Arturo Pérez-Reverte is the author of 30 books which have been translated into over 40 languages and adapted into 10 major motion pictures around the world. He is also the author of La Reina del Sur, the basis for the Telemundo telenovela of the same name USA Network's break-out 2016 hit series Queen of the South.
USA sat down with the internationally bestselling author and learned more about his inspiration for Teresa Mendoza, his views on the strengths of women, the role of luck in our lives, and the challenges of adapting Queen of the South into English.
USA Network: What do you think is the difference between adapting your book to a film versus a TV show?
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: They’ve made various TV series from various books of mine and the fundamental difference is that there’s always greater freedom for a TV series. They’re longer and the development of the plot is for a wider range of audience, so there’s a greater ability to manipulate or modify the original text to introduce secondary characters and secondary plot lines. The original book doesn’t need these, but the TV series does.
Generally, I get involved as little as possible, but I do help out when it’s requested -- just supervise the work. And sometimes I get involved in specific aspects where my intervention is requested. In this case, I was not involved.
USA Network: Whether it’s the novel, or one of the TV series, what do you feel are Teresa’s most important qualities to the character?
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: She’s a woman in enemy territory. All women are in enemy territory for centuries, but in this case, this is particularly accentuated because the drug-dealing world is a very machista hostile environment. Here, the survival of a woman in enemy territory is even more spectacular. That’s the original challenge of the novel -- to ensure that in a machista violent world, which is the territory of men -- that in such a world where the women use the weapons of men, they use the intelligence and penetration of a woman. The challenge is for her to do more than what men do in those circumstances and for her to become the boss of men. That was the original challenge of the novel.
USA Network: Is Teresa someone you created? Was it based on someone in the news?
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: I am familiar with the violence of the drug world because for 21 years, I was a reporter in conflict-laden places. Violence is familiar to me and I’m also familiar with women as victims of violence. I didn’t base [Teresa] off any specific person for this character. On the contrary, after the novel was published, there were women linked to drug-dealing who were called "queens" and they applied to them the arguments of this novel. There are people in Mexico who believe that this character was based on a real-life character, and in Mexico, people have actually composed songs to that effect.
She is totally a fictional character. To forge her character, I used what I recall about women. Women are much more lucid and much more valiant than men. In times of crisis, women have certain reserves of moral strength which are far more superior to those of men. I saw that both in times of war and in times of peace. So we could say that, in order to build the character of Teresa Mendoza, I used everything I learned about women in an entire lifetime.
USA Network: There is a point in the book when Teresa is in prison and she realizes that women are as ballsy as men -- and maybe even more so.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: Usually more than men. Men are good for sprints. Women are good for marathons. In difficult places, at times of crisis, I’ve seen men do things which are quite powerful and quite heroic but men break down after a short distance. Out of every 10 men, eight will collapse before they reach the finish line if the effort is a prolonged one.
With women, it’s the contrary. Women bring out the best of themselves in long-lasting efforts. Their ability to resist pain, failure, and solitude is much greater than that of men -- and let me open a parenthesis. in the war in Bosnia, the women were fleeing along with the kids and the men were fighting. The Serbs would rape -- and that’s why the women were fleeing -- and, under those circumstances, I found a family that was fleeing and there were various women along with children and the grandparents were accompanying them -- a man and a woman. They were around 65 or 70. The man was totally stunned; he was unable to react. The woman had shot a hunting rifle in order to protect her daughters-in-law and her grandchildren.
When they saw us with our jackets, our vests, and our helmets, they thought that we were soldiers and she pointed at us with her rifle. At the same time, the old man was crying and shouting That’s very typical of women.
USA Network: What is the connection between you and the water? It seems to play a big role in the book. Is that something that’s important to you personally?
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: That’s an interesting question. I was born on the Mediterranean sea. I was always looking seaward, not landward. I’ve been sailing since I was a kid. My birthplace is 3,000 years old. When I was a kid, I would go diving and pull out Roman vases from the bottom of the sea. I’m a sailor. I have certifications, I have a yacht, and I have all the licenses to navigate on that yacht, and the sea is quite present in my life. As a matter of fact, my daughter is an aquatic archaeologist. Her work consists of removing sunken Greek ships and Latin-Roman ships from the depths of the sea. It is quite natural for the sea to be present in this novel, as it is present in many of my other novels. Furthermore, in the sea, there is an old tradition of being outside the law. The sea has always been a place for illicit fortunes -- always.
