Q: What kind of research did you do for MISSING WHITE GIRL?

JJM: In a word, extensive. It takes place in Arizona’s Cochise County, most specifically in and around the Sulphur Springs Valley, where I live. But getting the settings right meant making numerous trips out into the countryside, and the small towns, and along the border. I took a trip with a Border Patrol agent to one location, which turned out to be exactly perfect for the scene that took place there. Because much of the backstory (and some of the action) revolves around the Cabeza de Vaca expedition of 1528-36, I read multiple accounts of that journey, and studied the regions through which Cabeza de Vaca and his companions would likely have passed. I spoke with representatives of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office to make sure I had the details of that job right. I spent time in the Douglas branch of the library, spent time at almost every location, spent lots of time online. To me, getting as much of the detail as right as I can frees me to take other aspects of a book into uncharted territory. The reader is more likely to buy the supernatural elements if the realistic ones are utterly convincing.

Q: What’s the answer to the problem of illegal immigration?

JJM: One of the characters in the novel says, essentially, that anyone who claims to know the answer is a liar or a fool. Experts haven’t even entirely agreed that it is the crisis some describe it as, or how many people we’re talking about—seven to twelve million by most estimates, although some extremists put it as high as twenty. Of course, we’d like to know who’s in the country, and we’d like for them to enter legally. But from a practical perspective, the low-cost labor immigrants provide helps keep prices low on produce, on meat, on cotton goods, on the million things corn is used in. The immigrants, whether legal or not, spend their pay on groceries and gas and rent and consumer products, on cable TV and electricity and water and sewage, and they spend a lot on banking services. Taxes and Social Security are withheld from their pay, which they’ll probably never get back or take advantage of. We’re educating their kids—but would we really want an uneducated underclass of kids hanging around on the streets all day? Aren’t we as a society better off if all the children within our borders have a basic education?

On the other hand, providing health care for illegals is coming close to bankrupting rural hospitals. Law enforcement agencies are being overwhelmed. Some claim that the financial cost to society is ruinous, while others insist that the immigrants spend more than they use in taxpayer dollars, and when you combine that fact with the lower prices we all pay at the grocery store, having them here provides a net benefit. There’s little evidence, if any, that they’re taking jobs away from citizens that citizens would want. And while a few commit crimes, then skip back to Mexico to avoid the consequences, the vast majority are people who just want to work, and the only crime they commit is that of crossing the border illegally.

Rounding them all up and deporting them would wreak havoc with the U.S. economy. And since remittances from illegal immigrants working in the U.S. are one of the biggest legs of the Mexican economy, up there with oil and drug money, cutting those off would prove disastrous for that country—most likely spurring new immigration to the north. So there are no easy answers, just more questions.

Back to top

Q: What about the whole “missing white girl” phenomenon? What’s the story with that?

JJM: It’s not just missing white girls, but murdered white girls, from Natalee Holloway to Chandra Levy to Elizabeth Smart to JonBenet Ramsay, the rise of the 24-hour cable news channels has meant a sick fascination with the fates of people most of us never knew—to the detriment, sometimes, of coverage of real news that we ought to know. Yes, every person’s disappearance or murder is a tragedy, and I don’t diminish the anguish and loss that anyone feels. But realistically it’s a tragedy that should mainly affect that person’s family and friends and immediate community. Why should someone in Florida be consumed by news coverage of a criminal case in Oregon, involving people the Floridian will never meet?

I think it’s partly because we’re “made” to care by nonstop, wall-to-wall TV coverage. When one turns on the news and that’s all that’s on—and the victims’ personal lives are laid out before us—we are coerced into caring in the same way that a reader cares about fictional characters. We get to know the victims, and find ourselves caught up in their plights. Meanwhile, the government might be lying to us or doing other things it doesn’t want us to know about, corporations might be stealing us blind, the number of people living in poverty climbing. Look for those facts in most cable news operations, though, and you won’t find them because the coverage is focused on “celebrities” and these juicy criminal cases.

Back to top

Q: Why set the novel in a remote corner of Arizona? Don’t most thrillers take place in cities or better-known areas?

JJM: Doing things the way most authors do has never been one of my strong points. MISSING WHITE GIRL is set in Cochise County, Arizona, which happens to be where I live. It’s a big county, the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, with a total population of only around 130,000, and most of that centered around the city of Sierra Vista.

It’s also a historic county. 40 minutes in one direction from my Flying M Ranch is Tombstone, site of the famous O.K. Corral. About the same distance the other way is Skeleton Canyon, where Geronimo surrendered, ending the longest war in American history. It’s cowboy country, cattle country, and quite possibly along the route that Cabeza de Vaca took (although his route has been debated for years and never completely settled).

Besides these factors, which helped make it interesting to me to write about, it’s on the border—is, in fact, one of the main “battlegrounds” in the border wars, home to the Minutemen and other vigilante groups, and a popular crossing point for immigrants and smugglers.

And suspense can be built anywhere. An unfamiliar setting can, I think, help keep the reader off balance, allowing the writer to throw in a few extra surprises.

Back to top

Q: I understand there’s a thinly veiled reference to one of your favorite novels in the book.

JJM: There may be more than one, but I think the one you’re thinking of is a (possibly) subtle shout-out to a William Goldman novel. I’m not telling which one—it’ll be interesting to hear from readers to see if they catch it.

Back to top