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Richard Z. Santos

It's not only about the magic in good writing; it's also about writing like it's magic

by Nkiacha Atemnkeng

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

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.
The novel focuses on the story of its main character, Charles O’Connell. After working on a failed political campaign in Delaware where his candidate ends up in jail, Charles accepts an offer to work in New Mexico, precisely on an airport construction project which is championed by a rich businessman, Cody Branch. Charles regards it as an opportunity to start afresh and make connections with powerful people in the west. However, he quickly realizes that everyone involved in the project has an agenda. Things take a surprising turn and numerous secrets begin to unveil. Enveloped by deception, 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."

Besides Charles’ self-centeredness and entitlement which he feels on his new job, encroachment on Native American land is a major theme in the novel. Having worked at an airport myself before, Trust Me’s corrupt airport building project on the San Miguel pueblo made me think deeply about the machinations that may have occurred before the Cameroonian government acquired the huge swathes of land from the coastal ethnic group that owned it, for the Douala airport to be constructed, something I'd never thought about while I worked there.

Santos’ most admirable writing strength is perhaps his gift for speech. He employs his penchant for brisk, filmic dialogue in a little less than half of the novel, which imparts a vivid 3D narrative verve to its sturdy plot.

The book’s main blemish may be in the presentation of the character, Gabe. Not his story arc, which is remarkably heartfelt, but likely the way it is placed adjacent to Charles’ story arc. Their trajectories never really connect directly: they connect only minimally through Gabe’s brother, Lou, becoming almost two separate narratives. Although it is a confident move, for me, it was a little tasking, as it became difficult to invest deep emotion in two narratives without a solid unifying factor.

When I asked him about this, Santos said both Charles and Gabe live in two very different worlds and the chances of those castes crossing were unlikely.

Domingo Martinez’s blurb describes Trust Me as “a breath of fresh air after living in a stifling box of recycled themes and tired tropes.”

It is sadly true that there are certain expectations when you are a BIPOC writer, a pigeon-holing assumption which Santos was aware of as he wrote Trust Me. He didn’t just want it to be a book about the struggle, immigration, racism, or the rich, capitalist white world swooping in and his Latinx characters would have to unite to fight them. He didn’t set out to entirely subvert such expectations either – Charles is white and he was born to a rich mother.

However, Santos just wanted to write a good story with a strong characterization that didn’t fit into any box, a goal he succeeded in doing. 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!”

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

It is good advice – for me. It is true for him. 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 the magic in his prose for many years to come.

 

Get Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos here.