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Exploring the Historical Abyss: An Interview with Author of The Madrinega Missiles Damien Hunter

In an era fraught with geopolitical tension and cultural upheaval, Damien Hunter's upcoming novel, The Madrinega Missiles, offers readers a riveting journey through the heart of Central America in 1983. In this exclusive interview, Hunter provides insights into his motivations, the meticulous research behind his work, and the intricate tapestry of characters and themes that define his latest thriller.

The decision to set the novel in Central America during the Reagan era might seem like a deliberate historical choice, but for Hunter, it's deeply personal. "I turned 18 that year," he shares, reminiscing about the palpable fear of impending conflict and the specter of war looming over the region. Against the backdrop of Reagan's presidency and the fervent political climate, Hunter's narrative delves into the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy, the specter of violence, and the enduring legacy of imperialism.

The Madrinega Missiles isn't just a story; it's a culmination of four decades of introspection and observation. Hunter's protagonist, Jeigh Leighton, isn't your typical spy archetype. As an African-American intelligence agent with latent leftist sympathies, Leighton grapples with moral ambiguity, navigating a treacherous landscape where loyalties are divided, and alliances shift like sand.

But what sets this novel apart isn't just its gripping plot or meticulously researched historical backdrop—it's the depth of its characters and the authenticity of their interactions. From the streets of Central America to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., Hunter weaves a tale that resonates with the complexities of human nature and the universal struggle for identity and agency.

The interview delves into Hunter's creative process, his attention to detail in crafting a historically accurate narrative, and the thematic undercurrents that drive the story forward. From the lush jungles of Madrinega to the clandestine world of espionage, every aspect of the novel is infused with Hunter's passion for storytelling and his commitment to authenticity.

As the conversation unfolds, it becomes clear that The Madrinega Missiles is more than just a spy thriller—it's a meditation on power, oppression, and the enduring quest for freedom. Through the eyes of Jeigh Leighton and his tumultuous journey, readers are invited to confront the complexities of history and the indomitable spirit of those who dare to challenge the status quo.

In a literary landscape dominated by formulaic narratives and shallow characters, Damien Hunter's The Madrinega Missiles stands out as a beacon of originality and depth. With its rich tapestry of history, politics, and human drama, this is one novel that promises to captivate readers from start to finish. So buckle up, dear readers, for an unforgettable journey into the heart of darkness—a journey that will leave you breathless, spellbound, and yearning for more.

Damien Hunter at the Howard Zinn Book Fair

So your thriller, The Madrinega Missiles, is set in Central America, 1983. Why’d you pick that time and place?

I turned 18 that year. It was the Reagan era, and for a couple of years before that I was pretty sure Reagan was going to get us into a war in Central America.  People were worried about him getting us into a nuclear war, there were protest songs about it, by artists like Sting and Men at Work at the time.  I remember the ABC-TV movie The Day After that came out that fall and had everyone freaked out.  But Black kids, high school kids like me, we were thinking about being drafted and sent to fight another Vietnam in Central America, literally.  The headlines were full of El Salvador, death squads murdering nuns and reporters, and I knew the U.S. was supporting the government down there, also that the death squads were at a minimum operating with the tacit support of that government.  I was aware of the aid the U.S. was giving the Nicaraguan Contras who were trying to overthrow the Sandinistas – and Reagan’s statements were pretty belligerent.  It was a searing experience, living with what at the time was a very real fear.  So I spent a lot of my adult life, for years afterwards, thinking of the politics and the unrest and the political violence in the region, and what the United States was doing there.

And that led to The Madrinega Missiles?

Not right away.  It’s true this story has been percolating in my head for 40 years, and in 2021 I finally began to seriously write it after multiple false starts.  The first book, also involving the agent Jeigh Leighton, was also set in Central America, but it was about an assassination.  It also touched on U.S. foreign policy in the region, but that was ancillary to a story that was essentially about a manhunt for an American agent unwittingly sent on a rogue operation.

That was Secrets of State?

Yes, published in 2004.  But to me, The Madrinega Missiles is a more significant story.  It goes deeper into both character development and the influence of the U.S. in Central America.  It is more personal in a way, because it touches on themes that had me deeply concerned in my youth.

