Exclusive Interview: “Piñata” Author Leopoldo Gout


If movies, TV shows, and books have taught me anything, it’s that you should never dismiss the warnings of someone when they claim you’ve disturbed the dead. Of course, without people heeding this lesson, there would be no cool movies, shows, or books about people wishing they hadn’t disturbed the dead, so… Which brings me to Leopoldo Gout’s supernatural / historical horror novel Piñata (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), in which, well, I think you know. Or do you…?

Leopoldo Gout Piñata

Photo Credit: Dimitri Mais


To start, what is Piñata about, and when and where does it take place?

Piñata is set in the modern day, and follows a Mexican American architect, Carmen Sanchez, and her two daughters, Izel and Luna, who accompany their mother to her hometown of Tulancingo on a job. Carmen has been hired to turn an old, disused missionary into a hotel, and has taken the opportunity to bring her daughters to see the place where she grew up. Like any missionary in the Americas, the place has a dark history whether people wish to acknowledge it or not. When a workplace accident nearly kills Luna and opens up a hidden room of the mission, this dark history is brought into the present. Two indigenous Nahua of the town, Quauhtli and Yoltzi, attempt to warn everyone about what has been uncovered, but are dismissed as “superstitious.” However, they’re right to be worried as the gods of ancient, pre-invasion Mexico, long buried beneath the churches and missionaries of the land, find a way back through Carmen’s daughter. The family returns to New York after the accident. Carmen wants to forget about the whole thing, but the histories of where we come from aren’t shaken so easily.

That’s as far as we’ll go without really spoiling much.

Where did you get the idea for the plot of Piñata? What inspired it?

I’ve been interested in the history and cultures of ancient Mexico ever since I was a kid. I was absolutely over the moon when, as a child, we discovered that my father was actually descendent from a Zapotec woman far up his family tree. I had this real, blood connection to the history of my country, if only by one distant drop. As a kid I spent a lot of time in museums and my late mother had many indigenous artist friends who would come by our house. My curiosity never wavered, and I do a lot of research now. I found out that some of the Catholic frays who came with the invasion introduced piñatas to Mexico as a kind of liturgy which simultaneously served as a perversion of existing Nahua traditions around breaking open clay pots as offerings. Catholic friars would paint the Nahua’s gods on the piñatas and make them break them. The whole book stemmed from this image of hungry children, taken from their culture and forced to destroy the image of their gods if they were to get the food within. The image and idea were so extraordinarily horrific I didn’t sleep for days thinking about it. I wrote the beginning story right away and felt transported, like I had been a witness to such horror.

Is there a significance to Carmen, Izel, and Luna all being female, as opposed to this being about a dad and his sons or a dad and his daughters, or some other mix of genders?

I was raised with a single mom and two super strong women: my sisters. I have written with male characters in other books and as my daughter turned 13 I had this really emotional moment seeing her grow. I remember when the last UNNAMABLE president won I heard her cry in rage out loud that morning…so this has being a journey of observation.

I did it both in response to current political and social climates at the time — attacks on women’s rights, disregard of women’s issues — both in the U.S. and Mexico, and to give a mirror to the patriarchal Christian / Catholic hierarchies that the Aztec gods were “paved over” with.

The deities in the book are specifically female gods. It is, at its core, a book dealing with the history of Mexico and its colonization. The horror of the book is pulled from that real historical horror, a horror which affected and continues to affect women. I chose a predominantly female cast of main characters as a way of communicating that particularly feminine rage.

Piñata sounds like a supernatural horror story…

“Supernatural” is definitely an acceptable description of it, I think most would agree that it’s very supernatural. Though, like I said, that supernatural horror is driven by real historical horror.

I love how, when one of my aunts read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she said, “but where is the magic?” Where I come from the magical and the everyday blend and bleed together.

Also, this is something I try to contextualize in the prologue of the book in a particularly violent scene. But, I also think that all horror, supernatural or otherwise, has a foundation in real issues and fears. You can go all the way back to the beginnings of horror to the gothics and see this in things like Frankenstein and The Vampyre. I may be stating the obvious but horror, like any genre, no matter how fantastical, has its roots in reality. So considering that, I think you could also describe Piñata as a (de)colonialist horror story or a historical horror story, since those are the roots from which that supernatural horror grows.

So, how scary does it get?

I like to think it’s very scary. Hopefully everyone who reads it agrees.

