We here at Tales of the Ravenous Reader love our thrillers and mysteries but it’s rare to find a crime thriller in YA. The Border by Steve Schafer is the story of four teens who are on the run from a place where drug-related violence is common and crossing the border presents unique challenges of its own. We chatted with Steve about his inspiration and writing process. Check it out below and enter to win your own copy of The Border at the end!
Interview with Steve Schafer
The Border is set in the Mexican desert. How did your volunteer, work, and travel experiences in Latin America help shape the setting of the story?
Years ago, I traveled alone to Paraguay. I was returning to visit a village where I had lived a few years prior on a summer volunteer project. This was a rural area to say the least—no phones, no running water, no electricity, not even a car in the village. Poor planning led to a bus dropping me next to a field in the middle of nowhere, hours away from my destination. At 10pm. I was told to walk for ten minutes down an unlit dirt road where I might find a place to stay. This plan quickly failed. I was stranded—and unnerved. As this low settled in, I had a chance encounter with a stranger on a rusty motorbike. He offered to let me stay at his home for the night. Out of better options, I accepted. We rode for an hour through the dirt roads of backwoods Paraguay. I met his wife and children. They fed me a late dinner. They moved a bed into their living room. They gave me breakfast the next day. And they wouldn’t accept any money. They hosted a strange foreigner out of kindness.
I’m telling this story because it’s emblematic of my experiences throughout Latin America. Their hospitality, generosity and respect consistently amaze me—and this is something that I don’t see mirrored toward them in mainstream culture in the US. Rhetoric and attitudes are often hostile. The conversation about immigration tends to lose sight of the well-intentioned individuals at the heart of the issue.
In The Border, I wanted to tell a story where US readers could immerse themselves in the emotional journey of immigration. I wanted to detail the humanity of the experience. To some degree, Sonoran Desert setting became an output of this. I wanted to showcase an extreme—but very real—immigration experience. This passage, also known as The Devil’s Highway, is infamously hostile. I’m hopeful that depicting a journey like this will give readers an appreciation of what can drive people to come to the US and just how brutal that journey can be.
What story elements helped bring the voice of your four main characters to light?
The voices of the characters each emerged from thinking about how four people could have differing reactions to the same, tragic event. While The Border is about a group of four teens, it tries to focus on the individual stories…what drives each person on their journey and how it shapes each of them.
Pato’s voice is closest to my own, which is why I chose him as the narrator. Marcos’ is most distant—his reactions are often opposite of what I would do, which made him one of the most rewarding characters to write. Gladys has profound inner strength, which the others need. They also need to remain together—she is the glue. As for Arbo, this story needed a character who could bring levity to impossibly dark situations. His voice was inspired by Jerry O’Connell’s character, Vern, in Stand By Me. This is one of my favorite movies—it was impossible for me to write about a journey of four teens and not be influenced by it.
Describe your research process you took to bring the different elements of immigration to light.
I read heaps of stories online about border crossings, especially through the Sonoran Desert. I also looked for books on the subject. The Devil’s Highway is an amazingly impactful and informative non-fiction book—I leaned on it for a better understanding of the terrain, the social structure, and even the effects of heat on walkers.
As importantly, I’ve talked with people about their own experiences immigrating ever since I was a child. It has been a source of never ending fascination. There is something both tragic and inspiring in leaving everything behind to find better opportunity. And every story is so unique.
I’ve also lived abroad several times. To compare my own experiences internationally to those of most immigrants who arrive to the US would be a gross injustice, however, my years abroad have given me a small taste of what it’s like to be a cultural outsider. This experience helped inform my perspective, rather than the actual story in The Border.
Tell us about your writing process.
I am a morning writer. It’s when I’m most creative and least distracted. I began The Border in 2012. Shortly after starting, my wife and I had our second child. We traded sleep shifts. I managed the 4am feeding and I would stay up to write until our 2-year-old woke at 7am…and the daily chaos began. I drank lots of coffee.
With regard to the strategic process of writing, I plan all of the major plot points in advance, then I write. I liken it to first creating a coloring book, then breaking out the crayons. For the record, I try to color outside the lines as often as possible. Where’s the fun in doing everything according to plan?
What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Border?
In one word, empathy. I feel like a bit of naïve hippie when I say that I think the world would be a better place if we all thought a little bit more about what others go through. But…I think it’s true. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the answers to immigration. It’s complex. If anything, The Border might even add to the complexity. But I think the conversation about immigration changes when you think about—and talk about—the people involved as individuals, each with unique, understandable and admirable motivations.
One moment changed their lives forever.
A band plays, glasses clink, and four teens sneak into the Mexican desert, the hum of celebration receding behind them.
Crack. Crack. Crack.
Not fireworks―gunshots. The music stops. And Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys are powerless as the lives they once knew are taken from them.
Then they are seen by the gunmen. They run. Except they have nowhere to go. The narcos responsible for their families’ murders have put out a reward for the teens’ capture. Staying in Mexico is certain death, but attempting to cross the border through an unforgiving desert may be as deadly as the secrets they are trying to escape…