Q&A with Sebastian Rotella, Author of Rip Crew

Sebastian Rotella is the celebrated author of The Convert’s Song and Triple Crossing, which the New York Times Book Review named its favorite debut crime novel and action thriller of 2011; he also authored the non-fiction work, Twilight on the Line, which was a New York Times Notable Book. A senior reporter covering international security issues for ProPublica, Rotella previously spent 23 years at the Los Angeles Times, where he served as bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires and correspondent at the Mexican border. His accolades include a Peabody Award, Columbia University's Dart Award and Moors Cabot Prize for Latin American coverage, the German Marshall Fund's Weitz Prize for reporting in Europe, five Overseas Press Club Awards, and The Urbino Prize of Italy; Rotella is also an Emmy nominee and was a Pulitzer finalist for international reporting in 2006. His third novel, Rip Crew (available March 13, 2018), revisits protagonist Valentine Pescatore and recently earned a Starred Review from Kirkus.

Recently, the author entertained questions pertaining to the significance of titles, the evolution of characters and story arc, the importance of description and dialogue, the appeal of international intrigue, and the influence of fact on fiction; Rotella also teased a new direction for his next novel.

What is the significance of Rip Crew as a title, and how do you see this story working as both a standalone thriller and a continuation of the overall series arc?

The title works at several levels. Rip crews are roving armed gangs that operate at the Mexican border. They prey on smugglers, ripping off drug loads and kidnapping migrants for ransom. In the brutal economy of the underworld, rip crews are both predators and parasites.

At another level, this book is about the blurred lines between crime and business, gangsters and executives. Banks launder money for drug cartels. Corporations engage in massive bribery. Wealthy elites get away with fraud, abuse of workers, and selling bad financial products while betting against them. Corporate culture has become rapacious and destructive. Big companies are more like rip crews than we might like to think.

I have spent years reporting in countries where outlaws operate with impunity: drug lords, corrupt politicos, rogue intelligence services. But then I look at the U.S. financial crisis of 2008 and the failure to punish the lawbreaking that ruined so many lives. I look at the sharp decline in prosecutions of white-collar crime in the United States. I look at changes in laws that permit brazen wrongdoing: campaign finance, executive compensation, conflict of interest. And I wonder—like Leo Méndez in the book—if I have been pursuing the wrong bad guys all these years. Like Méndez, I don’t think that’s a question of ideology; it’s a question of justice.

Rip Crew works as a standalone because the plot is self-contained. You don’t have to read Triple Crossing or The Convert’s Song first. Like the first two books, Rip Crew is an international thriller, but it spends more time on U.S. soil. It is probably the most streamlined and focused of the series. There is a monstrous crime at the heart of the story, and our protagonists have to solve it.

At the same time, Rip Crew continues the series arc. If you have read the previous books, it enhances the enjoyment of the story. The book returns to some of the turf of Triple Crossing while building on the themes of borders near and far, the international smuggling underworld, and the power of mafias. I enjoyed bringing back characters from the previous books. The chemistry among them drove the action. It was like a reunion of old friends.  

In what ways have your protagonists, Valentine Pescatore and Leo Méndez, evolved over the series. How has Pescatore grown? How are Méndez’s experiences reflective of the ethical and moral considerations that are inherent in journalism?

In Triple Crossing, Pescatore was 25: a wild, streetwise rookie in the Border Patrol. He walked a tightrope between cop and criminal. Although decent and honorable, he had a fascination with outlaw culture and a lot of rage seething inside him. In The Convert’s Song, he went through self-discovery. After his romance fell apart, he moved to Argentina (where his family is from) and became a private investigator. He confronted the demons of his past when his old friend Raymond popped up. In Rip Crew, Pescatore is in his early 30s. He has matured. He’s calmer, more thoughtful. Isabel Puente, his old flame, even trusts him to lead a secret investigation. For better or worse, though, he still shows flashes of that fierce and impulsive personality.

In Triple Crossing, Leo Méndez was a journalist-turned-cop. He led a Tijuana anti-corruption squad and barely survived the experience. In Rip Crew, he has returned to journalism. He lives in gilded exile in San Diego. At 50, he’s trying to enjoy life with his family, but he’s bored. And he’s haunted by the specter of death, all the enemies who are determined to kill him for his crusading investigations over the years.