Before, these fortunes were the result of piracy and smuggling, and now the fortunes come from drug-dealing. And the sea makes all those things possible.
USA Network: What is the connection between you and the The Count of Monte Cristo? It is an important book in your novel Queen of the South.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: That was one of the first books I read as a kid. It’s an absolute novel; everything’s there -- betrayal, vengeance, love, jail, hidden treasure, old age, nostalgia. It’s a magnificent novel. It’s a novel of novels. I have envy for those who haven’t read The Count of Monte Cristo because they can read it for the first time. It’s an extraordinary novel and it worked out very well for the female characters. It’s a very good learning novel. [In] the same way, when I was nine, I learned many things about reading that novel.
I decided that Teresa Mendoza would discover many things through that novel. She would discover what any lucid reader would discover -- that that book, and all the books in the world, speak about the reader.
USA Network: In the book, you say, “In the last few years, Teresa had come to the conclusion that the world worked by its own incomprehensible laws.” Is that specific Teresa talking or is that a wider world view?
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: You ask good questions. It’s the author’s perspective. The world has rules. The thing is, the rules are not always visible to the naked eye. The world is not chance. The world is a very meticulous succession of cosmic rules, which include pain, death, failure. The thing is those rules are not visible. You have to study them in order to understand them. Books help to understand those rules. The observation of violence also helps. Love, sex, friendship, and loyalty also help. When you face all those things with lucidity and the desire to learn, it’s possible to fathom some of these rules, and if you don’t understand them in their ensemble, you can at least understand part of them. War is also another element to understanding those rules. Twenty-one years in countries at war also helped me to understand many of those rules.
USA Network: There is a paradox spoken by the character Eddie Alvarez in the novel. He says, “There are people whose good luck derives from misfortunes.” Is that one of your bigger philosophical opinions?
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: I don’t always take responsiblity for my characters say, but I do share this opinion. There are some strokes of bad luck which bring good luck. Whereas there are strokes of good that bring bad luck. That’s what’s entertaining about the game. You never know what is behind every door you open. The problem is that as you get older, and time goes by, you’ve opened too many doors and they’re are not as many surprises in store as when you were 20. But there continue to be surprises. The day that there are no more surprises is the day to leave.
USA Network: Your novels have been translated into over 40 languages. Has a bad translation ever made its way back to you?
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: Generally, I read my translations in French and Italian. In English, I read them with diifculty. I do read them but I’m not capable of appreciating the quality. I do have friends, however, who read them and tell me about the results... There’s a major difficulty in translation with Queen of the South. The novel is written in Mexican Spanish and there’s also a lot of jargon from both Mexican and Spanish criminals. The tranlslation is very good; it’s very faithful. But there are some areas that are impossible to translate. So that special intotantion that drug dealers have when they talk, their special way of relating to each other with a special language, unfortunately, gets lost in translation.
I observed that in [the U.S. adaptation of Queen of the South], which I liked very much, the key expressions of the drug dealers were respected in Spanish, because being said in Enlgish, they wouldn’t sound real.
USA Network: In the show, we have an actor named Joaquim de Almeida who plays Don Epifanio Vargas. He was also in another adaptation based on one of your novels -- El maestro de esgrima.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: He plays the role of a Spanish aristocrat and he did a great job. He’s a fantastic actor and I have a lot of respect for him. He loved women and Spain. I don’t know if he remembers me, but I remember him perfectly well. When I saw about his role in this series, I thought it was very good.
USA Network: One of the great lines you write is "Chito Parro was one of those guys you’d send out for a shipment of coke and he’d come back with Pepsi."
Arturo Pérez-Reverte: Did the joke come out in English? In the drug-dealer world, stupid people die earlier. Everyone dies, but stupid people die earlier. It’s just like at sea, if the sea wishes -- it can kill you. Whether you’re stupid or a great sailor, the sea will kill you, but the stupid people always die first. In life, people stupid die first... These are the rules of the game. And with age, you learn to identify them. You can’t control them, you can identify them.
The season finale of Queen of the South airs Thursday at 10/9c on USA Network. Catch up here.
This interview was conducted with the help of a Spanish-English translator. It has been edited for length and clarity.