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'The Bullet Swallower' sees the Texas-Mexico border through a magical realism lens

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Growing up, Elizabeth Gonzales James heard a violent tale about her great-grandfather, Antonio Gonzales.

ELIZABETH GONZALEZ JAMES: It was that my great-grandfather was a bandito. He was put in jail in Houston. He broke out, got chased down by the Texas Rangers and was shot in the face and left for dead. But he lived and eventually made it back to his family in Mexico.

SHAPIRO: That earned him a nickname - El Tragabalas, the bullet swallower. He became a minor local legend, and he inspired Elizabeth Gonzales James' new novel, called "The Bullet Swallower." She describes the book as a magical realism western about a Mexican bandito and his movie star grandson. The figure spanning these generations is a character she invented named Remedio.

GONZALEZ JAMES: Remedio took a little while to nail down. Without giving too much away, he is a sort of soul collector. He is tasked by someone - God perhaps, or a godlike figure - to take people who are dead to where their soul is supposed to go. And he's so interesting because he can move timelines, but he's also trying to understand who he is and what his job is, like, in the context of the entire universe. And so there's a lot of space for me to kind of ask these really big questions like, why do people do bad things? Why does God let bad things happen? What is the punishment for evil?

SHAPIRO: Were you trying to portray something specific about the Texas-Mexico border and the relationship between the Mexicans and the white Texans in that time?

GONZALEZ JAMES: I grew up on the Texas-Mexico border. I grew up in Laredo, Texas, until I was 10. And then we moved to Corpus Christi, which is not on the border, but it's pretty close. I think explaining Texas to myself is probably going to be, like, the great project of my authorial life. I'm constantly thinking about Texas and constantly trying to understand it. And if I was trying to communicate anything about the border, it was hopefully that it is a very fluid place, a very complicated place and a really incredibly beautiful place that I'm very proud to have grown up in. And I hope that I showed that in this novel, and I hope that I, if anything, maybe complicated the picture of what the border is and showed how it resists these very simplistic narratives that people want to keep putting on it.

SHAPIRO: The book fits very elegantly into a particular genre of outlaw Western stories. And so did you feel like you had to include certain set pieces? Like, you got to have a brothel scene. You got to have a scene on the train. You got you got to have the shootouts, a drought. You know, it's like, can't really be a Western unless it checks certain boxes.

GONZALEZ JAMES: That's really funny. I did not give any thought to including or not including tropes in the novel. I think that once I decided to write the story and once I decided, OK, it probably in real life took place sometime in the 1890s, well then, the time period and the place sort of dictated that some of these set pieces were going to be present, right? And there was actually a terrible drought in South Texas at that time. So a little bit of it was imagination, and a little bit of it was fitting within genre conventions. And a little bit of it was historical research.

SHAPIRO: There's a line early in the book where you write, men were most inventive when they were devising ways to be wicked. And I wondered if that's part of the reason you as a writer gravitate to these kinds of outlaw stories.

GONZALEZ JAMES: It's possible. Yeah. I mean...

SHAPIRO: Like, it's just more fun to write about people doing bad things than good things.

GONZALEZ JAMES: Oh, of course. And, I mean, that's, like, writing 101. You need to torture your characters. You need to create dynamic characters who are constantly messing up. Those are the most interesting characters. And I really love movies about bad people - you know, "Goodfellas" or "There Will Be Blood." These are terrible people. You would never want to spend any time with them, and yet they're so fascinating to watch on the screen because you're just waiting to see, like, what awful thing are they going to do next?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So what do you think your great grandfather, Antonio Gonzales, the real bullet swallower, would have made of this book.

GONZALEZ JAMES: I'm not sure. I think about that a lot. I never met him. I never met his son, either. He died before I was born. I never met my father's father. I hope that he would enjoy it. I hope that he would be the sort of person who would have a good sense of humor and enjoy being the subject of a novel, you know, in a time and place that he probably couldn't even really conceive of. But I did feel like I had to make his ghost happy insofar as I could, never having met the man.

SHAPIRO: Elizabeth Gonzales James. Her new novel is "The Bullet Swallower." Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

GONZALEZ JAMES: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRUNZ AND FARAH'S "IDA Y VUELTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gus Contreras
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.