MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

"A Venom Beneath the Skin" is the latest book by DAY TO DAY commentator and mystery writer Marcos McPeek Villatoro. For our Wednesday book segment, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited him in Van Nuys, California, to discover how he creates his unique heroine.

(Soundbite of children playing)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

It is hot here in the San Fernando Valley. The asphalt surface of a parking lot buckles, and the sun-scorched grass shimmers crazily in the heat. The only people here today are squadrons of summer campers enjoying a pickup soccer game despite the weather. Marcos McPeek Villatoro thought this park was the perfect place to open his latest mystery, "A Venom Beneath the Skin." Its heroine is a widowed mother, Romilia Chacon.

MARCOS McPEEK VILLATORO (Author, "A Venom Beneath the Skin"; DAY TO DAY Commentator): Romilia has a nine-year-old kid. She's an FBI agent who stands over dead bodies, but she's also a soccer mom.

BATES: Romilia is a Salvadoran immigrant in her early 30s. After she became a citizen, her career in law enforcement evolved into an FBI job. Villatoro says the tension between the world Romilia inhabits during her working hours and her after-work orbit in her suburban immigrant neighborhood with her son and mother is central to each book.

VILLATORO: In the middle of enjoying the soccer moment where Eserio(ph) gets a goal, the phone rings--her cell phone rings and she answers it, and there's a situation that's come up. Just a few days previous, there's been a bombing in Los Angeles in this book, and now there's been a killing and possible connection, so she has to switch from soccer mom to very suspicious FBI agent.

BATES: And with dizzying speed, she does. "A Venom Beneath the Skin" is a very fast ride that addresses terrorism in many forms and the mundane fuel that makes terrorism possible.

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BATES: As with previous Chacon novels, Villatoro types his first draft on an old 1941 Royal Standard. And as with his other mysteries, he's done considerable research to make Romilia's life as a law enforcement agent ring true.

VILLATORO: I have books on forensic pathologies. I do a lot of reading, too. I do a lot of talking. I've talked with police officers.

BATES: And he worked hard to make Romilia believably female.

VILLATORO: So one of the things is just to get into her insides as much as possible. And the next thing I had to do is pass everything by my wife.

BATES: It was Michelle Villatoro who explained a lot of critical information to her husband, such as how women's clothing is sized and how a woman might go about dressing up to subtly call attention to herself. But Villatoro had to rely on himself to create Romilia's essence.

VILLATORO: As I go through the books and just check to see where she's gone, I realize that she was born out of my own anger, and I think I tapped into that in order to create her, and out she came.

BATES: One of the things that angers Romilia is the carnage that results when criminals pursue their own agendas regardless of who's in the way. But one criminal, a drug lord named Tekun Uman, is harder for her to categorize as scum. For one thing, he saved Romilia's life in an earlier book. He's charming, but he definitely has a dark side.

VILLATORO: Tekun Uman was trained in the Special Forces in Guatemala, and so even though he's very rich as a drug lord, he also has this ability to kill or to maim in ways that are quite horrendous. And I did want to make somebody like that, I think, just to play around with the complexity of--there is good and bad in everybody.

BATES: Villatoro wondered at first if readers would accept his suave, steely Guatemalan narcotics kind. But it soon became pretty clear Tekun has his fans, like this Atlanta bookstore owner who gave Villatoro specific instructions on Tekun's fate.

VILLATORO: `That Tekun Uman, he's "hott" with two T's.' And I said, `Oh, really, you like him?' And she says, `Oh, God, yes.' And I said, `Well, you know, I was thinking of killing him off in the next book,' and she grabbed me by my shoulder in a Spock hold and said, `No, you won't. You will not.'

BATES: So Romilia's quarry and guardian angel will probably survive for the remainder of the series, if only, Villatoro says, to resolve the electricity that's building between the two.

VILLATORO: The image I have of Romilia and Tekun is this sense of almost kissing, but never, and that tension between a man and a woman. And that hasn't happened yet, and I want to keep that tension for as long as possible because she is no longer saying, `Oh, forget him.'

BATES: Which means agent Romilia Chacon will have some important decisions to make in her future. But so might Marcos McPeek Villatoro. His previous Romilia book, "Minos," has just been bought by Hollywood, which means he may have options a lot fancier than Van Nuys sometime soon. So far, he's not tempted.

VILLATORO: I love this because Romilia lives in Van Nuys, where I live, because it's a place that she can afford. I don't see a lot of people rushing here after reading my books, but at the same time, I'm happy to be here and I'm glad to have her here as well.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: And to hear Marcos read a passage from his novel, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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