Why do you feel it’s more significant?

The theme is, what happens when a Black American intelligence agent, with latent leftist sympathies, is sent to infiltrate a guerilla movement in Central America, at a time in history when it’s an absolute hotbed of political violence? Will he blunder into an all-out civil war? Can he survive? What are his feelings about the goals of the people he’s been sent to undermine? About what he’s been asked to do? Will he stay true to the flag, or will he go native? There’s a lot a material to work with there, which is why the book is fairly lengthy.

You’ve talked about the book being historically accurate. Tell us a little about that.

I did a lot of research, and having lived through that time period, the early 80’s, I had an advantage.  The news broadcast about a peace deal in the Middle East that comes through on the car radio in Chapter 1 is real – that was an actual news story from I think July of ’83, which is exactly the month I wanted the story to begin. Some of the musical references are also from the early ‘80’s, such as songs by the Eurythmics and Men at Work.

Leighton goes undercover as a journalist and has a laptop. Laptops weren’t commercially available in 1983, but often the military and intelligence communities get the latest high-tech hardware, whatever it is, a few years before the general public, so I just wrote that into the story. 

Later in the book, the Owls, the surveillance aircraft the guerillas are so concerned about, those are actual aircraft the U.S. Army used in Vietnam to maintain surveillance of the Ho Chi Minh trail – so the plane and the specific use being made of it are accurate.

On occasion I make reference to the guerillas having a handful of shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles.  Originally these were Stingers, a reference some readers are sure to know about, but late in the process I found out that Stingers weren’t available to the U.S. military until 1981 – and the guerillas would be unlikely to get their hands on such a recent piece of technology – so I changed it to a similar weapon the Stingers replaced, the Redeye mobile anti-aircraft missile.

Most of the weapons and equipment the guerillas use are U.S. Army surplus. Although through the black market they’ve been able to get a handful of AK-47’s, probably the most sought after assault rifle for insurgents.  But later another black market transaction gets them weapons that were readily available in the international arms trade, Belgian FN FAL’s, a weapon easily recognized throughout the West, as well as M-16’s.

What about Madrinega? How much of that is real?

Although Madrinega is fictional, my descriptions of the food, and the plant life to be found in the jungle, are all native to Central America, and the food in particular is based on the cuisine of Honduras.  The horchata that Lang, the CIA station chief, is drinking when Leighton meets up with him at a soccer game is a Honduran drink made from rice and sometimes blanched almonds with a dash of cinnamon or vanilla extract and sugar, served chilled.  I made a point to add little touches like that when I could.  And Madrinega is a country fairly close to the Equator, so the frequent references to the intense heat and humidity, the concern the guerillas have about gangrene when one of them is wounded, even athlete’s foot, are all deliberately woven into the story.  The country’s political history is a based on a combination of documented events in Guatemala and El Salvador – I just played with the dates and embellished a little.

Why create a fictional country? It’s clear you’re not lazy about research.

I knew early on that I wanted to create my own history and my own geography for the country, because at times the geography is critical to the story.  I spent so much time on that, that you commented that Madrinega itself is actually a character in the story.  Its history is somewhat similar to Guatemala, which at one point was also the focus of a CIA coup.  One of the key points shaping the plot is that the country is something like 60% jungle or undeveloped land, divided into thirds by two major rivers running roughly north-south, the Verdelpino bordering the capital of Valmonte, and farther east the Olmedilla which is near the guerilla encampment at Limado.  The government knows the guerillas must cross these rivers to traverse the country, and the Army makes efforts to post armed patrols at different points to block them.  Two of the most violent encounters in the book involve river crossings where it’s necessary for the guerillas to use deadly force in order to get across.  And the government would do just that, try to set up ambushes at points where they know the insurgents must travel, rather than placing troops at risk by sending them into the bush where they themselves can get ambushed.

Let’s talk about Leighton.  He’s an agent sent to infiltrate a guerilla movement, but he’s not exactly a James Bond type character, blithely upholding an imperialist framework, is he?

