In the following interview, author Jay Lemming discusses writing Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, a novel about a Border Patrol agent in southwestern Arizona.
So where did you first get the idea for a novel about a Border Patrol agent?
Back in 1999, I was in a Border’s bookstore in Union Station in Washington, DC, when I stumbled across a book of photojournalism called Dead in Their Tracks by John Annerino. It’s about the people on the southwestern border–the Border Patrol agents, the migrants, the narcotraficantes, and everyone whose lives are intertwined with the international border. What captured my interest right away was John’s images of the desert: the endless landscapes of rolling hills and flat plains, the saguaro cactus and other fauna, the gaping sky, the stones and the roads, the red and orange colors, and the merciless heat.
What did you find so fascinating about the pictures?
There’s a kind of stark beauty in a place like that–panoramic and breathtaking but at the same time, so absolutely unforgiving and deadly. It’s stunning to think about how the Tohono O’odham Indians actually lived in the desert hundreds of years ago; I first found that out from Dead in Their Tracks. And now it’s the peoples from down south in Mexico and other Latin American countries, who are trying to come up into the United States. If you were like the Indians, you knew the location of the tinajas, which captured water fall. The Indian communities often strategically grew around such sources of water.
But for border migrants, you either cross the desert prepared with enough water and endurance, and maybe you have a knowledgeable guide who won’t rob you or do worse, or you could get into trouble. I’ve heard stories about migrants hanging themselves from trees by their belts when they just ran out of water and couldn’t find their way out of the heat. It’s terrible.
But the beauty is there too; I’ve always been a fan of panoramas and limitless expanses. I think most people are. People gaze out at oceans, across farmlands and mountain vistas, and I think the Sonoran Desert is a lot like that too. So really, it was the landscape that captivated my imagination first, before I even considered that my protagonist would be a Border Patrol agent.
Where are you from?
So you have no background in the Southwest and yet you wrote an entire novel about it.
Well, I did go on a research trip back in 2003.
2003? It’s nearly 2016.
I know. I wrote multiple drafts of Billy Maddox Takes His Shot over the years. Younger writers are told to write several novels with the understanding that they’re probably not going to be very good. And then, over time, your writing starts to improve and your novels start to get better.
But you didn’t write different novels. You wrote the same one over and over again.
I knew even with the first draft of Billy Maddox that I had found a pretty special character. Everything from Billy’s name to his attitude to just about everything else. I couldn’t leave him behind without finding the right story for him. It wouldn’t have been fair. So I kept writing and rewriting scenes until I had that story.
Admittedly though, even with all that, there’s more to the story about why it took so long to finish the book. Here, I wrote a post that may shed some additional insight.
And I do have an earlier novel, Journeying Away, that I finished and then put aside because it fell in that category of “not very good” but I didn’t feel overly compelled to rewrite it.
What is it about the Billy Maddox character that you like so much?
Well, I think part of it is the fact that he’s NOT so likable! If you were to meet someone like Billy, you would probably want to punch him if you’re a guy or throw a drink in his face if you’re a woman. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and a lot of hostility. But he’s had a tough history and this is where it’s great to be a reader (rather than a real person) experiencing Billy because you get to find out more about what drove the development of his personality. His brother was killed in a shootout between drug mules and the Border Patrol when Billy was just a boy. His father turned into this angry, Mexican-hating xenophobe and raised Billy along those lines.
It’s no surprise Billy didn’t turn out too well. And then he got his high school girlfriend pregnant. I mean, that was his fault but you know people end up developing worldviews based on their experiences and then they engage in behaviors to support that worldview no matter how messed up it may be.
It’s only when he joins the Border Patrol that things start to turn around for him, often despite himself. His supervisor is a little older and is a good guy. He gives Billy a break right after Billy starts his job, that maybe he doesn’t really deserve. That kindness has a positive impact on Billy, and that’s the first step for him to rethink how to lead a better life.
