Latinx Heritage in Horror: Richard Z. Santos
Richard Z. Santos’ debut novel, Trust Me, was a finalist for the Writer’s League of Texas Book Awards and was named one of the best debuts of the year by CrimeReads. He’s the editor of the collection A Night of Screams: Latino Horror Stories. He is the Executive Director of Austin Bat Cave, an organization that provides creative writing workshops to students in under-resourced areas. He is a former Board Member of The National Book Critics Circle and has judged contests for The Kirkus Prize, The NEA, and many more. Recent work can be found in Austin Noir (Akashic Books), Lone Stars Rising (Harper Collins), Texas Monthly, CrimeReads, and more. In a previous career, he taught high school English and Social Studies.
Q. What inspired you to start writing?
A. It feels like something I’ve more or less always done. I remember tapping out sentences on old typewriters as a kid in elementary school, and that went all the way through college, where I’d carry a notebook and add a line or two of some half-formed poem. But, it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I really committed myself to the hard work of writing and revising. I definitely still remember being totally transported by books, movies, TV shows as a kid. It still happens as an adult, but it’s different—still more weighted by the real world. So, to find a book as an adult where you’re just gone into its pages! That’s the feeling I’m chasing in my writing. Can you kind of forget where you’re at or what’s bothering you, even if only for a few minutes? That’s the good stuff.
Q. What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
A. Some of my earliest loves were horror artifacts. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark turned into The Twilight Zone and Stephen King novels and then all the horror movie classics of the 80s and 90s. But, I also remember that endorphin rush of being a little, little kid convinced that something was outside my window or on the other side of my door. At one of the houses we lived in, my curtains or blinds didn’t quite cover all the window, and there was a light on the other side of the glass. So, I could see outside, and it was always lit up a little. I remember just KNOWING that something was watching me, and that if I looked then I’d see its weird face pressed against the glass. Of course, I had to look.
Q. Do you make a conscious effort to include LatinX characters and themes in your writing, and if so, what do you want to portray?
A. I do make it a priority to include Latinx characters in my writing, but how much I want to lean into the larger cultural themes varies from piece to piece. My debut novel, Trust Me, is set in Northern New Mexico and most of the characters (like my extended family) are descendants of those seventeenth-century conquistadores. For them, they’re living in a world that has been Latinx for centuries longer than the US or Mexico has existed, and that’s a different kind of experience than living in a Latinx neighborhood in Austin, for example. So, for those characters, these larger cultural themes are so omnipresent that they almost become background. But, in other stories, these themes become much more prominent. I wrote a short story called “The Genealogist” which was published in PANK. In it, the main character has to deal with his father who’s become obsessed with documenting their family’s genealogical connection to some of the Mexicans who died fighting with the Texans at the Alamo. It throws the main character for a spin because the Alamo is such a source of white pride and he doesn’t know how to deal with his father’s excitement.
Q. What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
A. I think a lot of people write horror to imagine, in a way, the worst that could happen. Plus, it’s generally fun and interesting to write about people going through a really really bad time. So, when writing about someone suffering you’re learning a bit about how you yourself would react to trauma or horror—real or fantastical. Of course, somehow that’s even more important now, when we seem to be staring down the barrel of all sorts of actual horrors that could wipe us out. Maybe the horror of today is a dry run for the reality of tomorrow?
Q. How do you feel the LatinX community has been represented thus far in the genre, and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
A. It’s funny, because I was at an event the other day and asked the audience to name the oldest Latinx horror writer they could think of. For the most part, the authors named were mostly people that were maybe in their 40s or 50s, or maybe someone could name an older Spanish writer who wrote one book of horror as part of their career. On the one hand this is pretty depressing because it reveals how Latinx writers have been kept out of the industry—not just horror but publishing overall—for decades. But it’s also exciting because now it means that all these new writers from all backgrounds are here and are taking over. They’re the ones pushing the genre, and publishing overall, into new territory because they’re bringing their lived experiences to the world and we all get to benefit from that. In terms of representation, the small presses are just bursting with talented writers of color and other marginalized writers. I’m thinking of presses like Clash Books or Perpetual Motion Publishing just to name two. And, the big five publishing houses have started featuring more and more horror writers of color. The fear with the big houses, though, is that they publish a few writers and then basically feel like they’ve done enough, and then it’s back to business as usual. It’s up to the readers to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Q. Who are some LatinX horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
A. Well as the editor of a collection of horror by Latinx writers I’m pretty biased! But, seriously, in A NIght of Screams: Latino Horror Stories I wanted to include Latinx writers of multiple ethnicities and different national roots. There are writers in the collection who are really established in the horror genre for youth and adults, like the great V. Castro, Lilliam Rivera, and Ann Dávila Cardinal. But I also wanted to include some writers not known for horror, like Rubén Degollado, and also some poets like mónica teresa ortiz and Ruben Quesada. Pedro Iniguez’s horror stories have been appearing all over the place, and Monique Quintana’s book Cenote City is out from Clash Books now. Leticia Urieta writes great body horror and more, plus I’m a huge fan of Marcos Damián León’s work as well. There’s so much good stuff out there it’s hard to know where to start, which is an incredible luxury!
Q. What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
A. Don’t chase trends and don’t try to outsmart your own brain. If your work is changing while you’re writing it—transforming into something different and maybe monstrous in unexpected ways—that’s okay. Ride out that draft, and see where you’re at. There are so many publishing opportunities out there for horror writers, particularly, that your piece will find a home if you keep editing and revising and polishing and helping it transform into the best version of whatever it wants to be. Maybe you started writing a slasher and it turns into cosmic horror, or vice versa, or maybe it becomes not even really a horror story anymore but something different. Who cares! When you try to chase a trend or box yourself in too much, you’re limiting the journey you and your work, and therefore your reader, can go on. Someone out there will find your monster baby and someone will love it.
Q. And to the LatinX writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
A. My main piece of advice is to not bend your story to fit whatever themes of Latinx identity or culture you think other people want or expect. Maybe you’ll write a story tackling our complicated identities and cultures head on, or maybe you’ll write something dark and exciting that just happens to feature Latinx characters. Both are important because both are true experiences. Sometimes we’re fighting for our culture or advocating for the beauty of our stories and experiences. And sometimes we’re just in the world doing our thing—going to work, drinking coffee, running from clowns with octopus arms, whatever. After that, it’s just all the same advice about getting in front of the page as often as possible and trusting that your awful messy draft will slowly, eventually take shape and take over the world.