TCR Talks with Travis Burkett, author of An American Band

By Ty Landers

UC Riverside-Palm Desert MFA alumnus Travis Burkett’s first novel An American Band hits shelves as the immigration crisis at the southern border of the United States continues to flummox Washington. Though his book, set in alternating timelines between 2015 and 1984, is not overtly political, the border problem serves as a brilliant conceit for a well-paced and entertaining literary crime novel, providing an opportunity for a wide-eyed, engrossing examination of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Burkett’s novel takes an unflinching look at the craven structures of corruption that often spring up around pursuits of happiness.

In the novel, Javier Espinoza convinces the young rock band he manages to smuggle migrants across the border for the cash they need to record their debut album. Javier knows the dangers, having made his own perilous journey at age eleven from a farm in Coahuila to the United States, surviving brutal coyotes and ducking the authorities. He and the band board a ramshackle tour bus, book shows on either side of the border as an alibi, and are soon plunged into the heart of Juárez, where the harsh realities of human trafficking, impassive border agents, and ruthless cartels await.

The Coachella Review sat down with Burkett to discuss his writing process and how this novel came to be.


The Coachella Review: How does it feel to have a book out in the world?

Travis Burkett: It’s pretty special. It’s kind of surreal… But when I actually got the books, it was pretty cool.

TCR: You said something really interesting in your acknowledgments about leaving your hometown and being out of it for a little while, which gave you the opportunity to look back and realize that where you were from had become more interesting to you as a writer and critical to finding your voice. Could you talk about that a bit?

TB: I lived in Kansas City for three years, me and my wife. After the first year, there was a lot of homesickness and a lot of imagining West Texas. I had already written a full first draft of the book before we moved, but I did a lot of revision on it. Moving back kind of beefed up some of the scenes where I’m describing the landscape. It’s weird, if it’s right there in front of you, you can’t absorb it. Sometimes you have to go away to put it all together and figure out how to describe it on the page.

TCR: So how did your dreams as a novelist, writing your first book, bleed into writing about a young band that was trying to make it?

TB: There’s quite a bit of bleeding in there. Music and writing are two very different things. But the creative process is still similar. You still have the excitement of new ideas and the frustration when you can’t get them just the way you want them [and] I guess the band knowing once they have something they’re proud of, their sound, and having that longing to get it out there for people to hear it. It took a long time to write the book. Then it was another long time to get it published. There’s definitely a lot of overlap between what they were feeling and what I was feeling.

TCR: Do you have a background in music? Did you play in bands? How much of this was research versus how much had you actually done?

TB: I have never played in a band. I started playing guitar in middle school a little bit, and then I started playing more in college. I’ve played guitar for a while, but it’s just for my own amusement. I’ve never performed or been in a band. I did research. Rob Roberge was one of my professors, and he suggested Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. It’s a lot of indie bands in vans, traveling. You see little snippets of bands and you can kind of see the ugly side of it. The fights and what tore them apart sometimes. A lot of it was research, and then part of it was just thinking about me and my friend group, how we would bicker about things. I could take some those experiences and put them on to the bandmates.

TCR: You’re a writer, a farmer, a husband, a father. It’s tough to juggle all of those things. What does your writing routine look like?

TB: Well, right now my writing output is pretty slim. I write on the weekends when I can. Our kids are thirteen months apart. Since the baby got here, doing that and the farming, I haven’t had the time I used to get worked up, like, I should be writing, I should be further along on this project. I’ve been able to let some of that go and just accept that right now I’m in the season in my life where I can’t write as much as I’d like to, but that’s alright with me. I want to enjoy this stage. I used to write five, six days a week. Just go after work, go to a coffee shop or something and crank out some pages. I think I’ll get back to that at some point. Right now, it’s just finding time when I can. A lot of times, the weekend is the only time I’m able to find the time to write. It’s usually shorter stuff now. I started another novel back before we had kids, during the lockdown. I kind of put it away. I work on poetry, short stories, and some songs—stuff I can accomplish in a smaller timeframe. It doesn’t make sense to start another novel right now, but I have my next novel lined up. I’ll get there.

TCR: What is your approach to starting a new project? Do you outline or dive straight in? Any weird rituals? Do you start longhand or go straight to a laptop? Give yourself a daily word count?