So then you came up with this character and you made him a Border Patrol agent?
Something like that.
I mean, there’s a kind of irony in Billy’s personal development. His father, whom he doesn’t really get along with because of Billy’s hard upbringing, originally pushed Billy to join the Border Patrol, thinking, oh how great will this be, Billy’s keeping all the bad guys out of our country. But as Billy grows into the role, he grows in his own way, probably in ways he didn’t expect. He really likes being an agent. Part of it is the nature of the work. When I went on ride-alongs with the agents back in 2003, some of them told me they didn’t want to work at desk jobs. They didn’t want to be around all the bureaucratic bullshit and they loved being outdoors and on their own a lot.
Billy’s like that. Before he joined the Border Patrol, he had problems at other jobs. He got fired twice because of his attitude. You want someone like that working away from people, maybe out in the desert somewhere. I’m only half-kidding about that. He ends up having some good influences around him, his supervisor for one, whom I mentioned a moment ago and then another agent, Pete Beemer.
At a certain point, Billy becomes more centered and his wife sees the change and is a little nervous because she doesn’t know what to do with it. She really didn’t expect it. And maybe more importantly, Billy’s father sees it too. He sees Billy succeeding as an agent but not just because he’s hauling all these illegal border crossers back to the holding pens in Tucson. Billy’s struggling to become a better man by being an effective, and responsible agent. Eventually Billy and his father have a blow-up, which is inevitable given that Billy is starting to grow beyond his past.
So you liked going out on the ride-alongs with the Border Patrol agents?
Absolutely, and I’m sure I’m bringing a kind of romanticism to the idea. It’s a world apart from what I do on the East Coast, and you always romanticize other people’s lives. But I had conversations and interviews with flesh-and-blood agents, got to ride along with them out in the desert and in downtown Nogales and they seemed pretty cool. Like I mentioned before, they don’t mind keeping to themselves in lots of ways and you have to be like that if you’re going to spend lots of hours out there on line watch. I’m a writer and so maybe something we have in common is that we don’t need to gab all the time or be around people. I don’t mind spending time alone either, just watching things.
What else did you do during your research trip?
I toured the Dennis DeConcini port of entry in Nogales, drove down into Mexico to check out the maquiladora factories, back when those factories played a role in my novel. And I interviewed individuals who represented both the left-wing and the right-wing of border politics.
Who did you interview?
Reverend Robin Hoover of Humane Borders and Glenn Spencer of the American Border Patrol.
What do you think about the politics?
I try not to think about the politics. Obviously, they are there and people have pretty ferocious opinions all across the political spectrum about the border. For me, it’s just the story of a guy. You could probably say this isn’t really the story of a Border Patrol agent. More, it’s a story about a guy with personal problems who learns to screw his head on straight by getting a job with the Border Patrol.
Getting back to the politics of the border for a moment, what do you think about all the negative things said about Border Patrol agents?
You mean, like that they beat up migrants and treat them badly and are on some big power-hungry ego trips? Look, the media builds a lot of our perceptions by reporting on the exceptions. What I mean is yes, you’re going to find some bad apples in the Border Patrol and once they do something wrong, the media is going to pounce. That’s what the media does.
But you’ve got bad executives–Ken Lay, Sepp Blatter and Dennis Kozlowski, for example. You’ve got bad investment advisors–Bernie Madoff. As we’re talking now, Volkswagen was in a public relations crisis for supposedly putting eco-friendly cars on the road that spew all sorts of toxic nonsense into the air. Their stock has plummeted. Talk about breaching the public trust.
There are bad apples everywhere, in every walk of life. The reason the Border Patrol has assumed such notoriety is because border issues and migration represent such a politically charged topic in our national dialogue. Presidential candidates talk about their migration policies because it is such a big issue. And the agents are on the front line so they’re the ones being scrutinized under a microscope, and every tiny infraction or every perceived infraction gets a spotlight shined on it.
