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The Orphan Line

I don’t know anything about orphan lines, except for what I can intuit. To be passed over by a friendly-looking, warm couple must be devastating. And hardening. Why wouldn’t they choose me? I am a good person. Only abandoned. Nothing more. I began using this comparison at the Writers Digest 2017 Conference in New York. For the last hour of four pitch slam sessions about 150 hopefuls poured into a large conference room where some seventy, or was it fifty? literary agents sat at little tables with their backs to the wall. The carefully announced and mapped numbers on the tables did not exist. I approached my number one choice, waited six minutes, as two other orphans talked to her in three-minute intervals, and then sat down. I gave her my spiel, carefully rewritten and rehearsed. She was uninterested. I said thank you and moved on. The next person rejected me as well. I grew more frantic. I abandoned the script. It didn’t seem to be working, aside from not really describing my novel. “Send me five pages.” Okay, that was better than nothing. I used broader, longer strokes. These were interesting times. The nationalization of Mexico oil. Eyes glaze over. But Frida did go to Tampico to welcome Trotsky and Natalia to Mexico. Eyes focus more. The Checka, or Stalinist secret police, did follow dissidents to Paris, Madrid and Mexico City to silence or punish or simply liquidate—to protect Stalin’s concept of the Soviet State as embodied by him. An example for things to come right here? I didn’t say that. “Send me a query.” “Send me ten pages.” No one adopted me, but at least they were offering to look at my teeth, see if my ears were clean, whether my feet pointed straight forward. My right veers a little off to my right. In search of rectitude, I suppose. I stand with it a little behind. The Fearful First Position? To disguise my flaws in general. Maybe you won’t notice. I certainly don’t. A little shattered, but not too much, I straighten myself for the next visit from those who may or may not choose me to be their publishing child.

Final Pitch Slam Pitch

 

Front (top) and Back (bottom image).

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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.

My Novels:

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

Biography:

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.

 

The Devastating Power of the Bow Tie in the Time of Guanajuato Swing

Dressing up for a Lindy Hop “social,” I thought I’d bring out my only bow-tie, which had been slumbering, inverted, in my wardrobe for years. And I mean years. Maybe thirty or forty. And, of course, I found out I had forgotten the motor memory in my hands and had no idea anymore how to tie it. My love of many years figured it out in seconds, and so we cast off for the social with me flying my “moño,” which is what my fellow dancers called it in Spanish. Although I thought, from quick research, that that meant “bun,” as in a woman’s hair. Waitresses in the famous restaurant Cafe de Tacuba in Mexico City wear large white moños, and those are bows. My dictionary calls it a “pajarito.” A little bird. I think of it as a bat that has come out, taken on color and reformed. You can see the effect it has on women fifty years younger than me. The lesson was taken, and at the next social, in the space of a day, two young men showed up to Guanajuato Swing wearing moños or pajaritos or murciélagos, the latter being my favorite word in all of Spanish. That made the three of us leaders in Mexico’s newest, most important revolution, one that brings hope to partners everywhere.

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Black Dog Enters the Café

I’m sitting in my favorite café in my colonial Mexican city. I think of it as a very small Paris. I am going over the Spanish translation of my first novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I must have started this project a year or more ago. My wonderful translators, a Mexican poet and a French professor of French, have long since finished the translation—an enormous job. And then I have to come after them, checking each word for its fullest correct equivalent. I am on my last two chapters out of thirty-two. I am hoping the huge Spanish speaking world will read this novel more than English readers have. Its plot and general flavor may seem less foreign to them.

The dog, a bitch, tail wagging and delighted to see us all, a sort of Labrador mutt—I have since learned her name is Chia—comes through the always open door. She goes to everyone in the big room, mostly university students working at things and drinking tea. Several young women are hanging an exhibition of photographs and calling out adjustments across the room. A small film crew comes in and sets up in the middle of the gentle chaos. A young woman sits across from me, brushing on makeup. What? To make her more pale, remove any blemishes? Perhaps they are making a one-day movie. It is the end of the annual Guanajuato International Film Festival, and little groups of young filmmakers are competing to win in that category.

Everyone—including myself—reaches down to Chia, who I now realize is attached to a familiar young painter family and their two children, several months and two-or-so years old. Chia obits around this attractive young family. What strikes me is how each of us in the room wants the same thing: contact with this happy, tail-wagging ambassador. And then, after a half an hour or so, everyone except for the one-day filmmakers leaves, including Chia and her family. And I am left to listening to “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit D’amour,” Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and to continue with the translation Playing for Pancho Villa. When I finish, we will sit down together, the three of us, the translators and me, and we will decide on the final changes and adjustments in another quieter café.