TB: I didn’t outline at all for this one. The first few paragraphs of the opening 2015 scene where the bus is in the gas station in Laredo? Those didn’t really change; everything else did, but those first images didn’t really change from when I first wrote it. I had those images, but I didn’t really know what was going to happen next. Sometimes I have an idea where it’s going and then other times…like the ending, I really didn’t know. People asked me how it was going to end. I didn’t know yet. I’ll know when I get there. I think there were, like, three different endings. But, I don’t outline. I can see how it would be helpful, but it keeps it more interesting to surprise yourself sometimes. There’s more potential for it to go completely off the rails if you aren’t outlining. There’s that downside. But, that’s the way I’ve always done it. I do write longhand [for] the first draft. I like that I don’t have to be connected. I can just take a notebook and a pen and I can write anywhere. I usually do all my first drafts longhand and then a second draft. I’ll type it up and make revisions as I type.

Great title. Are you a Grand Funk Railroad fan, or was the title just too good to pass up?

TB: I’m not specifically a Grand Funk Railroad fan. I like that song. My dad was a fan. He was a teenager in the seventies and got me into a lot of music from that era. The title came from Stephen Graham Jones. He was my professor. The working title was Band on the Run. Another song reference—not bad. Stephen was like, “What about An American Band?” There was never any more question about the title, it just fit so well.

TCR: What was the original spark to get into this story? Was it always Javier’s story? Did it start with a character, the band, the crime, a specific image?

TB: I thought it might just be a short story. I had never written a novel, had never tried to write a novel, and didn’t think I could write a novel. I wrote about twenty pages and was like, I don’t think I can tell this whole story [yet], so, I kept going with it. The initial spark was the image of a tour bus. A band that was smuggling. Just the crime, I guess. Smuggling people across the border. I didn’t know whose story it was, just this vague idea about a rock band smuggling migrants. Within the first page or two, it became pretty apparent that it was going to be Javier’s story. Adding him as the manager, it just made sense that he would be the leader. [The band members are] all kind of young and immature. So, they obviously would not be the brains of the operation. The first couple of pages really didn’t change from the very first draft, which shows the power of that initial spark.

TCR: Writing about music in fiction can be challenging. The reader can’t hear the sound that you, as the writer, might have in your head. Especially if you’re talking about a fictitious band. How did you approach writing the scenes where the band was playing?

TB: Within the first few pages, somebody asks Javier what kind of music they play. I tried to tie it to genres that people are familiar with. If you’re not from the border, you may not be familiar with Tejano music, but you are familiar with rock music, country, blues. The reader may not know how those sound together, but they can at least maybe pick up bits of each genre in their head. I tried to do that. Another thing was just mentioning bands that were kind of an influence on them. I mentioned Los Lobos and Dr. Dog. [Stylistically, the band is] all over the map. There’s a lot of ways to picture their sound; maybe you can’t connect with all of it, but you can hear part of it. The other part was the lyrics. I really wanted to write my own lyrics for their songs, and I included those—not the full song, but snippets of lyrics in different places. I think you can read those and have an idea of how they would be sung. You don’t have the melody, and I didn’t put sheet music in or anything. But, somebody else, they probably hear it entirely differently. That’s cool, even if it’s not what I heard in my head.

TCR: What were you listening to when you wrote the book? Do you listen to music while you write or do you need silence?

TB: I usually listen to music while I write. Sometimes I do write in silence; it just depends. I usually listen to albums on repeat. So, eventually you’re not paying attention to the words as much, and you know the songs come back around, and it’s kind of an ideal situation. You get into a flow state. It doesn’t always happen. I get easily distracted by things. But yeah, I do like to write with music. I listened to a ton of music. It was years writing the book. So, there were a lot of different things I listened to. A lot of them are mentioned in the musical acknowledgments at the end of the book: Los Lobos, Turnpike Troubadours, Cody Jinks, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and also just a bunch of Texas blues musicians—those are some I kept coming back to.

TCR: This book lands in a really great sweet spot between literary and genre. Who were some of the writers who influenced you?

