The Good and the Bad, the Honest and the Dishonest: A Conversation with Richard Z. Santos

In the early drafts I found myself trying too hard to be like, “This part of Santa Fe’s amazing, so let’s get the characters there.” Or, “What if they went to Bandelier National Monument, or the cliff dwellings outside of town? Way back. I spent a lot of time there growing up, but it was always in Albuquerque or Las Cruces, the central or southern parts of the state. It’s part of why they stay. That unspoken political atmosphere, which is compelling and very strange. The people in charge know who they leave on hold for 10 minutes and who they answer right away, right? They know, “Oh that guy’s running for Senate, but he’s not a senator yet, so he’s gonna wait outside for a few more minutes.”
The dynamics of power are so well mapped in the book — and of course the money, which is flowing right alongside the power. It was just like, there. The Washington Monument’s everywhere. The Marine One flies over every day, multiple times a day. Motorcades go through. Campus is shut down because Bill Clinton’s giving a speech. It felt real in a way, where before that, they were just little [people] on TV, talking. When I finished the master’s program, I was like, “This is what I want to do.” Politics, especially if you’re in DC, is the easiest career to get into. All of you could have a brand-new career in politics in just a few months, if you really tried. So multiple drafts of the novel ended up getting thrown out because of that. Santos himself left DC politics to work on a campaign in New Mexico 13 years ago, and currently lives in Austin, Texas. I bet. I’ve got short stories and other things that are not “genre,” I guess is the way to put it. I knew right away that I wanted to write something. What was your most exciting moment in DC? I didn’t really know anybody in town, so I had a lot of time to just wander the city, walk around the plaza, drive through the mountains. It’s a small city, so you can do all of that in like an hour. That’s a great place.” I was forcing them to do stuff that didn’t really make any sense. But there’s also plenty of people who have just been in the game a little too long, and it’s wearing them down physically, mentally, and emotionally. With each succeeding draft, I had to step back to where it stopped making sense and rebuild it from there, which took a long time. I had various time lines that I wrote, trying to keep it all straight. That was a huge part of my life, and definitely a huge inspiration for this book. I had never been in Santa Fe until I took a job on a campaign out there. The interaction between the dominant powers in New Mexico and the tribes is very unique — even specifically in New Mexico, as compared to other places. But I knew that they needed to [play] a role. And I wrestled a lot with, “Okay, do I need another point-of-view character to represent this?” When it came down to it, in terms of the tribal depictions, in terms of the political stuff in general, I knew I needed it to be true — both the good and the bad, the honest and the dishonest. The tribes in this book want to get a handle on something. Whether that’s going to be through the airport, or through something else. She resides in Austin, Texas. But you could tell that everyone there was like family. When you showed up at the diner, you knew which people you needed to talk to and which you needed to avoid. I went to one of the 2009 Inaugural Balls, the one where Beyoncé sang “At Last” while they were dancing. It was amazing. Stuff like that is why people do it. Like, going to the White House is amazing, right? SANTOS’S debut novel, Trust Me (Arte Publico Press), is a sly Southwestern noir that chips away at the stucco on Santa Fe’s tourist-friendly facade to expose the small-town corruption beneath. Probably just over a million? Maybe one and a half million? Santa Fe is 50,000 to 60,000 people. It’s a community which can very quickly turn very insular, which can quickly become dark. Which isn’t to say that I walked into a ton of corruption when I was in Santa Fe. RICHARD Z. Why is that? The dynamic is so complicated, I’m not attempting to sum it up because it’s just such a unique culture. I moved to Washington, DC, for [a master’s program in English at Georgetown], and I didn’t really know what I would do next. But I also knew that it wouldn’t be enough just to tell Charles’s story. Trust Me benefits from fast-paced storytelling and a third act that’s wall-to-wall twists and betrayals, but it’s the diverse and humanely portrayed cast of characters — from stoned construction worker Gabriel Luna to a drug-dealing shaman to a cowboy-hatted lawyer for the tribes — that makes this a standout debut. When construction workers discover a body on Native land recently purchased for a new Santa Fe airport, disgraced campaign manager Charles O’Connell is called in from DC to handle the public relations disaster. SANTOS: My mom’s family was from New Mexico, going back centuries. There were members of the family that were in the Oñate expedition in 1598. We see their motivations and their backgrounds. It’s one thing that makes the book feel kaleidoscopic. Can you tell us what your personal experience is in Santa Fe and how you