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Richard Z. Santos

Writing like it's magic: An Interview with Richard Z. Santos ('13) 


Nkiacha Atemnkeng ('22) sits down with Richard Z. Santos ('13) to discuss Trust Me, one of the most anticipated books of the year' for The Millions and Crime Reads.

Readers often feel the magic in any good piece of writing, but debut novelist and occasional magician, Richard Z. Santos believes writing is like magic itself.

“With magic techniques, you’ll know instantly if your tricks are working or not during a performance, even before your audience does. The writing process works in the same way. The only difference is that it takes much longer for you to know if your current writing is working or not,” Santos told me during a Zoom meeting on a Tuesday night.

I asked him how he became an occasional magician and he told me it was during his time in the Texas State MFA.

Tim O'Brien invited him to one of his magic shows and he was an usher at the event. Then, he asked Santos to be in his next show. When I teased him to tell me how to whip out a pigeon from thin air, his smiling rebuttal, like that of any serious magician, was gold.

"Just practice it.”  

Santos was forthcoming about a magician’s process though, elucidating how it requires dozens of work hours, practice, and planning – even the music chosen for any Tim O’Brien act requires deep thought. It is the same kind of laser focus I detect in his tone when he progressed to speaking about his writing craft.

Richard Z. Santos started working on his debut novel, Trust Me, in 2010, during his first year at Texas State MFA. He spent six years on the manuscript, producing many drafts before it was complete, after which it was published to critical acclaim by Arte Público Press early in 2020.

The novel is set in New Mexico, where his mother is from, a state he had visited ever since he was born, although he had only visited Santa Fe once as a child before he moved there to work on a political campaign in 2007.

“It is so addictive, almost like a drug,” he added. “Trust Me is about power and what power does to people, not just Charles.”

It was that short stint in New Mexican politics that inspired Trust Me.
After working on a failed political campaign in Delaware where his candidate ends up in jail, the novel's main character, Charles O’Connell, accepts an offer to work on an airport construction project in New Mexico. Charles regards it as an opportunity to start fresh and make connections with powerful people in the West. However, he quickly realizes that everyone involved in the project has an agenda. Charles finds himself entangled in a web of corruption, betrayal, and manipulation.

Santos said his conflicted feelings about politics inspired the novel. Even though he drew inspiration from his political campaign job he thinks his character, Charles, is exactly what he’s afraid he would have transformed into had he remained entrenched in politics further: the long work hours, access to power, and the pinnacle feeling a campaign worker experiences on election night if their candidate is triumphant. They are all trappings that go with political campaign jobs which eventually change people.

“It is so addictive, almost like a drug,” he added. “Trust Me is about power and what power does to people, not just Charles.”

Santos eventually returned to DC in 2008, after a year on the job. He enrolled in the MFA program at Texas State in 2010 and began working on the early drafts of what would later become Trust Me. He did a lot of research and reading for the book. Apart from plucking inspiration from his job, research, and time in New Mexico, the state’s history, complexities, and ancient landscapes also shaped it, coupled with Billy the Kid’s story and native folklore.

He said his revision process took a long time to complete in coffee shops because he overwrote everything at first. Trust Me’s plot unfolds in a week – the non-chronological sequencing of days in the book helped Santos to move stuff around, though that doesn’t affect its chronological order.

He condensed paragraphs and scaled back on the many expository sections about New Mexico’s landscape and history. The result is a laidback and subtle yet beautiful description of the rugged topography with scheming and power-hungry characters bayonetting across it.

"The result is a laidback and subtle yet beautiful description of the rugged topography with scheming and power-hungry characters bayonetting across it."

After teaching high school English for seven years, Santos is taking on editing clients and screenwriting these days. He believes teaching influenced his writing in that, it enabled him to be succinct and clear, which is an asset in the revision process. Most importantly, he is taking care of his young family; his wife, two teenage sons, and a thirteen-month-old daughter.

I asked him how he still manages to find time to write.

“Having a baby is a perfect excuse not to do any writing,” he joked, after which he relayed what Louise Erdich told him when she came to Texas State as a visiting writer.

“Write your first book before you have your first baby!”

Santos said he had been so involved in taking care of his baby when she was born that he didn’t have time to write at all, but things are better now that she is older. He writes in the mornings when she's at daycare, and in short bursts in the evenings when it’s his wife’s turn to babysit. Sometimes, he writes when the baby is sleeping.

On the bright side, family life influences his writing too. He informed me that his teenage sons helped to inject so much teenage sensibility to his character Micah, Gabe’s young son.

“Also, I steal lines from my wife all the time,” Santos quipped. It was a punchline that made both of us laugh, as we recalled Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, although Santos’ wife is not a writer.

Richard Z. Santos doesn’t really perform magic anymore. Perhaps, he’s so focused on whipping those magic tricks into his prose now, to keep improving his act, or better still, his craft, to ensure that readers will keep marveling at his prose for many years to come.

Purchasee Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos here.