Hailing originally from farm country in the Midwest, Rick Collignon has lived in New Mexico for 30 years. Much of that time he has been absorbing the legend, myth, landscape and folklore around him, spinning it into his trilogy of novels -- The Journal of Antonio Montoya (1996), Perdido (1997) and A Santo in the Image of Cristobal Garcia (2002).
A construction worker by trade, Collignon moved six years ago from the tiny village of Questa to the town of Taos. Despite the critical success of his first two books, he still puts roofs on houses to pay the bills.
"I'm begging for a bestseller," he says. "I'm getting too old for this."
The father of two college-age kids and a 4-year-old, Collignon says a typical writing day may go something like this: up at 3 or 4 a.m. to write until 8, then work until 1 p.m., a break, more work, then time with family for a few hours.
The payoff is in the work itself. The Journal of Antonio Montoya, the story of a family and its ghosts in the village of Guadalupe, has been translated into 12 languages. ("I've got one right here on my shelf, translated into Hebrew," says Collignon.) Perdido, a mystery about an Anglo living in a small New Mexico town, was hailed by The New York Times Book Review as "a one-sitting read, a novel that captivates and surprises all the way to its chilling end." A Santo in the Image of Cristobal Garcia gives readers the history of the village of Guadalupe from its origins -- a wild man making houses in the snow -- to its consumption by fire.
Santo is the final book in the loosely formed Guadalupe series, says Collignon, though he is wrestling with the beginning of a new book now.
The Independent spoke to Collignon by phone from his home in Taos.
Indy: What was your training to become a novelist?
Collignon: I dropped out of two colleges and never took any writing classes. My training was reading, which I did and still do voraciously. My brother writes too. Our mother was the type of person who would lock all five kids out, lock herself in the bathroom with a book and stay an hour. It must be in the genes.
Indy: What kind of books do you prefer?
Collignon: I try not to be a bigot. When I'm writing, I need to read easy stuff. It's like I need to eat candy. I think I've read every one of Ed McBain's mystery novels. I love Gabriel Marquez, the American novelist [William] Kinsella who wrote Shoeless Joe, Stephen King. What I really want, especially as I grow older, is a story to draw me along. Something has to happen.
Indy: So how did you begin writing in earnest?
Collignon: My brother actually got me into writing. In college I wanted to write, then I had this dead air space for about 20 years. One day, my brother sent me this chapter in the mail. He said, 'Here's Chapter One. You write the next one.' So I did and we went back and forth writing chapters. It turned out to be one of the worst murder mysteries imaginable, but I was hooked. It was like heroin. I don't know where the fever comes from, but it's powerful.
Indy: What makes New Mexico such a lure for novelists?
Collignon: When I first came here, I was struck by the people, the architecture, the mountains. For me there was a really old feeling to this place. There was also a feeling that anything could happen at any time. Here were these churches that were 200 years old, sagging, leaning, falling over. Doing construction with the village guys of Questa, I got a lot of exposure to the culture.
Indy: What about your process? Does the story carry you along or is it difficult?
Collignon: Writing for me is a struggle. When it's going well, it's an incredible high, and when it's not it's like, God, where's the gun? I wouldn't do it if I didn't thrive on it. I think if you want to write you're gonna write no matter what else is going on in your life.
I don't think I'd have anything to write about if I didn't have kids and worries and depression and all that stuff. I remember a scene from Stephen King, a short story, a guy looking out a plate-glass window, his wife standing behind him, a huge storm blowing in and he's thinking, 'Whoa, this is it.' And I thought, Bingo! I'm always in that place.
Indy: Do you find that people from other parts of the country read your books?
Collignon: I've gotten some limited fan mail and it tends to be from just about everywhere. I got a letter from my fourth-grade teacher -- that was a trip. I had such a crush on this woman, you can't imagine.