Rudy Ruiz was raised around ranches and horses, reared on tales of the Old West and the Mexican Revolution, but then he moved on to Harvard and success as an award-winning author of literary fiction. Now he brings his brand of polished storytelling, cultural immersion and magical realism to a visionary novel that explores and upends classic American genres: Western, Southern gothic and horror. The results are pioneering, poignant and powerful. The novel, “Valley of Shadows,” will be released by Blackstone Publishing on Sept. 20, 2022, just in time for Hispanic Heritage Month.
“What Some Might Call Protest Literature,” an Interview with Rudy Ruiz
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Rich Duhamell. Of the process, they said, “Rudy Ruiz is a wellspring of insight into the world of Valley of Shadows and the tragedy and magic nestled in every nook. His passion for the people that cross every type of border, be it cultural, geographical, or spiritual, is infectious in his writing, bringing life to the land and times of transition.” In this interview, Rudy Ruiz talks about examining machismo, the crossroads of policy and fiction, and what we carry on for those who have already passed and those who are yet to come.
Superstition Review: You cite the origin of Valley of Shadows as the result of your son asking for a “Western horror novel,” and both those genres come across clearly. Yet instead of the sepia or black-and-white filters commonplace in those works, Solitario is surrounded by the richest of colors, from the beginning’s egg yolk sunrise to the rainbow of songbirds released at a tragic death to his yellow bandana from his abuela. Mexico is so often painted in the dusty hues of a perpetual past, but even set in the late 1800s, the world is vibrant and blinding around his all-black figure. Could you discuss what led you to giving readers these beautiful splashes of turquoise, coral, and lime?
Rudy Ruiz: One reason I love writing magical realism is that the place and culture I was born and raised in felt truly magical to me. A big part of that magic, both in real life contrast to other places and cultures as well as looking back through the filter of my own nostalgia, are distinctive elements: the vibrant colors, the lyrical music, the elaborate folkloric costumes, the tragic histories, and the constantly dramatic twists and turns of historic events. So, for me, when I write with the hope to immerse readers in this different, remote, magical place, I try to use all of those dimensions to hopefully place them there in that space and time: I want them to feel the arid desert air. I want them to smell the home-cooking of Solitario Cisneros’ sargento’s wife, Otila, as she labors over the stove. I want them to bear witness to the changes that occur in Olvido, when the riverbed dries up, and the dust blankets the once-vibrant hues of the stuccoed buildings lining the plaza. All of that is part of the journey. And, the fact that the protagonist is always clad in his black charro suit, renders him in stark relief, an unwavering paragon of sobriety and solemnity through the worse of changing times.
SR: While reading your book, I felt so clever whenever I caught a piece of foreshadowing — remembering the two women in fine dresses and Solitario’s belt — yet I was still completely surprised by the final reveal! How did you go about planning the mystery of the novel--was it knowing your mastermind and working backwards to add in all the twists and fakeouts, or were you along for the ride in discovering as you wrote it?
RR: Valley of Shadows is my first novel that ventures into the territory of mystery and crime. As such, one thing I realized from the start was that I needed to outline it in much more detail than my pervious works of fiction. You have to know where you’re headed with the story and with the characters’ individual arcs so that you can plant clues as well as red herrings along the way. This aspect of writing mystery actually was a very enjoyable challenge for me, so I am glad you enjoyed it as well and felt both like you knew what might be going on only to still be caught off guard at the end. I think that balance of accurate insights, dramatic tension, and genuine surprises makes for the most engaging kind of mystery. In actuality, my first outline did not include exact final reveal that ended up in the final draft. As I wrote the story, I kept thinking that I really needed to bring maximum personal and emotional impact to the conclusion, and that led me down the road I eventually settled on for the climax. The wonderful part of working from a detailed outline is always keeping in mind that is a useful guide, but you can always keep tinkering with it until it feels just right, so that the dynamic flows between spontaneous storytelling, character development that surprises even the author, and resulting choices that those characters almost make for you as you write. To me, when I’m in that zone, or “flow” as some writers call it, that is the most transporting and transcendent aspect of the writing experience. I find it greatly invigorating.
SR: Coming from reading your previous The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, I was delighted to realize that Solitario’s story was as an ancestor to Fulgencio’s, from the names of the ranches to the continued theme for naming the horses! In an interview with Must Read Fiction back in 2020, you mentioned how you spent about two decades working on The Resurrection; are these similarities simply an homage to a specific setting you spent so much time with, or can we see the sixty-year gap between Solitario and Fulgencio as a family, a culture persisting?