Méndez’s experiences in the book reflect the ethical and moral considerations of journalism in general and Latin American journalists in particular. He pursues a lead from a politically-connected source but worries that the man could be manipulating him. He protects his sources but needs them to reveal secrets that will endanger them. Those are classic challenges for reporters.

Moreover, Méndez is a Latin American journalist. In Mexico and other countries where lawlessness overwhelms the justice system, journalists are often on the front line investigating corruption and mafias. They find themselves playing the role that cops and prosecutors should play. They face risks and dilemmas far beyond what reporters in the developed world ever encounter. As the investigation progresses in this book, Méndez is torn between his vocations as a reporter and cop.

Your books transcend borders. What appeals to you about the complexities of international relations, and how does this worldview allow you to explore the differences from domestic protocol?

I’m a son of immigrants, and I’ve spent my life traveling for personal and professional reasons. I have the good fortune to speak Spanish, French, Italian, and some Portuguese, and I worked as a foreign correspondent in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. It’s almost inevitable that as a writer I try to take readers on journeys, to show them the people and places I have come to know.

I am interested in geopolitical issues and in secret worlds: espionage, law enforcement, terrorism, organized crime, and migration. I like international literature, from Albert Camus to V. S. Naipaul to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I grew up reading private eye novels and espionage thrillers: Frederick Forsyth, Eric Ambler, John le Carré. The crimes in those kinds of stories have such high stakes, such complexity and gravity: assassinations, terrorist attacks, political repression. The format allows you to tell an exciting, powerful story while giving insight into how the secret worlds work in all their danger and mystery.

My novels explore the interconnectedness of the world and the vast spectrum of cultures unique to the United States. Valentine Pescatore is the son of Argentinian and Mexican immigrants; Isabel Puente is Cuban-American. They are also proud American law enforcement officials. I once interviewed the wonderful Italian author Andrea Camilleri. He said something he attributed to Dostoevsky: “Tell the story of your village. If you tell it well, you will have told the story of the world.” Great advice.

Fiction can be a powerful lens to view factual issues because you can tell stories about how the world really works in a more vivid, emotional, and detailed way than you can in a journalistic article.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, but I’ve covered a lot of territory since then. The personal “village” whose story I try to tell is my experience learning about the world. Rip Crew traces the odyssey of migrants among the outposts of different kinds of mafias: the northern and southern borders of Mexico, a slum in Rio de Janeiro, the Italian island of Lampedusa, the bleak towns north of Naples, southern California. It shows the connections among those places that make them closer and more similar to one another than they appear.  

What is the importance of description and dialogue in your narratives, and how does this personal style foster both character development and plot propulsion without sacrificing immediacy?

Some authors are minimalists. They draw a few brush strokes and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. Other authors paint detailed pictures. In one of my favorite novels, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s descriptions are so complete, it’s as if he knows the contents of each character’s wardrobe and bank account. I lean in the direction of Tom Wolfe. I write the kind of descriptions I like to read.

As a reporter, I have learned to observe and absorb at high speed. It’s all about the details. There’s a great passage in the novel A Simple Story by Leonardo Sciascia that sums up the mindset. A Sicilian cop surveys a crime scene thinking about the report he will have to prepare in formal Italian.

“…The fact that he would have to write about the things he saw, the worry, the near-anguish, gave his mind a capacity of selectiveness, of choice, of the essential, that made him acute and sensible and helped him catch what he needed in his writer’s net.” (My informal translation).

I try to enrich even the minor characters by paying attention to how they move, talk, and dress, how their personalities are shaped by where they are from, what “tribe” they belong to, and the instincts and intentions that drive them. Because many of the settings in my books are foreign and remote, I also try to bring those landscapes alive for the reader and delve into the underworlds.

At the same time, economy and restraint are crucial. My brother Carlo (a fine writer; I highly recommend Cut Time, his book about boxing) wrote an essay in which blues musicians complain that a guitarist plays “too many notes,” meaning more flash than substance. The same concern applies to description. You have to be selective. You have to make choices. The language has a rhythm. You develop a feel for how long a riff should last and when it’s time—as Miles Davis once growled about John Coltrane’s interminable solos—to take the horn out of your mouth.     

