Preference for writing to aiding the rich
LIKE many lawyers before him, Mark Gimenez turned to fiction as a way of telling stories. But while many of those legal eagles are now full-time writers, Gimenez still practises law diligently.
A former partner at a big Dallas law firm, Gimenez now works for himself, eschewing the corporate rat race and focusing on commercial, property and tax law for a select client base.
"In the US, there are wide grey areas and lawyers make their money at the margins of the law. In big firms, you’re pushed to do that and I eventually said I’m not doing it anymore," says Gimenez.
"A lot of lawyers tell me they’re caught up in this system. You’d be amazed at how many people say, ‘I went to law school to help people — and I’m not helping anybody. I’m just helping rich people get richer’."
The idea of the law being applied according to the hue of a person’s skin was the premise of his first book, The Colour of Law, inspired by the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
"My son was reading the book at school and asked whether that could happen today — an innocent person going to prison because of the colour of his skin. I said it would if he’s poor — black, brown or white doesn’t matter much, it’s how much money you have. In 1935, black and white determined your fate in court; today it’s green — it’s money."
Gimenez took those common topics from Harper Lee’s story, set in 1935, and brought them to Texas in 2005: "It’s amazing how those themes still affect lawyers today. Atticus Finch was a poor lawyer accepting chickens as payment. Now the average rate in Dallas in a big firm is $1,000 an hour."
In his latest novel, The Governor’s Wife (Sphere), Gimenez takes a break from the legal world to focus on politics, more specifically the antics of the Republican governor of Texas, Bode Bonner, who, despite having money, power and influence, is bored and looking for a last hoorah to boost his adrenalin levels. But while he’s enjoying the trappings of his position, his wife is also looking for a challenge — in a different way. She flees to the colonias — the squalid settlements of mostly illegal immigrants along the US-Mexican border — and uses her background in nursing to try to make a difference in the lives of the poorest of poor.
Naturally, she’s working alongside a tall, dark and handsome doctor — but the possibility of a Mills and Boonesque romance is countered by the appalling conditions she and her patients have to endure.
Gimenez said he had thought about the book for 25 years, hoping to take a "big look at Texas and the drug-related problems on its borders" — a situation to which most of his compatriots are oblivious. To this end, he spent a long time researching the $30bn-a-year drug trade in Mexico: "About 50,000 Mexicans have died in the drug wars in the past five years alone. There have been mass executions and bodies hang from highway overpasses. The drug lords are beyond brutal, and I didn’t have to make anything up — it’s all true."
In events that mirror those of the thousands of Zimbabweans who cross the border into SA, many of the book’s characters see US soil — sometimes as close as 50m away — as their ticket to a better life. If they can get there at all, that is. With few jobs for the 2-million Mexicans living along the wall separating the countries, most of the women are forced into prostitution and the men into working for the cartels.
"My grandfather emigrated from Spain and my grandmother from Mexico in the 1900s. You can’t blame anyone for wanting to work and have a better life. But with the drug wars, these people are having to flee not only poverty, but immense personal danger."
Now six books into his literary career, he says writing is a long learning process in which research plays a large part, just as it does in law: "If you don’t like research, you’re not going to be a lawyer, and if you don’t research, you’re not going to write well. For us lawyers, we start thinking about which of our cases would make an interesting story and getting what we see in the office down on paper."
Equally, great characters must support a great story line. "Writing is my passion and I love to plot out the stories and involve the characters. I think characters are just as important as plot. I have to care about my characters to spend a year and a half with them. If I don’t care about them, readers aren’t going to care. If I kill somebody off, I want readers to cry."
Having been coerced to create a website — Gimenez admits to being low key and was probably more than gently persuaded by family and friends to make his mark in cyberspace — he was staggered at the fan mail he’s received since.
"I’m past 6,000 e-mails — and I’ve answered every one of them," he says. In some cases, the correspondence is continuing, including with the High Commissioner for Refugees at the United Nations, as well as former US president Bill Clinton.
"The MD of the biggest law firm in London wrote to say he’d read The Colour of Law and had decided to quit because of the book. And I said, ‘Time out! Take a deep breath – it’s just fiction.’ But actually he had been thinking about it for a while. Now he’s got a small firm and he’s much happier."
In between this correspondence, Gimenez has started work on his next novel, having spent a week researching Marfa, the "little bitty town in west Texas" where the story will be set, before leaving for SA.
With undertones that strike a chord close to home, he says the novel — called Con Law — will be a murder mystery tied into the disparate worlds of art and fracking. Fracking is a hot topic in Texas, with large tracts of land now frack fields given over to mining of the area’s natural gas: "In our state law, gas companies are common carriers and common carriers have eminent domain rights — the power of the government to take property for public good — so they can just condemn your land. I have a client going through this at the moment — a transcontinental pipeline will cut right through his farm. You fight over how much compensation you’re going to get, but you can’t beat them."
I mention the controversial fracking plans for the Karoo. "You should keep track of what’s going on in Texas. Everything we’re doing is coming to a neighbourhood near you."
Meanwhile, Marfa, with a population of just 1,900, has become a mecca for aspiring artists since Donald Judd, the renowned minimalist, moved there in the early 1970s to permanently install his artwork. It was also the location for the film, No Country For Old Men.
Gimenez says his main character will be a long-haired Harley-Davidson riding constitutional law professor, who has a TV show in which people write to him for help. Each week, he chooses a letter and then he and his intern head off on the Harley to save the day.
"I outlined it and thought it out and before I came here we drove to Marfa. After meeting the people and seeing their art and talking to them I said this is going to work. It’s crazy — it doesn’t make any sense, art and fracking — but it’s going to work just fine."
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