A visual artist, filmmaker, and writer who hails from Mexico City, Leopoldo Gout studied sculpture at Central St. Martins School of Art in London. His work belongs to multiple collections and has been in exhibitions all over the world. After finishing his studies, Gout’s creativity extended into writing, television, and film. He is the author of the books Ghost Radio and the award-winning Genius YA trilogy, and the recently published fable for all ages, Monarca. Piñata is set to publish with Tor Nightfire in March 2023.
“Oceans and Oceans of Stories,” an interview with Leopoldo Gout
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Rich Duhamell. Of the process, they said, “Leopoldo Gout pulls no punches in imbuing the social outrage of the abject into his horror story. In a genre that is seeing a resurgence in reclaiming what it means to have been made into a monster, Piñata commits to acknowledging the centuries of hurt and harnesses it to reveal a history oft overlooked.” In this interview, Leopoldo Gout talks about his research, the histories and memories that inspire his writing, and his hope for young people and the future.
Superstition Review: In an interview on “Book Talk” with Doug Miles back in April, you talked about how your inspiration for your book Monarca came from visiting the sanctuary in Michoacán, both as it existed in your youth and as a tribute to your daughter’s first time there. Can you talk about the inspiration or inspirations for Piñata?
Leopoldo Gout: During many of what I call my “research wormholes” or journeys, I came upon a story that during the times of the Conquest in Mexico, some religious priests forced children to kick Piñatas, bearing symbols of their gods, then were made to eat the flesh - represented by the candy - inside of those receptacles. It is a horrifying story that is so outrageous because it is true.
SR: In that same interview, you describe how you fell down the rabbit hole of research, not realizing how intricate it would be, and the coincidence of contacting the daughter of the man who incited the UNESCO butterfly reserve. Piñata is so rich with facts and well-studied details: the Nahua language and lyrics, the understanding of the pantheon, even the books on exorcisms that Father Verón scoured. What was the research like for this book, and were there any quirks of fate in carrying it out?
LG: Oh boy… my research wormholes are years in the making. Pure craziness. In fact, my first novel Ghost Radio started me on this journey. My father claims that we have a percentage of Zapotec blood due to a direct aunt who was a Zapotec woman, and that is thrilling to me, if it’s true. I was shown an old genealogy tree that shows our lineage, but I have not yet taken a DNA test. That feeling that we might have a connection to the Zapotecs and my absolute love for their art and culture led me to dive into a few ancient cultures in my country. This research is my favorite part of the process in creating stories and characters.
SR: From the very beginning of Piñata, the narrative seizes the reader. It pans like a camera so smoothly from character to character. I could virtually see it on a screen as a continuous shot, constantly moving us through this scary movie of a novel, showing off your experience in television and film, ranging from so many genres and ratings. Would you say there is anything else about your skill across mediums that has influenced your process or product that you notice is different from those that just write?
LG: I don’t believe that anyone just writes: any creator has a mind’s eye and sees ideas, characters, and experiences in their own way. I just have had the luck to explore my creativity across different mediums. Those mediums interplay between each other, and the one thing that connects them all is visual art: drawing, painting, sculpting, doodling, and the layers of information that I use while drawing or making art. People might miss the connections between them, but I see it so clearly: it is like a scent. I use those ideas through various methods, from memory, to exploring specific scents in my memory and many other methods that take me into the zone.
SR: So many references to horror movies from characters specifically mentioning Poltergeist or The Exorcist to the montage of deaths reading slasher films like Friday the 13th or no-holds-barred gruesome marathons like Final Destination. What was your strongest inspiration for these scenes?
LG: Actually, Aztec art. Some of their ideas are so terrifying and they transport me, but I also love other books like Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Pet Cemetery by The Master Mr. King, and so many other things, but it’s less the movies and more the books and art that I’ve explored…
SR: You do such an amazing job in creating these petrifying images of spirits of decaying flesh with centuries of revenge pent up and still have the motives be understandable, sympathetic. The final mask-off of the spirit being “a real manifestation of a culture lost and buried by violence and conquest.” There was no evil, just righteous anger left to stew for so, so long. How did you balance this heart-wrenching empathy of wanting one’s homeland and people returned and the need for a bad guy in this possession story?
LG: That was the fun and the pain… I feel right now we all feel rage, especially coming out of the pandemic and seeing the increased racism, the pettiness of politicians and other lunatics that have real power. The Supreme Court and so many other sources of rage, that to me it was a cathartic experience to try to manifest that rage somehow into the journey of Piñata…
SR: We get a taste of so many social quandaries through even the briefest characters: the history teacher too proud to be teaching the colonizer’s version, the coyote and ransomers, even the cop pleading fear for his life for being too trigger-happy. Front and center is Carmen, struggling with being considered too Americanized upon her short return to her home Mexico. As someone who left Mexico to study art at Central Saint Martins in London and now also lives in New York, with not just la frontera but the Pond separating you from home, how have you since stayed connected or reconnected with that culture?