The music of the dialogue is key to developing strong characters as well. Each character has a specific voice that has to sound right in my head, like a melody. I am very aware of language. I grew up in a household full of languages and a city full of ethnic, immigrant villages. I speak Spanish and English at home. I have worked hard to improve my command of the languages I know, doing interviews without translators and reading always in the original. I obsess over the nuances of dialects, accents, regional and class inflections, and street and professional slang, and I use that hard-won information in the stories.

Valentine Pescatore is the kind of guy who knows that Central American smugglers call rip crews “tumbadores” and that Italian cops call mafia fugitives “latitanti.” I attempt to capture the flavor and rhythms of foreign languages. I imagine the characters speaking in their native Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese, then translate as best I can into English. I work to sculpt the dialogue. I want it to be fast, tight, realistic, and powerful.  

You are a veteran of investigative reporting. In what ways has this background influenced your approach to writing novels—both in terms of creativity and discipline—and why, in your opinion, can fiction be a particularly powerful lens through which to view factual issues?

Fiction can be a powerful lens to view factual issues because you can tell stories about how the world really works in a more vivid, emotional, and detailed way than you can in a journalistic article. People ask if I do research. The answer is that I don’t do much formal research because I draw on a wealth of material acquired as a journalist. I keep the two worlds separate; when I am reporting, I don’t think about whether the topic would be interesting for fiction. But obviously, I have learned a lot about police, spies, terrorists, criminals, and other inhabitants of secret worlds and how they think, act, and talk. Real-life experience and knowledge are anchors for creativity and authenticity.

When I wrote The Convert’s Song, one theme I wanted to explore was the convergence of crime and terrorism, the blurring of those cultures on the streets of France, Belgium, and elsewhere. The plot was inspired partly by young French jihadis I had reported about years earlier who had gone from Paris to fight alongside al Qaeda in Iraq. The novel imagined a foiled attack on the Avenue Champs-Elysees in Paris. Soon after the book was published in December of 2014, some of those real-life jihadis surfaced in the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine. The wave of violence in Europe unleashed by the Islamic State marked the rise of the gangster-jihadi phenomenon that I’d been tracking as a journalist and a novelist. There was even an attack on the Champs-Elysees. In a strange way, the fiction had intertwined with events; the novel had “reported” on an emerging trend.

As for discipline, that’s the key word. Like most investigative reporters, I am disciplined and rigorous. I labor over sourcing and attribution. I spend time sifting through versions, honing the language for precision and accuracy. One reason I enjoy writing fiction is the liberty and authority that comes with not having to worry so much about the facts. It’s such a release to write with fewer limits and restraints.

Still, the fiction is grounded in reality. I rarely make things up out of nowhere; I imagine events and situations based on what I think is possible. A concrete example: shootouts. I’ve never been involved in one, but I have been around them and covered them. I knew people who died in gunfights, and I have spent time talking to survivors. The action in Rip Crew is based on that kind of street-level reporting. Hopefully, the details, emotions, and sensations ring true.

Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?

I don’t want to talk much about it yet, but my next book is underway. As much affection as I have for Valentine Pescatore, I have decided to change focus. This will be a standalone novel with an older, more experienced hero—a veteran U.S. counterterror investigator based overseas. I am excited to tell a new story through the eyes of a new character. But Valentine will return!

I can also report that The Convert’s Song is in development for a film project. The production company is Anonymous Content (Spotlight, True Detective, The Revenant), and the producer who optioned the film rights for the novel is David Kanter. The screenwriter is Dan Pyne (The Manchurian Candidate, the Bosch TV series, and novels including Catalina Eddy). I’m very excited about this opportunity and hope to have more news soon.


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Sebastian Rotella is the author of The Convert's Song and Triple Crossing, which the New York Times Book Review named its favorite debut crime novel of 2011, as well as the nonfiction book Twilight on the Line. He is a senior reporter covering international security issues for ProPublica, a newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism in the public interest. He worked for twenty-three years for theLos Angeles Times, serving as bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires. His honors include a Peabody Award; Columbia University's Dart Award and Moors Cabot Prize for Latin American coverage; the German Marshall Fund's Weitz Prize for reporting in Europe; five Overseas Press Club Awards; The Urbino Prize of Italy, and an Emmy nomination. He was a Pulitzer finalist for international reporting in 2006.

John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.

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