were able to pull in so many detailed threads and characters? It was hard not to write chapters from his point of view. That it would be not true to the state itself, and it would be exploitative in that way that so many of the other things that have happened in that state have been — where outsiders come in, take it all for themselves, and ignore everyone else. I’ve got another completed manuscript, and I’ve started working on another — they’re definitely veering into tangled narratives, lots of people, usually some sort of darkness at the center of it. But you lead us through it well. The way the plot plays out, the land is initially purchased from one tribe, and eventually, another tribe gets involved. There’s a lawyer for the tribes, Rey, who’s a great, colorful character. Seeing senators walking down the street. Did you know you were going to write a crime novel when you went to your MFA program [at Texas State University]? I lived about an hour from campus, and I could see the White House on one of my bus stops. We spoke recently about his lovingly grim portrait of a city with too much land, too much money, and a Native presence that makes America’s bloodiest crimes impossible to forget. There were probably two or three other complete books in there, that I wrote and ended up trashing or rewriting again and again and again, partly because the story kept getting away from me. Maybe by some well-placed lies, maybe with some secrets. They know that they’re probably going to get screwed over in the end, so they want to make sure that they’re at least dictating the terms of it a little bit. ¤
Amy Gentry is the author of Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing. That led to a lot of problems, but it also led to a lot of discoveries. That is what I live for, as a crime writer myself. It changes people. How did you keep track of the plot? Yeah, 50 going on 14. I was immediately gripped by the city, how different it was from the parts of New Mexico that I knew well, how strange and beautiful it was. I thought maybe I’d do a PhD; I thought maybe I would fall into a pile of money and not have to worry about it. But I’d always been politically minded, and being there made the whole realm of politics make more sense to me. Charles quickly gets tangled in the web of greed and betrayal surrounding oil tycoon developer Cody Branch and his disillusioned wife Olivia, who harbors secrets of her own. But you didn’t stay. I was not. But, you know, as I look around on my shelves, that’s what most of the books I have up there are — whether they’re officially labeled as crime novels, or not. So, what was the texture of local politics in Santa Fe? But I knew that with this particular story, it would get dark and conspiratorial. It kept getting bigger and bigger. At one point, it was a real kind of road-chase, kind of noir — I was very consciously using Jim Thompson’s The Getaway and Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers as my inspirational models. It just wasn’t working. I think of all the characters, [Gabriel Luna is] my favorite. There’s something about Gabe’s situation and his haplessness, you know? His plot line is the funniest, and also the saddest. I think because they’re always looking for new people, especially young people willing to work extraordinarily long hours for maybe not any money at all. DC is built on unpaid internships. Politics is amazing, I had a great time, but it’s all encompassing. Whether it’s a campaign job or a consulting firm, political action committee, all of that — it’s not a nine to five. There’s this race to work more and more, harder and harder, and to know more and more people. Charles is absolutely what I was afraid would happen to me. There are lots of great people in DC. Yeah, some. I could see a TV show just about Rey. Every character in this book, no matter how outlandish, gets that moment of humanity. Hopefully you weren’t drummed out of town the way Charles was. And I also know how hard it is to pull off. Yeah, it gets tangled in there. I think one of the compelling things about New Mexico, which mirrors the overall political community, is that it’s a small place. I mean, what’s the population of New Mexico? Could your fascination with darkness perhaps be related to your background in politics? No, not necessarily. ¤
AMY GENTRY: I keep coming back to The Wire when I’m trying to describe this book to people, because even though there are parts that are very noir-ish — it’s got that bleak overtone of noir that I love — it’s so layered. So, I wondered whether, in Santa Fe, you’d had your own interactions with tribal politics.   In the last half of the book, there’s so much betrayal, so much backstabbing and alliances shifting. JULY 15, 2020

RICHARD Z. He has an estranged son and ex-wife, and he’s just such a mess-up. At first, I thought [he could be] the main character, but by the end of the book I understood why Charles had to be the protagonist. In classical noir fashion, he’s the fall guy. Hearing gossip about which senators throw staples and binders at people, who doesn’t care about their job — that access — people love it. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. I had time to get lost, and I knew I wanted to replicate that in some way.