RR: I think it’s a little bit of both. And, thank you for reading both novels! I think together they give a reader a much more complete and nuanced view over multiple generations of how one traumatic historical event can impact a family over – in this case – a century and a half.
Although it did take me two decades to take Fulgencio from first draft to publication, I’ve actually been living with the historical events, real life stories, legends, and consequences that inspired the kernels of both books for my entire life. So, more than homage to The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, I think Valley of Shadows is a deeper dive into the backstory of the family curse that haunts the men in the Cisneros clan, its origins, and the particular historical period in which this “maldicíón de Caja Pinta” was forged. In that sense, this is indeed a story of one family’s struggle to survive and persist through the injustices wrought upon them by the U.S.-Mexico War, the Rio Grande being declared the border in 1850, the widespread of loss of lands, status, legal and human rights in South Texas and all along the border as Tejanos and Mexicans were systematically robbed of their lands, massacred, and subjected to generations of racism and discrimination. Both novels are bound by the intertwined efforts of multiple family members striving to overcome a curse birthed in the waters of the Rio Grande and exacerbated by the greed and avarice of the Anglo invaders who rode in and categorically oppressed Mexicans and Native Americans throughout the Southwest, in ways similar to their ongoing post-Civil War oppression of Blacks in the South throughout the Jim Crow era and beyond. This is why the journey through historical fiction is fascinating. So much of the social injustices we are still battling today, and the multigenerational trauma resulting from those atrocities committed against communities of color, persist unequivocally and often times with little evidence of change. The Black Lives Matter movement and the harrowing events surrounding the egregious death of George Floyd were seared into my mind as I wrote Valley of Shadows. In order to overcome these ongoing injustices, all people of color must share their stories. It is the only way our families and our cultures can persist and, through collaboration and empathy, eventually reap the rewards of progress.
SR: Continuing to compare Fulgencio and Solitario, especially within the context of their maldición as machismo, the way Solitario resigns himself to the curse is such a contrast to the way Fulgencio fights against it, yet it still encompasses that desire for complete control over one’s fate. Were there any new angles of examining machismo you found when crafting Fulgencio and his story?
RR: Yes, it was fascinating for me to explore how cultural traits and multigenerational traumas impact different members of the same family in different ways. Each person is their own world, goes the saying.
In The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, Fulgencio is empowered to fight against the maldición and the machismo because he is a product of both a different era (1950’s and 1980’s) and also of acculturation. He is first generation American-born. He loves a woman with a different culture and background, and he aspires for her love and for the American Dream. This all drives him to fight the maldición and the machismo. He has a “can-do” spirit and a willingness to change that I believe is part of the acculturation process but is also unique to him as an individual. When Fulgencio sets his mind on something, he will find a way to accomplish it, even if it takes more than a lifetime.
On the other hand, in Valley of Shadows, Solitario Cisneros was born and raised in Mexico in the mid- to late-1800’s. His brand of machismo is actually more toned-down than Fulgencio’s. He does not suffer from insecurities that cause jealousy and possessives, but instead his machismo manifests in flashes of arrogance and pride, in believing he could actually outrun the curse. He resigns himself to living with the curse, but instead of continuing to act out in ways that hurt others, he isolates himself to avoid inflicting suffering on the people he loves. He is quite tragic in that way, as opposed to Fulgencio who is all about hope and resurrection. I think, again, the choices I made contrast how people deal with the same essential issues in different ways, whether it’s because they’re living in a different time, raised in a different version of the Mexican-American culture, or simply a different kind of soul and personality.
SR: Our beginning lasers in on vegetables floating in a soup, only to supernova into our first gorey scene. It flashbangs the reader, almost like a jumpscare in a horror movie. The other death reveals went similarly. What was the process of handling these gruesome deaths and getting that punch out of them?
RR: Intimacy. For me, true horror is born of intimate vulnerability. I yearned to create characters and dynamics that the reader would truly care about. What I love most about a good thriller or horror story is not the gore but the suspense. If you don’t care about the characters on a human level, then there is no real emotional tension. With many aspects of the book, I wanted to start small, think simply, pay attention to the tiny details that make a person and their life feel real and worth living and saving. Then from there, when you go big with the drama or the horror, you can really stun the reader and move them on a deeper level.
SR: You manage to buoy readers’ spirits with Solitario’s best friend Elias, who at one point compares himself to Don Quixote’s comic relief foil Sancho Panza; despite all the gloom and tragedy happening, Elias is unfailing in his role. Not even death can stop your characters, a sentiment turned profound in the acknowledgements: “Sometimes what keeps us company is the very soil we stand on, the air we breathe, the trees we shelter beneath.” How was the balancing act between tragedy and humor to get across the perpetual message of “even when our closest loved ones cross the border to The Other Side, their spirits, their teachings, their love remain with us,” as you said in an interview with Deborah Kalb back in 2021?
