Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Describe your latest book.
The Line Becomes a River
is a book about the years I spent working as an agent for the US Border Patrol, and my interior journey toward coming to terms with the violent nature of that work. I became obsessed with the border in college, and had become filled with all of these questions about it, questions I felt could only be answered by experiencing the realities of the border for myself. I was looking for the thing that would give me access to the border as a fully-realized place — I didn’t want to be shielded from complexity and ugliness. As the son of a park ranger, I also distinctly wanted to be close to the landscape, to be out in the desert day in and day out.
Much of the book is an account of my experiences doing this work — in particular, the encounters I had with the individual migrants I would apprehend in the field week after week, people I had been charged with sending back to the places they were trying to flee from. These encounters presented a jagged disconnect — connecting with the people I was arresting only highlighted the reality that I was perpetuating institutionalized violence. The book, I think, is rooted in an attempt to make some sort of sense of the ways structures erode our sense of humanity, to somehow present my encounters, experiences, and dreams side by side with historical accounts, news stories, and psychological theory about how our understanding of individual lives gets lost in it all.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Anything my mother would read to me. Off the top of my head, I remember The Story of Hiawatha
, The Chronicles of Narnia
, The Three Little Javelinas
, and these picture books by Byrd Baylor
with beautiful illustrations of the desert by Peter Parnall
. But even better than books were the tales my mom would recount to me about Coyote the Trickster. My favorite was about how Coyote brought fire to the animal people by stealing it from three old skookums.
When did you know you were a writer?
That’s a hard question, since I think one of the most complicated things about the journey toward becoming a writer is actually recognizing yourself as such. For me, I don’t think I really “knew” I was a writer until I had the affirmation of being accepted into a MFA program. I did my MFA at the University of Arizona, and it was the first time I was surrounded by other writers, and by instructors who took for granted that our voices were valuable, that we had stories worth telling. In one of my first workshops, the instructor told us that the first step toward putting our work out into the world for others to read was giving ourselves “permission” to write about the things we're interested in writing about, and to recognize the ways our perspectives are unique and important enough for people to be exposed to. After I gave myself permission to write about the border, after I quieted my doubts and started to see myself as someone with something to say about this place, that’s when I think I finally knew I could be a writer.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have a workspace at home where I’m sitting right now — a small room attached to my bedroom. The walls are covered with maps, my desk is piled high with old newspapers, magazines, and books I’m trying to read, or books that I’ve read portions of but haven’t finished. There’s a bookshelf next to the desk — one of 3 or 4 scattered throughout the house. For me, however, it’s hard to dive very deep into my writing process at home, where there are just so many other tasks and obligations swirling around at the periphery. When I was writing The Line Becomes a River
, I would leave town whenever I could to find solace and quiet and that deep sense of focus that only comes once you extract yourself from home life. My uncle used to have a house in the boot heel of New Mexico, sort of in the middle of nowhere, with a view across the desert to the Chiricahua Mountains, and I got a lot of valuable writing done there. I’ve also got a tiny 14-foot trailer parked on some land my mom owns in Northern Arizona (again, in the middle of nowhere). It’s far from where I live, but it’s an amazing place to write and well worth the drive.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Mezcal — but not just as something to drink. I’m obsessed with how it’s made, the people who make it, and I’ve become a total nerd about agave, particularly the different species of agave that grow close to where I live. A lot of people don’t realize that mezcal isn’t just something that comes from Oaxaca, it’s something that’s made all throughout Mexico and the borderlands.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
A woman who read the book told me how much it meant to her to hear me tell my story as a Mexican American. It was sort of a strange moment for me, because I’ve never really thought of myself as Mexican American and I’ve never thought of my work as being Mexican American or Latinx writing. I’m only a quarter Mexican, and I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. I didn’t grow up being very close to my Mexican heritage — it was something that was always eclipsed by thinking of myself as an American, in step with the dominant culture like anybody else. In most areas of my life I’ve always passed as white — it’s usually only my Spanish-sounding name that suggests to people that I’m not. But what I realized when this woman said this to me is that there are a lot of people in this same situation — maybe they’re only quietly, subtly “other,” but “other” nonetheless. Her comment helped me see how important it is to bring these parts of our identity out into the open, out from under the shadow of whiteness, as something for us to freely explore in our writing and thinking.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I love '80s and '90s pop country. But honestly, I’m not very embarrassed to admit that.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
It’s hard to think of just one. I’ll cheat a bit by saying that I really think the most urgent and important writing that’s being done about the border right now is coming in the form of poetry. I’ve been deeply moved by books like Antígona González
by Sara Uribe and Unaccompanied
by Javier Zamora. I can also recommend The Verging Cities
by Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Beast Meridian
by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, and Slow Meridian
by Eduardo Corral
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
This brings me back to mezcal and agave — I’ve got a collection of hand-labeled bottles I’ve accumulated during trips through Oaxaca and Sonora. One of my favorite things to do is to discover makers by word-of-mouth and to buy directly from them in their living rooms or backyards. If I’m lucky, I might even get to check out their setup for agave roasting and distillation.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
That would be, without question, the Border Patrol.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
The summer before I went to college, I spent several weeks studying Spanish in Sevilla. In high school I fell in love with this book of prose poetry my dad had given me: Platero y yo
by Juan Ramón Jiménez. It takes place in the Andalusian village of Moguer, and during those weeks in Spain I was able to spend a weekend there. Every street corner in the village had plaques with lines of Jiménez’s poetry. There was even a Juan Ramón Jiménez museum and statues of Platero the donkey sprinkled throughout the village. It was wonderful.
