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SunLit Interviews

In her debut novel, the hydrogeologist author stuck to the adage: Write what you know

Harper McDavid put her characters in familiar south Texas and Mexico settings, with the protagonist reflecting another familiar feature -- women in STEM pursuits

Harper McDavid watched her mother ride the roller coaster of writing books, swearing she’d never do it herself. But some things are just hardwired, and luckily for Harper, the world has moved on beyond typewriters and 10-pound manuscripts.

“Zapata” is McDavid’s debut novel and the winner of both the 2020 Colorado Book Award and the Colorado Authors’ League 2020 CAL Award for romance. The gritty romantic suspense incorporates her own work as a hydrogeologist along the Texas/Mexico border, where the cartels are very real though romantic heroes are not.

She lives in Morrison with her husband, an assortment of animals, and during a pandemic a varying number of children. 

The following is an interview with Harper McDavid.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

The old adage, write what you know, provided the impetus for writing “Zapata.” I wanted to tell a story about women in STEM. When an oil and gas project in Zapata County, Texas, provided the material for early scenes, the book began to take form. Typically, my work as a hydrogeologist does not involve drug cartels; however, this case was unique. From mysteriously diminishing oil volumes to a site supervisor who was allegedly murdered, this border town assignment offered up a series of events so unfathomable that I couldn’t help but write about it.  

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it? 

The excerpt is from the beginning of the book (Page 6). It introduces Avery, Javier, and Alejandro, all of whom are significant characters, and provides a brief glimpse of troubles ahead.

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew? 

I have always been drawn to south Texas. My mother was born there, and my grandparents lived along the border. There is something about the rugged landscape that I believe builds elements of resiliency and unique character. Currently, any mention of the border brings to mind the negative aspects–the hardships of migrants, drug lords, and crime. In Zapata, I addressed the drug cartels and human trafficking. Both required a significant amount of research, much of it painful. As a result, I am in the process of pairing up with other authors to hold a benefit for victims of trafficking. No firm dates yet, but we are in the process of brainstorming. 

My favorite research experience came when my husband and I made a spur of the moment trip to Mexico City. It was a place I had always wanted to go, and we both loved every second of it. For those who have never been, it’s a mile high plus city with fabulous architecture, history, and amazing food. From Frida Kahlo to Montezuma, there is so much there. As part of our trip to Mexico City, we visited a couple of the surrounding areas. I have a scene in Zapata where the two main characters circle Popocatépetl, an active volcano near the city of Puebla. It’s such an iconic sight for a geologist that I dreamed of seeing it. On the day we made the trip to Puebla, Popo, as it’s called for short, made itself known, spewing ash and gases into the air. Needless to say, I was thrilled. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

Oddly, it was the genre that surprised me. I didn’t set out to write romance, but that was where the story led me. In the end, I believe it made the writing process easier since romance tends to offer structure, but you’ve got to love your characters and embrace all their flaws to write it.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet? 

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S., I have been undisciplined and inconsistent in my writing. I am a pantser, meaning that I write by the seat of my pants, or in other words, without an outline. I frequently allow my characters to take me places I do not intend, and unexpectedly a minor character will monopolize a scene. Though this is the part of writing I love most, it also gets me into trouble, and I seem to find myself doing a lot of rewrites.

Music is essential for writing. In general, I listen to every kind of music out there, though it varies according to the scene. If I’m writing a party scene in Mexico, it’s mariachi and norteño music. For the more intense scenes it’s typically rock or classical.

What’s your next project? 

My current work in progress, “Proximity of Betrayal,” is a suspense story with romantic elements that features a female geologist, Nia Lombardi. Two days before Nia is to defend her geology Ph.D. dissertation, she discovers a man bleeding in her backyard. Living along the Rio Grande, it’s not the first time she’s had unexpected visitors. Nia’s place is known among migrants as somewhere they might get food and water. But this time is different. The man is well-dressed and has a bullet wound that needs attention. Not a good thing in a town where law enforcement has an agenda of their own.

Like “Zapata,” this book features a woman in STEM and is set along the border, though the stories are very different. “Proximity of Betrayal” was a finalist for the 2019 Daphne du Maurier Award for Romantic Suspense (Unpublished). 

Buy “Zapata” at BookBar.
Read an excerpt of “Zapata” by Harper McDavid.