My Friend, the Escaped Prisoner

IMG_2108.jpgMy friend has escaped from the local prison where we had visited him nine or ten times. He was there for eleven months, and then he could no longer bear the thought of a capricious ten-year sentence. What he loved most, beside his family, was his horse and riding in the mountains with his companion horsemen. They went on cabalgadas, seeing themselves as cavalry battalions in the war against Lucifer, led by the Saints San Miguel, Cristo Rey, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Virgin of Guanajuato. Sometimes, on such rides, as many as 1,500 men will participate. This afternoon, as an exuberant church band played and the afternoon sun beat down, we watched as a graveyard mason sealed my warrior-friend into a crypt at the Panteón (Cemetery) of the Pueblito de Rocha. My friend died of a broken heart. A heart that broke.

For more context, please scroll down to the post titled “Returning to Mexico and its Forgotten Prisoners,” published here on April 15, 2016.

Notes on a Conversation, Paris, June 15, 2015

There is an old desert saying. If there were three camels, it is enough to say there were only two. That is to say, when recounting events, it is all right to limit and shorten, as long as the essential truth of the matter remains. I made that up, but I think it makes an important point. I have left out several days of notes on my French conversations, and so I will only mention two. The first one, horrible in all respects from which I came away feeling stupid, incompetent, as if I were in the wrong country. The woman, perfectly decent I suppose, when a few words had left my mouth, said she could hear my American accent and that she hears it in other students. I said merci as ironically as I could. She had great difficulty looking at me from then on, perhaps sensing a rebel. I should mention that all of us students in these ARC conversations expend massive amounts of energy trying to understand each other, often with great difficulty. You would never say to a, say, Vietnamese woman, obviously very intelligent, that you can’t understand a word she’s saying.

Our animator, unfazed, launched into a long discussion of French meat dishes. She brushed off comment or questions, as if they were bothersome and interrupted her monologue. I could see eyelids sagging, the drop in energy. She mentioned rôti boeuf, rump steak, perhaps into minute forty-five of her discussion. My handsome Turkish friend sat across from me. He seems endlessly composed and good-willed. He also seems to like to talk about meat. A little petulantly, I mentioned I was a vegetarian. I’m not entirely. I eat fish and chicken. Assan smiled at me, not giving away the reason why. She turned to me and said she ate vegetables, in such a way that indcated that further discussion was not needed. Assan mentioned a good Turkish restaurant, Gemlik, 49 rue d’Enghien, 75010. The 10 at the end means that’s the arrondissement. Gemlik is rated 4.5 of 5 and #5977 of 13585 on TripAdvisor. She mentioned boeuf bourguignon. With nothing else to do, I wrote down the word bourguinon. Trying to make the best of it and knowing I would not be getting the kind of conversation I wanted, I asked her what magret meant as in magret de canard. She said she didn’t know. I looked it up on my iPhone: borrowed or derived from maigre, containing little fat. The opposite of what I think of duck meat in France.

A soft-spoken young Iranian woman with a green headscarf that showed the round of her face began to talk. She was a medical student, her father worked at the Iranian embassy. She spoke softly. Her French was like the light here in our kitchen. In about a minute or two it is very bright, although it starts out a weak. Her French was very good. Her father speaks it and taught her since childhood. She wore expensive rimless glasses. She had been watching me closely since my remark about being a vegetarian. I mentioned that D. and I had seen the movie “Taxi Teheran” the night before. The leader said she had seen it. The young woman had not. The leader held forth on the repression in Iran. The young woman’s glances toward me seemed to coincide with the leader’s statements about how oppressed Iranian women were. After a while, I found myself rolling my eyes a little, looking for co-conspirators, I supposed, or just from being rebellious. Both the young woman and Assan were exchanging looks with me. I was not sure to what extent they were with me. The leader actually corrected me in a decent way. Réalisateur du film, film director, in this case, Jafar Panahi, a kind, creative man whom his government likes to imprison. This is a film you should definitely see before you agree to bomb the people there, especially this young woman.

I mentioned that D. and I had eaten at an Iranian restaurant in rue Mouffetard after the movie, one called Colbeh. The leader said there were no Iranian restaurants there. I said we had just eaten in one. I believe she said no two more times. Finally she permitted a correction in what she had believed to be real. I noticed that she had written in her notes for us “Théhéran,” with an initial extra h. Having just looked up the word myself, I reached across—her notes lay in front of her—as she was speaking—and crossed out the extra h in her spelling. I did this in good faith, being helpful. She thanked me.

I have gone on for a long time. I had meant to tell you about two camels. The other one will have to wait.

