Welcome back to the Real Thing and part three of our chat with Gur Benshemesh. Today we talk about the the drug business in South America, and the sexual appeal of smart women. Details of Silence & Co. will be discussed during the interview and may spoil parts of the story for those who have not yet read the work.
The bulk of the story takes place in Columbia and you do a great job showing how pervasive and institutionalized the drug market is there. You show these street gangs kind of taking over the roles that big drug cartels once had. Does that reflect the actual situation on the ground over there?
I really like South America. I spent a fair amount of time there and visually, it’s an amazing place. It’s got a really amazing energy there, and I thought the story benefited from tapping into that energy, and contrasting it to New York.
In terms of the gangs, when I was at USC, I did a very interesting general education course all about urban street gangs and it was taught by a fascinating professor who was this little, nerdy, college professor-looking guy. He had spent six years for sociology purposes with the Mara Salvatrucha, which is the most hardcore Salvadorian street gang in L.A—crazy, crazy guys who drive-by’s and stuff. It was one of the most fascinating terms I had in college and it left me with a long-term interest in this topic.
Basically, in the eighties, it was the policy in America to extradite key gang members to their place of birth, to get rid of them. So they extradited a bunch of bloods and crips to Mexico and the Mara Salvatrucha to El Salvador, which is where a lot of them came from. And they spread like wildfire and now MS-13 is an enormous force across Salvador and a lot of South America.
The problem is exactly how I said in the book: these big-time kingpins are old now; they’re just too smart to smuggle things across borders—there’s no need for it. The people that are really running the risk, the people being caught at the border and caught up in the drug war, are super poor young kids—seventeen, eighteen, nineteen—from barrios in the middle of nowhere that have no hope for a decent life anyway. And they grab what they can, and either they make it across and make a ton of money or they don’t and end up in jail for a bit.
Again, there’s a great film this year, The House I Live In, talking about exactly this and the fact that the drug war on the ground just doesn’t touch people like Luis [the Columbian drug lord Alex is hired to assassinate], the people really moving the weight around the place.
So when you were over in South America, did you spend a lot of time in Columbia?
In Columbia, no, but I spent a lot of time in Brazil and Bolivia and Rio, so I just have a huge love for the whole area.
I’d like to talk about Sylvia Torres, another character in the book. While she doesn’t really do much in the novel, she does end up having a pretty big presence in the story and eventually becomes Alex’s confidante. What makes her different from all the other presumably beautiful women he’s ever met? Is it because she’s a crime lord’s mistress and so was Alex’s mother?
No—it’s funny that you mention that; no one’s pointed out that parallel before, I didn’t even notice it. We’ve actually done more work on the screenplay since to toughen her up because a couple people have said she wasn’t as strong as she could be.
Sylvia’s character is, for me, trying to play with some of those movie tropes. Typically, the Hollywood chick in the movie is young and hot and doesn’t have terribly much to say and she was probably a go-go dancer and now she looks really great in a dress. For Alex, what really draws him to her is the fact that she really ran the logistics of this operation. She has this mind that can grasp vast numbers and logistics. It’s one thing to say I deal six billion dollars’ worth of cocaine a year, but logistically, somebody has to tap into the farms and get into the leaves and get them into the labs and processing and get it dried, hidden, and sold.
I happen to know personally people who are in logistics for large operations for multinational corporations doing beauty products and things like that, and it’s an enormous world that people can get really lost in. Personally , I find women who are really smart, who really get excited and passionate about what they’re doing, who really take charge, are very sexy and very appealing. It’s something you don’t often see certainly in comics, but also in films.
Maybe it’s also the fact that Sylvia has an insight into the kind of work Alex deals with, which other women he’s had relationships with probably didn’t.
It’s funny, with these things you have to be in a similar area to appreciate what somebody does. Somebody who doesn’t play an instrument at all can go to a gig where someone plays guitar and go, “Oh, that guy’s pretty good,” whereas someone who plays a bit can go to the same gig and go, “Oh, that guy’s amazing.” You have a feeling of what it takes to do what it is they’re doing. That is definitely something that appeals to Alex, that parallel he’s finding to his own work and his attention to detail and the ability to impose yourself in a very hostile environment.
The other thing they both share very strongly is, going back to Alex’s Latino heritage, that feeling of isolation and being in an environment that other people would look in and go, “Wow, you have such an amazing life.” I mean, Sylvia lives in a beautiful apartment and she’s got personal shoppers and she drives imported cars and only wears Prada, but actually the details of her life are incredibly isolated, and that’s something Alex can really respond to.
I find it interesting that people criticized Sylvia for not being strong because I felt in some ways, she’s more in her element than Alex is. For a while, Alex tries to keep her in the dark about who he works for, but eventually we see that she’s the one who has all the answers and he’s the one who doesn’t know everything that’s going on.
If you look at action films, typically when the hero meets up with the girl, she’s pretty and a bit ditsy and just sort of goes along, and normally he’s the hero who’s saving her from this terrible world that she really knows nothing about and she’s terribly frightened at the end. What I like about Sylvia is that she’s fully part of this world, even though it’s kind of a man’s world. She knows much more about it than Alex does, even though he thinks he knows everything.
Although Sylvia ends up being a trusted accountant for Luis Hernandez, she also starts out as just his mistress, which is kind of typical women in these kinds of stories. Why do you think women don’t really have prominent roles in mobster stories?
A large part of this has to do with the incredibly strong insistence on the part of American and British producers of content, whether that’s TV, novels, comics, or films, to adhere to what’s seen as classic narrative structure, which is why you get a lot of films that feel very similar. They feel like they need to hit those key points along that classic narrative very closely. One aspect that I personally don’t feel needs to be in there, that I think is held onto, is this element that girls are pretty and they got their fingernails painted and the hero comes in and saves her. I would say that’s a pretty old-world way of looking at it, but recently I’ve been reading a lot of the Norse myths and the real original stories, and the women in there are totally kickass. I don’t know where this slightly prissy version of women came in. And personally, I always found myself attracted to stronger women. I don’t particularly like the woman who sits in the corner and says, “Ooh, they’re shooting at us—please save me.”
Even though Alex and Sylvia obviously have this connection and a lot of chemistry, they never actually follow through with it—not that we see in the book. Why not? I mean, both of them talk about how long it’s been since they hooked up with somebody, so they have pretty good incentive to do the deed.
As a writer, I quite like playing with expectations, so I like the story builds up to the point where it’s really obvious that they’re going to, and then they don’t—that anticipation and not fulfilling works for me. I always find it funny in stories where people feel you have to show the hero and the girl are running away from the aliens, they’ve just jumped off the mothership, they swam through the ocean, they just escaped the sharks, and they end up on the beach and, “Oh, let’s strip.” It kind of undermines the critical importance of the ticking time-bomb of what you’re doing is you also have time for a three-hour sexual marathon. It’s such an expected part of a story that I quite like that Alex and Sylvia don’t in this one.
Join us tomorrow for part three of our chat with Gur Benshemesh, where we talk about the friendship between cops and criminals and his upcoming work. Check out our review of Benshemesh’s Silence & Co., and the Silence & Co. website for more details. Make sure to check out parts one and two of our interview.