Today, I’d like to post an interview I conducted with Uno Kudo writer Gus Sanchez, who’s two stories were published in Vol. One and Volume Two of Uno Kudo’s art meets lit. yearly anthology.
Gus Sanchez is a friend of mine originally from Queens, now living in the American south. Whether I’m talking to him on the phone, via text or reading his blog, one thing seems to shine through the conversation and that is his pursuit of information pertaining to “becoming a better writer” the craft of it, the implement of new techniques. He posts about writing and other interest at his site Out Where the Buses Don’t Run, which got it’s name from an episode of Miami Vice … but as far as I know, Gus doesn’t own a white blazer or a handgun or have a mullet or a speedboat, whatever.
Gus Sanchez is a writer. Not an “aspiring writer”. A writer.
I think a lot of people can relate to how Gus feels about wanting to improve. We shot some questions back and forth and talked about his process, his love of music and his creative output over the last few years.
At one time in his life, Gus Sanchez wanted to be a lawyer. Then a drummer for a jazz/funk band. He even entertained being the leader of his own cult, but abandoned it due to a lack of interest on his part. When he’s not busy selling his soul to corporate devils or bitching about dead lawns or griping about the laundry not putting itself away, Gus is hard at work at (finally) completing his first novel, which he hopes to have ready for publication sometime before 2013 ends. Gus Sanchez is a liberal living in the thick of Republican country (Charlotte, NC), along with his wife Jaime and daughter Sophia. And, for the last time, that was not him streaking naked through the cafeteria at St. John’s University, as much as he would love for you to believe it was him.
- Bud: First off, you’ve been working on a novel, about superheroes, or specifically a super hero. Tell me about that.
It’s about a superhero who must break free from the clutches of his arch-nemesis and rescue both his girlfriend and all of mankind. It’s also about a man who’s in the throes of a schizophrenic episode, and the only way he seems to cope with his psychosis is to imagine himself as a superhero. So the novel has a parallel storyline: is it about a superhero and his conflict, or it is about this mentally ill man and his conflict?
- If you could have a super power what would it be?
I wouldn’t want the super powers, so to speak. Being able to fly, or become invisible is okay, I suppose. What I dig most about, say, Batman or Iron Man, is that they’re self-made. They have all the coolest toys their billions can buy, but really what they most rely on is their mental strength and their advanced intelligence. It’s one thing to simply beat up your enemies. It’s another to outsmart them. So all I want is the ability to outsmart, provided I have a cool jet-copter, or a fancy-dancy suit of armor that I can fly in and go PEW! PEW! with.
- Why do you write?
This is my mantra: I write because I am a writer. I write because my very existence depends on it. I write because there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than write.
- So, you’ve written a novel … some short stories … Are you interested in screenplays?
Not so much writing them as much as reading them. Screenplays help to illustrate the importance of dialogue, which is very important for me as a writer. I’ve read every screenplay Tarantino’s written, and I’m amazed by his uncanny ability to use dialogue to drive his stories along.
- What’s your writing process like?
I start with a sketch, and that’s often involving me writing longhand. I’ve filled notebooks up with lengthy scenes and ideas. Once I get something I like going, I’ll commit it to disk, using Scrivener, which allows me to see the edits and drafts I’ve compiled so far.I’m also pretty ritualistic when it comes to writing. If it’s just me and my notebook, then it doesn’t matter where I am. But if my story is taking off, and I’m in the throes of 2,000-3,000 words, where I’m writing is important. Either I’m at my desk at home, or my local Starbucks. Regardless, there’s a playlist I’ll listen to that I’ve compiled solely for this novel, and plenty of caffeine to keep me going.
- You’re always talking about music … Do you find direct connection between music and your writing itself. You made a playlist to write you novel to, tell me about that?
I’m auditory stimulated. Music is my muse, and I pick up a lot of my writing cues from songs and lyrics. Besides, I can’t write in total silence. Sometimes I’ll want the sound of people talking when I write dialogue, so I’ll listen to podcasts. But for the most part, I listen to music when I write, always.
I put together a playlist of 18 songs that directly and indirectly helped me get inside my characters’ heads. I’ll give you a couple of examples: one song on that playlist is Iggy and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy.” My main character is a charming asshole who tends to walk a fine line between chaos and genius. He’s sort of the hit-first, then ask-questions-later kind of superhero. I figured my hero needs a theme song, and what better song is there for a possibly unhinged superhero than this gem from one of the most unhinged bands, fronted by one of the most unhinged lead singers ever?
There’s another song on that list by a band called Au Revoir Simone called “Shadows,” which I’m using as a POV from the protagonist’s ex-wife. Despite the fact they’ve divorced, there’s still some unresolved feelings – lots of bitterness not towards each other but against the circumstances that drove them apart. The chorus of this songs goes “I’m moving on/I hope you’re coming with me/’Cause I’m not that strong/Don’t blame it on your shadows/’Cause I know all about you.” I won’t give away what happens, but hearing this song put me inside her head and her longing for a different time in her life.
I’m writing this right now, and listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti,” by the way
- Writing takes time. It’s all stumbles and falls and getting back up again. Practice. It’s practice … Tell me about your failures at attempting to write a manuscript in the past.
I wrote an entire manuscript about 15 years ago. It’s pure shit. I still have it, in a storage box in the garage. The biggest takeaway for me is how little I really knew about writing then. I didn’t know the golden rule of “show, don’t tell,” so those ill-fated manuscripts had a lot of expository prose that never seemed to go anywhere. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of writing groups, and I didn’t feel my writing was strong enough for me to apply for a spot in creative writing programs in New York. But that was insecurity talking.
It was only until 8 years ago that I met an editor who was running a writer’s critique group, who helped me understand the fundamentals I was lacking. That saying that you can’t teach writing? She proved that wrong.
- What’s different with your process or mindset now then it was then, when the writing wasn’t coming smooth?
Up until this year, my writing process was pretty haphazard, as in I wrote when inspired. I suppose that was something of a fallout from blogging so much throughout the years. I was a pretty lazy writer, let’s put it that way. But I got myself into the habit of writing daily, whether it was in the morning, during lunch breaks (great time to write, as you no doubt know) or late at night. One thing that’s also helped my writing a great deal is to stick to one project at a time, which, for someone with mild ADD like I have, is pretty challenging, but I stuck through it. I write a lot of short pieces, but since I decided to finally shit and write this damned novel that’s been brewing in my head for the better part of a year, I made that my primary focus, with the exception of “Room 505,” which came together organically and rather quickly.
When I’m writing the first draft, I’ll write it out long-hand. This way, it just come all out, without the urge to hit the Delete key. Some people think writing long-hand is crazy, but I like the freedom of pen and paper.
- You’ve had a few stories published by Uno Kudo. Tell me about your short story Room 505 that appears in Volume 2:
The woman in the story was someone I came across during a stay in Hilton Head, SC. The exchange the dying woman and the man have in the elevator was the same exchange, verbatim, I had with this woman at the elevator at the hotel I was staying. I later saw her that morning eating breakfast alone, looking as if she was carrying the burden of some terrible news. I imagined something horrible, like a death of a loved one, or learning she has months to live. Oddly enough, she looked like Joan Didion when she was younger. At first, I gasped, thinking it was Joan Didion, and then realizing, nah, she’s too young to be her, without noticing the woman in the elevator was getting impatient.
- You call yourself a cubicle monkey. I’ve never had a desk job in my life. What’s it like?
Yeah, it’s a badge of honor, or dishonor, I guess. Because I work in information technology (which I’ve been doing so reluctantly for the past 17 years), I’m often assigned to a cubicle. Also, because I’m in information technology, I work freelance, so there’s an unwritten rule that freelancers aren’t given offices, just a desk with three-and-a-half walls. The pay’s great, and I pride myself in being good at what I do, but I know I’d rather be doing something else.You’re not missing anything, by the way, because you’ve never had a desk job. There’s a huge part of me that says I should quit being a cube monkey and go work construction, since I’m good with my hands; I’m no slouch with heavy tools, and I’ll put my cursing skills up against any hard-hat schmuck from Staten Island.
- What’s been your worst job?