I tried to write Piñata as ominous as possible, an atmospheric kind of horror to match this idea that the horrors of that colonial history are all around us. That past haunts the present in every location, though it’s stronger in some places. When that horror reaches a saturation point though, when that haunting history breaks through into our present, it brings the blood though. I mean, the prologue kicks the book off with a really visceral scene where a priest is torn from the inside out. The history that inspired and drives the novel is a violent and bloody one, so I didn’t shy away from that.

Now, Piñata is not your first novel; you previously wrote Ghost Radio, Monarca, and the Genius trilogy. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Piñata?

It’s hard to talk about inspirations for horror writing and not talk about Stephen King. So there, I talked about him. There are so many good contemporary horror writers, but a lot of the stories I really think about as inspiration are not so contemporary. I mentioned Shelley’s Frankestein earlier, and I think that’s an inspiration for me not in the supernatural horror sense, but for how Shelly used the horror of the monster to talk about contemporary terrors and issues of her time. As I said, a lot of the feelings that drove Piñata are real, materially terrifying and confounding things I was working though while writing it. In terms of the novel’s narrative material I was very much inspired by The Exorcist and the extraordinary novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In.

Another big influence also is Aztec art. Some of the deities are so terrifying and beautiful at the same time so my hope is that the readers feel that beautiful horror tone that I love so much.

What about James Patterson, with whom you’ve collaborated frequently: producing the movie Alex Cross, which was based on his novel; executive producing the TV show Zoo, also based on a Patterson novel; and collaborating with him on the graphic novel version of Daniel X?

I worked with Jim non-exclusively for almost a decade. His focus and work ethics have always been inspiring but also, I learned so much about publishing and so many other things. I’m a sponge, I make visual art, I have explored in all sorts of audio-visual mediums and I will never stop learning.

And how about non-literary influences; do you think Piñata was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

Sure. Like I mentioned, The Exorcist influenced my writing of the novel as well as the atmospheric horror of Aster’s Hereditary and its focus on inheritance. I loved Robert Eggers’ The Witch but also, I’m so inspired by all things Jordan Peel.

Speaking of movies and TV shows, I mentioned that you’ve worked on a number of them. Do you think Piñata could work as a movie or TV show?

I think Piñata would be a fantastic feature film. I think by its nature the story would work best as a movie or possibly a miniseries.

So if someone wanted to make a Piñata movie or show, who would you want them to cast as Carmen, Izel, and Luna?

I love movies that discover young unknown talent. But there are so many actresses that I would love to explore.

And would you want to work on it like you did with Alex Cross and Zoo?

I would absolutely want to work on the adaptation of Piñata. My experience in the motion pictures has long been in the role of producer, so that would only make sense. I think that collaborating with someone and sharing a vision with a good director would be fantastic and as a producer of the film I’d have the ability to really find a team who can elevate my work.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Piñata?

That it’s real!

Behind the narrative of possession and the haunting of the old gods of ancient Mexico are very real sentiments and historical realities that I really wanted people to think about while reading it. By the same token, it’s also about that history and inheritance of culture on a familial level. There are generational differences in understanding and grappling with the histories of America which mirror the longer-term attitudes. This novel came from both my personal familial experiences and feelings as much as it came from research and love of my country’s history.

I tried to imply in the novel that it’s important we don’t forget the Nahuatl language, their stories, that we amplify the indigenous voices in Mexico and listen to them. I believe that there is a horror element of forgetting our ancestors and how they sound, and I hope Piñata becomes a horn to connect with them.

Leopoldo Gout Piñata

Finally, if someone enjoys Piñata, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?

I’d suggest Ghost Radio if they enjoyed the thrills and chills of Piñata. I love that the incredible Pedro Pascal voiced the audiobook. And I feel he injected a lot of power and talent to my novel. I think his time is now, so I’m so happy he read that novel.

But, if they’re more specifically interested in Aztec myth and stories of Mexico’s generations and culture, coming of age, and more “family friendly” reading, go get my illustrated novel Monarca. It’s about a young Mexican-American girl who’s transformed into a monarch butterfly through her ancestral connection to the goddess Iztapalotl. She joins the great migration of butterflies to Michoacan, connecting with nature, seeing the world through the eyes of that world, and fighting for the environment. I did all the artwork for it in my studio in Manhattan. Those are two directions readers can go into my catalog if they enjoyed Piñata. Monarca is the kids positive answer to Piñata and Ghost Radio is its foundation.

There is a universe connecting these 3 books and I love when readers discover that and write to me about it.



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