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How two Texas drinking buddies wound up with one crackling cartel thriller

Jon Marc Smith and Smith Henderson, co-authors of the tag-team thriller "Make Them Cry."
Jon Marc Smith, left, and Smith Henderson, co-authors of the tag-team thriller “Make Them Cry.”
(Taylor Cohen)

On the Shelf

Make Them Cry

By Smith Henderson and John Marc Smith
Ecco: 352 pages, $28

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The art of collaboration is not generally taught to aspiring novelists. Short of reading “True West and determining that strangling your writing partner is not a Best Creative Practice, most of us learn that writing is an art filled with dark nights to be suffered through alone. Which is one of the things that “Make Them Cry” — a kinetic new thriller by Smith Henderson and newcomer Jon Marc Smith — such a notable project.

The bestseller list usually holds a few titles by authors, both living and dead, who’ve collaborated with another writer, though a great many are less like partnerships and more like franchises. Think of James Patterson and his small factory of co-writers. But “Make Them Cry” is distinctive for actually being … co-written. Less like Patterson et al., more like Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen.

Equally noteworthy: It marks Henderson’s first publication since 2014, when his debut, “Fourth of July Creek,” was a literary sensation. Released that summer, the novel went on to earn countless best-of-the-year plaudits — praise that was well-earned. “Creek” follows a social worker, a conspiracy theorist, militias, runaways and an alphabet soup of government agencies in a sprawling Reagan-era tale of violent societal disaffection that presaged much of what our life looks like now, when the fringe is in power and conspiracy is the language of policy.

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And so Henderson’s follow-up was a long time coming, but still a surprising turn. After working as a staff writer on AMC‘s western sagaThe Son,” based on the book by his pal and fellow University of Texas alum Philipp Meyer, he dove even further into genre and collaboration, writing a bullet-train thriller in partnership with his old friend Jon Marc Smith, a screenwriter and English lecturer at Texas State.

Even before FSG Originals had gotten Brian McGreevy’s debut novel “Hemlock Grove” on shelves, it was announced that it was coming as a Netflix series.

It makes perfect sense to Henderson. “There’s a thing maybe you think you’re supposed to do, or a career you’re supposed to have,” he says. “The only thing that I’ve heard that seems to be honorable is to write what you’re scared to write. Or the thing that’s the hardest. Because that’s probably the thing you’re most interested in exploring.”

“Make Them Cry” focuses on DEA agent Diane Harbaugh — so good at her job, she makes even hit men cry — as she immerses herself in a vast conspiracy that will take her from Los Angeles to Mexico to interrogate a cartel heavyweight with a valuable secret. There’s a Zeta assassin right behind her, corrupt CIA agents closing in around her and the existential ramifications of an unwinnable drug war looming everywhere. There is also of one of the best car chases you’ll ever read. The journey of making it was equally fun and torturous, beginning with a screenplay that just wouldn’t sell.

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The duo became friends in 2000 when Jon Marc Smith was an MFA candidate at Texas State, but it wasn’t until 2007, when Henderson was working on his own MFA at the University of Texas, that the two began collaborating, adapting Smith’s as-yet-unpublished novel into the film “Dance With the One for UT’s Film Institute. The early script version of “Cry” emerged from that process, but their friendship evolved the old-fashioned way: in bars, over beers.

Book jacket for Jon Marc Smith and Smith Henderson's tag-team thriller, "Make Them Cry."
(HarperCollins)

“The first night we hung out together,” Henderson says, “we disagreed and argued about politics and sports.” By the end of the night, they were fast friends, with Smith having convinced Henderson to reconsider subjects ranging from the Clinton presidency to the arc of narrative.

“We argue all the time,” says Smith. “It might sound like we’re angry, but we’ve been working together for 13 years and we learned early on to keep talking. Whenever we disagree with each other, we keep talking.”

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Even over Zoom — Henderson reporting in from a sun-dappled Montana living room with a Peloton in the background, Smith from a Texas den stuffed with bookshelves — it’s easy to see how the constant conversation kept them sane in the early days of this decade-long passion project. They’re quick to finish each other’s sentences and stories, particularly those tales of Hollywood that seem like satire but aren’t.

Henderson: “We’d get notes like, ‘Could this be more like ‘Inception’…’”

Smith: “… because ‘Inception’ was the No. 1 movie that week…”

Henderson and Smith: [unintelligible moaning…]

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After enough absurd meetings, both realized something important. “We didn’t know what we were doing writing movies at that point. We didn’t know anything,” Smith says. But they did feel they knew how to write prose. “Though neither one of us had published a book,” Smith says — the release of “Creek” was still a few months out — “we just felt way more secure in our knowledge.”

And so they got to work, sharing a Google Document back and forth. For years.

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Three years in, Henderson says, “We’d written a chunk of it, wrote a proposal, sent it off and were queued up to sell it, and I just had this feeling that something was not OK.” Premonitions of humiliating failure are not uncommon among writers. But Henderson’s niggling wouldn’t go away, until he determined the problem: They’d started the book too late in the story line. Was it a fatal mistake? Maybe not — “They’ll let you publish a bad book,” Henderson says plainly — but it wasn’t one he could abide. As the beginning of a possible series, the book had to start in the right place. Finally, he bit the bullet and called his friend.

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“It was difficult,” says Smith. “I don’t know if I agreed right off the bat. He convinced me.” They decide they had prematurely written a sequel; the hero, Diane Harbaugh, was something closer to an antagonist in their draft. They’d need to start from page one, again. “And I knew it was right,” Smith says. Even talking about it now, years in the distance, both writers seem pained by the experience.

Fortunately, they shared a vision of how to move forward. They divided the research —everything from the cross-border drug trade to the impact of opium harvesting in Afghanistan — as well as the pleasure reading (John le Carré, Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene). But for the writing, they did what they’d always done. They finished each other’s thoughts. “It’s never a matter of: One person is plotting it and one person is writing sentences, one person is writing exposition and one person is writing dialog,” says Smith. “When it’s really working well, you don’t even know what you’ve done.”

Henderson puts it more fatalistically: “One of us would change a sentence and then the other person would change it back, and it would go on like that for a month. And then someone eventually would quit.”

The result is a novel reminiscent of Robert Stone’s “Dog Soldiers”: its skin is pure entertainment, but its bones are political. What starts as a violent thriller flips over and becomes an examination of the aftermath of armed conflict, in which sorting the good guys from the bad is less about uniforms and codes and more about personal morality.

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Don Winslow, bestselling author of 13 crime and mystery novels, brought some energy to the Los Angeles Times newsroom at the Festival of Books.

“This is the only war in the world where both sides want the war to continue,” Henderson says. If that sounds like a lot of weight for a thriller to carry around, this writing team is up to the task, and might be for several more books to come.

Goldberg’s next book, “The Low Desert,” will be out in February.


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