• Dorothy Thompson
  • Interview with Jeanine Kitchel, Author of Wheels Up: A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival
Interview with Jeanine Kitchel, Author of Wheels Up: A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival

“The Gulfstream jet, loaded with two tons of Colombian cocaine, careened over dense Yucatan jungle as Layla stared out the compact window, horrified. If they weren’t running on empty and destined to crash, it might have looked lush to her, even beautiful.

Without fuel, the engines starved into silence, she heard only the whooshing sound of the aluminum plane as it cruised over mangrove swamps and fast-approaching mahogany trees. All thoughts of her hasty departure from Guatemala to escape Don Guillermo’s wrath had vanished along with any hopes of safely landing in Cancun. They were going down.”

From Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel

Jeanine Kitchel, a former journalist, escaped her hectic nine-to-five life in San Francisco, bought land, and built a house in a fishing village on the Mexican Caribbean coast. Shortly after settling in she opened a bookstore. By this time she had become a serious Mayaphile and her love of the Maya culture led her and her husband to nearby pyramid sites throughout southern Mexico and farther away to sites in Central America. In the bookstore she entertained a steady stream of customers with their own Maya tales to tell—from archeologists and explorers to tour guides and local experts. At the request of  a publisher friend, she began writing travel articles about her adopted homeland for websites and newspapers. Her travel memoir, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, and Maya 2012 Revealed: Demystifying the Prophecy, are available on Amazon. She has since branched into writing fiction and her debut novel, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, launched May 2018.

Book Description:

Layla always wanted to run the family business. But is she willing to kill for it?

When her notorious drug lord uncle is recaptured, Layla Navarro catapults to the top of Mexico’s most powerful cartel. Groomed as his successor, Layla knows where the bodies are buried. But not all the enemies. She strikes her first deal to prove her mettle by accepting an offer to move two tons of cocaine from Colombia to Cancun by jet. Things go sideways during a stopover in Guatemala whe Layla unexpectedly uncovers a human trafficking ring. Plagued by self-doubt, she must fight off gangsters, outsmart corrupt officials, and navigate the minefield of Mexican machismo. Even worse, she realizes she’s become a target for every rival cartel seeking to undermine her new standing. From her lush base in the tropics, she’s determined to retain her dominant position in Mexico’s criminal world. If she can stay alive.



Welcome, Jeanine! Your book, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival sounds thrilling! Can you tell us why you wrote it?

Jeanine: Thank you, Dorothy. I've always loved Mexico. It was my home for 15 years and I guess it's just ingrained in me to write about it. Wheels Up, of course, is fiction, but as a former journalist, my first two books were non-fiction, and I've written for a number of newspapers and websites, about Mexico, the Maya and the Yucatán. Being there gave me an insider's insight into the country's multi-faceted culture as well as a closer look at the creeping dominance of the cartels and their effect on that society and how the average person trying to live a normal life copes, or doesn't.

Your protagonist, Layla, sounds like a powerful woman. Can you tell us more about her?

Jeanine: Sure. Layla Navarro is the niece of El Patrón of the Culiacan Cartel, the most powerful drug lord in Mexico. When her uncle is recaptured after eluding the law for 11 years, Layla's catapulted to top spot while he's in prison, waiting to see if the US will extradite him for international crimes. As cartel accountant, she's been groomed as her uncle's successor; she knows where the bodies are buried, but not all the enemies. Her older brother who was next in line died in an ambush, and now it's up to Layla to carry on. In Mexico, it's all about family and dynasty. She's competent just by her DNA and can be ruthless if necessary, but lacks "on the job" experience.

Even though Layla ends up at the top of Mexico’s most powerful cartel after her uncle dies, what makes us want to be on her side? Or do we?

Jeanine: Actually, her uncle doesn't die, he's recaptured and imprisoned. In any other country this is like a death, but in Mexico, drug lords rule even from behind bars. Initially Patrón's calling the shots and still schooling her. She visits him frequently at the prison. What makes Layla real is that, as a woman in Mexico, she's coming from a position of no power. In Mexico, machismo rules. She's an underdog but with a fancy title. Her associates play her and test her. We end up liking her because she's nuanced and strong, she's for family (or what's left of it) all the way. And with one of the novel's twists, she's forced to take a daring stand against one of her uncle's unsavory associates. She's tough and learns on the fly, has her own set of demons. At times, she's plagued by self doubt and appears unconfident and vulnerable.

Can you tell us a little about the other main characters?

