Category Archives: Books

The Normalcy of Addiction

I’m in Little Rock for the Arkansas Literary Festival, a very nice book festival held downtown.Dreamland-HCBig

So here’s what happened yesterday. Flew in, met my fellow panelists, learned that Southwest lost my bag, went to the hotel, took a quick nap, went to a festival reception, met someone with an opiate addict in the family (the family member is a woman in her 60s or so).

Little Rock is no different from every other part of the country I’ve visited recently.

Researching our national addiction to pain pills and heroin to write my book, Dreamland, I’ve been struck by the normalcy of addiction nowadays. Everywhere, strike up a conversation, you find someone with a family member or friend or co-worker addicted to opiates.

It’s far more prevalent than crack use was, I believe, and certainly infinitely more deadly.

I remember starting the research, flying to Dallas a couple years ago. On the plane was an elderly couple from rural Oklahoma. We got to talking and before long, they were telling me of their oldest son, addicted to OxyContin.

Not long after that, in a tavern on New Year’s Day in Covington, KY, I met a family, celebrating a young girl’s birthday. Before long, we’re talking about two people in that extended family dead from heroin overdoses.

There are many reasons why this is so.

First: the massive over-prescribing of pain pills nationwide. We often debate whether supply or demand drives drug plagues. This one is supply driven. Pain pills eventually lead to heroin addiction – as the pills are molecularly similar to heroin and much cheaper; in some areas, like those serviced by the Xalisco Boys I write about in Dreamland, heroin is easier and more convenient to obtain the pills.

But this is also driven by silence. There’s no violence to fuel public ire. Meanwhile, though, parents are loathe to talk about their children’s addiction. When they die, they camouflage it in some palatable cause of death. Some parents are going public. But far too few given the huge numbers.

The result is silence, and stories you never hear until you’re sitting next to someone on a plane, or chatting with them at a cocktail party.


Filed under Books, Business, Drugs, Storytelling, The Heroin Heartland


Been a very long time, and lots of hard work, but finally my third book of narrative nonfiction is out.Dreamland-HCBig

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic was released this week by Bloomsbury Press.

When neck-deep in writing a book, I’m never sure if it’s any good. Too much time spent laboring over every phrase, whether one clause should be separated by a comma or a semicolon, which adjective best describes a person’s mood – on top of all the facts that, like cats, need to be corralled and herded in one direction or another.

And new facts you learn every day that may change everything.

Then there’s the rewriting – which is what writing is all about.

So I’m thrilled to hear reaction to the book – that people couldn’t put it down. Love hearing that, I have to say.

I’ve had great appearances at the LA Times Bookfest and at Vroman’s, with more to come at Powell’s Books in Portland, Elliott Bay Town Hall in Seattle and Bookstore West Portal in San Francisco, not to mention the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, where I’m heading as I write. chose Dreamland one of its Best Books of the month, alongside books by Toni Morrison, TC Boyle and others. That was nice of them.

The NY Times ran a column of mine on the front page of its Sunday Review opinion page. Nice of them, as well. wrote this terrific review of the book. Kirkus Review ran a long story on it. Willamette Week published a review, and an article on Dreamland. Mother Jones, where I was once an intern (1984), reviewed it as well. Thanks, you guys.

KPCC in LA aired an interview i did on their show, Take Two, and CSPAN did the same with an interview at the Bookfest, then covered the LA Times Bookfest panel I was on with some terrific nonfiction crime authors  – Ruben Castaneda, Barry Siegel, and Deanne Stillman, and Tom Zoellner doing a bang-up job moderating.

All in all, an exhausting but fulfilling first few days to a book’s life.

Thanks to all who’ve bought the book, and especially to those who’ve written me about it with such feeling.


Filed under Books, Drugs, Storytelling, The Heroin Heartland, Writing

Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside

Six percent of Americans are black men. Forty percent of homicide victims are black men, most by far killed by other black men, though many of the cases remain unsolved.

This kind of impunity is the result not of too much policing but of far too little. Too often police in places like South L.A.FullSizeRender are swamped, given the caseload and resources at their disposal. They can make little of each murder case, which, once unsolved, strengthens the culture of impunity and of witness silence, and encourages more murder.