RR: Sometimes, when I think of the people that I have loved who have passed to El Otro Lado, it makes me sad. I miss them. If they could speak to me, though, from the great beyond, what would they say? Would they want me to mourn them, or would they want me to draw joy from their love and the times and memories we shared? I believe people like my departed father, my beloved abuelitas and abuelitos, they would want to bring a smile to my face and add some spring to my step. They would want me to feel good, because that’s how they always made me feel when I was in their company.
One of the life’s most daunting challenges is learning how to find hope amidst tragedy, to find comfort after loss. This balancing process is keeps us going and is part of our indomitable human spirit.
In my writing, I strive for a delicate balance between tragedy and humor to seamlessly blend the world of the living and the dead in a way that is comforting rather than alarming, a way that brings hope rather than horror. That is one of my favorite aspects of the way the porous border between life and death is manifested in magical realism.
Speaking of the border, this is the third part to that balancing act, which is not dichotomous. The quote you refer to in your question alludes to the role of place, how a physical environment, like the border, the desert, or whatever place one calls home, takes on an eternal life of its own. A place can defy time and logic. And in that space, everything that came before and everything that is yet to come is with you all at once. It is as if the people you shared that world with infused it with their spirit, and so when you are there you are also with them in a place beyond time.
SR: You disavow the type of solitude Solitario sought in your acknowledgements: “Writing itself is a solitary craft, yet it reminds me that…For words to be made real, they must be read…Storytelling should be called storysharing.” How would you say your time at Harvard influenced this approach to a community of stories, both your degree in public policy and the work you’ve done with it since and your participation in Raza?
RR: Life experience is vital to writing from an authentic place. When I left my hometown and family as a 17-year-old to head to Harvard, I was thrust into a long series of culture-shocking, soul-jarring experiences. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have made it if my parents and grandparents hadn’t given me the strong foundation that they did. I talked to them religiously every Sunday on the old landline I shared with my roommates. But, because of often lonely days of adjustment to a whole new way of life, surrounded by very different people, thousands of miles away from home, I think I learned a thing or two about isolation and alienation, and how a character like Solitario Cisneros might have felt when he was forced to leave everyone and everything he knew behind, not once but twice. In the end, though, fortunately, I took the same kind of journey that Solitario does – minus all the drama and the bloodshed – which is why I write novels instead of memoirs.
The sense of community I found at Harvard, sitting around a dining hall table once a week with other members of the Mexican-American student group, RAZA, was restorative, healing and reassuring to say the least. In those conversations, there were reminders of home and family and shared acknowledgements of the distinct challenges we were facing coming from far away – geographically, culturally, and economically – and trying to not only survive, but also compete with way more privileged and better prepared students that often were living only moments away from their families in the Northeast. So, yes, those communities of “camaradas,” both in college and while I at was earning my Master’s at the Kennedy School of Government, were essential to my well-being and a constant reminder that I was not alone. That realization dovetailed with my interest in public policy because when you do share your stories and your dreams with a community, you receive back both reinforcement but perhaps even more importantly, additional perspectives. And you realize, we are not alone and there is a great deal of work for us to do together to make the world a better place for others like us. That extra inspiration, combined with the education, contacts, and skills one can attain at a place like Harvard, infuse you with a sense of responsibility. The responsibility I feel is to do the things that are hard not simply because I enjoy doing them, but because they are also going to benefit others. I’ve followed that philosophy throughout all of my work and its roots are in in the passion for advocacy I developed at Harvard as well as in the values my parents and grandparents raised me to believe and honor.
SR: How has being a regular special contributor on CNN impacted your writing?
RR: It is difficult to be heard in the crowded marketplace of ideas, and CNN provides a far-reaching platform. At first it was thrilling to know that tens or hundreds of thousands of people were reading my columns. For me it was a moment where I regained some confidence in a part of my American Dream that was in danger of fading, the part of the dream that involved being able to make a difference in our society. After a few years, though, and seeing no traction or change on the issues I advocated for, I had to question: Why am I doing this? Did I start writing political commentary because I wanted to write and make noise and become known? Or did I do it because I wanted to help change minds and effect change? For me, the motivation was the latter, but all I could see happening was the former, and the confrontational negativity and stress that came with that. That is why I turned my focus back to fiction writing. However, the experience of writing for CNN and for the Red, Brown & Blue website that I also created and ran, honed my thinking and helped me find my voice as a writer of socially engaged fiction, or what some might call protest literature.