Jeanine: Clay Lasalle is a Canadian pot grower extraordinaire who's branched out from the pot trade and into running cocaine. He's leader of his own gang in Canada, the Rainbow Tribe, and is into martial arts and Buddhism. He offers Layla a deal to move two tons of cocaine from Colombia to Cancun which she accepts. Layla's bodyguard, Carlos, is also her lover. He's a moody, handsome hulk of a man, and their impulsive relationship plays out best in the bedroom; they're basically stuck with each other. Donavon, a Vietnam vet, pilots the jet that transports the contraband from Colombia. He's cocky and worldly wise. El Zoyo is Patrón's first lieutenant and childhood friend. He ran the cartel during El Patrón's first prison sentence, before he escaped. Zoyo is controlling and not exactly happy that Layla is now stepping into the picture. Don Guillermo runs Culiacan Cartel operations in Guatemala and has a lurid secret.

They say all books of fiction have at least one pivotal point where the reader just can’t put the book down. What is one of the pivotal points in your book?

Jeanine: During the Colombia to Cancun coke deal, it becomes evident Layla must meet Clay in Guatemala to grease the inroads to Cancun. Layla unexpectedly uncovers Don Guillermo's secret and the fallout from this leads to a fast and furious escape from Guatemala at dawn, with fuel hovering on empty. The plane crashes in the Yucatán jungle and the survivors must trek out or die. I think this is one of the book's pivotal points.

You actually lived on the coast of Mexico. How did this factor into the writing of your book being a local? Do you hear of much drug trafficking going on and what is Mexico doing about it?

Jeanine: Living in Mexico full time gives one incredible insight into how that society works. I speak and read Spanish and the local newspapers tell the news that doesn't make it into the international papers. I read that Dostoyevsky would pull articles from newspapers to use as "prompts" for his novels. Not a bad idea. When we first moved to Mexico, we hired an attorney to assist in various aspects of going through the immigration process. She told us at the time, late 90s, that people feared the Russian mafia was making a move on Cancun because as Mexico's most popular tourist resort, it was an attractive cash cow. That fear fell aside when the cartels started to claim territory. Cancun, however—because of its powerful draw as a tourist destination—has escaped the problems that exist in many border cities, and the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. Those in power, both legally and illegally, realize the need to keep top notch resort cities like Cancun, Baja, Puerto Vallarta and the Yucatán with its amazing pyramids, free of problems. Corruption is actually Mexico's main problem, and that is difficult to reverse. Mexico is struggling with it, and that is part of the basis of my book.

Tell us about the bookstore you opened in Mexico!

Jeanine: We built our house in a fishing village, Puerto Morelos, on the Mexican Caribbean coast. It's just 30 miles south of Cancun, but lightyears away in everything else. When we bought land there in 1989, a class 5 hurricane had devastated our little pueblo, and absolutely no one wanted to live there. Except us. We bought beachfront land a mile out of town and with the skills of an American expat contractor, we built our house, Casa Maya. We rented it as a tourist rental until we could afford to move lock, stock and barrel (with our cat) to Mexico. I'm an avid reader and the more we traveled back and forth, the more friends we accumulated, readers all. I found myself schlepping suitcases of used books to Mexico. So an idea was born. Paul, my husband, and I decided to open a bookstore. We began the process 3 years in advance, rented a shop on the main "plaza" which was hardly a plaza at all. (Rent was $70 USD a month). And we collected used books in the US from estate sales, library and garage sales, eventually outgrowing our garage and spare bedroom and moving them to a nearby storage warehouse. When we moved south, we had the carpenter who'd made our windows and closets for the house build floor to ceiling red cedar bookshelves (they were beautiful). Our contractor said no one reads here— remember, Puerto Morelos was not even a blip on the map, so I decided I'd be open 3 days a week, maybe 5 hours a day with a siesta in between. There was an uproar when people heard our reduced hours. They wanted us open all the time! There were only 6 other bookstores in the entire state of Quintana Roo and we were the only English language bookstore. A star was born! Alma Libre Libros. We kept prices low, gave discounts to teachers and the military, had a darling children's reading room, and it was buy-sell-trade. People loved it. It was great fun and I met a ton of interesting characters along the way. Great fodder for an author's mind. Lots of stories still to tell.

Do you have other books you’d like to tell us about?

Jeanine: Thank you for asking. My first book, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, is a travel memoir and details how we bought land and built a house in Puerto Morelos. My second book, Maya 2012 RevealedDemystifying the Prophecy, explains the Maya calendar phenomenon.

Wheels Up is a trilogy and the second in the series, Layla's Law, should be out end of 2019.

What's next for you?

Jeanine: As mentioned, Wheels Up is a trilogy, so writing Layla's Law is front and center stage now. With travel in between of course!


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