I also mentioned the Mexican literary giant Juan Rulfo
earlier. In college I studied abroad in Guanajuato, and during Semana Santa I took a bus to Jalisco and made a pilgrimage to the places that inspired his work: the region surrounding El Llano Grande and the villages of Apulco, Sayula, and San Gabriel. San Gabriel was Rulfo’s model for Comala, the fictional setting for his novel Pedro Páramo
, a place inhabited by ghosts. The first short story I ever wrote was inspired by that trip.
What scares you the most as a writer?
How long it takes me to write something.
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
From Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others
, in which she discusses the “imaginary proximity” images of violence and war bring to privileged viewers:
To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may — in ways we might prefer not to imagine — be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
As a nonfiction writer, my favorite sentences usually involve quoting others or assembling words and terms that aren’t mine into a sentence of my own. Here’s a sentence that I composed using descriptors culled almost entirely from my reading of the 1857 Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey
by William H. Emory: “The surveyors described the landscape as bare and ragged, desolate and rough, punctuated by rocky hills and steep, narrow-ridged mountains of stratified limestone and porphyry, red basalt and igneous rock thrust upward alongside empty craters and extinct volcanos surrounded by broken lava.” I like crafting sentences like these because it would never occur to me to use words like “porphyry” or terms like “narrow-ridged mountains.”
Describe a recurring dream.
The Line Becomes a River
actually revolves around a few such dreams — particularly, a dream I had of encountering a wolf in a cave, and recurring dreams in which my teeth would crumble or burst apart in my mouth. There was a period in my life in which I was reading lots of books and articles and texts online to try to make sense of dreams like those — writing by Freud
, Carl Jung
, etc. The need to make sense of those dreams was one of the foundational compulsions that led me to write this book.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
Hmm... When people put two spaces after a period. Only because I was wrongly taught that it is correct and spent so long doing it myself.
Do you have any phobias?
As someone who lives in the desert, I’m quite proud of not being afraid of rattlesnakes. On the other hand, I’ve always been scared of scorpions. My first close encounter with a scorpion actually happened while I was living in Mexico as a college student, and funnily enough, I was on the phone with my mom when it happened. She talked me through the whole thing. I set a cup over it and slipped a piece of paper under the cup to transport it outside my room. Or maybe I flushed it down the toilet, I can’t remember.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I love karaoke — not necessarily the kind of karaoke where you’re singing to a room full of strangers in a bar, but the kind of karaoke where you get to rent out a room with close friends and just pass the mic back and forth for hours. My go-tos are '90s pop country songs, Tejano hits, and pretty much anything by Bruce Springsteen or Selena. In Tucson, my friends and I actually have a tradition of throwing karaoke parties on Halloween where you have to come dressed up as the person whose songs you’re going to sing. Sometimes we’ll leave the karaoke equipment set up for days after the party so that we can hang out and sing karaoke to each other in the comfort of our own home.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not so much a piece of advice but rather a sort of consolation: As a writer, even when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, when you feel unable to sit down and actually write anything, even when you’re out aimlessly gathering experiences or reading or talking to people about something you’re interested in without knowing what you might write about it — all of that is still an important part of the work of writing. As writers, I think it’s easy for us to feel like we’re not getting valuable work done unless we’re actually putting words onto a page, but that’s false, and in fact, I think some of the best writing happens when we pull ourselves away from our computers or our notebooks. For me, some of my best writing ideas have come to me while running, hiking, or walking outdoors, or on long drives across the desert.
Write a question of your own, then answer it.
Favorite movie quote?
“Anything for Selenas.”
The Top Five Books That Impacted My Writing Life.
I’ve already mentioned a few of these titles above, but here’s a list of 5 books that have really inspired, informed, or changed my writing life in significant ways. The list includes short stories, poetry, essays, and a massive novel, but all of the works are united by a central or peripheral concern with questions of violence and the different ways individuals and societies are made to bear it.
The Plain in Flames
by Juan Rulfo
by Cristina Rivera Garza
by Sara Uribe
by Roberto Bolaño
On the Natural History of Destruction
by W. G. Sebald
÷ ÷ ÷
served as an agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012, working in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. A former Fulbright fellow, he is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a 2017 Whiting Award. His writing and translations have been featured in Best American Essays
, Harper's, n+1, Orion
, and Guernica
, as well as on This American Life
. He lives in Tucson. The Line Becomes a River
is his first book.