SR: How has your dedication to addressing social issues in your fiction changed with your essays and nonfiction being used in wider discussion?
RR: Writing hard-hitting and sharply pointed political commentary made me yearn for the subtlety, humanity, empathy, love and hope that writing fiction affords. Before I got into writing columns and opinion editorials, I was not writing fiction with a political or social agenda. I had not truly found my voice as a writer until – after a few years of writing political commentary – I turned back to the refuge of fiction. At that time, I brought a clearer vision to my fiction writing. I yearned to represent the unheard voices and expose the untold histories of our community and its vital role in America. I had been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform in my political commentary for years to no avail, and I was seeking out a different avenue to connect with people on the issue, feeling that the news media environment was so polarized that my attempts at being thoughtful and creative would fail to change anybody’s mind. My turn to fiction writing led to my short story collection, Seven for the Revolution, released in 2013. Each of the seven stories in the book centers on a different undocumented immigrant and their struggles and dreams. My hope was – through empathy – to help open America’s eyes to the need for change. Still, nothing has changed. But unlike op-eds and columns, books have a sense of permanency, a shelf life. Nobody wants to read an opinion piece from a decade ago, but they’ll pick up a book and give it a chance. Since then, I’ve kept infusing my writing with social issues I care about and with the last two novels delved more deeply into the historical injustices and atrocities that have been inflicted on Mexican-Americans and Native Americans along the border and in the Southwest. I write political and social commentary much more selectively these days, but I hope that, over time, my fiction writing will help make a long-term difference in how our community is seen and heard by the rest of the country and world as well as how we perceive ourselves.
SR: You mentioned drawing inspiration for Valley of Shadows from writers like Laura Esquivel and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in an interview with Sara Farmer early this October; how do you feel like your stories are in conversation with theirs?
RR: Gabriel Garcia Marquez started something wonderful, and many writers have drawn inspiration from his groundbreaking work. I always loved books, but the first time I felt a deep cultural connection to literature and saw my own experiences, language and family life reflected in what I was reading wasn’t until college, when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish. I fell in love with magical realism and realized it was the style in which I was meant to write. Growing up in Latino cultures, and along a national border, I was accustomed to a very fluid way of life. The borders were porous, between concepts of nationhood, time, even life and death. I saw that in Marquez’s work and it truly spoke to me. Laura Esquivel writes beautifully and continues to explore that sub-genre of what is known as speculative fiction. I was inspired by Like Water for Chocolate. And, later her book Law of Love, which ventured further into merging magical realism with science fiction, cosmology, and integrated music into an immersive experience. Also, of great interest to me was that despite all the whimsy and magic of their writing, they used those devices to make pointed commentary about social issues plaguing their countries and the broader world.
Those were all ideas that I mulled for years, hoping to someday figure out a way to put my own spin on them and build on them yet again to share my stories and perspectives from the point of view of an American, born and raised in this country. I think it is wonderful that Latin American authors are popular in the United States, but I also think it’s vital that Latinos born and raised here as members of a traditionally marginalized minority group gain our fair share of voice. We battle different demons here, not just in the present, but through our complex history, particularly in the states like Texas, which were Spanish and Mexican lands longer than they’ve been part of the United States. So, yes, I hope that my work will be in conversation with those of other Latin American and U.S. Latino writers. We have so much diversity of intellect, experience and talent within both our domestic and international Latino communities, that it is both exciting and an honor to help preserve and advance our culture, advocate for justice for communities of color in the U.S., and work together to further our shared place in the world.
Literature has the power to preserve culture and illuminate the wrongs of history. Given that much of America’s “history” has been written and reinforced in schools as a mythology undergirded by an ulterior sociopolitical and economic agenda, it is ironic that fiction can at times be more honest than history. Socially engaged fiction, or protest literature, is essential to continue fighting for freedom, equality, and honesty in how America perceives, treats, and makes amends with the minority groups that have been systematically oppressed. Fiction is the freedom to face who we have truly been and reimagine ourselves as who we wish to become.
SR: Perhaps I am too entrenched in reading magical realism as of late, but it felt so sparing here, so carefully placed! Beyond seeing through the veil, the magic of his sombrero, necklace, and belt are all gifts that save his life, aid his duties, and drive home the unparalleled importance of support within a community. What is something that you have — like a trinket or a memory — that is imbued with that same magic?
RR: My memories of growing up along the border are my priceless artifacts. They rattle around in the miniature treasure chest that is the human mind. I feel compelled to share them through my books so that when I’m gone, they’ll survive and fall into the hands of others, hopefully imbuing a moment of their lives with that same inspiring and unforgettable magic.