Borderline: Sam Hawken on ‘Walk Away’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m thrilled to be cyber chatting with Sam Hawken.

Sam is the author of the newly released thriller, Walk Away (Mulholland Books)—the second novel to feature Camaro Espinoza following The Night Charter (2016); Camaro has also appeared in the novellas “Camaro Run,” “Crossfire,” “The Drum,” and “Sisters in Arms” (collectively titled Full Throttle: The Collected Camaro, Vol. 1). Sam’s previous works include the critically acclaimed Borderland Trilogy: Missing, Tequila Sunset, and The Dead Women of Juárez—all of which were nominated for Dagger awards. Born in Texas, he now makes his home outside of Baltimore with his wife and son.

sam-hawken
Author Sam Hawken.

Praise for Walk Away:

“Fast, violent, and starring a lead character with a private code, and to hell with those law books. . . . Like a good action hero, Camaro is solitary, vengeful, and fond of beer and motorcycles-a female ‘tough guy’ who defies stereotypes with engaging bravado. Hawken calls her ‘a lean, mean thrilling machine.’ He’s nailed it.”—Booklist

“Hawken is a talented writer and knows how to construct a fine page-turner …”—Publishers Weekly

From the publisher:

Camaro Espinoza is “the deadliest female protagonist since Jon Land’s Caitlin Strong and Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander” (Booklist).

Camaro Espinoza is a former combat medic whose past is shrouded in mystery. Having finally achieved a measure of calm and anonymity, Camaro receives a distress call from her sister Annabel. Living a modest life in a small town in California, Annabel has become trapped in an abusive relationship with a man named Jake Collier who threatens to make her daughter his next victim.

Camaro rushes across the country to defend her sister for what may be the last time. And Jake has a sibling of his own, an ex-Special Forces operative named Lukas who is every bit as unhinged as Camaro is uncompromising. For all Camaro’s stealth and wit, she can only last so long against such a relentless force.

As a pair of federal marshals pick up the trail, and a bounty hunter with a debt to settle closes in, Camaro’s smart enough to know that standing her ground is the last thing she should do. But if there’s one thing Camaro can’t do, it’s walk away–even with a freight train like Lukas barreling towards her.

walk-away

Now, Sam offers readers an intimate glimpse at his enigmatic protagonist …

John Valeri: What inspired the idea for Walk Away – and how do you see this book as moving the overall (series) story arc forward?

Sam Hawken: Walk Away came about because I wanted to follow up on a story thread left unresolved from the original four-part miniseries which kicked off Camaro Espinoza in 2013.  In Crossfire, Camaro reentered her sister’s life after years away, and was immediately plunged into a cauldron of violence from which she and Annabel only narrowly escaped.  While knowing this background isn’t essential to a reader’s enjoyment of the novel, it’s there as an underpinning, with lots of hints as to what happened previously to the two of them.  Now we know what happens next.

More than that, I wanted to show Camaro has a human side.  One of the more stinging comments I got after The Night Charter was a reviewer who called her “an action figure in the shape of a woman.”  I disagree with that assessment, but I could see how someone looking at Camaro strictly from a plot and action standpoint might miss the character moments in the book which clue us in to a deeper emotional life.  Walk Away provides opportunity to explore Camaro through the lens of family, which is something intrinsic to her motivation in The Night Charter, but which was never made explicit.

It was always my intention to explore Camaro’s deeper personality.  On my website I have a handful of stories — I release a new one the day after Christmas every year — which all approach Camaro as a feeling human being, with all the vulnerability this entails.  In the books this is coming out gradually, but I have to strike a balance between writing a breathless thriller and coming to terms with Camaro’s emotional character.  As we get into the third volume and beyond, you’ll see more and more of this side of her.  Walk Away marks the first time it’s brought to the fore.  In the meanwhile, we’ll always have the shorts.

JV: What are the unique challenges of writing the second book in a series – and how do you endeavor to balance catching up new readers without sacrificing momentum?