That is the analysis of  my colleague at the L.A. Times, Jill Leovy, in her great new book, Ghettoside, based on years of her reporting and research in South Los Angeles.

I’m only a little way into the book, having purchased it only last night. But this already seems like some of the most original, clear, observation-driven thinking on crime that I’ve read in years – and brave as well given the current discourse over policing in the black community.

Here’s some of what she writes:

“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. … African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides. Specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence – the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. … Slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations after worked against the formation of such a monopoly. Since personal violence inevitably flares where the state’s monopoly is absent, this situation results in the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.”

Reading on. Can’t wait for more.

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Filed under Books, California, Los Angeles, Writing

A new Tell Your True Tale book

The new Tell Your True Tale; East Los Angeles book is out, the product of a workshop I did with a great group of eight new writers.FrontCover

The stories are again fantastic — about Albert Einstein in East L.A., a Czech “almost blind” boy growing up in a Communist boarding home, a young man going to Tijuana to help a deported friend return, a woman on her deathbed remembering the last time she saw her kids, and a girl on her way to Mexico, a child bride.

Check it out, on sale at for only $5.38 hardcopy or $2.99 as an ebook.

We present the book this Saturday, Jan. 24 at 3 pm at East Los Angeles Public Library, in the Chicano Resource Center.

Please think of coming.

My third TYTT: ELA workshop at the library begins the Saturday following that – January 31.

Over the next year, with the generous support of the County Library, I hope to be expanding the workshops to other parts of L.A. County – Compton, South Central and elsewhere.

TYTT draft cover JPEGBy the way, the first TYTT: ELA book, which we published last year, is also on sale, packed with very cool stories as well.



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TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: Cardboard Box Dreams

Hey folks,outpics1

I’m trying to get back into the storytelling now that the manuscript to my book is finished (see below).

I recently held a Tell Your True Tale workshop at East LA Public Library, which produced several fantastic stories.

Here’s one, by author Celia Viramontes. Cardboard Box Dreams is the tale of a day in the life of a bracero worker trying to get a contract.

Really great stuff. So are the other stories, which I’ll be putting up soon.

You can read other pieces by buying the book — Tell Your True Tale: East LA — that we produced out of the workshops on

TYTT draft cover JPEG

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Filed under Books, Border, Mexico, Migrants, Storytelling, Tell Your True Tale, Writing

NewsHour/KPCC interviews on Heroin epidemic and Phillip Seymour Hoffman


Filed under Books, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

Heroin is Marion’s Economy

IMG_4034 Well, I’m not gonna lie — I like this guy’s style.

Brad Belcher was upset that people in his hometown of Marion, Ohio (north of Columbus) weren’t talking about the rampant heroin/opiate addiction in their midst.

Home to President Warren G. Harding, the rural town of Marion, like much of Ohio, has been hammered by departing jobs and a general malaise of defeatism and inertia, Belcher told me.

Heroin (in the form of courts, jail, the underground economy, etc) has taken the place in the economy of a lot of manufacturing and other businesses that for decades kept the town tight and townspeople concerned for each other. (Marion was once home to Marion Power Shovel, which once employed 3200 people making earth moving and mining equipment. It closed in the late 1990s.)

Now people were dying. Dope was everywhere.

IMG_4060 (1)So to ignite discussion about all this, Belcher printed 800 signs and late one night put them up all over town: in front of Walgreens, outside cornfields, in the wealthy neighborhoods, along the retails strips.

He was caught in the act by three officers of the law just as he was about to put them around city hall and downtown.

They took down most of the signs, but his little bit of guerrilla political theater — a la Abbie Hoffman — was taken up online and in social media.

Belcher, a former addict himself, became a cause celebre.

The signs made the topic okay to talk about, he says. Before people were mortified to admit they had addicts in their families.

The town, he says, is now at least attending to the problem it avoided. Churches are involved. Local folks recently organized a heroin march. The cops arrest more heroin dealers than ever before. People talk openly about what they once kept silent. But the town doesn’t have any drug treatment facilities — besides its jail, that is, which serves as de facto center for detoxifying from heroin.


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Filed under Books, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

WRITING: Marcus Aurelius and taking things bit by bit

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius probably wasn’t thinking about writing when he said this:

Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? For thou wilt be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present. But this is reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest thy mind, if it is unable to hold out against even this.