Conversations, Paris June 2, 2015

Conversation class in Paris. A sixty-year old man from Costa Rica with grown out short hair flat on top. Maybe ex-military. He described himself ironically as un Flâneur (one who strolls through life?). A smart, compassionate woman of forty something from Brasil, white skin. I didn’t catch her job or project. I thought I caught a slightly slavic accent. A young man, dark skin, of thirty-five or so from Cape Verde, an island nation off East Africa, quite a way off shore. Another white-skinned Brazilian woman, late twenties or early thirties, very white skin, writing a doctoral dissertation on Sartre. I asked her if she could say what existentialism was in one sentence. She responded, saying, We are condemned to a life of freedom. That’s as far as she got before the men jumped in. Her French was very good. The best among us. Then there was me (Pete). I walked my usual thin line between irony and serious contribution, and survived once more! Javi, to my left, from Spain, a face always a little on the red side. I keep forgetting what he does, some kind of research. I think sociology. He has a dim view of what will become of Spain. Then Ross, a Scotsman, who is learning to detect and track laundered money. That brought up a discussion of what kind of money was being laundered: drugs, arms, child-adult sexual slavery and traffic. Then came a Turk, who is writing a book on the Turkish general Cherif Pacha, exiled to Paris, where he survived an attack on his life in January, 1914 because he had opposed the Young Turks (Ottoman Empire) and won their wrath. Each day, the discussion leader is an older French person, with great variety, always a puzzle at first because of accent, clarity of voice, and political views and other presumptions. This man today, seventy-maybe, one pack a day, never once addressed the very decent black man from Cape Verde (or I think even looked at him), one of the smallest countries in the world, perfectly placed for the slave trade, later a Portuguese colony. The leader treated him as if he didn’t exist. I kept thinking his turn was coming up, but it didn’t. Our leader also gave a short discourse on the benefits French colonialism brought to Southest Asia. The older Brazilian woman exchanged a look with me over that. I love these classes. I get to communicate with people from the rest of the world in a third language. It makes me very happy.

Learning French With Authority

A few years ago, in Montpellier, southern France, on a modern tram, a man stood like a wrestler at the head of the car, with his legs apart and with an expression on his face that said that he was some kind of system-wide inspector of the most feared kind and that he was about to find the one passenger in the car who had not bought a ticket. The Inspector looked at his watch every five seconds or so, as if it was also his job to be sure that time itself was functioning properly. When he was not checking the time or giving us intimidating looks, he repositioned himself in his wrestling stance, as if the tram floor were wet sand that had sucked him down a little. He also looked out the windows at the passing city, as if to check that everything there was also in order. It took a few moments to understand that a self-appointed state of authority had crept up on him when he wasn’t looking and, like an enchanted cloud, had taken possession of him.

A few days ago, in a bus shelter in Paris, near the Jardin des Plantes, we puzzled over illustrated routes. A man sat on the metal bench smoking and watching us. I asked him a bus question in French. I didn’t understand his answer. Perhaps he hadn’t understood my question. I thanked him anyway and turned back to the map. A man about fifty or sixty, in flood pants—trousers cut strangely high—wearing modern, waterproof sandals, a windbreaker, everything khaki color, as if he were a German retiree, began scolding the man I had not been able to understand.

“You cannot smoke here.”

The man who was sitting was unresponsive and continued to bring the cigarette up to his mouth.

“You cannot smoke here.” The scolder pointed to a spot on the sidewalk outside the shelter. “Step out there.”

The smoker mumbled something.

“Where are you from?” the scolder asked.

“Romania.”

“You cannot smoke in here. I am police.”

I do not know what makes me do these things. I had not been in France a week, but I said to the scolder, “You are police?” And then I held up my hand, cupped, in a gesture that said, “Where is your identification?”

The Authority turned his full attention on me. He came very close and warned me that police did not have to show their identification. He said it was against the law to interfere with the police. The situation had sped up beyond the speed of my language readiness, I suppose even in English. Relying on all the French police movies I’d seen, I held up my cupped hand again to show I still wanted to see his identification. Plus, the man, as I have said, was strangely dressed and a little too authoritative. Plus, the French smoke everywhere and no one thinks twice about it. Plus, I thought I might have seen something like this once before.

He demanded to know what country I was from. I said Mexico. He asked me whether I spoke French, German, or English. I continued in French. “You are police?” I held up my hand again.

“Your French isn’t very good,” he said. “Probably your English isn’t either.”

At that moment, the Nr. 89 appeared, I said as much, of course in English, to my partner and gave the Romanian a parting conspiratorial look. He held his cigarette suspended in front of his mouth and seemed mildly amused. I got on the bus with my friend, pressed my Navigo card against the green, jellyfish-shaped electronic button, got my electronic ding, and immediately forgot the man who claimed he was police.

Ray Bradbury’s Advice to Young (and Old) Writers

I highly recommend this good advice by Ray Bradbury for all those who want to be writers, or are writers. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the filmed interview. Delightful viewing and good tips for the digital age. http://culturacolectiva.com/12-consejos-de-ray-bradbury-para-quienes-quieren-ser-escritores/