Bad things happen and people need to be held to accountable especially if you’re a public servant. But I would tend to guess infractions are the exception to the rule. What if you have a decent man or woman doing their job and acting like a professional border officer. Are you going to report on that if you’re a national publication? Doubtful. There is no story there. But it’s true.
Not only did I visit southern Arizona to do my research but, back when the Border Patrol training academy was down in Charleston, SC in the mid-2000s, I had a chance to visit there too. And right on the wall was a chart about appropriate responses to certain situations. I include it here, even though the image is a little blurry. This is what the agents learn and this is how I presume most do their jobs.
Anything else before we move on?
Just as a reminder, Border Patrol agents are men and women who protect our border not just against people trying to get into this country to maybe find a job and pursue better lives for themselves and their families, but also drug smugglers. In my novel, Border Patrol agents show up at Billy’s family ranch to detain drug mules crossing the border with sacks full of mota (i.e. marijuana). And that kind of situation isn’t just fiction.
Just do a couple random Google searches about drug smuggling along the border and you’ll find all sorts of crazy stuff. And that’s the job of the agents. They have to do some difficult work and detain some very dangerous people. They have to work in stressful situations that people who aren’t in that position maybe can’t appreciate.
But even with having said all this, as I mentioned a moment ago, I try not to get too much into the politics.
And what is the main problem in the book?
Well, there are two problems: one is external and one is internal.
The external problem is that, as the story opens, we find some of the drug cartels are moving more contraband into the United States than they have in the past. So the Border Patrol agents, Billy and Carl and a few others, start wondering, what is happening now that is making it easy for them to get past our agents and into the country? And of course eventually we find out and there’s a direct confrontation that includes Billy and the shit just hits the fan.
The internal problem is Billy’s personal issues, which we have discussed. He has anger management issues from his past and he goes into this job with a very cut-and-dry attitude about his job and with negative opinions about Mexican border crossers. But when he sees the despair and loss that exists for a lot of people on the border, which reminds him in some ways of the loss of his brother, his perspective expands. He still does his job but his understanding expands, and that’s the key to his personal growth in the book.
So what happens at the end?
I can’t tell you that, obviously. But I will say that the end is also the beginning.
Well, because this is the first story in a longer series of novels and novellas I will write called the Maddox Men series. I’ve already started the next story in the series, as a matter of fact. I’m probably about a month and a half from finishing my first draft.
Billy Maddox Takes His Shot takes place in 1999. A lot of people might expect I would publish a border story about post-9/11 America since, after the towers fell, national security prioritized keeping bad people out. A lot of politicians were concerned about bad guys coming into the country by crossing the border, and that actually did happen with the Al Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam in 1999 up in Vancouver.
So it would have been easy for me to go that route. But first of all, as I mentioned, I really loved the character I had created and I didn’t want his personal struggles to be overwhelmed by larger national issues. I wanted the focus to be on him, so I intentionally wrote the story in 1999.
The 1990s was also a very interesting decade as far as border enforcement initiatives. Billy comes to this job just as Operation Safeguard is getting underway in Tucson Sector. And Safeguard was preceded by Gatekeeper in southern California and Hold-the-Line in El Paso. These operations did an effective job of deterring border traffic in the highly populated metropolitan areas but they pushed hopeful migrants to try crossing in less populated, dangerous regions, such as in the Sonoran Desert.
I may write a post-9/11 border story and I already have a first scene in mind. But I may not write it for some time. The story I’m writing now is called Wichita Snake, and it’s a novella about Billy Maddox’s great-grandfather in Wichita, Kansas.
What else would you like to tell your readers?
Just, if you like what you’re reading about, sign up to my email list so I can tell you what else I’m writing about.
If you’re a border enforcement agent and you read Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and I messed something up or didn’t go into sufficient detail, please email me about it. I tried to do my best but since I’m not an agent, it’s quite likely I overlooked something.
Other than that, happy reading!