But I’ve always found a sentiment like this to be enormously helpful in writing. Breaking down a task into little bits, isolating them, then doing that one task, and not thinking about all  you have to do to finish your project. Even if they’re not done in what would seem obvious chronological order, it’s better to focus on small, doable writing tasks.

When I’m on a larger writing project — as I am now, with a book I’m putting together on heroin and prescription painkillers, I usually spend a lot of time writing what I call “chunks.” Could be anecdotes, or stories shaped around a quote, or just observations or descriptions of a place or person — things that might well make it into the final draft of what I’m writing.

I was talking to a prison inmate the other day who wants to write a book about his life. I said, don’t set out to write a book. It’s like climbing a mountain. Try crossing the street — write a story from your childhood. Just one. then write another, maybe from adulthood. Next day, another. Never think you’re heading toward assembling a book. Pretty soon you’ll have a selection of pieces and can gather energy and encouragement from that.

Here’s what an author at The Atlantic had to say about Marcus Aurelius’s quote.


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STORYTELLING: Amazing Global Kidnapping story from Joel Millman at WSJ

images-2My homeboy from years in Mexico, Joel Millman, at the Wall Street Journal, has written a fantastic story of kidnapping of Eritreans, who are then traded by networks of kidnapping gangs, sometimes several times and across several borders.

The Eritreans are migrants/refugees fleeing their country and looking for work in nearby countries and are kidnapped by Bedouins.

The kidnapping gangs have blossomed in the vacuum of political supervision in Egypt’s Sinai desert as Egypt has been dealing with its many other issues in the last year.

Remarkable story about the global economy and the vast lagoons of impunity that exist due to political borders and agencies that have faltered or have not changed with the same velocity as economics — which might be exactly the prescription for what spawns criminal gangs and mafias.

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 6.12.50 AMCheck out the video of Joel talking with one kidnapping victim, and explaining the genesis of his story.

By the way, Joel’s been doing these kinds of stories about migrants and the borderless world for many years now and he’s one of the best around.

His book, The Other Americans, is a great series of vignettes about folks from around the world changing our country. His chapter on the Patel motel clan is worth the price of the book.

Photo: Sinai Desert; Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

Map: Middle East; Credit: Google Maps

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Filed under Books, Global Economy, Migrants, Storytelling

STORYTELLING: What’s Your Favorite Dr. Seuss book?


“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!


One of the great storytellers in English and true independent spirits was born on this date.

Dr. Seuss, who taught kids the importance of being yourself, trying new things (Green Eggs and Ham), not being afraid of going out on your own, was born today in 1902.

The great Doctor (Theodore Geisel) did all that in perfectly rhymed (he knew how to count syllables) sentences, with whacky characters and drawings, exploding forever the “See Spot Run” children-book model.

The Cat in the Hat contained 236 different words. It’s been published in 12 languages, including Latin.

To think he wrote it in 1954, the year the Army-McCarthy hearings took place, the stifled and conformist 1950s, makes him one of the radicals of that decade, if you ask me.

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” Sounds like the motto for the 1960s. (Maybe the mid-1950s was when the 1960s really began.)

As a wanna-be writer of children’s books — with two unpublished manuscripts, including one rhymed — I have particular appreciation for his rhyme and rhythm schemes, and his close attention to syllable count in each line.

Here’s some great Dr Seuss quotes.images-1

Happy Birthday, Doc!

 Yertle the Turtle is one of my favorites, along with Green Eggs and Ham, as all my life people have occasionally called me Sam I Am.

What’s your favorite Dr. Seuss book?



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WRITING: Blocking the Internet

Salon has an article on novelists using software programs to deny themselves access to the Internet.

This is what I need. I wrote my second book — Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream — in a cafe mercifully before the era of Wi-Fi hookups.

My focus was deep, as I listened to music via headphones and wrote for 5-6 hours at a time for weeks. I remember reaching profound levels of concentration doing that.

Now, Wi-Fi allows us to cut away at any moment when the writing gets tough. Very frustrating and counterproductive.


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MEXICO: Democracy Interrupted by Jo Tuckman

Those interested in Mexico and its transition away from a one-party state should be glad to hear that Jo Tuckman, a former colleague, has published a book on the topic

Mexico: Democracy Interrupted is just out. I found it in my mailbox an hour ago.

