Sarah Cortez is a retired Texas police officer currently serving in the police reserves after full time active duty in the Patrol Division. She is the author or editor of fourteen books and is a member of the Texas Institute for Letter and a fellow for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her most recent book, with Robert B. Wilkins, The Carlucci Betrayal, is available from White Bird Publications.
1. Sarah, why don’t you tell us about your background? How do you negotiate the worlds of law enforcement and the arts?
To use the word “varied” to describe my background would be an understatement. I have three degrees, ranging from Psychology and Religious Studies, Classics, and Accounting. Before going into police work, I had a successful corporate career. After years in fulltime patrol policing and a promotion to an FTO (field training officer), my writing career took off and since then I’ve taught creative writing in many venues, including universities, juvenile at-risk centers, and throughout the community. But I still believe in the dire importance of the police function in a free society and that is why I continue to be a reserve officer. Plus, I like the kind of people who become cops. They are my kind of guy: typically practical, competent, straightforward, focused, realists with a hard and clear sense of humor.
Perhaps because my life for so many years has included writing poetry (plus, memoir and fiction) and policing, I see abundant overlap. In fact, I think both “practices” fully complement each other. For instance, to be a good writer you have to pay attention to physical details and to motivation. These dual demands form the scaffolding for something crucial and much larger which is meaning. “Meaning” allows an effective writer, particularly of fiction and some types of poetry and personal essay, to step into someone else’s mind/heart and understand that person. Police officers have to do both of these things, i.e. pay attention to details and “read motivation” all the time on patrol and in case investigations; they have to do them intuitively and often in stressful circumstances. Their minds and five senses have to catch everything often in difficult lighting and the uncertain dynamics of the streets.
2. The Carlucci Betrayal is a “coming to America” novel about Italian-American immigrants striving for success in the criminal underworld. Much of American Catholic experience has been the desire to fit into the Anglo-Saxon Protestant system, making many Catholics feel like they live in two worlds. As a police officer and a Catholic Latina do you feel like you live in two worlds?
This is a fascinating question. Although I grew up in a rather circumscribed world of a stable Catholic parish and school where all our friends were Catholic, the attitude of the adults I learned from (my parents, the nuns and priests, older relatives) stressed the humanity that all people had in common. For instance, it never occurred to any of us to eradicate certain books from the curriculum because they were written by Anglo American men. Instead, the prevailing direction of thought was that everyone was a child of God and everyone would one day by judged by God according to the revealed Truths of God. Being human was the defining characteristic, not the color of skin, which is merely an accident of birth. It never occurred to me or anyone else in our society that I couldn’t be just as successful as or learn from an Anglo American male or any other person. In short, we didn’t play at being victims. Instead, we enjoyed everyone and tried to learn life’s lessons from every person, book, or circumstance.
Becoming a police officer (which I did roughly 26 years ago, taking an initial 75% pay cut) was a step out of so-called “normal” society. No one will ever view you the same. It is this identity that is more precious to me than a racial or ethnic identity. I consider race or ethnicity to be accidents of birth. In other words, no human choses to be Latino/a or Polish, or brown or pinkish, etc. However, we do exercise free will in deciding on a career, who to marry, what to do with our spare time, and so many other aspects in our lives. This category of choice, or the exercise of free will, is where people begin to become very interesting. Their choices build their character. I chose to become a police officer just as I chose to try to become a writer. You might say that because both of these decisions arise from my free will (another way to say this is “conscious decision-making”) that there will be (from my perspective) an inherent integrity of purpose based on my interior world.
I’ve always been one to admire courage. After all, both sides of my family were fiercely loyal to the U.S. and extremely proud to be American—in addition, we are fifth-sixth generation Texans. All my uncles served in the military on both my dad’s and my mom’s sides of the family. Their 8/10” color portraits were installed with reverence in the living room where special guests of my grandparents were entertained. I associate cops with bravery, and this isn’t a superficial sop. There is a type of courage that allows a cop to do a building search at night when the person hiding inside that structure may wish to kill you; there is a particular type of courage that allows a criminal investigator-cop to view hours of perversely disgusting illegal emails and texts in a child pornography case. Our American society would be greatly diminished and much further under the sway of evil without cops who are brave in both of these ways.
Becoming a cop is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I’m deeply committed to telling the police officer’s story. Inhabiting the world of law enforcement is a privilege.
3. The Carlucci Betrayal is a rough, gangster novel, but it contains a surprising theological message of redemption. How often as a law enforcement officer have you seen the drama of redemption play out?
The typical criminal is a complete narcissist. There are many studies through the decades on this psychological reality. A narcissist thinks he/she doesn’t need anyone else, much less God.
Yet we can look to the ranks of respected literary scholars and ardent Catholic converts to people such as the amazing Joseph Pearce, who has written a wonderful memoir about his previous life as a criminal before his truly miraculous conversion to Catholicism and a remediation of his prior “lifestyle.” Joseph’s story alone proves that a criminal can truly and mightily be redeemed through God’s intervention.
So you might ask why do I write a book with a strong and hopeful current of grace running through it when I’ve never seen it happen in the criminal world. I write that redemption or conversion—even though I’ve never seen or experienced it in my investigations or heard about in the cases of my fellow police officers—because I believe in it. I completely believe and trust that God works miracles and that it is my role as a believing Catholic to allow God his own timing and placement of those miracles.
I also might refer to the quote from Flannery O’Connor which I think is an anchor, particularly for Catholic or Christian fiction literary writers, and, dare I say it, for those of us who write crime fiction: “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.”
