

Jane Hawley

My stories range from strict realism to fabulist or fairytale, but I try to always maintain a sense of wonder or imaginative, supernatural, or magical experience. My approach to place is probably the strongest element that ties my short fiction together. Only a few take place in Mexico although many of them are set in the West and Southwest. I’m from California and I’ve traveled a lot through the western states and Baja California so those places are very close to me—I feel like I understand them on a quasi-emotional level. I’ve been studying Guy Debord’s concept of psychogeography (briefly, “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”) and considering how that concept can frame and arrange stories in interesting ways.

February 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

Advertisements

How to Write from the Headlines

17 Feb
Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San León," tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León” tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

In a recent interview, the late New York Times journalist David Carr was asked if cable news drove coverage of events, and he answered, in short, no. The current news cycle, he said, is so full of large, complex stories that news organizations don’t know where to look. In other words, the news is driving the news. As writers, we inhabit and absorb this same news cycle, and because of the size and savagery of some of these events, it’s tempting to incorporate the headlines into our fiction. The question is how to do it?

A terrific example of a story based on an actual news event is Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León.” The story was inspired by a narco massacre in the Mexican border city of San Fernando and, more generally, on stories about suitcases arriving at depots without their murdered owners. You can buy the story for $1 at Amazon, where it was published as part of the journal Day One.

How the Story Works

The real-life massacre in San Fernando—or any massacre, for that matter—has a two essential sets of people involved: the murderers and the victims. Focusing a story on characters based on these real-life people is possible but difficult. It involves detailed research, which may or not be possible from a safe remove. It also involves some sticky questions of ethics: Is it okay to fictionalize the lives of real people? The less historical remove the writer has from those people, the more difficult it is to answer this question.

The next level of involvement in the headline includes people with direct connections to the event but not an immediate presence at the actual massacre: the narco bosses who ordered the murders, the officials who provide cover to the narcos, the victims’ families, witnesses, the police, and the people who discovered the bodies. Generally speaking, the farther the story moves away from the immediate event, the more freedom it has to roam. An event like a massacre acts as a kind of black hole, overpowering everything around it with its gravitational pull. A story about a victim of a massacre is likely to be almost purely about the massacre. But a story about a witness or an accessory or family member can give those people lives beyond the event—but that freedom is not limitless.

A third level of involvement includes people with no direct connection but whose lives are impacted in specific ways by the massacre. When fictionalized, these are characters whose connection to the central event is thin or tangential. They are removed from it by several degrees, and, as a result, they can have problems and concerns in their lives that, to them, rival the problem that the event causes. There is inherent tension between those problems—how does the character balance them? A victim’s brother or mother or spouse will drop everything to deal with the event. But someone at a remove will not.

It is at this third level that Hawley writes “The Suitcases of San León.” The story is told from a group point of view—the “we” of the workers at the San Leon bus depot. Their connection to the massacre is indirect. When the victims were pulled off of the bus, their suitcases were not pulled off with them, and so they arrive ownerless at the depot. The workers must decide what to do with the suitcases, and when they decide, they must live with the consequences (mental, emotional, and situational) of those choices. As you read the story, you’ll notice that the narcos become a stronger presence toward the end, and their presence suggests the gravitational pull that the massacre exerts on everything around it. By setting the story at a remove from that event, Hawley gives the characters room to develop. If she had set the story closer to the actual massacre, that room might have been very difficult to create. As a result, the story might not have added complexity or depth to the headline where it began. The distance from the massacre also gives the story a chance to surprise us. We’ve all heard about the atrocities committed by narcos, but it’s likely we haven’t thought about the way those crimes alter even the most mundane aspects of Mexican life. Empty suitcases are such a great starting point for a story that it’s hard to imagine it being written about anything else.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story from a headline, using “The Suitcases of San Leon” by Jane Hawley as a model:

  1. Choose the headline. There is no shortage of news to choose from: geopolitics in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Libya and internal politics and/or savagery in Nigeria, Mexico, and Venezuela; racial and ethnic strife in Ferguson, New York, and, most recently, in North Carolina; political unrest in, of all places, my home state of Kansas; drones; surveillance; a train derailment in West Virginia; and blizzards across the northeastern U.S. Simply choose the news you’re following the closest and that you find yourself imagining yourself into.
  2. Chart out the first level of involvement. Who bears the most immediate impact of the headline? Who is it about? Are there sides? If so, what are they?
  3. Chart out the second level of involvement. Who is connected to the news but not immediately present? Or, who is present but not at the focus of the headlines? Who are the journalists not talking to? This level often contains family members, police, witnesses—people who are among the first to react to the event.
  4. Chart out the third level of involvement. Who is not present or connected to the event/news but is impacted by it? People in this group are often going about their business, only to discover that the news has forced its way into their lives. In the case of the winter storms, most of the stories are from this level, people whose lives have been disrupted, sometimes urgently (first responders) and sometimes with unforeseen consequences (a couple on the verge of divorce but now trapped together by the snow).
  5. Choose the level for your story. To do this, you will likely need to determine how much of the headline you want to write about. Are you interested in the event itself or the way it ripples outward, effecting everyone? A lot of great fiction has been written about war, some of it from the point of view of soldiers (first level), some focusing on family members (second level), and some focusing on the people back home without relatives in the fighting (third level). Once you decide how much distance to put between your characters and the event, you can think about how the event will intrude into their lives. The closer they are, the more forcefully and overwhelmingly it will intrude. The farther they are, the more subtle its effects may be.

Once you choose the level of involvement and know how the event will sneak into the story, you may find that the story begins to write itself. You’ve given yourself something to write toward and, once the event arrives, tension to work with.

Good luck and have fun.

%d bloggers like this: