John Lantigua’s fifth and latest Willie Cuesta novel, Remember My Face, was published in 2020 to rave reviews. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, John has been writing Willie Cuesta stories for EQMM for many years. In this post he gives readers (and Willie’s many fans) some insight into the character’s creation. —Janet Hutchings
I have published eight novels in total, the last five of which star Willie Cuesta, the Miami-based, Cuban-American private eye. I’ve also published a dozen short stories protagonized by Willie, eleven of which have appeared in this very magazine. Over the years I have been asked a question by people who have read those books and/or stories:
“Are you and Willie Cuesta one and the same person?”
I’m sure other writers of series fiction have had to field this same inquiry. Not all, of course. I don’t know that Agatha Christie was ever asked if she and Hercule Poirot were one and the same. To begin with there was the missing moustache, not to mention the Belgian passport for Poirot.
But I figure Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, and other creators of iconic sleuths have heard some form of that same question. And let’s not forget Arthur Conan Doyle.
I don’t know what they answered, but I consider it a tricky question. As the author you are there at the birth of your character. You are mother, father—as well as literary obstetrician. But how alike is your DNA and that of your character?
If it will help, here is what I remember of Willie’s birth. It was 1997 and I was a reporter at the Miami Herald. I had published three standalone novels and had been learning as much as I could about Miami since moving here in 1992 with the express idea of creating a series character. I had decided that the first novel in that series would concern a Miami phenomenon known as the “Pedro Pan Kids.” They were 14,000 plus young people smuggled out of Cuba during the early years of communist rule there in the 1960s. They flew off the island to freedom, hence the reference to Peter Pan. This story was true and a treasured bit of lore in Cuban Miami, but most people outside South Florida had never heard of it.
For months, I interviewed the “kids” themselves, although they were now middle-aged. I also spoke with people who had helped design the smuggling operation and who also found foster homes and orphanages that could care for the children, while their parents worked to get off the island themselves. Eventually, most the parents did make it, but I decided to write a novel about a man whose parents had been murdered before they could leave the island and his efforts to find out who killed them.
So, I had the rudiments of a plot and my interviews had coalesced into a cast of characters. Among those characters I had my suspects; not a firm conviction of who the killer was but several folks who wanted to be considered, including old mafiosi, former Cuban casino operators, CIA operatives, etc. What I didn’t have was a hero.
I decided he would be a former Miami cop turned private eye and that he would be Cuban American. (I am half Cuban American.) I tried to picture him, but I didn’t know his name and without a name he remained out of focus. I assume it’sthe same for other authors of series; what you name your character feels very important because, hopefully, you will be living with her or him for many years.
I wracked my brain, going through many Latino surnames. Finally, a passage I had once read popped into my head. I don’t recall if it was Dashiell Hammett who said it, or someone writing about Hammett. But the idea was that fictional private eyes were much like medieval knights who went off to slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress. Those adventures were called “quests.” When I read that word the last name “Cuesta” was suddenly illuminated in my imagination. Cuesta is a fairly common Latin surname. It was perfect for a Latino sleuth. Moments later the first name “Willie” attached itself. “Willie Cuesta” was just right from the moment it sounded in my mind. I could suddenly picture him, and I have been writing about him for more than twenty years.
But the question remains: Are Willie and I the same person?
It is true that during all that time Willie only has taken cases that coincide perfectly with topics that I have found particularly interesting.: the aforementioned Pedro Pan kids, Colombian kidnapping rings, people-smuggling “coyotes” from Mexico, Argentine and Chilean military assassins hiding in the U.S., Cuban cigar counterfeiters, Haitian voodoo practitioners, etc. I don’t remember a moment when Willie’s conscience worked differently than mine.
I’ve also been told that Willie and I have the same sense of humor. We’re both divorced and single. We are attracted to the same ladies.
But we also have our marked differences. I’m six foot two and he is a couple of inches shorter. Willie is forever forty. I, alas, am not.
Willie has a brother who runs a great salsa club and a witchy mother who owns a botanica in Little Havana, selling all sorts of potions and religious articles. I have neither, although I have spent plenty of time in such establishments, especially nightclubs.
Willie has had to shoot a few folks in self-defense. I, so far, have not.
That said, I recently met a woman who expressed interest in getting to know me better. I handed her a copy of a Willie Cuesta novel, “The Lady from Buenos Aires” from 2007.
“Start here,” I said.