Front (top) and Back (bottom image).
The pitch I gave in New York to a group of editors and literary agents changed constantly. As they warned it might. You had 90 seconds to explain the novel and entice interest.
This was the first final version:
“On the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil, the darkness of the Spanish Civil War— as in Stalin’s secret police liquidating anarchists and Trotskyists—spills over into a 1938 Mexican oil port…( space for a pause, while you try to think how it goes from here)…
…a place where federal anti-corruption officer Tomas Ortiz is looking for his estranged son and hoping to regain his wife’s love.
Tomas slips into deeper water, when he learns that his son is living with a young refugee, that they have two little girls and that she—an anarchist and defender of petroleum workers’ rights—is the object of a suspicious search by a man who has followed her from Madrid and claims to be her father.
In all this, Tomas is guided by a highly developed moral compass, which comes with a few flaws; namely, that he’s been unfaithful to his wife, he hallucinates and he’s a kleptomaniac.”
When that pitch didn’t seem to be working, I changed gears. I started to talk about the period, the convergence of big events, the stinking oil port teeming with agents of all sorts. Socialists, anarchists, communists that were Trotskyists or Stalinists, insurrectionists (plotting to overthrow President Lázaro Cárdenas), Mexican and German Nazis, Mexican and Spanish Falangists (the fascist party that backed Franco in the Spanish Civil War), English, Dutch and American enforcers from the multinational oil companies, red unions (socialist) and white (Stalinist and anti-union unions), and even Stalinist agents (NKVD and Checka) following some 20,000 Spanish Civil War refugees fleeing Spain, and accepted by Mexico. And in the midst of this, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, American supporters of the Fourth International, various Mexican generals, the Church, anti-Cárdenas banks and foreign (especially American) ambassadors.
For a moment, I wondered whether there was some kind of wall that agents and others couldn’t look over, or see through, into Deep Mexico, complex Mexico. When I began to talk about the historical context, I began to get results: Send me pages, send me a query. I suppose I also began to show my enthusiasm for my subject, which was hard to do with the prescribed bare bones pitch that had been advocated. Since it really wasn’t the same thing as my novel and, memorized, hard be enthusiastic about.
And so, I ended up writing the pitch I wanted to write, and the one I will use in my queries. The capital letters show italics.
THE QUEEN OF THE PÁNUCO, historical fiction, 80,000 words.
The story of Fiona—a Spanish Civil War refugee—told in confidence, but with small inconsistencies, small problems of logic.
Told to Tomas Ortiz, a skeptic and Mexico City policeman, Special Branch, once close to President Lázaro Cárdenas but now disgraced for stealing a pair of earrings from Frida Kahlo in 1937 on the armored train that took Trotsky and his wife to the capital and asylum, but not to safety.
An oversized crocodile in the Pánuco River who defends her eggs, sees through the Fiona story and patrols the hot, stinking oil port of Tampico along with 300-pound tarpons, German submarines that never surface, and the heavy cruiser Graf Spee, which ghosts offshore in KRIEGSMARINE gray, ready to deliver the end of Tomas Ortiz’s world before he can regain his wife’s touch and find his angry, missing son.
Or stop the teller of the Fiona story, a pink-cheeked steward of Stalinist orthodoxy, from liquidating the daughter he says he has come from Madrid to save, and who, it turns out, is living with Tomas’s son—she, an anarchist, both advocates for oil workers’ rights.
A historical novel along the lines of E.L. Doctorow’s RAGTIME, but in the tradition of Juan Rulfo’s THE BURNING PLAIN, about deep Mexico, México profundo, a space unfamiliar to the giant to the north, also unseen by the shakers and movers to the south, the internal colonialists, who find the poor CAMPESINO picturesque but not striking socialist petroleum workers.
For the latter and their advocates, so think the overlords, on the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil in 1938, no killing field or ship’s hold slaughterhouse is too radical or too mechanical. No federal policeman’s investigation will be tolerated.”
My stories have appeared in:
The Albany Review, “Sleep” 1987
Third prize in the 1994 Writer’s Digest short fiction contest for “The Curve of the Earth.”
The Press Democrat, (a large regional newspaper in northern California), “An Otter for a Hat” 1997, Easter edition.
In 2011, my short story collection THE PÁTZCUARO INCISION was a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.
My story “The Hair and the Heart” appeared in the Winter 2015 magazine Saddlebag Dispatches, associated with Western Writers of America.
PLAYING FOR PANCHO VILLA, Editorial Mazatlán, Mazatlán, Mexico, 2013. Editor: David Bodwell. Reviews: Amazon and sterlingbennett.com
COMANDANTE IBARRA, Montezuma Books, Mexico City, 2015. Editor: Peter Gelfan. Reviews: Amazon and sterlingbennett.com
I have lived fifteen years in Guanajuato, a university town in the mountains of Central Mexico; Harvard 1960; U. of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literature, 1970; Professor of German and Global Studies at Sonoma State University in California 1967 – 1999. I also taught Latin and Homeric Greek there. Have done two full days of one-on-one guided walks over selected Spanish Civil War battle sites, as well as extensive research in modern Spanish and Mexican history. I see my writing as influenced greatly by 19th Century German short stories.
Historical Context for THE QUEEN OF THE PÁNUCO:
In January, 1937, Frida Kahlo goes to Tampico, to welcome Leon Trotsky and his wife into Mexican asylum on behalf of President Lázaro Cárdenas.
It’s the eve of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas’s March 1938 nationalization of Mexican oil.
In 1938, Hitler annexes Austria.
In the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Army, Church and the State (fascist General Franco) slowly crush Spanish democracy, sowing fields and ridges with discarded Mauser ammunition clips. Ammunition supplied by Germany and Italy for the fascists; by Mexico and the Soviet Union for democratic Republican Spain. Pitiless executions of prisoners occur on both sides, but far more on the fascist side, which then continue until 1975.
Some 20,000 Spanish Republican refugees flee to Mexico.
In 1940, a Stalinist agent, in very deep cover, infiltrates Trotsky’s inner circle in Coyoacán, Mexico City and mortally wounds him with a mountain climber’s ice ax.
In the years 1937-1938, Soviet security forces, including the NKVD, execute between 900,000 and 1,750,000 “enemies of the State,” that is, victims of Stalin’s paranoia—numbers that include assassinations outside the Soviet Union.