TB: Cormac McCarthy—he’s been a big influence. I like [his use of] very spare, kind of unadorned language [such as when he’s describing] character actions and gives very little of the interior thoughts of his characters. I like the spare actions. But then he goes into the landscape and it’s these grand, biblical passages. He’s talking about the entire universe. Another would be S. C. Gwynne. I really liked his book, Empire of the Summer Moon. It’s nonfiction, but it was really influential. I read it when I was living in Kansas City and feeling homesick for West Texas. He’s not from West Texas but describes it in a way that gave me a whole new appreciation for the land. Javier, in my book, is reading a book about Quanah Parker and the Comanche, and that’s the book I’m referencing. James Lee Burke. I had read very little crime fiction when I started writing this. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel. I started reading more crime writers, and James Lee Burke has a very evocative style of writing. He helped me round out some of the places in my book. And then the last one, I’ll go with the songwriter John Prine. His stuff is really funny and kind of off the wall but really poignant.

TCR: Texas and the border specifically are characters in this novel. Most of the Texans I know are Texans first, and everything else comes after that. What is it about Texas and the border that serves as such an exquisite backdrop for great stories?

TB: Texas is a unique place. We’re fond of telling people we were our own country for a while. It’s just so massive. I think El Paso to San Diego is a shorter distance than El Paso to Houston. You can drive forever and still be in Texas. People [who aren’t from Texas] have their own idea of Texas. For some people, that’s a romantic image. For some people, maybe more of a villainous image. They think of cattle drives, and that’s all part of it. But, it’s also modern cities like Dallas and Houston and Austin. It’s a lot of things. When you take it as a whole, it seems like a larger-than-life place to people. That’s a natural setting for larger-than-life stories.

TCR: I thought the way you structured the narrative around the separate timelines, the present of 2015 with Javier and the band smuggling migrants, and then Javier’s own experience, crossing over in 1984, really served the story well. Did you know you wanted to structure it that way pretty early on, or did that come over time through revision, workshopping, or beta readers?

TB: I started with the 2015 timeline. 2015 wasn’t an artistic choice or anything, I started the book in 2015. I started to realize that every year that goes by and I still haven’t finished, I just kind of move it back a year. I realized pretty quickly that wouldn’t work. This is going to be a completely different book. Different set of people at the border, different circumstances, everything. So, I stuck with 2015. The 1984 sections—the flashback sections—the first one I wrote was the prologue. I think that was just my curiosity about Javier’s childhood and kind of wanting to go into that. I thought I’d try to do some more flashbacks, and I didn’t know if I was going to do it through the whole book or not. Some of it was in workshops. I would read it and people responded more positively to those flashbacks. They responded as well, if not better, than the 2015 stuff. It was working, so I thought I would just start every chapter with a flashback.

The funny thing about it, when TCU [Press] first said they were interested, they wanted to get outside readers to give their thoughts before they committed to it. The first reader thought it would be better, a faster paced book, if we took out the flashbacks. I was like, Well, if it doesn’t have the flashbacks, that’s not my book. Maybe it is a faster-paced novel. But, the second reader came back and loved the flashbacks. There was never any question of taking them out. Switching between them was my original idea.

TCR: What would you like people to take away from this book? Especially in terms of migration and the lengths people will go to for a better life in the United States?

TB: I’ve had several people tell me how timely the story is. But when I started this in 2015, the border was just starting to get a little more national attention. It’s always just a part of life. Mexican culture, Tex Mex culture is a huge part of our state’s identity. That’s because of migration. I guess I just wanted to tell a story. I hope these characters come across as authentic people, even though I’m sure I’m missing details. I didn’t really have a big message or motive in writing this. It’s important to see migrants as humans. A lot of times it gets talked about in headlines and opinions and political slogans and whatever. I wanted to bring a human element to that story.

TCR: You just hatched this thing, but what’s next for you?

TB: I’ve been working on some horror stories. I’ve been a fan of that genre for a while, and I kind of want to do my own spin on that. I’ve just…been cranking out first drafts, reworking just to see what I’ve got. When I get the time again, when the kids are a little bigger, I do want to go back to another novel. Another ensemble crime novel that takes place in Kansas City. I didn’t write much about it when I lived there. I’ve been gone from Kansas City long enough that there are things I miss about it now. It’s an opportune time to write about Kansas City.

Ty Landers holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside-Palm Desert. His short stories have been published in Popshot MagazineFjords Review, and In Shades Magazine. Originally from Alabama, Ty lives with his wife and three sons in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.