When did you first visit Terlingua, and what brought you?
My first visit was early March in 2007. I came to run the river. I’d been wanting to row my raft through some of the Rio Grande’s nearby canyons for years, but hadn’t gotten around to it. I canoed the Lower Canyons at low water with a small group guided by one of the river companies out of Terlingua. The Lower Canyons are strikingly beautiful. They comprise the most remote and rugged stretch of our 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
Was your canoe trip during the Mexican government’s war with the drug cartels?
Yes. President Calderon of Mexico went after the cartels soon after his election in 2006. In light of current events I was leery of trying the Lower Canyons on my own. There were seven of us. The river company hadn’t done the Lower Canyons for a couple of years.
Were you thinking of a certain year as you were writing the story?
2008. That was the summer of the super-high gas prices and of Hurricane Dolly.
It sounds like some time went by between your canoe trip and the writing of the story.
A couple of years went by. During that time I did a ton of reading about the Big Bend’s human history and natural history. I wanted whatever story I might write to be steeped in the color, texture, and spirit of the place.
Did you always have a river story in mind?
No, I cast a really wide net. I was considering a historical novel set during the time of Pancho Villa and the Mexican revolution. I was also thinking about a contemporary story featuring the international chili cookoffs held annually in Terlingua. I had made a return trip to Terlingua in ’08 for the Day of the Dead and the chili cook-offs. I finally decided on a new and different border story to accompany my earlier Crossing the Wire. With Crossing the Wire the setting was the Arizona border and the background subject was illegal immigration. With Take Me to the River the setting would be the Texas border and the background subject would be the drug war in Mexico and its larger context involving the U.S. I framed both of these novels as adventure stories.
From your dedication, it sounds like you met kids from Terlingua School.
I did, in the fall of ’08, and they were wonderful. I told them I was hoping to write a story set in their area. I asked if they might help me out by giving me an idea of what it was like to grow up in the Big Bend area. Their feelings about the place helped me to create Dylan’s cousin Rio, who has grown up in Terlingua Ghost Town.
Did anything specific end up in the story?
When I asked what they liked to do for fun, one of the students mentioned throwing fireworks down a mineshaft along with his buddies. (Wait a second. Did I just write that he threw his buddies down a mineshaft?) Here’s what ended up in my novel: After burgers at the Starlight in Chapter 4, Rio asks Dylan if he wants to light fireworks and throw them down a mineshaft. (Dylan is way too tired, and declines the offer.) It was a way for me to show the risk-taking side of Rio’s personality. A few pages later Rio will suggest that the two of them run a remote part of the river entirely on their own. It was also a way to touch on Terlingua Ghost Town’s mining history, about which I’d read an entire book.
In your novel, Dylan and Rio drop off donated supplies at a Mexican village on the Rio Grande called Boquillas del Carmen. Is that a real village?
Yes, and the plight of the people there in the wake of 9/11 is all too real. Their economy dried up overnight when the U.S. closed the informal border crossings along the river. I used the actual name of the volunteer group from the Big Bend area—Fronteras Unlimited—that introduced quilt-making to the village. They helped Boquillas survive by importing the quilts and other village crafts to Texas and marketing them there.
Is there really a lodge in the mountains on the Mexican side of the river?
There is. I fictionalized the place in the story. The drug-war-related events that happened there in the story are fiction as well. I would describe Take Me to the River as realistic fiction.