I’ll be honest when I say that a historical Western is not my cup of whiskey, but Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s The Bullet Swallower (Simon & Schuster, 2024) isn’t really that. It’s an intergenerational magical realism Western with a splash of sixties silver screen flair and a garnish of philosophical questions about fate.
I often think about my ancestors, their traumas, and how much this impacts present day, so I was compelled to read about a “cosmic debt generations in the making.” Are we all paying for our great-grandfathers’ mistakes?
Inspired by her own history Gonzalez James does what I hope to do: craft ancestral stories into something readers might care about, like the whispers of betrayal and tragic deaths in the backdrop of political tensions. It can be challenging to balance personal stories with the conventions of any one genre that will hold a reader’s attention, but luckily Gonzalez James has figured it out. The former Rumpus Interviews editor plucks ingredients and tenderly places them in a caldron much like one of her characters, Cielita, to create an alluring mixture of page-pulsing adventure, family lore, and forgiveness. The result is a novel that pulls in the best of so many genres, making it an appealing read for a kaleidoscopic intersection of audiences.
I was delighted to connect with Gonzalez James over email about poetic prose, the importance of empathy on the page, and the profoundest thing someone can do.
The Rumpus: In the author’s note, you write, “Everything is true except for the stuff I made up.” The character of Antonio Sonoro, the Bullet Swallower, is based on your own great-grandfather, but there’s so much that fills in the space between history and imagination. How did you balance bringing someone so fully to the page that is also tied to your own history?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: This was a process that took three years. I started writing a rough draft in 2016 but didn’t get a full draft until 2019. I would write a bunch of pages, realize I didn’t like the direction I was going in, start over, write for a while, quit, and start over. It was a nightmare. All during this time, I was trying to write a true story using my great-grandfather’s real name and real history, but the story was very hampered by this. After he was shot by the Texas Rangers, my great-grandfather hid out in an encampment of former slaves and then reappeared in Mexico after a year and rejoined his family. I eventually realized that I didn’t want to stick to this exact story. I wanted to play around with magical realism tropes and Western tropes and add a whole lot of craziness because that’s what is fun to me as a writer and a reader. But I think I had to try it the straight way before I could try it the slant way.
Rumpus: It’s paying off! In particular, so much of the various physical pain—like getting shot in the face!—and even the emotional pain throughout the book felt embodied. How did you tap into this?
Gonzalez James: As I am lucky enough to have never been shot in the face, I had to do a lot of imagining about what that would have felt like. I looked at a lot of photos of WWI soldiers who suffered severe facial wounds during the war, and I used those as a pivot point from which to describe Antonio’s face after the wound. I also read first-hand accounts of what it felt like to be shot or stabbed on places like Reddit. According to survivors, getting stabbed hurts a whole lot more than getting shot, for whatever that’s worth.
Rumpus: One aspect that struck me was the stunning language choices. Every line is beautifully poetic yet moved the story forward at a page-turning clip. Tell me more about your writing process. Are you one to think of a metaphor, for instance, and find a way to write around it, or do these come about more during the revision phase?
Gonzalez James: I sort of forget what it’s like to write a book as soon as it’s done—much like giving birth. You’d never do it again if you really remembered what it was like! I believe that some of what made it through to the finished book is the same as it was in the rough draft, and some of what’s there was reworked a million times. So in terms of the language, I’d say there’s a bit of both in there—sometimes a great metaphor comes to me fully formed, and other times I put in something cliched until I can come up with a more precise and interesting way of saying it in revisions. And yes, I do read poetry for inspiration, a habit I picked up from Cristina Garcia. She reads poetry for ten minutes before she sits down to write. I don’t stick to that exactly, but I do try to read poetry as often as I can. I have also evolved a practice over the years of writing until I get stuck and then picking up some knitting or crocheting—I always have several projects of either going on at all times—and doing that for a few minutes until I have the next line or two. I can go for several hours like that, writing and knitting and writing and knitting. I finished a whole blanket during revisions for this book.
Rumpus: While some of the political commentary about borders, racism, survival, and violent masculinity was hard to read, it’s necessary to contextualize the realities Mexicans faced—and still face. Were there self-care practices that helped protect your mental health during the years-long writing of these traumas?
Gonzalez James: I was writing the novel during the Trump years, when I had to see children in cages, heard college students screaming, “Build the wall,” and saw literal Nazis march through the country vowing that Jews wouldn’t replace them. And though I didn’t intend for all of this to go into the book, it went in anyway. I think it would have felt false to not include it. So no, there aren’t any self-care rituals to sort of lessen the pain of knowing that half the country hates you. But the book was maybe a self-care ritual, I guess. It was torture to write, but now that it’s over I’m really proud of what I’ve done, and I feel that I’ve really contributed something of value to the world. And that feels good.
Rumpus: Your book is described as a cross of Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel García Márquez, so I’m curious what other writers influence your style and inspiration.