Not at all.  First of all, Leighton’s African-American, so he’s going to have a different perspective.  He knows oppression when he sees it, it’s not new or strange to him.  It’s different in Latin America in that it’s not being directed at people via the medium of racism, as readily as it would be here in the United States.  He’s fluent in Spanish and has something of an affinity for Latin American culture, which is why the agency sends him on this assignment.  I don’t paint him as a particularly political character, but there are little hints that his politics are slightly left-of-center. He makes an under-the-breath comment about Richard Nixon in Chapter 1 which, while not directly critical, is unflattering.  Once he experiences firsthand the brutality of the Secret Police in Madrinega, he’s already found a degree of common ground with the guerillas.  He’s confronted with the oppression of the regime, although there isn’t a racial component to it necessarily.  And once Zorrita goes to work on him, probing and challenging and sharing her understanding of the history of U.S. foreign policy in the region, he fires off questions to provoke responses, but he’s not prepared to dispute her.  He’s got no basic argument with her critique.  She senses that he’s a closet leftist and simply needs to be drawn out.

One of the themes of the book is divided loyalties. How does that come into the story?

Leighton understands that he’s there to undermine a native movement, at least to the degree necessary to complete his assignment, recovering the missiles.  Initially he has no basic problem with that, as far as it goes, but it quickly becomes more complicated. The guerillas save his life early on, and later offer him protection when it becomes clear that the Secret Police have marked him for death if he remains in the capital.  So the deeper we get into the story, the more beholden he becomes to the guerillas he’s there to spy on.  It gets more yet complex when Zorrita enters the picture, and his strong attraction to her slowly begins to shape his judgment and his actions, and ultimately his dedication to the assignment.  An inner struggle starts to simmer.

His behavior later in the story is somewhat schizoid, isn’t it, as he struggles to navigate conflicting agendas?

He’s definitely walking a line, trying to serve two masters. He hatches a plan to earn Zorrita’s trust, a plan he knows the agency wouldn’t approve of , involving action against the government that turns out to significantly help the guerillas’ cause, and he takes a  leading role in carrying it out.  But he also acts to complete his assignment.  Events force him to function as double agent.  His loyalty is with the guerillas, but he still feels a sense of duty to the agency, something many Blacks struggle with in a broader sense, a lingering loyalty to the boss, the overseer, even when we know it’s wrong.  Leighton has his own code, his own moral center, and he tries to honor it.

Is it love or lust with Zorrita?

Both.  She reads Leighton correctly and sees that his desire for her makes him susceptible to manipulation. But she also realizes he has a basic knowledge of history and the struggles for independence in Latin America, so she knows he’s good raw material, if you will, for the kind of indoctrination she has in mind.  She has an agenda, but she also shares a genuine attraction for him.  But it goes beyond lust as the story unfolds and it becomes clear that he will do anything for her, lie, kill, anything.  What he feels for her consumes him to the point that he has almost no morality where she’s concerned.  She awakens something primal in him. 

Did you plan the love story or did it just happen? This is primarily a spy thriller, after all.

It was definitely planned.  The love story holds it together and to me makes the whole thing more interesting.  I had elements that I added early on.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to use them, but I knew they’d be touchstones in the development of the love story.  The Bridge of the Venus, a particular location in the capital, was one, and the Sharks Grotto resort was another.  

The book deals with some serious themes, divided loyalties, love, betrayal. But is it a good adventure story?

I think it is.  I tried to strike a balance between action and suspense, but there are also dashes of political intrigue and sex in places where the action slows down.  And the characters are three dimensional, many of them drawn from people I’ve actually known.

On that note, is Zorrita a real person?

She is very real.  She is based on someone I knew in high school, a breathtakingly beautiful girl from Chile, who also had reddish brown hair. 

What’s next for Jeigh Leighton?

I’m not sure.  I’ve nearly finished a manuscript that takes him to Europe, involving an attempt to rescue a kidnapped scientist, but I’ve been distracted by a bright shiny object – a plot line involving completely illegal paramilitary action against a drug cartel in South America. So we’ll see which one wins out.

Learn more about Damien, and his books by visiting his webpage on Bootstrap Publications.


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