LG: I make films in Mexico and travel there all the time. My dad is still there, as is my brother. I also had such a wild childhood that charged me with oceans and oceans of stories from Mexico that no matter how long I live outside…those stories are just in my skin.
SR: So many of your works feature young people’s coming of age aligning with a goal and their heritage: Monarca’s fable joined with the plight of the Monarch butterfly Piñata’s horror story juxtaposed with cruel history, and The Games centering around youths’ biggest superpower being their brains. Across the board, you portray this inexorable hope for and belief in the young and upcoming, an absence that you’ve noticed and are trying to fill. In an interview with Huffington Post in 2016, you note, “It's really a call to arms…saying that we are here and we're not going to go anywhere, and we can change the world and there's a lot of positivity even in illegal immigrants.” When you were the same age as your characters, what was inspiring you to put your best out into the world?
LG: I had this hunger to know things, art, music, books, ideas… I was bursting from every seam of my body, inspired by so many different things. I also reacted to years of bigotry that beamed from people in power attacking us immigrants. Not just the last president - whose name I refuse to use - but politicians in Florida, Texas, and Alaska, spewing constant bile against people out of their own ignorance and fear. But then you see the fearlessness in people such as Greta Thunberg, Malala etc., and so many children around the world who inspired me for years, expressing wonderful, powerful messages of hope and ideas of change.
SR: You were co-president of James Patterson Entertainment and helped bring several of his books to screen, like Zoo, Maximum Ride, and Alex Cross. Working with such a ubiquitous name in American fiction, what would you say you took away from adapting his books that influenced how you wrote, produced, and created?
LG: He is a master at his work, and I learned every day while working with him. I learned so many things from discipline, to focus, to clarity.
SR: If you got to choose who would produce Piñata for the big screen, who would it be and why? Is there anything that you would insist remains unchanged, above all else?
LG: No, I just want to collaborate with a great director for I see it as a film and have great partners who are going to put that together. But it should be the vision of the director, for it is their medium.
SR: Your dedication to the horror/thriller genre — from your imprint with Atria / Simon & Schuster: Leopoldo & Co to Piñata and your deal with newer Macmillan imprint Nightfire — is echoed by a “renaissance…of all things horror.” With increasing consumption of horror across all mediums and increasing diversity in the voices telling these stories, could you talk a bit about what you see for the future of the genre?
LG: It’s super exciting to see that Tor Nightfire is enabling someone like myself and so many other voices in the medium, from LGBTQ+ to many others who will bring new energy, imagination, diversity and power to the genre. Just imagine, every country and region has their own mythology, religion, legends: their own horror stories. So it’s fantastic to open up the genre and invite the new creators to that world. For example, my good friend and sometimes collaborator Keith Thomas wrote and directed “The Vigil,'' which is a wonderful Jewish story: he used his background into the genre in a wonderful way. Same with some new Mexican authors, and others who are experimenting with the format. Just look at the impact that Korean storytelling brought recently into the world: Parasite and Squid Game! It's nuts. The future is grand!
SR: One of the most recent on your roster is The Chosen One/El Elegido/American Jesus, a comic adaptation you worked on with your brother, Everardo. I’m utterly struck by the use of magical realism, or as you called it once, realistic magic, in this series, as it contrasts against other superhero IPs by its lack of CGI, rather baking it into the setting of Mexico. Even in the brief preview of the series we have so far, the carnival lights and masks incorporate the liminal feeling between reality and fantasy. Could you explain a bit about the process of “[flipping] it the other way and just [making] the environment look supernatural”? What parts were the most fun to play with?
LG: Like my aunts used to say when reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “and where is the magic?” because in Mexico everything has a source and connection to the supernatural. I believe that all we had to do is look at where we decided to film and just simply show it. The reality of Mexico is that it is filled with those monsters and demons and witches and sources of a kind of magical power in everyday life. We grew up with those things. For example, my mother used to support a group of traveling crafts women who would sell her masks and their prices were not based on size or color like in most western traditions but how “Danced” the masks were. YES: Danced. Literally the more they danced a mask the more expensive it was, so some of the smallest ones were much more expensive than big colorful ones. It’s amazing to have grown up in that country and my mother and father and stepfather exposed me to that power.