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Q&A with Elizabeth Gonzalez James - The Bullet Swallower

By Mo Kendall

We are delighted to welcome Elizabeth Gonzalez James to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, The Bullet Swallower, released on the 23rd January 2024.

1895: Mexican bandido Antonio Sonoro, seeks to make right some of his wrongs,

and restore his lost wealth, by robbing a train in Texas. His younger brother

insists on coming with him, but the robbery doesn’t go to plan. The two brothers

land in the hands of the Texas Rangers, with devastating consequences that

change the course of several lives. With plenty of enemies — and a revenge

quest to complete, no matter what — how many times can Antonio cheat death?

1964: Jaime Sonoro is Mexico’s star of stage and screen. But the strange gift of a

book that purports to tell the entire history of his family, from Cain and Abel, and

the even stranger encounter with the enchanting Remedio, starts to unravel his

comfortable life. Reading the book, Jaime not only discovers the shocking crimes

committed by his ancestors, but that a debt left to pay for them is handed down

to each generation of his family. And may now be with him.

A family saga where action and adventure meet magical realism, The Bullet

Swallower draws us into a historical drama highly relevant to our time. Themes of

border politics, racism, intergenerational trauma, personal loyalties, and

colonialist legacy mix with folklore, religion, and complicated human nature.

Elizabeth Gonzalez James captivates us in the Sonoro family’s mysteries with

beautiful prose and real events from her own ancestry. Her strong sensory

descriptions make detail vivid throughout, from iconic landscapes to late-night

brothels and bars ― and make the unimaginable beyond imaginable when it

comes to wounds.

Hi Elizabeth, welcome to The Reading Corner! Thank you for making time to talk with us about The Bullet Swallower. I was so gripped by the stories and mysteries that unfold throughout it, and I’m sure that our members will love it too. I understand that you started working on the novel in 2015. Congratulations on its completion! How does it feel to see it go out into the world?

It’s wonderful, terrifying, a bit overwhelming. I worked and reworked this book so many times

over so many years. I revised it on my own, and with input from my writers group. I workshopped it with friends, and with other writers from Tin House and Breadloaf (both writers conferences in the US). I also got significant input from my agent before it was acquired by an editor, and then, of course, I got edits from my editor. I sent in the official, absolute last draft in September 2022 (the publication pipeline is looong). And also, in the time between when I started writing it and when it was ultimately published, I published two other books, survived a pandemic, and moved across the country. And so across all those years and all those different iterations, I don’t fully remember what it was like to write it, haha, nor do I one hundred percent remember what actually ended up in the book. Writing a book is a bit like having a baby – if you truly remembered what it was like, you’d never do it again. And so seeing it in the world is a bit disorienting, too, because when people ask me about certain choices I made in the novel or what it was like to do x or y with the story, I genuinely can’t remember. Life is strange.

The Bullet Swallower is set in a pretty different time and culture, and offers a very different story, to your debut novel Mona at Sea. Are there any ways in which you feel that the books are similar, or in which the process of writing them was similar for you?

The process was very different with both. I’d never written a novel before I set out to write Mona at Sea. And so at the same time I was writing it, I was having to teach myself how to write a novel. I made a lot of rookie mistakes (like starting it with 100 pages of backstory – not a great idea). With The Bullet Swallower I was much more confident in my ability to tell a story, but much less confident about the subject matter. And so I spent hundreds of hours doing research, which I didn’t have to do for Mona. I think each book, each story, requires its own process. And you don’t know what that process will be until you get started. Some lessons carry over from project to project, and some don’t. And then some lessons you have to learn over and over.

I never found any commonality in subject with either of my books until an interviewer recently

pointed out that both my protagonists (as well as Peter Sellers in my essay-length chapbook, Five Conversations About Peter Sellers) feel wounded by the fact that they haven’t gotten what they felt they deserved from the world. Like they’re meant to be somewhere bigger and better than where they find themselves. This is also a theme in a new novel I’m writing, and I find that very interesting. I seem to love characters who feel they were meant for bigger things and want to blame the world for not giving them their due.

Some of the violent events within The Bullet Swallower involve extreme injuries, alongside some emotionally harrowing scenes. Although you have fictionalised some of the narrative, the book draws from your own family history, and I can imagine that some of these pages would have been intense to write. How did you look after yourself during your time crafting this book?

