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Q&A: Lili Wright Talks About Plotting Thrillers, Writing About Mexico, and Turning Truth into Fiction

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The following article first appeared in The National Book Review:


Lili Wright's debut novel, Dancing With the Tiger, is a thriller that centers on a battle over Montezuma's funereal mask. The characters include a daughter of a disgraced art collector, a sadistic American expatriate art collector, and a murderous local drug lord -- all of whom will do a great deal to get their hands on the mask. Wright talked with The National's Eileen Hershenov about thriller plotting, creating male and female characters, and writers who put their friends in their work.

Q: You're a non-Mexican writing about Mexico. How did you get your information and what special sensitivities were involved writing about a culture from the outside? And were you particularly sensitive since the story deals with a large class divide: the relatively privileged American expatriate characters and the Mexicans who (largely) serve them?

As I'm not Mexican, I decided to focus the story on expatriates. This is a world I know. I have twice spent a year living in Mexico: once in San Miguel de Allende and once in Oaxaca. On three other occasions, I lived with Mexican families for a month or so--in Guadalajara, Cuernavaca and Mérida--and I've traveled throughout the country. I speak Spanish, or spoke Spanish, until I tried to learn Italian and now I speak Spanitalian.

The class issues between expatriates and the Mexicans they employ fascinate me. It is a strange dance of co-dependency, resentments, affection, commerce, and trust. I was never comfortable being "La Señora" and tried to find an inside track into the lives of the Mexicans I met, though you could never fully enter them. We Americans remain the "other."

At first, I was tentative about writing any Mexican characters at all, but eventually I loosened up. People are people and emotions--rage, lust, fear, grief--are universal. I try to treat all my characters with respect, if that makes sense. Some characters are loosely based on people I met, but there are pieces of me in all of them. The only true villain in the story is American.

Q: Your book has been called a literary thriller. It's also been described as playing with different genres, making it somewhat hard to categorize. What does that mean to you and was that what you were trying to achieve? Can you give an example of how you were trying to hop around different genres?

I didn't have a model when I began. I wrote a book I wanted to read: a mixture of travel writing, noir thriller, and love story, with short chapters, multiple points of view, graceful sentences, and strong visuals. I always enjoy books and movies where you meet unconnected characters and watch their stories converge. My first book, Learning to Float, was a travel memoir, a woman's road book. In a way, Dancing with the Tiger is a fictional women's road book. I like writing about women traveling on their own, in trouble, losing themselves to find themselves.

But you're right, I borrowed elements from different genres. Many chapters end with cliffhangers. The book also has a thread of macabre. One character, Soledad, speaks almost exclusively in prayer. In these sections, I allowed my prose to be more lyrical. In some places, I hope, readers laugh. I also wanted to play with magic realism, so intrinsic to Latin American literature, so there's a chapter from the point of view of wild dogs. One character is resurrected in a way that strains credibility, but I was hoping by that point in the story readers are willing to suspend disbelief. The story almost becomes a fairy tale.

In a few places, I make fun of the whole idea of genre. In one crazy moment, Anna thinks, this is "a Mexican farce. With guns." The novel doesn't take itself too seriously, except when it does. Karen Joy Fowler described it as "rollicking." I love that.

Q: I've always wondered how authors plot out intricate thrillers. Dancing with the Tiger features a sometimes byzantine plot with non-stop twists and turns and multiple characters of several nationalities, both sexes and widely varying ages. Did you work out the entire plot before you wrote the book? How did you keep plot twists and turns in mind? Did anything significant change as you wrote?

I didn't map out the plot. I just started writing. Only later did I realize this was a mistake. I wrote a draft in three months, but it was just an outline, a rough shape. Revising the story took another five years. I used a color-coded outline--orange for one character, green for another--and moved chapters around endlessly. Characters came and went. Others morphed. (Anna's ex was originally a bank robber. Thomas Malone was a dumpy loudmouth.) My own shortcomings infuriated me. I am terrible at chess. Why had I created such a complicated story? It was difficult to keep track of who knew what.

One breakthrough came after rereading Rebecca. I had the idea that the villain, Thomas, had a previous personal assistant and that it would be creepy if we never met her. Sometimes the scariest characters are the ones off-screen. Each draft, I added more layers and connections, bits of foreshadowing, or heightened tension. The pool grew greener as the story darkened. The shotgun in the opening did indeed go off. All along I was gunning to get to the point where I could write a chapter from the point of view of Santa Muerte, the Angel of Death. I wrote her chapter dead last. After that, I knew the story was complete.

Q: Is it easier for you to write men or women characters and why? (Following that, you've said that your flawed heroine, Anna, was based on you, in part. Was she easy to write?)

You would think Anna would have been the easiest, especially as I've written a memoir, but she was the most difficult. In early drafts, readers found her "unlikeable." I liked her, but you can't argue these things. It helped when I developed her father. Anna's determination to put herself in danger--to sacrifice, a theme of the novel--helped build readers' sympathy. As did Anna's difficult childhood, her troubled romantic past, her bouts of self-hatred, her intelligence, and humor.