Gonzalez James: I’ve drawn a huge amount of inspiration from Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders, and I can feel their influence in my work. Probably Marilynne Robinson too. Vonnegut is so funny and fearless, and I think we share a similar sense of the absurd. Saunders is absurd, too, and I love that about his work. In his essays and lectures, he also emphasizes the importance of empathy when writing. When he’s revising, he always asks himself, “How can I love these characters more?” That’s something I try to emulate. And Robinson is such an erudite writer who’s highly influenced by her religious beliefs and her intellectual engagement with these beliefs. I do that a lot, too, not in any conscious way in which to copy her but just because I’m always thinking about religion and God and spirituality and because I think the big questions are the most important ones.
Rumpus: Westerns tend to be white heterosexual cis male-dominated with plenty of machismo. What aspects of femininity are brought to counterbalance the typical landscape? Do you think this book will widen the door for others behind you so there’s more diversity in literature?
Gonzalez James: I had to sort of un-female myself a little in writing this book because I had to think as a man, act as a man, respond to problems as a man. Not just any man but a violent, macho man from a rigidly patriarchal society a long time ago. It’s not a perspective that came easily to me at all. I originally had a lot more female characters in the book, too, and an entire feminist arc that happened in 1964. Unfortunately, they had to be cut because they weren’t gelling with the whole. But for the women who remain, Jesusa and Cielita, I hope that I gave them a little more agency and pluck than a reader might expect. It’s hard because women in Mexico in 1895 were not afforded much freedom, and I couldn’t make them act like women in 2024. Still, I tried to do right by them. As for opening the door, hell yes. I would love to think I did that.
Rumpus: In the author’s note, you mention the importance of the library as a source for your research. Every page is well-researched without it being heavy handed— the way trains operate, the movie studio scene of Mexico in the 1960s, sex workers in the 1800s of Texas, the riot in Corpus Christi. I’m curious how all of this research stayed organized alongside your own family lore?
Gonzalez James: I used Scrivener to organize my research and to keep track of chapters and drafts. No exaggeration—I would not have been able to write this book without Scrivener. And sadly, I switched computers in 2021 and in the transfer most of my old files were lost, including all the research documents I used to write the novel. But I know I read something like fifty or sixty books and took notes on each one. It was honestly too much. I’ll never write historical fiction again.
Rumpus: Were some of the primary sources that you used in the book based on actual wanted posters, the fake book excerpt The Ignominious History of The Sonoro Family or the YouTube videos of your cousin Lalo?
Gonzalez James: The wanted poster and the Ignominious History were completely fictional, though it would be cool to pull a Borges and just start referring to Ignominious History like it was a real book. I did watch the film El Tragabalas (“The Bullet Swallower”) from 1964, though as I explain in my author’s note, the film has nothing to do with my great-grandfather. It’s cool to watch my cousin’s videos on YouTube, though, and to read the comments and see how much joy he continues to bring to the world. I was even at a folklorico performance in Oakland once and recognized a dance Lalo made up called the Taconazo—they were performing it in the exact same way and were even wearing the same style of Tamaulipecan outfit he used to wear.
Rumpus: This novel echoes some of your own family rumors that someone was outcast for pursuing the knowledge of their ancestry. How has your family reacted to you undertaking this project?
Gonzalez James: Unfortunately—or fortunately—my father and his side of the family are all getting up there in years, and they haven’t read the novel and may not be aware that I’ve even written it. I suspect that some family members would react the same way my grandfather did when Lalo announced he was making a film about my great-grandfather: They’d be angry and would say that it wasn’t right. I imagine others would give their blessing. The people I really wanted to do right by were the spirits of Antonio and Lalo. I wanted to tell a great story that they could be proud of. And since neither one of them has visited me in my dreams, I assume they are pleased with how it turned out.
Rumpus: The structure of the book is in four parts, with a prologue and epilogue, and, for the most part, we toggle between two timelines, 1895 and 1964. How did you land on this structure and pacing?
Gonzalez James: I always intended the book to take place over two or three timelines because I always intended the book to be split between what really happened and then the movie version of what happened. I also have the third perspective of Maria Rocha as she records the history of their family and meditates on what it all means. Jaime’s part of the story was originally much, much bigger. The draft I submitted to my agent was over five hundred pages with Jaime’s story taking up half the book. But before we went on submission, my agent told me he thought I needed to take Jaime out of the story. I was very upset to hear this, but I knew that he was right. So I took an axe and cut him out of the story. The funny thing is that when the book sold and I was discussing it with the acquiring editor, he said, “It feels like someone is missing from this story.” I felt my soul leave my body. In the end I put Jaime back in but in little pieces because his stakes were never going to match up with Antonio’s. I couldn’t give him the same page count.
Rumpus: Yes, Antonio definitely drives the story. He was viewed as a violent outlaw to outsiders, but readers get to know of the nuances of his motivations and emotional journey—and he’s funny! What does humanizing a person known for the worst thing they’ve ever done do for us as a society?