Right out of college, I took a job working as a sales rep for a building construction supplier. Selling contractors and sub-contractors ceiling tile, floor tile, black iron, drywall, plaster, you name it. Totally fucking hated the gig, but one of my best friends worked for the same company, different branch, and heard there was an opening, so he put in a good word for me. I took the job because frankly, the phone wasn’t ringing, and i really wasn’t busting my ass trying to land a job in the legal field – I was a pre-law major in college. Anyway, the job sucked in the regard that no one showed me the ropes, I had to learn everything myself, I fucked orders up frequently, and when I finally started figuring things out and cold-called enough contractors to win some new business for myself, the branch manager decided he was going to give these new accounts to his senior sales reps. He wanted me to just take orders. That branch manager was a cunt, pure and simple, a dishonest twat. The office manager was a born-again Jehovah’s Witness who bummed smokes from me all the time, and when he finally did buy me a pack of cigarettes, he bought me a cheap pack of no-name smokes. Plus, he was also a dishonest prick. The accounts payable manager rode my ass all the time about why I should bust my ass and learn the ropes so I could earn a lucrative living as a salesman. There’s great money in sales, she said. Why would you want to be a lawyer?
The worst of the bunch were the sales guys. That senior salesman was a shit stain named Dennis Murphy who never hesitated to tell anyone within earshot that he had cancer and probably didn’t have much to live, all the while saying this with a cigarette in his mouth. He put his arm around me my first day and said, “Kid, stick with me and I’ll show you how to work this game.” And show me he did. His con game was stealing clients from other sales reps so he could earn their commission, then claim he needed to build a savings fund for his family to live on after he died. Turns out the mother fucker was thrice-divorced and up to his ass and elbows in alimony payments. He pissed off one new sales rep so bad, he was told he’d have his cancer-ridden ass kicked across Long Island City if he ever stole another account again. But Dennis raked in big bucks, and that’s why he got away with fucking all the sales reps, me included.
It got so bad I swear at one point I was at half a pack of Marlboro Lights and 4 cups of coffee by 10AM each morning.
I don’t know why I didn’t just up and quit. The job was totally wrong for me, but I gutted it out for 4 1/2 months until I finally got fed up and handed in my resignation. That shit eater of a branch manager decided to fire me on the spot instead. I didn’t care. I’ve been fired from other jobs since, and I never sweat it, because I know i’ve been fired from worse jobs; this was that worst job.
- What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you at work?
First, a little backstory: for a while – say, 18 months – I wasn’t working as a cube monkey, and doing real work, in this case working as a maintenance tech for a senior living community. It wasn’t a retirement home or assisted living; the seniors were still active and didn’t require any medical attention, so we rented apartments to them. Since it was Section 8 friendly, this community was pretty much in demand for seniors in the area, and there was at least a 2-year waiting list for apartments. As such, residents were required to undergo a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inspection from the local HUD office so they could continue qualifying for Section 8 housing.
I liked working there, though. The residents were nice, if a bit unruly at times. The elderly can be like children sometimes, so I found myself, along with the property manager – who also happened to be my mother-in-law – having to play lion tamer with a few residents bickering over bullshit like someone’s TV being too loud. Still, it was a pretty rewarding job; we did a lot for the residents in terms of providing them with social activities – I ran Tuesday Night Bingo for a few months; man, that was some cutthroat shit! – and if a resident needed a lift to run some errands or even visit the doctor, I’d offer them a ride. I was friendly with a few. Two come to mind: one was Margaret, who, let’s say, was around the block several hundred times. She ran with some fast company, and looked the part. Rode hard and left wet, if you know what I mean. She could be be pretty snide at time, but deep down inside she was a softie, and we got along fabulously, if only because we were both terribly cynical about everything. She’d died suddenly, and it broke my heart. Another resident was Henry, total life of the party. Ex-Navy, quick with a joke, long with a story, first to offer his help with just about everything. After a while, I’d let him tag along; I “groomed” him as my replacement when I decided to go back to life as a cube monkey. But Henry was a chronic gambler, and his gambling addiction got him killed a year or so ago; he was on his way to a casino, speeding, when he collided with another vehicle that was also speeding, killing him instantly. Henry was a good man with a good heart, but I hated that he could never walk away from his addiction. I knew someday his addiction would be the end of him, but when it came, it devastated me.
