January 2014

R. Clifton Spargo


An Interview with Don Waters

In his debut novel, Sunland, Don Waters takes us on a wild picaresque journey in the company of a good-hearted, thirty-something drifter named Sid Dulaney. On a mission to care for a sickly grandmother, his only real family, Sid finds himself acting as a small-time drug mule for an entire Tucson retirement village in order to keep up with Nana's expenses. Scoring prescription meds and opiates from pharmacies in Nogales, and then running them across the border, soon leads to more dangerous adventures. Sid wants out, auditions for a job as substitute teacher, even tries to hand the business off to a friend. But the fatalistic combination of misfortune, misguided advice from friends, and some well-timed coercion from a few cartel-connected types plunges him deeper into the shady world of border politics. He tries to pull off a haphazardly conceived human trafficking scheme, which veers into farce when a giraffe is introduced into the equation.

These misadventures in the beautiful but severe desert of the Southwestern United States and Mexico turn Sunland (recently selected as a top-ten Northwest book of 2013) into an exposť of the absurdist politics presiding over our nation's borderlands, and render Sid's story, if only inadvertently, a testimony to the plight of undocumented workers who risk their lives every day in the hopes of improving them.

Sid Dulaney is an ordinary guy trying to make ends meet. Running meds, at first for his grandmother, then for an entire retirement community, seems innocent enough when he starts out -- it's illegal, but he's not hurting anyone. Is your new novel a Breaking Bad for septuagenarians?

I'm glad we're starting with this question. Breaking Bad is a show I happen to like. And of course, the release of my novel happened to dovetail with the show's final season, so they're ripe for comparison. Both are set in the southwest, both star protagonists trying to make ends meet by nefarious means. When I began writing the short story that evolved into Sunland, in 2005, I hadn't heard of Breaking Bad. It hadn't even aired yet. I think the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, was drawing inspiration from the same vibrations in the air that I was. Depending on where you looked, there was a lot of talk about the border, Mexican cartels, healthcare. When the show premiered, in 2008, and when I learned about it, my stomach dropped. I was halfway finished with my novel, and I thought I was onto something completely unique. But I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time: writer sits down to write long novel, which takes eight years; meantime, Hollywood swoops in and makes a popular movie with many of the same themes. Anyway, I've now come up with a strategy. The next time someone asks me this question, I'm just going to say, "Oh, you're a fan of Breaking Bad? Well then, it's a continuation, only with new characters. You should go buy my book to find out."

How do you account for the current cultural interest in ordinary drug smugglers?

Well, there's always been cultural interest in drug smugglers, and smugglers in general, don't you agree? Think about all the stories and movies about pirates, about the prohibition years. The fascination is there and has been there, as far as I can tell, for hundreds of years. People are interested in smugglers because it's an escape, first of all -- but also because smugglers are rebels. They're not abiding by societal norms. I think there's a little of that in all of us. People get interested because it's such a shadowy, unknown world. How exactly do these items get smuggled? What are the tricks of the trade, the accompanying dangers?

So how feasible is the scenario -- some everyday Sid running pharmaceuticals from south of the border? And your research methods? Dare I ask? No need to say anything that might land you in jail.

People do it every day. I know folks who head to Mexico not only for cheaper medication but for other healthcare needs as well. Dental care, surgeries. As I mentioned earlier, the idea to make Sid a freelance smuggler arose from a story, "Mr. Epstein and the Dealer." At the time I was working as a director at an eldercare facility in Berkeley, California. Day in, day out, I saw the amount of money people paid for basic healthcare. Our healthcare system is really insane. And when you're older, and need more help, more meds, expensive meds, it gets more insane. During this time, my mom was also living in Mexico for stretches of time, and I'd visit. After I moved from Berkeley, I landed in New Mexico, where for some time I lived in the southern part of the state, near the border. And when you're an American, and you visit certain parts of Mexico, especially along the border, it's impossible not to notice the farmacias. If you push on through the turnstiles and walk around a Mexican border town, you'll see all the pharmacies lining the sidewalks. Many prescription drugs are cheaper, far cheaper, in Mexico, and I began to hear stories about people heading south for meds. I just put two and two together: elderly population, cheaper medications, bingo.

So a guy like Sid would be able to avoid notice of the authorities on either side of the border?

Yes, it's entirely feasible that Sid would be able to smuggle a small number of bottles at a time. Remember, he's mostly filling orders for antidepressants and meds for hypertension, things like that. Brand-name drugs that happen to be cheaper once you cross over. It gets trickier when he's asked to buy Schedule I drugs, like opiates. These are highly controlled on both sides. You need a scrip from a Mexican doctor, which isn't hard to obtain. That's the reason, in the novel, Sid's hunting for a doctor's prescription pad. He wants to write them himself.

