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Hidden Place


Shiflett’s suspenseful and provocative literary debut, set in Chicago and Puerto Escondido, a small Mexican beach town 150 miles south of Acapulco.

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Interview with Shawn Shiflett by Raul Deznermio

How did you come to choose Puerto Escondido, a small Mexican beach town, as the setting for most of your debut novel?

When I was in college during the mid 70s, I did a lot of traveling in Mexico—maybe five or six trips, each one for about two weeks. This was before the proliferation of all-inclusive resorts, so when I traveled, I was (thankfully) always nose-to-nose with the culture around me. Same as with Roman, the narrator in the novel, I was an unofficial member of the “backpacking” tourist class. During one of those trips, other tourists I would meet on the road and in cheap hotels kept telling me, “You have to go to Escondido.” It was the hip destination for young-adult foreigners. The Mexicans universally called us “hippies.” Once I went to Escondido, I fell in love with it; for years afterwards I would have brightly colored, euphoric dreams about returning there. The place really had an impact on me personally. Mexico is such a beautiful, steeped-in-rich-culture country, and for me its contradictory streaks of hardcore economic realism and fantastic mysticism all seemed to come together in Escondido. Then again, maybe as a boy from the Midwest, I simply fell in love with that glistening white beach that goes on, and on, and on . . .

Was it a challenge to also write scenes for the same book in the city of Chicago, an extremely different geographical location? And do the different geographical locations impact the tone and style of your writing?

The book is about Roman, and it felt natural to follow him home to Chicago. The strong moral fiber he ultimately exhibits is a result of his upbringing, so the Chicago material serves as his moral compass in the story. It’s in Chicago that Roman is the most self-reflective. When a little girl is hit and killed by a car on Belmont Avenue below his third-story apartment window, he worries about not being able to feel the impact of the death he’s witnessing. But show me someone who worries about being shallow and unfeeling, and I’ll show you someone who is struggling with deep issues of self, is actually feeling like crazy, and just hasn’t realized it yet.

Irvine Welsh says that your book shows how the “stubbornness, vanity, and fears of ordinary people can precipitate a descent into hell.” Do you suppose he is referring only to the North American characters, or to the Mexicans as well?

Irvine strikes me as a guy who doesn’t have a whole lot of use for sentimentality or political correctness in characters, so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that he was commenting on most of my characters. The Norte Americano tourists are stubborn in their hedonistic wants and lazy ignorance of the Indian culture around them. The Indian locals are stubborn in their hatred and opportunistic handling of their tourist guests. The town’s mestizo druggist, Alberto, thinks that aliens from outer space built the pyramids, thereby stubbornly dismissing the capabilities and magnificent historical past of the people around him. Sanchez, Escondido’s Jefe (Chief of Police) stubbornly clings to his authority and control over the town with tactics of intimidation that are at times brutally efficient. Jay, the novel’s antagonist, is a gringo whose racist stubbornness eventually causes so much harm to the people of Escondido. Then there are Mila’s parents (and apparently Mila, too) who stubbornly believe that Jews control much of the world. I get bored with characters who aren’t in some way highly stubborn. That’s just another way of saying they’re flawed, and it’s how characters wrestle with their flaws—or force others to wrestle with them—that interests me.

Do you think the cultural clashes that occur in Hidden Place would take on a different form in today’s world, or is there a more timeless/universal underpinning to those conflicts?

In today’s world it’s much easier to go to a second- or third-world country and barely rub shoulders with the folks who comprise it. I mentioned the phenomenon of all-inclusive resorts. I’ve even been told that in one tourist hot spot in Mexico, the town is building a wall around where the tourists hang out on the beach so that they don’t have to mix with the dirt-poor locals. But silly attempts to keep the world’s haves separated from the world’s have-nots, the globalization of economies, and our easy access to the farthest reaches of the planet are going to inevitably cause quite a historical bump in the road, if those things haven’t already in the form of 9/11. We—that is all of us—simply can’t go on being ignorant of neighbors beyond our own borders. The cultural clashes that occur in Hidden Place have simply intensified, are far more deadly than they were in 1976 and, I’m sorry to say, appear to be timeless and universal. To steal a phrase from Jay in Hidden Place: Everyone’s “taking out a can of whup-ass” on everyone else.

In Hidden Place, the protagonist, Roman, is drawn into a violent beach encounter in the first chapter. The ensuing relationships then lead to further violent encounters. Though Roman is a more peaceful person than some of the other characters, is there a quality inside Roman that draws him to dangerous situations that in theory he would try to avoid?

Don’t let Roman’s smart-ass attitude make you forget that he is the son of a social activist Presbyterian minister. I knew that he was going to finally do the “right thing” long before he did—even if doing the right thing got violently messy for him. One of the things Roman never does is take credit or brag about how brave he is—albeit reluctantly brave. The pattern of his courage is foreshadowed in chapter one when he breaks up a deadly serious knife fight on the beach. His bravery climaxes with his final confrontation with Jay—something he could have easily avoided all together to save his own skin. To appreciate him, a reader has to be willing to honestly ask him or herself, “What would I do in those life threatening situations?” The difference between a hero and the rest of us is that a hero overcomes fear, even if he or she does the overcoming in a way that we’re not always comfortable with. Roman is someone who has been taught not to look the other way in the face of social injustice, whether he wants to or not. That’s his dilemma, and personally I got a hoot out of watching him unsuccessfully try to duck out of his moral responsibilities to his fellow human beings. He also likes to get laid a lot, and I’ll take a brave/horny narrator over a cowardly/prudish one any day.

Can you tell us a little bit about the novel you are currently working on, Hey, Liberal?

Hey, Liberal is about a white boy going to a predominately African-American high school in Chicago just after the Martin Luther King, Jr. riots. It’s loosely based on an experience I went through as a kid. I’m not going to say anything more about it, because I don’t want to jinx the surprises the novel still has in store for me. My goal is to finish it by the end of summer, 2004.

Who have been some of your primary influences as a writer?

I’d say Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky for starters. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men was an important book for me, and for voice and subject permission there’s nothing quite like John Schultz’s Tongues of Men or Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. There’s a long list of African-American writers I count among my influences, including Zora Neal Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright. I should also mention that David Bradley’s Chaneysville Incident is a book that made my hands sweat, as did Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy. Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is unexplainably still one of literature’s best-kept secrets. And I would consider it a mortal sin not to mention Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. All of these writers and more have influenced how I tackle issues of craft and voice on the page. I just disguise what I learned from most of them by using the word fuck a lot.

Are there any writers you can point to whose work you love, but who have definitively NOT had any influence on you?

I greatly admire Virginia Woolf and William Styron’s writing, but if you want to see something hysterically funny, it’s me trying to imitate or borrow from either one of them when it comes to my own work.

Final comment.

When I started to write Hidden Place, I thought it was simply a story about a young man’s first love, but slowly the novel evolved into Roman’s conflict between his safe, clever, generational façade and his troubled conscience. It was his conscience that compelled him to eventually do the right thing. As the chapters unfolded, his struggle developed into a microcosm for the responsibility of us all to give a damn about the well being of others, regardless of gender, race, or culture. In the end, no amount of jaded attitude could prevent Roman from evolving into a hero.

It amuses me that so irreverent a narrator and motley cast of highly flawed characters led me to so moral a Judaic-Christian theme as righteousness. In Hidden Place, I searched for the truth in the subtle ambiguities and stark contradictions of human impulse, behavior, and motivation.

For each of us, the job of caring begins again every day. Maybe I’m just sentimental, but that’s what I believe this book is about.