Kelly Daniels has lived life large. He’s traveled the world, lived in a commune, in a van, and in a desert cabin.
One of the places he lived that became the setting for his new novel – A Candle for San Simón (Owl Canyon Press, 2020) – was Guatemala. Now living and teaching in Iowa, Daniels is an alumnus of Western Michigan University.
“It’s the story of a born-again Christian young man who gets a chance to go and do mission work in Guatemala where his wayward father, who had abandoned him while he was a child, happens to be wiling away his years drinking himself to death,” Daniels says. “The son finds it's almost a sign from God that he needs to make amends with his father. That’s the literary relationship aspect of it. The thriller part of it is that they get in over their heads with a bunch of vicious gangsters and criminals who trap them into working a bunch of dangerous jobs, so there are kind of shoot-‘em-up elements that interrupt the father-son reunion.”
While this is Daniels’ first novel, it is not his first book. His first was the memoir Cloudbreak, California. He is also the author of many short stories and essays published in literary reviews, and he's a regular contributor to The Sun magazine. Daniels lives in Le Claire, Iowa, and is an associate professor of creative writing at Augustana College.
As he began working on his novel, Daniels revisited Guatemala to freshen memories of his time there in earlier years.
“I had a couple of weeks, maybe ten days, and I flew in there,” Daniels says. “Part of it was just remembering how to take the busses and how that whole thing works. I jumped onto one of the busses that were so important to the book and that fascinate me. We call them chicken busses, but they’re old United States school busses that have been decommissioned, and Guatemalans make this epic journey up north, and these are just entrepreneurs that go up and buy them at auctions, take them all the way back to Guatemala, rebuild them, paint them these amazing colors, and they keep them running for decades.”
Daniels describes memorable rides with so many passengers on the busses that he found himself holding another rider in his lap for a half hour.
“I hopped on this bus and had this great experience, packed in with indigenous people,” he says. “I was the only non-local there. They get so packed in these busses that this American sense of personal space — I thought I might have this bench to myself. I was wrong. Every stop, more people got on, and pretty soon there was a full-grown man, this middle-aged guy in a cowboy hat, fully sitting on my lap. It was hilarious, really. But I was also thinking how good that was for ideas of bigotry or feeling scared of ‘the other,’ the dangerous ‘other.’ When someone is sitting in your lap for a half hour, it’s hard to fear them and see them as a scary stranger.”
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