Besides looking into the techniques for smuggling drugs, though, you did other kinds of research about the border, including -- as you and I discussed on radio on "The Lit Show" this past October -- accompanying Humane Borders for a day in the desert heat. How did that experience inform the novel?

I'm the kind of writer who likes to absorb the sensory details my characters would know. So, to answer your question, everything Sid sees is pretty much filtered through my experiences. For Sunland, that meant spending stretches of time in Tucson and the outlying desert with my camera and a notebook. During one of those trips I volunteered with Humane Borders, a humanitarian group that places water barrels in the desert for immigrants. I wanted to get out in the middle of it, and we certainly did. We were alone, but we also weren't alone. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, we encountered minutemen and the Border Patrol. It's pretty much a police state in certain areas, with these ugly walls that slice border towns down the middle. It's sad, really. Some of my research, for this project and others, took me to parts of borderland Texas and to a War on Drugs conference in El Paso, where I met former police officers and DEA agents who now advocate for smarter laws and legalization. They're at the front lines. They understand how our current policies are ineffective.

Sid's idea of family isn't what we think of as the traditional nuclear unit. His father died young, his mother took off for Alaska, and his grandparents raised him, which is the reason he's returned to Tucson. He's this fairly young man caring for his grandmother and hanging out with a cast of elderly folks...

Sid's pretty much an anomaly, as I was when I worked at an eldercare facility. I was in my twenties and working around people in their seventies, eighties, and nineties.

And in Sunland, Sid's love interest, Mona, even says, when she sees him around the retirement village, "You're one of the only men here." How common was it for men of your age, or Sid's age, to hang around as helpers at such facilities? And how did that life experience shape you?

I didn't have any experience with this type of work, but the administrator hired me because she thought I had something to offer. And I have to admit that the job changed me. Much of my twenty-something self-absorption went out the window. It was core work, and it put me face-to-face with life and death issues, and it also helped me see what's important and what's not important. I had friendships with people decades older than me, and I made friends with people in their last months, which is an amazing and special thing. But to answer your first question, I didn't see many men assuming the caretaker role, sadly. And I didn't meet many men Sid's age. Usually it was women -- daughters -- who assumed responsibility and called the shots for their parents. So when Mona says, "You're one of the only men here," what she's really saying is, "You're marriage material."

Perhaps no society in the world is more youth-centric than the United States. We warehouse our elderly, in warm places such as Florida and Arizona, if they can afford it. What compelled you to write a novel set in a retirement village that confronts issues such as how increasing healthcare costs often outstrip retirement savings?

First, let me say I wanted to make Sunland a multigenerational novel. I wanted the reader to think about family and the roles of fathers, mothers, sons, and grandparents, and my aim was to slightly unscrew what we're familiar with. Sid is quietly obsessed with the idea of family because his family pretty much evaporated when he was young. He has the vague notion of wanting children, and wanting a wife, but instead he has these elderly folks, who become his family by default.

Now, with this ad hoc retirement-village family of his, Sid finds father figures and role models and friends. In writing about an elderly village I wanted to show the ways people remain remarkable -- and odd, and grumpy -- no matter what their age. I saw it, and Sid experiences it. One of his best friends in the novel is an eighty-two-year-old man who's funnier, livelier, and more dynamic than some seventeen-year-old who can't tear himself away from a video game.

You're referring to Mr. Epstein, carried over from the short story that gave rise to the novel -- a great character, a free spirit, a youthful eighty-two-year-old far less tethered in his ideas about life than Sid himself is. He wants in on the trafficking scheme; he's planning to flee the retirement village because he's tired of being cooped up. Is his defiance of stereotypes about the elderly a reflection of your own feelings about aging?

It's true that our society -- our media, really -- overvalues youth culture, but what drives the warehousing and isolation of our elderly population can be broken down to a couple of elementally American traits: individualism and reliance on the nuclear family. We have a tendency to move far from family while forming our own little nuclear hives. People grow up and fly the nest, which gives rise to self-contained villages -- and in Arizona, entire towns -- populated by people of the same age. So, what do I think about this state of affairs? I think we need to reach out more to those who have been on this planet far longer than us, people who might have a bit more knowledge and insight and wisdom. Also, when you do reach out, you might meet someone awesome. I did. Many native peoples revere their elderly. We put ours in towers and behind locked doors. What does this say about us?