At this stage in writing Bookbuners, each of us on the writing team has a particular kind of episode that we’re considered to be good at. At our big meetings where we decide the arc of the entire season, we talk about certain episodes being “Mur episodes,” or “Max episodes.” Maybe it’s because a certain tone needs to be hit. Often it’s because certain recurring characters are, well, recurring.
And sometimes it just has to do with the setting. Max has spent a good amount of time in China, for example, so usually the episodes that happen there are his. Way back when we were developing our characters, figuring out who they were and where they came from, I mentioned that I had spent just enough time in Guatemala to feel relatively comfortable writing about it, and we could certainly have our Latin American priest come from there. So we made it so.
Hilariously, the first episode involving Guatemala ended up being Margaret’s, but as it only touched on the country briefly, it wasn’t a problem good teamwork couldn’t solve. But in this episode of Season Three, it was finally time to send Menchú home, and there was no question that I would write it.
At this point, I love our characters so much that it’s always a pleasure to write them. I was eager to tell Menchú’s story of confronting some of the major questions that have been dogging him from the beginning. And I knew that even passing details of the country would be interesting. What can I say? There are many, many reasons that I seem to keep going back there.
But as it turned out, the country became, to me, as much of a character in this story as our heroes and villains. It made sense. Menchú confronting his past, in part, meant seeing how the place he remembered had changed since he left—a catalyst for him to realize how much he had changed, too.
And as it turned out, Menchú’s experience mirrored my own (much shallower) experience. I first went to Guatemala in 2002, only a few years after its decades-long civil war had ended, and to judge from the people I met and the conversations I had—dozens and dozens of them—it was a place still struggling to put itself back together. The government that had fought the civil war was still effectively in power, and maybe the easiest way to summarize the effects of this is that I was never more afraid for myself and for the people around me than I was when the army showed up.
Years passed and I wanted to go back. For a while I was told not to; the country had become more unstable, more unsafe. But I kept following the news. My own life prevented me, meanwhile, from taking trips to Central America for a few years anyway. But then suddenly all that changed, and for a number of reasons I ended up taking two trips there in the past couple years, first with my wife and then with my wife and son.
In 2002 I had spent much of my time in a small village about 15 minutes outside Guatemala’s second-largest city. At the time it was a place of dirt roads, and houses made of cinderblock or adobe. One man had made his house out of cardboard. But the village was energized. A very strong woman in town had asserted herself as leader, and they successfully had a school built, and had plans for roads, sewage, all kinds of projects. It sounded like a lot of hard work, and I remember thinking at the time that I hoped it would happen.
As it turned out, when I went back in 2014, I almost didn’t recognize the village I had worked in. All the roads were paved. All the old houses were gone; in their place were more modern buildings. The school, which had dominated the village’s center as its largest and most modern building, now blended right in. Aside from the roads being in the same place, there was nothing left of the village I had remembered. I felt nothing but happiness. They did it, I thought. They did so much of what they set out to do.
I briefly thought of seeing if I could find some of the people I had worked with back in 2002. I wanted to shake their hands and congratulate them. But I didn’t. I was sure they wouldn’t remember me; I was just one of so many gringos who had passed through their lives, and meanwhile all the real work had been theirs. So I didn’t do anything with that feeling I had, of wanting to express my happiness to them. I think in this story, I got my chance, a little.