Should be quite worth reading, as Tuckman has been writing from Mexico for many years. Plus the topic couldn’t be more relevant: Describing what happened to the great democratic promise of Mexico two sexenios after the country opted, peacefully, to throw off the chains of 70+ years of PRI rule.

It now finds itself in the middle of a medieval drug war. Few of the deep reforms that were hoped for, and are necessary, to transform the country into something ready for the 21st Century global economy have been achieved.

Meanwhile, the country seems run by, and according to the interests of, the leaders of the top three political parties, who remain about as unaccountable as the president was under the PRI regime.

I’m reminded of Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred.”

Congratulations, Jo!





Filed under Books, Mexico

WRITING: The Commandments — What are yours?

What are your writing commandments?

As I prepare to head off to the Tucson Festival of Books tomorrow, I feel like returning to the basics of writing that are always so refreshingly simple.

My colleague Martin Beck passed on writing commandments from Brit George Orwell, which you can read here.

Ad man legend David Ogilvy has these commandments. I particularly like his view that writing is not a God-given ability, but a craft that anyone can learn.

Novelist Henry Miller chimes in with these 11 commandments.

It’s wonderful how similar they all are.

So again I ask, What are your writing commandments?

I hope it won’t sound too presumido to say that any Sam Quinones Commandments would include, in no particular order:

-Read a lot — above all On Writing Well, By William Zinsser, and Calvin Trillin, too (& Bob Baker, my former LAT colleague).

-If your story isn’t working, you need to report more.

-Cut as many words with Latin roots as possible. “Problematize” is a word I once saw somewhere. (Yikes!)

-Remember the difference between “that” and “which”

-Never use the word “ongoing” and be very careful whenever using “process” with an adjective, e.g. “the writing process” (Yikes!)

-Remove adjectives whenever possible. Adverbs, too.

-The ending is at least as important as the beginning.

-Leave the office. Now.


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STORYTELLING: Tucson Festival of Books

Hey all — I’ll be at the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend, with an event both Saturday and Sunday, both at 11:30 a.m.

Digging in the Dirt: A Discussion of Setting as Character
Panel / Sat 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM
Student Union – Tucson Room

Windows into Their World: Creative Writing with Latino Youth
Nuestras Raíces Workshop
Workshop / Sun 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM
Integrated Learning Center – Room 141

If you’re in Tucson, drop by…..

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BOOKS: The American Revolution

I’m reading now Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which follows my finishing Founding Brothers (Joseph Ellis) a few weeks ago.

I’m woefully unread about the American Revolution, to my embarrassment.

Anyway, as I’ve read I’ve found myself being rather down on Thomas Jefferson. Not so much because he owned slaves, which is a startling thing for a guy so interested in individual liberty, but it was  part of life in Virginia and I’m loathe to blame people so far back in time for what was commonplace.

Rather, it was his utopian idea of small govt, and his idea of continual revolution.

He sounds like a Leon Trotsky, who I think was remarkably naive for an educated guy and never understood the full implications of his theories.

In reaction to the English monarch, Jefferson apparently developed this idea of a country with nothing but small businessmen and small farmers and all-but-nonexistent govt (though he later expanded the country enormously with the Louisiana Purchase).

He was quite at odds, in the end, with fellow Virginian, George Washington, over such things as federal taxes (sounds familiar). Yet Washington was living in the real world, seems to me, and faced the challenge of making a new govt work in a world of many threats, not the least of which was still England. So federal taxes, while unpopular, he saw as necessary to provide the services that held the country together.

The Jefferson ideal, while nifty parlor fodder, seems to me would have spelled the end of the new country very quickly, not to mention that it overlooked all the ways that small farmers and businessmen are enabled by the services a competent federal govt provides (roads, regulation of markets, post offices, etc).

He had that famous quote about the soil of a republic needing to be irrigated with the blood of tyrants every 20 years or so (a paraphrase) — similar to Trotsky and Lenin’s idea of perpetual revolution. I learned with dismay that TJ was a big fan of the French Revolution because of this, until well near the end of FR — by which time most folks had long seen it for the bloodthirsty disaster it was. Like the Soviet Revolution, the FR gave way to dictatorship, which I think is what Jefferson’s ideas would have led to as well in the US, finally.


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