4. The Carlucci Betrayal is set during Prohibition Era when everyday life was much more “dapper” and “dressed up.” American itself has gone through several “swing culture” revivals over the past several decades. There are a lot of conservative and traditionalist Catholic subcultures that look back to this time for their aesthetics. Why do you think we look back to this era?
It’s true that the American style of dress has become remarkably casual, particularly during and after the hippie clarion call for self-expression in the 1960s. In addition to becoming more informal, dress has also become more revealing, particularly for women. I’ll leave it to others to comment on the side-effects of immodest dress, but I do think that the standards of caring about appearance are what is appealing about the earlier eras, particularly the 1920s through 1950s.
Remember that most people in those decades were not well to do. In general, people didn’t have the glut of outfits, shoes, dresses, ties, fingernail polish bottles, and earrings in their possession as most people do now. People had fewer outfits, less money. In a culture with those characteristics, it means something to wear your best (perhaps, only) suit and tie. I would guess it is this air of careful construction of a “look” that appeals to the groups you are mentioning. Plus, caring about your physical appearance in dress and grooming carries its own counter-cultural message in our times that says, “I care how I look”.
There is one thing that I’d like to mention here: in criminal associations or gangs, appearance relates to pecking order. The tremendously outsized ego of a “successful” criminal, such as an upper level Mafia guy, demands the best clothes, jewelry, cars, etc. that money can buy because everything is appearance. Look at some of the photos of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, etc. They were gorgeously dressed—all the time, even when being arrested or on the way to trial.
5. The are few violent and “racy’ scenes in The Carlucci Betrayal. Catholics today debate the degree to which such scenes should appear in Catholic art. What are your thoughts on this debate?
Even John Henry Newman (now, a saint) elucidates it this way: “You cannot have a sinless Literature of sinful man.” Granted, Newman considering the full scope of Western writing rather than the now observable canon of Twentieth and Twenty-first Catholic writing from Europe and America. And it is important to acknowledge that Newman encouraged all men to become a nation of saints as a step in creating a “sinless literature.” But I think Newman’s point is well made and logical.
A further consideration for this discussion comes from Jacques Maritain, in Art and Scholasticism who says that the question isn’t whether or not a writer can or can’t write about sin and evil, but rather “at what altitude he is prepared to depict it and whether his art and his heart are pure enough and strong enough for him to depict it without complicity or connivance.”
In a working novelist’s practical terms, I feel both of these quotes sustain me in writing about evil actions without hesitation as long as the evil isn’t gratuitous. However, because I am a fiction writer it is my job to ensure that scenes are well crafted and reflect actions that make sense within a character’s personality and the book’s narrative. In CARLUCCI BETRAYAL, sin is shown and the wages of sin are shown in clarity. Will every reader pick up on both of those movements and their inter-relatedness? Of course not. But even for readers without the slightest interest in theology, redemption, or God, the scenes (at certain points) will convey hopelessness, lack of meaning, loneliness, regret, anger and other emotions and moods that occur as side-effects of a criminal life style.
It is important to recall that readers have free will. A reader may make a choice to quit reading a book if he or she feels an occasion of sin. I don’t think a reader would have that reaction to anything in this book, but everyone has an individual conscience, don’t they? Thus, each person has certain responsibilities.
6. One of the themes of The Carlucci Betrayal is the legacy of family crimes and sin and how these sins haunt children and grandchildren. As an artist and a police officer, have you seen the legacy of sin the lives of families?
Human beings, by nature, are creatures of habit. Sin can be a habit just as good deeds can be a habit. Families that are broken—who literally have open wounds, whether emotional or physical—pass along those habits or wounds to their children. These habits aren’t the final word. After all, our God is the God of grace and miracles. But I can say that police officers see multi-generational habits of crime all the time. It is the revolving door of sorrow and wasted lives.
7. On one level, The Carlucci Betrayal deals with the notion of religious hypocrisy—especially with the character of Reverend Fickum. What are your thoughts on Christians as people uplifted by grace but weighted by sin?
It is hard for every human person to see his/her own sins. Blessed as we are as Catholics to have the sacrament of Reconciliation with its clear path of forgiveness based on the promises by Jesus Christ—it is still hard to see one’s own sins as God sees them, much less to correct them. Think about all the people in the world without belief in a clear path of known forgiveness of sins. This is one of the things that drove Martin Luther into despair and the darkness of his own morbid personality. Most of the people in the world are weighed down by sin. Some of them wish to encounter Jesus as the Divine Physician and some don’t. Hypocrisy is so treacherous and ultimately so destructive because a person, such as this character of Rev. Fickum, says one thing and lives out something entirely different. He has no integrity. He is not an “integer,” not a whole person.
8. Your novel is set on the Gulf Coast, which Walker Percy once noted, is part of the Caribbean. You are a Texan, which itself is between the Anglo-Saxon and Mexican worlds. What are your thoughts on the notion of hybridization and borderland cultures?
It is not surprising in the contemporary world of divisiveness and a media culture that manufactures and manipulates divisions among people that such an emphasis is placed on borders, border culture, borderlands, etc. I demur from such an emphasis in its negative nuances. One of the books I edited on the effects of drug cartel violence on the people on both sides of the U.S. and Mexico border clearly shows that the positive enjoyment of certain border city amenities is long past due to the power of the cartels. Hopefully, that will change—at least, on the southern border. Because of my law enforcement background and contacts, I knew behind-the-scenes episodes and statistics that the residents didn’t know or wouldn’t acknowledge.
9. Where can people go to find out more about your work?
They can go to www.poetacortez.com to find out about my work as an author and editor.
The website for this recent title is carluccibetrayal.com
Interviewer: Jesse Russell
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