Lizbeth Meredith interviews Stuart Archer Cohen, author of 17 Stone Angels

Stuart Archer Cohen

How did you choose your first lines in the
Part of
my research in Buenos Aires was steeping myself in the expedientes of several murders committed by the police.  These
were huge case files made available to me by a lawyer who was one of my
sources.  They can run to several hundred
pages, in Spanish, and contain the coroner’s reports, chain of evidence
documentation, statements by police and witnesses, usually some photos, all
covered with signatures and seals and laid out in this sort of distant,
rock-solid language that would lead you to believe that it’s absolute
truth.  And of course, in a department
like the Bonairense, which at that time was just murderously corrupt, it can be
complete fiction.  But I loved the
language, the way it reduced all the horror and the very fragile human element of
a murder to something matter-of-fact and emotionless.  That language really shaped the first lines,
and I returned to that phenomenon a little later in the book when Fortunato is
reviewing the expediente of the
murder he committed at the same time that he relives those events in his head
in a far less dispassionate manner.
In your acknowledgements section, your
reference murder victims Jose Luis Cabezas and Argentine author Rodolfo Jorge
Walsh whose murders were unresolved at the time of this printing. How did you
learn of them, and did these murders inspired your writing of 17 Stone Angels?
I had
done a lot of reading about Argentine urban guerillas of the 1970’s, which
later informed my novel about insurgency in the United States, The Army of the Republic.  More specifically, Rodolfo Walsh was a famous
Argentine journalist and author, whose great book, Operation Massacre, I had
read.  Walsh was ambushed and murdered by
a military death squad in 1977. Some of his killers were finally brought to
justice decades later, after the book was written.  Operation Massacre was an inspiration because
it focuses on both the human element and the bureaucratic aspects of official
case of Jose Luis Cabezas was a cause
in the years before I wrote the book.  Cabezas was a photographer who, apparently,
was kidnapped by police at the behest of a wealthy businessman/racketeer whose
photo he had taken.  The mechanics of his
murder closely resemble the murder in the book. 
I should add that his killers were convicted just before the book came
out, but nearly all were back on the street in a few years.
Buenos Aires is an important character in
your book. Tell us about how your own relationship with Buenos Aires began? Who
helped you keep the representation of Buenos Aires factual while writing your
work of fiction? Describe that process, please.
I was
traveling in Peru in 1984 and became friends with an Argentine I met
there.  When I started doing business in
Uruguay, I would stop and visit him in Buenos Aires every year for about 15
years.  He lives in a lower-class barrio
in the exurbs of the city, which has a less cosmopolitan, more working-class
culture than the center of the city. 
Much of the book is set in that barrio, San Justo.  When it came time to do the research, I was
fortunate because he had good connections with petty criminals, so I had people
I could more or less trust as my guides to that world.  I hung out in some of the most down-and-out
bars you can imagine and did stuff I don’t tell my kids about.  I still had to tread carefully because it’s a
volatile environment, but it gave me a window into a world that doesn’t admit
outsiders easily.  I still hang out with
some of those people when I get down to Buenos Aires.  It’s always good to have a few disreputable
I read that this book was first published
in the UK ten years ago, and was optioned with a movie company with Tom Cruise
that never came to fruition. Tell us about how you kept your faith in this
project while navigating the long and winding road toward publication in the States.

book kept getting translated and published in new countries as the years went
by, so I never really lost faith in it, as a book.  I always felt it would be published in the
United States, and I’m grateful that Four Winds Press has done such an
excellent job with it.  At the same time,
I had other books to write and those are always more important than one that is
already finished.
movie deal was both encouraging and clarifying. 
It’s a nice vote of confidence, but as soon as you get that call from
Hollywood you start to see a bigger, shinier You.  I’ve been through it
three times, most recently with Oliver Stone, and I still get the same sense of
excitement and grandiosity.  But ultimately,
you have to decide what’s real and what’s not. 
I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be a player of any
sort.  The people in that game are in it
110% and they really want it.  Many of
them dream of making a great movie.  I
like novels better.  I like the austerity
of working alone for years at a time and I like the freedom that brings.  It’s a temperament thing.  I also feel like I have a shot at writing an
illuminating novel, while my chance of writing a great movie and seeing it
produced is zero.   I get a big kick out
of the Hollywood buzz, but it’s beneficial to the degree that I can keep it
peripheral to my well-being.  Otherwise,
it can be really heartbreaking.
What are you working on now?

am making the final corrections to This
Is How It Really Sounds
, a novel which St Martin’s Press is publishing in
April, 2015.  It’s a huge breakthrough
for me as a writer and I’m excited about it. 
I’m also gathering momentum to begin a new novel about king salmon.
Anything else you would like us to know
about you or 17 Stone Angels?

17 Stone Angels is my favorite of my three
already-published novels.  When I wrote it
I was living on my dwindling savings and I was in a pretty distressing
financial situation.  My goal was to
write it quickly and to not give a second thought to content or meaning.  You can sense that desperation when you read
it.  I really wanted to write a cheap, shallow
book, but finally, it ended up being about exactly that: the compromises we
make to get by or get ahead, the fictions we create in our own lives that help
us live with those compromises.  Most
police thrillers are about good men getting to the truth about a crime.  This one is about a bad man getting to the
truth about himself.  That’s what I think
makes it worth reading, even for people who don’t read crime thrillers.  Which includes me, actually!

Stuart Archer Cohen is an American author
and businessman who has written three works of fiction: Invisible World, 17
Stone Angels, and The Army of the Republic. He lives in Juneau, Alaska with his
wife and two sons
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