"It has been exciting to create protagonists who hail from the borderlands who are the complete opposite of other stereotypical ways in which we have been traditionally portrayed."
Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Cisneros, your fourth legal thriller, The Paper Lawyer, was published this year by Arte Público Press in Houston. Your work came to my attention when Glenn Dromgoole praised the latest book in his “Texas Reads” column, saying that it ranks right up there with John Grisham. Please tell us about your new book.
Carlos Cisneros: The Paper Lawyer is the story of a female lawyer living in Austin, Texas, who appears to have it all. It’s the story of a very successful transactional attorney who shuns her Mexican heritage in order to fit in and make it in Big Law. She has everything: the looks, the smarts, status, the reputation, the big clients, the politically connected fiancée—everything except humility and empathy.
LSLL: The Paper Lawyer raises questions of race and prejudice in the legal system. Previous books have dealt with South Texas politics, Spanish land grants, the Catholic Church, big pharma, and shareholder profits. With no shortage of contentious topics to write about in recent years, how do you decide which ones to take on?
CC: I like to write stories that hit close to home. For the most part, these are stories involving the legal profession but also happen to touch on issues that are unique to the Texas-Mexico border. I like to have my characters navigate different worlds and different cultures, while trying to figure out where they belong and what exactly they’re made of.
LSLL: You’ve been a practicing attorney in South Texas for about twenty years, and you’ve been active in legislative issues affecting the border. Please tell us what it’s like to practice law on the border and how this informs your writing. What do you wish more people understood about the borderlands?
CC: One has to live along the Texas-Mexico border to understand the border. It’s a unique place, unlike anything else, always changing, morphing, evolving, yet it is neither the USA, nor Mexico. It’s neither proper English, nor Castilian Spanish. It’s the widowed, old gringo that marries his younger Hispanic home-health provider. That’s what the border is. They are not perfect for each other, but they need each other. Without each other, neither would survive. And both agree that each has something the other wants. They both know this, so they make the best of it. Two cultures dependent on each other, that have been forced to learn how to live, love, accept, and lift each other and cannot understand why there are those who want to tear them up and keep them apart.
LSLL: You were born in Brownsville and raised in Matamoros. You had plans to go into the family farming and restaurant business but found yourself waiting tables in Austin to pay for a history degree at UT, then law school in Houston. Please tell us about your journey and why you decided history and law school were what you wanted to do.
CC: I really owe my love of reading and writing to my mother. My sister, on the other hand, was the one that pushed me to get out of the Valley and attend school in Austin. After high school, I quit my family’s restaurant in Matamoros, Mexico, and started working in food service on the US side. I did that for a number of years, but I began to feel like I was stuck. I wanted to do more with my life but could not figure out how to get unstuck and escape the restaurant business. Then, during the 1986 Christmas holidays, my sister came home from college and casually mentioned that she was looking for a new roommate because the roommates she had were graduating college and moving on.
I put in my two weeks’ notice and on January 2, 1987, I landed in Austin, ready to begin a new chapter. I got a job flipping burgers and enrolled at Austin Community College. In time, I transferred to UT’s school of liberal arts to study history. During my junior year, my sister announced that she was getting married and moving on, as well. So now, it was my turn to look for a roommate.
As luck would have it, I ran into an old friend from Brownsville that used to wait tables in the same South Padre Island restaurant I used to work at. Ernie was a third-year law student by now, and he was also looking for a place to live. We ended up rooming together, and it was during this time that I started contemplating going to law school. Something had transformed Ernie from the old Ernie I knew. I’d figured law school had whipped him into a man. I wanted that; I needed that.
I studied history because of my love of reading and writing. It was a good fit for me. Now, law school was a different story. I went to law school because of the academic rigor and discipline, which was something that had been lacking in my life. Little did I know at the time that the best trial lawyers are those who can spin a good yarn. Looking back, I would not be a writer today but for my mother, my sister, Ernie, John Grisham, and the incredible professors at UT Austin and South Texas College of Law.
LSLL: Let’s talk process for a bit. Some authors start from dialogue, some start from character, others begin at the end. What’s your process like?
CC: I like to come up with the general concept for the plot and the theme for the novel up front. Once I decide what the novel is going to be about, I try and figure out who is better suited to drive the action.
LSLL: Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means writers and their work. How has Texas, and Brownsville in particular, shaped you and your work?
CC: Texas is rich in tradition and the Rio Grande Valley is rich in human drama and adventure. I’ve always felt that South Texas needed to be put on the literary map, and being from Brownsville and having been raised on both sides of the border, I felt it would be exciting to have the reader experience a particular street, venue, locale, or food. By placing the action in this border world and bringing an outsider in, it helps create a certain intimacy and connection. This is especially true for those of us who are hyphenated Americans.
I also wanted to write in a genre rarely exploited by Mexican-American characters, or at least Texicano protagonists. It has been exciting to create protagonists who hail from the borderlands and who are the complete opposite of other stereotypical ways in which we have been traditionally portrayed. In the end, a good yarn, is a good yarn; it just so happened that it was time to portray hyphenated Mexicans in a heroic and positive light.
LSLL: Which writers do you admire? Which Texas authors would you recommend to readers who enjoy your novels?
CC: Oscar Cásares, Americo Paredes, Domingo Martinez, Mark Gimenez, and Jay Brandon
LSLL: The Land Grant won first place in the mystery category at the International Latino Book Awards, and a short film based on The Case Runner premiered with the Brownsville Film Society this year. Please tell us about these honors and how they came about.
CC: Sometime back, Lobo Films bought an option from Arte Público Press to adapt The Name Partner into a movie. That project is ongoing at this time.
The Case Runner won first place at the Books into Movies Awards, 2009, and first place at the International Latino Book Awards, 2009, and was named in the 10 Top Latino Authors to Watch For, LatinoStories.com, 2010. The Land Grant won first place at the International Latino Book Awards in 2013. The Name Partner was chosen for “Must Summer Reads” by the Latina Book Club in 2010.
LSLL: Can you tell us what’s next for you?
CC: I’m working on three projects right now that have me super excited, but also super busy. I’m working on my fifth legal thriller, a coming of age story and “futuristic” legal thriller where the judicial system has been completely revamped to make it truly fair and to keep bias, prejudice, politics, and race out of it.
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?
CC: The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing, Where We Come From by Oscar Cásares, Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr, and [John] Grisham’s The Whistler.