The easiest character to write was the looter. Those chapters flowed out in the way annoying writers always describe, where they just type-type away. It was my only gift, a freebie. In general, I found it easier to write men than women. Perhaps I've spent more time trying to understand men. A female character too close to me doesn't feel like a character. It just feels like life. Even in memoir writing, you have to, as Phillip Lopate puts it, "turn yourself into a character" by artfully exaggerating your foibles and faults. The "you" on the page is not an exact replica of you. The literary "you" is both better and worse, smarter and more flawed.

Q: The women are interesting and in some ways seem more three-dimensional than the male characters. I'm thinking in particular about Soledad and Constance, who bring down the sadistic collector for whom the former works as a housekeeper and to whom the latter is married. Both have cheating husbands. But both arguably come out on top. How do you view these two characters and what were you trying to do with them?

They work in opposite ways. At the beginning, Soledad is the moral compass of the novel, a devout, principled hardworking woman, who by the end of the story, lies and steals. And yet we forgive her. Or at least I do. I would have done what she did.

Constance starts out as an absurd character, a drinking, maudlin expat with a terrible Spanish accent--the nightmare American I try not to be. But by the end, she is a truth teller who musters real courage. Constance is a tree that will not fall.

Soledad works for Constance and both women resent the other. I love the irony of this. That a housekeeper is supposed to help the housewife make a happy home, but really the two women can barely stomach each other. Money does crazy things to people, in both directions.

Q: When you are writing the inner thoughts of a character, or the dialogue, were you very conscious of writing in different voices? Do you feel you succeeded?

I tried to keep the voices distinct. Those at the extremes were the easiest to distinguish: the dying drug lord, the Mexican housekeeper, the meth addict. I went to a Robert McKee screenwriting workshop that helped me think about dialogue and character. McKee advises: Don't think, What would I do? Or, What would the character do? But: If I were him or her, what would I do? This helped a lot.

For example, if I were a Mexican drug lord, I'd probably convince myself that I wasn't such a bad guy. I'd explain how I grew up dirt poor and sold drugs to survive. I'd brag about following an honor code that only God understands. If I were a drug addict, I'd tell myself I could quit any time. I'd fantasize about starting over, as the looter does--if only he can make it home to Colorado, see his mother, apologize. Beginning a new character is always daunting. What will he or she say? But it's like getting to know a real person. It takes time. As to whether I succeeded, that's for readers to decide.

Q: Writers often complain that editors no longer edit, and reviewers not infrequently write that a final book is "one good edit away from being a much better book." But you had, at least on a line-by-line basis, what seems to be an unusually meticulous editor. What was your experience with the editing and how did it impact the book?

I was very lucky. My editor is the legendary Marian Wood, who has her own imprint with Putnam/Penguin. She gave the book a hard read that helped the book immensely. Throughout the process, she has been a bullish advocate in every way, from generating enthusiasm in house to landing us its striking cover. She also made sure we worked with the amazing copy editor Anna Jardine, who logged more than 1,000 queries in her line edit. Anna speaks Spanish. She questioned why my descriptions of the moon didn't match the lunar cycle. She very politely asked if I wanted to use the word "tiny" 450 times. Writing a novel is a solitary endeavor that becomes a collaborative project. I was fortunate to have a brilliant team.

Q: Full, if belated, disclosure: you and I are friends. I've learned over the years that my family and I can show up in various essays you write. Should we all be wary of writers? Are we all grist for the novelist's mill? More seriously, are any of your characters and scenarios based on real people?

Joan Didion famously said writers are always selling somebody out. I would certainly never marry a writer (Joke: Eileen and I both did.)

But yes, many parts of the plot stem from real stories. For example, meth addicts are a serious menace in the Southwest, where they dig up Native American artifacts and sell them for drugs. Twiggers, short for tweaked diggers, make excellent looters because they do not need to eat or drink, need fast money, and crave compulsive activity.

Another example: Anna's father is a disgraced art collector. His story is loosely based on a man named Donald Cordry, who published the first important book on Mexican masks. It was later discovered that some masks in his collection were fake.

My looter digs a tunnel into a building. I worried this might seem unrealistic, but when we learned about El Chapo's mile-long tunnel--with tracks and a motorcycle--I stopped fretting.

My drug dealer, Reyes, is always changing his appearance. This is pretty standard for drug lords. In fact, in 1997 a narco named Amado Carrillo died while undergoing plastic surgery to change his face. The two surgeons who botched the operation were later found buried in cement in steel drums.

I also did some reporting. In remote villages in Oaxaca, I interviewed mask carvers and watched masked dances during Carnival. It was quite a scene --the music, the masks, the drinking, the heat--and I thought: If someone were killed here, no one would know which tiger to blame. Each visit, I made lists of images and if my writing started getting flat--I wrote the book in a cubicle in Indiana--I'd read through my notes and suddenly Mexico came alive again.

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