Having covered terrorism for years, I’m fascinated by radicalization

Interview of Sebastian Rotella by Bernard Strainchamps (December 03, 2014)

Sebastian Rotella

Sebastian Rotella is the author of Triple Crossing. He is a senior reporter for ProPublica, a newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism in the public interest. He covers international security issues. He was a Pulitzer finalist for international reporting in 2006.

The opening of the novel is beautiful and very cinematic. Do you write with images and sounds in your head?

Thank you for that kind comment and for the opportunity to talk about the book. My stories grow largely out of my experiences and are driven by character and setting. The landscape of the opening of The Convert’s Song has special resonance: the ethnic neighborhoods and lakefront of Chicago, where I grew up. It is turf full of beauty, danger, mystery, nostalgia and melancholy for me and for the characters as well. The book opens on a fateful night for the childhood friendship of Raymond and Pescatore. The images of the prologue try to establish a sense of place, a mood of change and loss.

In addition, music plays a big role in my daily life and my creative process. I write with a soundtrack in my head. In this novel, I took that approach even further because Raymond is a singer. Music is central to his life, to his dangerous charm: his siren song. Music evokes the past he shares with Valentino. Music in the book also represents identity, sub-cultures, urban tribes, languages, places and memories. Each chapter title is the title of a song related to the action, mood and ideas of the chapter.

How do you find and work on an opposition such as the one between Valentino and Raymond?

There’s a line in a Wim Wenders film in which he talks about the idea of strong characters as the heart of the story. The plot grows out of the spaces between the characters, he says. The character of Raymond has two main sources. He’s an outgrowth of the already existing character of Pescatore, and he’s emblematic of a personality type I’ve come across covering international terrorism.

My first novel, Triple Crossing, introduced Pescatore as a young Border Patrol agent from a tough neighborhood and a troubled past. He strayed close to the border between cop and criminal. In this book, I explore that past as the foundation of a new story. Raymond is an “inconvenient friend” who almost pulled Pescatore across the line, who resurfaces now to shake up his new life. Their friendship and conflict grows out of their similarities. Both come from Latin immigrant backgrounds. Both have a chameleon-like quality: fast talkers and agile operators in a terrain shaped by modern tribal factions and conflicts. They are both innate undercover operatives.

Raymond takes this skill to a predatory extreme, however. He thrives on betrayal and manipulation. In U.S. law enforcement slang, he’s always ready to “flip:” to make a deal if he gets caught. His character is inspired by a recurring type of real-life figure in terrorism cases I have covered. They are born double agents who inhabit the shadows where mafias, terrorist groups and spy agencies converge. Whether arms traffickers or drug dealers, they juggle allegiances, always have something or someone to sell, and don’t hesitate to change sides. This helps them survive, but also makes them profoundly solitary.

Pescatore, in contrast to Raymond, has matured and changed. He has chosen a side. Though still a streetwise operator, he has developed a strong code of ethics and loyalty. In a way, Raymond is Pescatore’s doppleganger, a dark version of himself that is both attractive and repulsive. Pescatore, meanwhile, represents a rare vulnerability for Raymond. Despite his treachery, Raymond cherishes their childhood friendship and shows a rare loyalty to Pescatore. Hopefully, this all creates an interesting and suspenseful conflict.

What led you to write about conversion to Islam and antisemitic attacks?

Having covered terrorism for years, I’m fascinated by radicalization. It grows out of a quest for identity as much as it does out of religion. It sweeps up young people who feel marooned between worlds, whether second-generation Muslims or simply lost and troubled souls. They find refuge in a group allegiance that lets them construct a new identity as a holy warrior. Converts are often the fiercest extremists because they make the biggest leap, they have the most to prove. In some ways, this is a version of the existential process by which people join gangs, guerrilla groups, armies and police forces. It is a world that I wanted to explore both as an interesting reality and a powerful metaphor.

As for anti-Semitic attacks, I first covered Islamic terrorism in Argentina in the 1990s, writing about the bombings of the Israeli embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center. I got to know survivors, investigators and others involved. The cases taught me a lot. They revealed a regional underworld that combined Islamic extremism with a far-right, neo-Nazi ideology forged by Latin American dictatorships and dirty wars of the past. That dangerous ideological cocktail endures and poses a threat to Jewish communities. There are echoes of this kind of extremism in Europe.

As the book shows, however, Islamic terrorism is also a dire menace to the Muslim world. In fact, Muslims are the most frequent targets. Pescatore witnesses terrorist attacks in the West and the Middle East and his reaction to the victims, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, is the same: “God rest their souls.”

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is mentioned and quoted in your novel. What does this author represent for you? In a broader sense, which authors made you want to write?

The book quotes a great line from Taibo about the idea that, in Latin America, paranoia is common sense. Taibo is not a big influence on me, I have only read a couple of his works. But I like the way he uses crime fiction, and a very Mexican sense of hard-boiled humor, to explore labyrinths of corruption and injustice.

As for authors who made me want to write, there are many. Here’s an attempt at a list: Alexandre Dumas. The crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the espionage tales of Eric Ambler and Frederick Forsyth. Classics: Salinger, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Camus. Chicago writers: Nelson Algren and Mike Royko. The silly delightful world of P.G. Wodehouse. Specific books: Serpico, The Hustler, Fat City, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In college, the Latin Americans, particularly Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa. I had the good fortune of studying with Jim Shepard, a great professor and master of the American short story. Other influences: Robert Stone, Richard Price, Tom Wolfe, Don DeLillo, John LeCarre, Elmore Leonard, V.S. Naipaul, Madison Bell, Leonardo Sciascia. Finally, as inspirations and generous, stand-up guys, Mike Connelly and George Pelecanos.

The novel takes place in Argentina, in Uruguay but also in France. Do you usually do a lot of research before you start to write?

I don’t do a lot of traditional research. I draw on my experiences as a foreign correspondent in South America, Europe and other regions, and an investigative journalist. I’ve spent much of my career travelling the world and covering all kinds of stories, especially about law enforcement, intelligence, terrorism, mafias, migration and justice. I keep those professional worlds separate. I don’t consciously regard my reporting as research for fiction. But when I sit down to write a novel, I am able to mine a trove of knowledge and experience. Hopefully, it helps create a rich and realistic world.

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