It was difficult to write those scenes, both from the perspective of having to protect myself from getting sucked down into a dark place, and because I luckily have no first-hand experience with violence of any kind. I spent a lot of time looking a photos of bullet wounds and knife wounds, and the faces of soldiers who’d been badly disfigured during WWI. These didn’t bother me very much, as I have a sort of prurient fascination with morbid subjects. But what was harder was writing very violent, emotionally draining scenes and then having to cut it off and go pick up my kids from school. Sometimes I found myself feeling a bit like I’d pulled my head out of water, suddenly surrounded by playing children when mentally I’d just been in a very dark space.

I found both Antonio and Jaime’s stories so engaging. I was also fascinated by the real-life context, and your family connection, to these characters that you talk about in your author’s note at the end of the book. Where did you draw inspiration from when you were creating the novel’s fictional characters?

I did a ton of research for this novel and I’d occasionally encounter real life people who were

fascinating and dynamic, and so I’d sometimes pull them right into the story, too. Ranger Captain Cyrus Fish is loosely inspired by the real-life Texas Ranger, Leander McNelly, who was commander of the Frontier Battalion. The character of Peter, an English bon vivant, is very loosely inspired by a writer I know of who went off into Mexico’s Sierra Madre by himself, just for the adventure. That sort of hubris was captivating to me, and so I crafted a character who could be charming and brave and a loyal friend at the same time his white privilege is completely blinding him to reality. I also pull from myself a lot. I joke that I only write autofiction, because every character has some of me inside of them. And then of course I pull from other people I know, too. An offhand comment, a habit or gesture, the way a friend might hold herself in public – this is all fair game and I do steal from people constantly. I disguise it and bury it under layers and only I ever know what belongs to who, but it’s still there nonetheless.

I loved the authentic-look “pages” from Maria Rocha’s mysterious book that appear throughout The Bullet Swallower after Jaime’s visit from the bookseller. Did you always intend to incorporate a visual, artistic element?

Yes, I believe so. I started incorporating the fake found texts somewhere maybe around 2019, and I had a lot of fun with them. I believe I suggested to my editor that we offset them in a way so that it was obvious they were outside of the dual timeline narrative, just a little visual cue to the reader. I think it worked really well.

Before I began reading The Bullet Swallower, I was really intrigued to see it described as bridging the genres of Magical Realism, Westerns, Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction and Family Saga. Are there any particular books that you can think of that also bridge similar genres? Or any other authors that you would recommend to readers who enjoy your work?

It’s a little difficult for me to find anything that’s exactly comparable. Alvaro Enrigue’s You

Dreamed of Empires, the English translation of which just came out in January, is a little similar in that it’s a re-envisioning of a historical moment (in this case, the meeting between conquistador Hernan Cortes and the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma) with the benefit of a modern perspective and some sly, Calvino-esque, metafictional inserts. If people liked my book they will certainly enjoy Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. I would also recommend Valleyesque by Fernando A. Flores, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia, Dog of the South by Charles Portis, and of course, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.

You also had a chapbook, Five Conversations About Peter Sellers, published last year. Do you have anything new that you’re currently working on, or dreaming up, that you’re able to share with us?

Yes, I actually had to cut 250 pages of material from The Bullet Swallower, and I’m taking a tiny chunk of that and turning it into a stand-alone novel. It won’t be a sequel, nor will it be magical realism, but it will take place in mid-century Mexico City, and will feature a movie star’s wife who confronts her husband’s mistress and then uncovers some uncomfortable truths about herself.

Thanks so much again for taking the time to answer these questions, Elizabeth. Finally, where can The Reading Corner community get themselves a copy of The Bullet Swallower?

Thank you so much for having me! You can buy a copy wherever books are sold – online or in

person at Waterstones.

Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s numerous stories and essays have appeared in a

variety of publications such as PANK, The Idaho Review, Rumpus, and Ploughshares

Blog. Her debut novel, Mona at Sea, was a 2019 SFWP finalist and appeared on

several Most Anticipated Books of 2021 lists. Elizabeth’s writing has received

numerous Pushcart Prize, and Best of the Net, nominations.

She was born in Southern Texas and currently lives in Massachusetts with her

family. You can find out more about Elizabeth, her books, and her editorial

services via her website and Instagram .


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