|Stuart Archer Cohen|
How did you choose your first lines in the book?
Part of my research in Buenos Aires was steeping myself in the expedientes of several murders committed by the police. These were huge case files made available to me by a lawyer who was one of my sources. They can run to several hundred pages, in Spanish, and contain the coroner’s reports, chain of evidence documentation, statements by police and witnesses, usually some photos, all covered with signatures and seals and laid out in this sort of distant, rock-solid language that would lead you to believe that it’s absolute truth. And of course, in a department like the Bonairense, which at that time was just murderously corrupt, it can be complete fiction. But I loved the language, the way it reduced all the horror and the very fragile human element of a murder to something matter-of-fact and emotionless. That language really shaped the first lines, and I returned to that phenomenon a little later in the book when Fortunato is reviewing the expediente of the murder he committed at the same time that he relives those events in his head in a far less dispassionate manner.
In your acknowledgements section, your reference murder victims Jose Luis Cabezas and Argentine author Rodolfo Jorge Walsh whose murders were unresolved at the time of this printing. How did you learn of them, and did these murders inspired your writing of 17 Stone Angels?
I had done a lot of reading about Argentine urban guerillas of the 1970’s, which later informed my novel about insurgency in the United States, The Army of the Republic. More specifically, Rodolfo Walsh was a famous Argentine journalist and author, whose great book, Operation Massacre, I had read. Walsh was ambushed and murdered by a military death squad in 1977. Some of his killers were finally brought to justice decades later, after the book was written. Operation Massacre was an inspiration because it focuses on both the human element and the bureaucratic aspects of official murder.
The case of Jose Luis Cabezas was a cause celebre in the years before I wrote the book. Cabezas was a photographer who, apparently, was kidnapped by police at the behest of a wealthy businessman/racketeer whose photo he had taken. The mechanics of his murder closely resemble the murder in the book. I should add that his killers were convicted just before the book came out, but nearly all were back on the street in a few years.
Buenos Aires is an important character in your book. Tell us about how your own relationship with Buenos Aires began? Who helped you keep the representation of Buenos Aires factual while writing your work of fiction? Describe that process, please.
I was traveling in Peru in 1984 and became friends with an Argentine I met there. When I started doing business in Uruguay, I would stop and visit him in Buenos Aires every year for about 15 years. He lives in a lower-class barrio in the exurbs of the city, which has a less cosmopolitan, more working-class culture than the center of the city. Much of the book is set in that barrio, San Justo. When it came time to do the research, I was fortunate because he had good connections with petty criminals, so I had people I could more or less trust as my guides to that world. I hung out in some of the most down-and-out bars you can imagine and did stuff I don’t tell my kids about. I still had to tread carefully because it’s a volatile environment, but it gave me a window into a world that doesn’t admit outsiders easily. I still hang out with some of those people when I get down to Buenos Aires. It’s always good to have a few disreputable friends.
I read that this book was first published in the UK ten years ago, and was optioned with a movie company with Tom Cruise that never came to fruition. Tell us about how you kept your faith in this project while navigating the long and winding road toward publication in the States.
The book kept getting translated and published in new countries as the years went by, so I never really lost faith in it, as a book. I always felt it would be published in the United States, and I’m grateful that Four Winds Press has done such an excellent job with it. At the same time, I had other books to write and those are always more important than one that is already finished.
The movie deal was both encouraging and clarifying. It’s a nice vote of confidence, but as soon as you get that call from Hollywood you start to see a bigger, shinier You. I’ve been through it three times, most recently with Oliver Stone, and I still get the same sense of excitement and grandiosity. But ultimately, you have to decide what’s real and what’s not. I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be a player of any sort. The people in that game are in it 110% and they really want it. Many of them dream of making a great movie. I like novels better. I like the austerity of working alone for years at a time and I like the freedom that brings. It’s a temperament thing. I also feel like I have a shot at writing an illuminating novel, while my chance of writing a great movie and seeing it produced is zero. I get a big kick out of the Hollywood buzz, but it’s beneficial to the degree that I can keep it peripheral to my well-being. Otherwise, it can be really heartbreaking.
What are you working on now?
I am making the final corrections to This Is How It Really Sounds, a novel which St Martin’s Press is publishing in April, 2015. It’s a huge breakthrough for me as a writer and I’m excited about it. I’m also gathering momentum to begin a new novel about king salmon.
Anything else you would like us to know about you or 17 Stone Angels?
17 Stone Angels is my favorite of my three already-published novels. When I wrote it I was living on my dwindling savings and I was in a pretty distressing financial situation. My goal was to write it quickly and to not give a second thought to content or meaning. You can sense that desperation when you read it. I really wanted to write a cheap, shallow book, but finally, it ended up being about exactly that: the compromises we make to get by or get ahead, the fictions we create in our own lives that help us live with those compromises. Most police thrillers are about good men getting to the truth about a crime. This one is about a bad man getting to the truth about himself. That’s what I think makes it worth reading, even for people who don’t read crime thrillers. Which includes me, actually!
Stuart Archer Cohen is an American author and businessman who has written three works of fiction: Invisible World, 17 Stone Angels, and The Army of the Republic. He lives in Juneau, Alaska with his wife and two sons