Tim MacGabhann on Mexico, addiction and his debut novel

Tim MacGabhann on Mexico, addiction and his debut novel
Tim MacGabhann, journalist and author. Covering the underbelly of Mexican life as a freelancer gave him the material for his novel. Picture: Moya Nolan

As investigative journalist and Irish author Tim MacGabhann reported on the drug cartels in Mexico, he was also supporting them through his own drug use. The experience helped inspire his debut novel, writes Marjorie Brennan

Mexico City isn’t exactly what one would call the easiest beat in journalism, even for a seasoned foreign correspondent.

Distilling the chaos of the seemingly endless drugs war, corruption and murder into an easily digestible package for international audiences who would prefer to watch fictional portrayals such as Narcos and Sicario is a tough sell. For writer Tim MacGabhann, this conflict was echoed by his own tormented relationship with the drugs industry he was reporting on.

When he arrived in Mexico, in June 2013, MacGabhann’s own dependence on drugs, mainly cocaine and LSD, was reaching a crisis point.

“Even at the time, I found it quite maddening that I’d managed to lapse into this dumb, cliché of a Hemingway pose basically within minutes of arriving in Mexico, but even when you know you’re in the throes of the thing, it’s very hard to get out,” says the writer.

MacGabhann, who has been clean and sober since late 2014, has now written a novel inspired by his life in Mexico and the damaged and corrupt political system from which it seems the country cannot escape.

Call Him Mine is the story of acid-dropping reporter Andrew whose boyfriend, photographer Carlos, is killed when they start digging too deeply into the murder of an activist. The book has been described as “tough and uncompromising” by bestselling author Lee Child. MacGabhann says to get the imprimatur of one of the world’s top thriller writers was particularly gratifying.

He’s a kind of a god in the thriller genre, his prose is so pristine, minimal, direct, that he’s like a tuning fork for me. I couldn’t believe it.

MacGabhann, now 30, grew up near Kilkenny.

“We lived just between the city and Bennettsbridge, so my neighbours were cows. My parents are teachers but I had an outdoorsy upbringing,” he says.

He went to school in a CBS in Kilkenny before going on to study English and French in Trinity. So how does a country boy end up as a reporter in one of the biggest and toughest cities in the world?

“I saw photographs of Mexico City in the 70s in one of my grandfather’s encyclopaedias when I was eight or so. They just stuck in my head. When I was in Trinity, I went to a gallery and I was standing in front of a Kahlo or Rivera, I can’t remember which, two very typical touchstones — Mexican friends of mine laugh at how cliched it is — but I remember having this rush of feelings and images and memories and I just became sure I had to go there.

“Later, I ended up in Brazil and when the relationship I was in ended, I thought I was on that side of the world anyway, so why not keep going? I got a job teaching English in Mexico City and wound up driving past the Diego Rivera mural which I’d seen in a photo at nine years of age. It felt like home from the beginning.”

MacGabhann began to write book reviews, turning to freelancing full-time when he met some foreign correspondents in the city.

“I thought they were getting right under the skin of the place, and I wanted to be like these people, who were doing incredible stories for admirable publications. So I quit the teaching nine months in and like any freelancer I had to chisel out my own brand. I was doing quite well professionally for a while.”

MacGabhann often felt frustration that he could only convey a fraction of the stories he wanted to tell about life in Mexico.

It was very difficult to sell the stories I wanted, certainly. Every journalist working in that region knows you’re only able to get across a tiny percentage of what’s happening. The reader only has a certain amount of attention per item.

"But I was lucky, if it ever got too much I was able to go home and get into bed, get some mental head space, whereas Mexican journalists and reporters don’t have that, the story can follow them home.”

MacGabhann saw the constant threat under which many journalists live at first-hand when a neighbour of his, Rubén Espinosa, was murdered in an apartment with female activists.

“Ruben had been covering narco-organised crime involvement in the repression of worker and student strikes in [the Mexican state of ] Veracruz. He fled to Mexico City on the assumption he would be safe. It brought home to me that whatever I was doing as a reporter was decorative in comparison. That really began my frustration with what I was at. That’s where the novel came from.”

He was also feeling immense guilt over his drug use and the fact he was writing critically about an industry that he was also supporting.

“At the end of the day, you’re off covering the grinding misery and violence and poverty caused by the trillion-dollar black market — of which arms sales and the drug trade are an enormous part — and then, on the weekend, you’re putting your five hundred pesos a gram straight into that economy.

It really punctures the myth that a journalist is any kind of a ‘crusader’ against anything. Everyone participates to a greater or lesser extent, but I was participating more than most, giving cash I earned covering the drug trade to drug dealers. You can’t get any more contradictory than that.

While Mexico continues to struggle with drugs, lawlessness and corruption, in more recent times, it has been in the news for its border issues with the US and the treatment of migrants who are being held in intolerable conditions in what many have termed concentration camps.

MacGabhann says the situation is nothing new but he is glad it is now getting more global attention.

“I was covering that story five years ago and the images now are more numerous, but it was just as horrifying then. I’m extremely glad that people’s hostility towards Donald Trump means they’re more alive to the monstrosity of what the US has been doing for such a long time.

“There are people I interviewed in 2014 who died in the same circumstances as that poor father and his daughter [Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande river along with his 23-month-old daughter].

“I talked to people who lost their legs on train rides, and when they were apprehended by border guards they were beaten and mistreated. When they were captured by Mexican authorities they were also put in the same abject conditions. The horror is bigger and we’re more aware of it now and I’m glad we’re paying more attention to it. But it’s nothing new.”

While many people are risking their lives trying to escape Mexico, I wonder if MacGabhann ever thinks about why he wants to stay there.

“I didn’t want to stand around tutting. I don’t want to be apolitical, I don’t think you can look away from it; I think bearing witness is a form of activism and I’m fully aware of the limitations of that, how it can be an excuse for not doing anything.

All I have in terms of labour is my brain and my language, and writing is the best use of that. I don’t think it makes me any good, that it makes me like Woodward or Bernstein or anything, but it’s all I have.

For now, Mexico is home and for all its issues, it has also been a place of great joy and comfort for MacGabhann.

“It’s a wonderful place to live, it gave me everything, it gave me my childhood dream. It’s a place I became sober and where I went to recover, and it’s also where I met my wonderful partner.”

MacGabhann’s partner Jany is Mexican and the couple are currently on a short break in Ireland. “She’s an interpreter and she has better English than I have,” he says.

McGabhann is also not blind to the inequalities that exist in his home country since he arrived back here.

“I’m not knocking Dublin, but the signs of inequality are also visible here, especially in terms of the homeless crisis,” he says.

Call Me Mine is part of a planned trilogy and MacGabhann is working on the third book.

“In the trilogy I want to push Andrew into the darkest moral territory I can to ask questions of myself that the world doesn’t ask me; he’s my stunt double.”

He has been making the most of the industriousness that often follows sobriety, and tells me of another intriguing project that he has been working on.

“I have written a book in the voice of Rory Gallagher ... though what right does a Kilkenny man have to write about Rory Gallagher. The same a white man has writing about Mexico, I suppose,” he says.

- Call Him Mine, by Tim MacGabhann, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson is out now.

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