It wasn’t the most demanding job – I worked maybe 20-30 hours per week – and it entailed me doing stuff like landscaping and changing the lightbulbs out, or renovating an apartment once we got a vacancy so it could become move-in ready. More often than not the residents that vacated left the apartments in very good condition, but on occasion we had a few incidents. One resident, a paranoid schizophrenic, pulled a “midnight run” and broke her lease; when I went to inspect the apartment, she’d managed to duct-tape every air duct and electrical outlet, and had even glued the windows shut! It took me 6 days non-stop to get that apartment even cleaned out, let’s not even talk about painting it!
Anyway, that’s not the weirdest thing that happened during this job. Remember what I’d been saying about the HUD apartment inspections? Well, there was a resident named Bill, nice man, bit of a doofus with a terrible case of generalized anxiety disorder, not to mention all kinds of ailments; he was 55, but he looked 20 years older. I reminded him that Loren (the guy from HUD – who, by the way, was like some outdoorsy hunk sort of guy, the kind of guy you’d find modeling in an LL Bean catalogue, and let me tell you, when the ladies learned Loren was coming, you’ve never seen elderly ladies get so dolled up so quick!) and I were going to be inspecting his apartment Tuesday afternoon, so don’t forgot. He nodded, yeah, yeah, I won’t forget. He was a forgetful bastard.
Tuesday came, and I knock on his door. I can hear his TV, so I know he’s home, but he won’t answer. After a few more knocks, I let myself in with the master key, and find Bill asleep on his recliner.
“Hey Bill, wake up!”
Bill is ice cold, his skin is blue. There’s no telling how long Bill had been dead. It took every ounce of strength in me not to freak the fuck out. Loren, on the other hand, yeah, this was old hat for him. He calmly advised me to inform the property manager – my mother in law, who had the day off – and call 911. The worst was having to explain to the residents who saw the cops and the EMTs pull his body into the ambulance that Bill had died. No way I could explain my way out of that one.
Ugh. I got chills just writing this.
- Where are you from? Where’d you grow up?
I was born and raised in NYC. A true New Yorker in a sense; born in the city of New York, county of New York, state of New York. But I was raised in Elmhurst, Queens.
- What are your BIG books. And what’s the single book that’s had the biggest influence on your own writing.
My mom instilled in me this love for reading. I never saw her without a book. She was the one that marched me down to the library and got me my first library card, and corrupted me ever since. I remember thinking I was such an adult because I was reading Agatha Christie when I was 10 years old, even if about 70% of what was going on was going over my head.
I don’t know if any single book’s had the biggest influence on my writing. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve tried to emulate certain writers. At one point, I was trying to write like Thomas Pynchon, all elliptical and bordering on paranoiac, and clearly going nowhere with it. Then I read David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” and thought, fuck it, DFW did it better, so I better stop now.
I seem to be more influenced by short story writers. Raymond Carver is a gigantic influence for me. He taught me the importance of being economical with words. John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, as well. Right now, Junot Diaz is my biggest influence, and I really love that he’s close to my age – he’s 3 years older than me – and we’re both Latino, and we wear our nerd hearts on our sleeves. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” was a revelation to me in that Diaz was able to marry so much of what makes genre so demanding (the insistence on fantastical accuracy, if that makes sense) with the character development that’s so crucial to literary fiction. When I read that novel, I thought, finally, someone gets it. You can write genre AND literary fiction at the same time, and not lose what makes both important. His new collection of short stories is simply a gut-punching knockout, and he’s working on a 80’s-themed apocalyptic novel that sounds like it’s going to be hilarious and terrifying and brilliant all at once. I’m gushing, so I’ll stop.
So I guess I take back what I said about a single book being an influence?
- Do you think you’ve grown as a writer since writing for Uno Kudo? And starting up your own blog OUT WHERE THE BUSES DON’T RUN?
Absolutely. Being around like-minded writers has been a massive shot in the arm for me. When I see my fellow contributors succeed, it only spurs me to want to pursue my own successes.