Gonzalez James: This goes back to what I admire about Saunders and Robinson, which is that they really value the humanity in their characters, and they have profound empathy for them. I converted to Judaism in 2021, and one of the things I’ve learned is that, in the kabbalistic tradition, it’s believed that all people carry a piece of God’s divine light inside of them. This has become a guiding principle of how I live and how I write. Imagine what it would look like if we believed every person had the light of God inside of them, inside of themselves. Recognizing the divine in others is maybe the profoundest thing a person can do.
Rumpus: The setting is a character itself—each sunset described here is unique, and one character, Remedio, says he remembers places by the sky. What role does place have in your writing process?
Gonzalez James: I grew up in South Texas, and Texas still lives large in my imagination. My family still lives in Corpus Christi, and so I’m back there all the time. I’m always trying to soak it all in—the sounds of the birds, the smell of the air before it rains, the rainbow of colors in the sky as day turns to night and back again. I absolutely love describing setting. I could describe it all day long. In the spirit of leaning into the strengths you have as a writer, I try to make setting another character when I write and try to make the picture as vivid for readers as I can.
Rumpus: One theme of this book is time and how it’s not linear but spirals like the “echoes of another’s memories living within us.” How did you manage your own time and writing practice during this project?
Gonzalez James: My writing practice for this book was very rigid for as long as I could sustain it. I had little kids, and I would have to wake up at five in the morning sometimes to squeeze in a couple of hours of work before they woke up. In 2019, after deciding to re-outline and rewrite the entire book for the umpteenth time, I gave myself a pretty rigid schedule of, I believe, writing one chapter every week or every other week. When I re-outlined the book, the outline I came up with was twenty-two pages single spaced. I told you the draft was over five hundred pages! But I sat in my chair and had a finished rough draft after nine months. Just like giving birth. Now I would really like to write every day, but life keeps getting in the way and I’m trying to manage my expectations and be kind to myself. But ideally, I would like to spend my mornings exercising, doing chores, and answering emails, and then spend my afternoons writing. Someday, hopefully, I’ll get there.
Rumpus: Jaime Sonoro, the son, is “struggling to understand his history, to find his own light self in the murk of his ancestors.” Was the idea of understanding or claiming your history motivation in writing this novel?
Gonzalez James: Yes, I believe so. I’m Mexican American, and Mexican history, as well as the history of Latin America in general, is full of tragedy, violence, genocide. It’s weird being Mexican because you’re the product of both colonizer and colonized. You carry both histories inside you, literally, in your blood. In my genealogical research, I found out I had ancestors who were Spanish royalty, who owned silver mines in Mexico, and I found out I had ancestors who were slaves stolen from West Africa. When I write about “the murk of his ancestors,” I am speaking about myself, absolutely. We all probably carry some version of this. And the novel directly asks the question, “Knowing this, can we be better?”
Rumpus: Within this murk are shameful secrets that the grandfather Juan Antonio wanted to keep hidden for the sake of protecting them. Was writing this as fiction more freeing and fun than, say, a memoir about excavating your past?
Gonzalez James: I’m a fiction writer because I like to make stuff up. It’s just more interesting to me. But I think at some level, I’m always writing about myself. You know how Frida Kahlo did all those self-portraits, but sometimes she’s a deer, or sometimes she’s bleeding to death, or sometimes she’s just a beautiful face framed by flowers? I think I do the same thing. I’m always only writing about myself, but I’m hidden up inside my characters in a way that’s sometimes overt and sometimes not. I am planning a future novel about my mother’s side of the family, a dark and twisted tale of family secrets and snake handling set in the eerie badlands of suburban Detroit.
Rumpus: Whether it’s personal legacy or the larger history of a people, what do you hope readers, or perhaps even your own family, will take away from your book?
Gonzalez James: I hope they’re entertained. That’s always my goal. I’m asking people to turn off the TV and stop scrolling TikTok, so I have to entertain them. In terms of a takeaway or a lesson . . . I don’t know. I guess I would hope they get a better understanding of the border, of Mexican people, of the history of violence inflicted on Mexican people by white Texans. But what a reader takes away from a book is entirely up to them. That’s what makes it art: that people interact with it, take it in, make it their own, add their own personal experience. What they take away from that experience isn’t for me to say.
Rumpus: Antonio had sidekicks along his journey, but he felt lonely. As writers, we can feel isolated in our pursuit of a long project, including the time spent just thinking about it, in our heads and perhaps frustrated with finding the right tone or voice or structure. What community did you have along your ride?
Gonzalez James: I have an amazing writers group, the Lady Riders. Some of them were there when I wrote the first word of the first draft, and so they’ve seen the book in every possible incarnation and all of the messy steps along the way. They are enormously talented and are also some of my best friends, and I am so, so, so lucky to have them in my life.
Author photograph by Larry James