Where The Mechanic of San Martín Came From

“Where did The Mechanic of San Martín come from?”  “How do you get ideas for novels?”

Would-be writers ask that, curious readers ask it.  A novel isn’t like a lyric poem, where a flash of insight or a substantial observation sparks a rush of words that are transformed-best case-into a new reality, a thing never before existent, all in a few lines.

A novel is big, it takes time to write and to read.  It covers, often, a large hunk of time.  (Ulysses and other novels have covered as little as a day, but that in itself is a fiction.  The characters from whose point of view the narrative develops are free to leap back a dozen years or more in memory, even though the narrative present may take place all in one day.  Recall Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.)  Many different events occur in a novel, many creations-be they characters, places, or interactions-come to life.

So, where an idea for a novel comes from isn’t a simple answer, although there is usually a point in time you write in your notebook, “Idea for a novel,” and jot down some emerging notion of plot or character.

I started TMSM many years ago, so I’m not sure when was the exact time I said to myself, “Why don’t I write a novel about that?”  I think it was some time in the 1980s, though, that the idea first came to me, a story about a man with two wives.

In my youth I wrote a novel called “Two Times Tables,” about a man at the apex of a romantic triangle.  His fate is to change positions in the triangle, as the second woman, the mistress, assumes another lover and the protagonist becomes the odd man out.

That novel led, indirectly, to TMSM:  triangle; one man, two women; the man starting out as dominant, in control, and losing that feeling.

More practically, back in 1970, I took a motor trip with my family to Costa Rica (à la Mike The Gringo) and my Dodge Power Wagon developed a leak in the water pump cover (à la Shula’s Fiat).  Sure enough, the toll taker at the casita at the Vera Cruz exit called the garage of a mechanic in San Martín Texmelucan, a stone’s throw east of the toll road that descends the mountains between Mexico City and Oaxaca.

I don’t remember the mechanic’s name nor exactly what he looked like, but he was a very good mechanic and he was called el maestro by his fellow citizens.  More importantly, I had a conversation with him which covered many cultural differences between us norteños and Mexicans, including the plural marriage topic.  I surely drank too much Tequila and el maestro kindly sent me a bottle of pulque in the morning, to relieve the hangover.

That’s the input.  I knew nothing about the man’s relationship with his wife or la segunda, and no one died while I was there.  The physical description of Rigoberto is a composite of a childhood friend’s father (bald, strawberry, fine tenor voice) and a man I worked with before going to Costa Rica, who, while short and stocky, had bedroom eyes and a way with words (and women).  Shula is something like a woman of slight acquaintance, the older sister of a woman I worked with and had a crush on.  Emma is a fuller-bodied version of Irene Papas, eyes not quite so piercing.

That’s it.  The action of the novel came as I wrote it.  My mother died almost instantly, probably of a coronary thrombosis, and that event has ever stuck in my mind.  Carmen’s cerebral accident would be a similar event.  I’ve known a score of women with personalities like Shula’s–big-hearted, compelled to meddle, generous, wearing their sexual instincts on their sleeves.  I’ve been Juan the perplexed teenager, Rigoberto the perplexed sinner, fleeing his conscience and hurting others in the process.  There’s even a bit of Cillo and Bernardo in me.

Once I had the basic plot, the triangle that gets broken by untimely death, and the characters of Rigoberto, Emma and Shula, the novel had to end up where it ended up.  Having a prologue and an epilogue is, to my way of thinking, cheating, but it was a way to keep the book short and the action moving.

There you have it, the genesis of The Mechanic of San Martín.