SH: I remember reading in a writing book somewhere that an author must behave as if every book in a series is a reader’s first book, but I know as a reader myself that I grow irritated with series’ tendency to regurgitate the same information in each successive volume, sometimes to the point of using the exact same words and phrases.  So when I write Camaro’s recurring adventures, I assume the reader knows what they’re getting into.  There’s a continuity to every piece of fiction I’ve ever written about Camaro, and all the pieces lock together tightly when read. That said, I don’t do what Marvel Comics used to do, which is put little footnotes whenever someone references background material, directing the reader to this or that other story.  I use a light hand when introducing ongoing elements, and always provide a way for new readers to draw their own conclusions, whether those conclusions are strictly correct or not.

For example: I already mentioned Crossfire, but Crossfire is itself a sequel to the very first Camaro story, Camaro Run.  Anyone who read those stories knows, when reading Walk Away, exactly how Camaro and her sister, Annabel, got where they are.  So longtime readers get the satisfaction of seeing those story threads pay off.  However the book itself doesn’t actually take time to explain any of this, but instead gives hints about what might have happened, and therefore the reader without grounding in all the other material can make assumptions which allow them to continue reading comfortably, because it feels right.  I don’t correct them, and I don’t feel the need to.  If they really want to know, the stuff is out there, and I hope they like it as much as what they came up with themselves.

Whew!  Is that complicated enough?

JV: Do you view Camaro Espinoza as a traditional protagonist or an anti-hero? How far do you feel you can stretch her without losing a reader’s empathy – and in what ways can writing dark characters expand a reader’s mind?

SH: I see Camaro as the extension of the classic American hero typified by Jack Schaefer’s Shane.  In fact, it was my desire to make a character like Shane, but motivated and shaped by the experience of being a woman.  It’s possible for a woman to have the heroic features of Shane, but have an entirely different approach to them.  Camaro, for all her prickliness and borderline paranoia, is a decent, caring human being.  But at the same time, she’s acutely aware of being a woman in a society that doesn’t value, and actually fears, strong women.  Yes, she kicks ass and knows a hundred ways to kill someone, but it’s possible to see that as a defense, a way of manifesting strength where she feels most vulnerable.

If you read Walk Away not simply as a thriller, but as a kind of family drama, all new layers of Camaro are revealed, especially for those unfamiliar with previous stories.  It isn’t that Camaro have emotions, but she has too much emotion, and all that anger and hurt and, yes, love combines to make relating to people extremely difficult.  Even her own sister can’t pry open Camaro’s shell, try as she may, but that doesn’t mean Camaro wouldn’t give her own life to protect Annabel from any harm.

Clearly I don’t think of her an anti-hero at all, but as a character with complex motivations.  As far losing a reader’s empathy, I don’t worry too much about that.  Dark characters are, to me, an opportunity to exercise the readers’ brains, because they aren’t spoon-fed reasons to like the person they read about.  You could correctly infer I’m not much for holding people’s hands when they read my books, and this is another way that manifests.

As I say, Camaro is a fundamentally decent person, and while she’s prone to violent outbursts, she is not cruel or thoughtless.  Everything she did in The Night Charter she did because of the love of a father for his daughter.  Everything she does in Walk Away is for love of her sister.  This is the core of the character, no matter how difficult she might seem at first.  Yes, a surface reading can lose that subtext and get stuck on first impressions, but the in-depth material is still there for the taking.  Thankfully every reader I’ve ever heard from or talked with online has totally gotten this, even when some reviewers seemed to miss that detail, perhaps in a rush to quantify Camaro’s stories as action fluff.

JV: Camaro is a former combat medic. How does her wartime experience inform her worldview – and what do you hope that her physical and emotional scars reveal about the perils of service?

SH: I’m glad you asked this question.  Camaro’s service is a big part of who she is, and I’ve been digging into this from the very beginning.  As we learn in Walk Away, she nearly died during a pitched battle in Afghanistan, eventually dragging a soldier one hundred yards while grievously wounded herself.  I explored this more deeply in a short story called “Purple Heart,” but even if someone hasn’t read that story, they can pick up the theme of service and sacrifice from Camaro’s actions in the two novels from Mulholland.  I plan to explore thoroughly the circumstances which brought Camaro into the Army in the first place, as well as what pushed her out, but in the meanwhile it’s possible to read Camaro’s emotional turmoil as a reaction to what she’s seen and done.

