Wheels Up - a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel Q&A

When her notorious drug lord uncle is recaptured, Layla Navarro catapults to the top of Mexico's most powerful cartel. To expand cartel influence she accepts an offer to move two tons of cocaine from Colombia to Cancun by jet. Things go sideways during a stopover in Guatemala when Layla unexpectedly uncovers a human trafficking ring. Plagued by self-doubt, she must navigate the minefield of Mexican machismo, outsmart corrupt government officials and fight off gangsters. Against a backdrop of lush tropical settings, Layla plots to succeed, wreak vengeance, and find herself—if she can manage to stay alive.

I'm delighted to welcome author, Jeanine Kitchel to Hair Past A Freckle today. Jeanine has very kindly sent me a copy of her book, Wheels Up - a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival and I'm very much looking forward to reading it. In the meantime, I found this a fascinating Q&A and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

 Welcome to Hair Past A Freckle, Jeanine. Can you tell us how you got started writing fiction?

Thank you for the interview, Karen. After I moved to Mexico in the late 90s, I started writing travel articles about Mexico when a publisher walked into my bookstore in Puerto Morelos (south of Cancun) and asked it I could do so. As a former journalist, non-fiction was not a chore and the area I was in—the Yucatán Peninsula with its pyramids, beaches, jungles—was so beautiful it was easy to write about. I first wrote two non-fiction books, a travel memoir and a book on the Maya calendar, and since then began writing fiction because I believed I could reach a wider audience and still take on some big ticket issues. That was the beginning of my fiction writing, with my debut novel, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival.

Tell us about the novel.

Living in Mexico and having a business there, I realized there are just too many untold stories that needed telling. I felt like a painter with an immense palate before me. First off, it’s a gloriously beautiful country filled with spectacular vistas: mountains and valleys, oceans and jungles, and of course, the impressive Maya pyramids. My fishing village sat within a hundred miles of numerous pyramid sites. I traveled to many of them and often. So I had an insider’s view of the country’s extraordinary culture along with a closer look at the creeping dominance of the cartels. Wheels Up uses that insight to catapult my Latina protagonist, Layla Navarro, to the top of Mexico’s most powerful cartel after her notorious drug lord uncle’s recapture. The novel takes a look at the cartels’ effect from the top levels of Mexican society down to how the average person tries to cope with corruption and cartel violence that’s become a part of their daily life.

What was it like owning a bookstore there?

Owning a business and especially a bookstore I became privy to a lot of info the normal person would never hear about. We were one of only six bookstores in the entire state of Quintana Roo (home to the Riviera Maya, Cancun and Tulum) and the only English language bookstore, though of course we had books in Spanish and many other languages as this part of Mexico has a very international crowd. Also I speak and read the language—an immense benefit. If I missed a bit of gossip in the store, Mexican papers filled in the gap. It was a bit like living in a tele-novela, the Mexican soap operas so loved by the locals. With that being said, Wheels Up deals with a Mexican narca newcomer, and how she deals with navigating the minefield of Mexican machismo, facing a near impossible task of proving herself in a world in which women have no power. I thought it would be interesting to change the dynamic and have a strong-willed woman in the driver’s seat, leading a powerful cartel.

Why was writing Wheels Up important to you?

I wanted to expose how corruption—not only from the cartels but also from the government, the military and the police—has shaped and weakened the country. It’s Mexico’s main problem and has given the cartels a leg up, an easy entry into taking control of the entire country. I’m not sure if there’s an end in sight, and it pains me. Writing about it, in fictionalized form, gave me an outlet to express my concerns about this ongoing problem, one that’s handicapped my beloved Mexico.

 Where do you get your ideas from?

Coming from a non-fiction background, many of my ideas are grounded in some sort of personal experience, or things I’ve overheard while cruising through life. I don’t carry a notebook with me like many writers do, but I tend to have a good memory, and different ideas or sentences can resonate within for a long time.

They say all books of fiction have at least one pivotal point where the reader can’t put the book down. Is that true of Wheels Up?

During a Bogota, Colombia to Cancun cocaine deal, it becomes evident that Layla, my protagonist, must meet her fellow dealer Clay, a former Canadian pot grower, in Guatemala to help grease the inroads to Cancun. Layla unexpectedly uncovers their contact Don Guillermo’s dirty secret, and the fallout leads to a fast and furious escape from Guatemala at dawn. The plane crashes in the Yucatán jungle and the survivors must trek out or die. Readers tell me this is where they just couldn’t put the book down.

Any final thoughts?

 Wheels Up is a trilogy and I’ve begun writing book two, Layla’s Law. This interview has given me the opportunity to explain why I wrote Wheels Up and what it meant to me to do so. Thank you!

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions today Jeanine, I really appreciate it. 

Wheels Up is available to purchase from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

About the Author
Jeanine Kitchel writes about Mexico, the Maya and the Yucatán. She and her husband began traveling to the Yucatán Peninsula in the 1980s, and what began as lazy beach vacations soon turned into land hunting expeditions fueled by the dream of escaping their hectic nine to five lives in San Francisco. By 1989 they bought land in a small Mexican Caribbean fishing village where they broke ground for their new house. By this time, she'd become a serious Mayaphile and her love of the Maya culture led her to pyramid sites throughout Mexico and Central America. Soon after, she founded a bookstore and was asked to contribute travel articles to Mexico newspapers and websites by local and international publishers. Her first book, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, is a travel memoir and her second, Maya 2012 Revealed, demystifies the Maya calendar prophecy. Wheels Up is her first work of fiction.

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