As a treat for longtime readers, I made a Walk Away prequel available to read on my site.  In that we get to see Camaro at eighteen, before the wars, before her violent life after service, before everything.  We learn that Camaro was already “damaged goods” even as a teenager, thanks to a childhood in turmoil and her inability to deal with emotions and hurt in constructive ways.  Many of the negative behaviors we see in her as a woman in her thirties take root there.  But having spent roughly 1,000 days in combat zones, under extreme pressure, all that baggage has been magnified and then compounded by the stressors of war.  We’ve learned through The Night Charter and Walk Away that Camaro is still fighting, even though she’s put Afghanistan and Iraq behind her.  The questions should then be raised of why, and what will it take for her to stop?  With so many veterans contending with these same issues, I find this aspect of Camaro to be genuinely important to explore, even as it makes for terrific character material.

JV: Camaro’s sister is a victim of domestic violence. In what ways can using the lens of fiction serve to make social issues more accessible – and, in your opinion, what about this particular sibling dynamic makes for such compelling storytelling?

SH: Before I wrote the very first Camaro story, Camaro Run, I had already gotten a reputation for exploring social and political issues in my Borderland Trilogy.  My debut novel, The Dead Women of Juárez, tackled head-on the urgent issue of the feminicidios, or female homicides, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.  While it was never my intention to turn my Mexico books into parables, I did see my work as an opportunity to introduce important concepts to people with the spoonful of sugar (or bitters?) required to get it down more easily.

This didn’t stop with Camaro, though.  In previous stories I had already touched on Annabel’s difficult history with abusive men, as many (though not all) women who suffer one abusive relationship fall into a succession of same until they’re finally able to break the cycle, either through sheer force of will, or with help from the outside.  Unfortunately many women in situations similar to Annabel’s never get out, and far too many of them die.  Walk Away gave me the platform to reintroduce this to a much broader audience, and I think they get the gist of Annabel’s ongoing suffering without me having to recap it all.

Addressing this in the context of a thriller does provide the aforementioned spoonful of sugar, because instinctively we know things are going to work out.  The trick is making the journey so tangled that this seemingly foregone conclusion is thrown into doubt.  I don’t want to spoil anyone who might be reading this before they read the book, but Annabel goes through a lot during the course of Walk Away, and it’s an open question as to whether her situation is significantly improved by what happens.  In some ways it may actually be worse.  But that’s all I want to say because the journey is worth taking, not least because Walk Away is not just about escaping abuse.  It’s also about reconnection, reconciliation and renewal.

Camaro and Annabel, as we learn, have been emotionally and physically estranged for a long, long time.  And while the circumstances which bring them together in Walk Away are horrible, they also provide the opportunity to Camaro, in particular, to relearn what it means to be family.  I mentioned Crossfire previously, a novella from 2013.  In that one, Camaro also goes to the wall for family, but the relationship she has with Annabel isn’t reestablished in any healthy way.  They are together, and then they are separated again, possibly forever.  Walk Away provides the chance to build something lasting, and anyone who’s had a troubled relationship with a family member can identify with that, I think.

JV: Leave us with a teaser: what comes next?

SH: I won’t tell you too much—the next book hits in Q1 2018!—but I will say the action returns to Miami, where Camaro’s new emotional vulnerability draws her into a deadly situation on behalf of a young woman being stalked.  This being a thriller, there’s a lot more to it, and this particular rabbit hole goes deep, but at the core of the story is another women’s issue, and also Camaro reaching out for friendship, understanding and connection with people she might have turned away from before.  I’m very happy with how it turned out, and can’t wait for you to read it.

***

With thanks to Sam Hawken for his thoughtful, thorough responses to my inquiries and to Carrie Neill, Publicity Manager at Hachette Book Group, for facilitating this interview.

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