Monday, February 4, 2013

Interview with Mark Saunders

Can you give us a brief overview of your latest book? Is it part of a series?
Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak is a humorous memoir about dropping out late in life, selling almost everything, and moving to the middle of Mexico, where you don’t know a soul and can barely speak the language. The story arc of my memoir is a simple one: we lose our jobs, drop out, and move to Mexico (Act 1); we experience conflict, both good and bad, before moving back to the States (end of Act 2); finally, we resolve our biggest conflict by moving back to Mexico (Conclusion), where we hope to stay longer this time.

My wife and I were the last persons we ever thought would drop out and move to Mexico, especially when we did.  We were in our late 50s at the time, did not have much money to back us up, and were not the adventurous types. We were both working in high-tech, for different companies, and coincidently our jobs were going away around the same time.  At our age, we felt boxed in—or out.  So we sold our condo in downtown Portland, Oregon, with the spectacular view of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens and lived in Mexico for two years off the proceeds of the sale. Put another way, we gave ourselves a self-funded, open-ended sabbatical. Funny things happened to us almost immediately and I thought I should start writing about what was going on, and do so mostly from the point of view of someone who was totally ill-equipped and ill-prepared to live in a foreign country.

In violation of such mainstream media expectations, in moving to Mexico we didn’t get car-jacked, kidnapped, mistakenly shot at, or ripped off by a shady contractor hoping to live in Panama on our life savings.  We had, however, our share of mishaps, made some dreadful mistakes, got in and out of trouble, and learned a thing or two about life, Mexico, and each other. Even though my memoir reenacts no homicides or rescue attempts, my story covers plenty of interesting ground, landscaped with prickly pear cactus, scorpions, mammoth speed bumps, lung-choking dust, yoga, disco, firecrackers, car repairs, lost-in-translation moments, and a near-death collision on a two-lane highway. All right, that last bit is an exaggeration. The two six-wheelers missed us by a good five inches.

My book is not part of a series, although I am working on a sequel. The working title for the sequel is “The Duke of San Miguel”; the second book will be partly about moving back to Mexico and partly about our new dog, an 80-pound male, apricot-colored Standard Poodle named Duke. He literally stops traffic whenever we take him out for his walks.  And at least once a week a Mexican family on vacation will ask if they can have their picture taken with him.  Of course, they always ask us to move out of the frame. We’re thinking about putting a sign around his neck and charging for the photos. 

Do you have a favorite character?
Our car, a black Audi Quattro. Although it doesn’t have any speaking parts, it has a strong presence and reasserts itself frequently, sort of like a cross between a pastrami sandwich and Banquo’s Ghost.

What factors influenced your decision to go with a particular agent or publisher?  
Once my manuscript was nearly completed, I took the usual steps: researched the market; created query letters; put together a 50-page proposal. But as it turned out, I didn’t need my proposal. One of the principals at FUZE knew me and found out I was working on a book about dropping out and moving to Mexico. She asked to read my manuscript when it was ready. I sent it to them. They liked it. I signed. Cue the trumpets. And it’s been a rewarding experience.

How did you choose your book’s title? 
I wanted a title that would combine Mexico and humor.  One early title was (groan) “Two Years Before the Masa,” which wouldn’t work, I realized, since the Richard Dana book referred to disappeared from bookshelves a long time ago and only serious cooks knew that tortillas come from masa or corn dough.  Then, I thought of going with “A Year of Doing Nothing,” but had to scratch that title once we entered our second year in San Miguel.  I tried “Lost and Found in Mexico,” but there’s already a documentary film with that title. Then, I chose “We’ll Always Have Parasites,” thinking it would make a great title, but ran it by a few people and they all thought it sounded like a book about stomach disorders. Eventually I settled on “Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak” for the title because it’s a chapter from the book and because it captures, in six words, my total confusion and incompetence as an expat.  Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak is, of course, a play on the old spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus” and, I think, it’s a title that says this is a light-hearted book about a non-Hispanic living in Mexico.  Plus, as bonus points, our car mechanic’s name was Jesus and he knew a lot about the troubles we had with our car.

Do you belong to a critique group? Have they helped improve your writing?
Yes and No. I did and I don’t. I belonged to two such groups when I lived in Portland, Oregon: a critique group for playwrights and a separate group for screenwriters. Both were invaluable, very helpful, and I miss them. In San Miguel, I am a member of a wonderful writers’ organization called The Literary Sala. However, it’s a monthly gathering where two guest writers give a public reading from their work. Critiques are not part of the program. Occasionally, I meet for breakfast with other writers in town and we discuss what we’re working on, but we don’t critique each other’s works. We criticize the coffee instead.

What is your writing process? Do you listen to music or do you like silence?
Post-college my resume read like a good-grief of odd jobs: military journalist, medical librarian, college instructor, book packer, mill worker, business owner, technical writer, software documentation manager, marketing manager.  If I could have thrown in gold prospector and hobo, I would have been Jack London.  Between and during those jobs, I always worked on creative projects, mostly writing and cartooning and, like many writers, all of it in my spare time, either writing before or after work or over the weekends.  While at work, in addition to my regular job, I’d also be doing what’s known in the computer industry as “background processing,” working out story problems in the garage of my mind and jotting notes down so I wouldn’t forget.  If I happened to get mugged coming home from work, the unlucky guy would get scraps of paper and Post-it Notes with bits of dialogue, plot points, and partly developed scenes on them. Not exactly stuff you could easily fence. So my writing process, as a part-time writer, was catch-as-catch-can. Today, I am a full-time writer, with more can than catch. I would prefer to be listening to music, but as I type these words our dog is barking furiously and someone is ringing the doorbell. Oy.

Do you outline your story or just go where your muse takes you?
Both. Once I have an idea for a story or chapter or play or screenplay or letter to the editor or ransom note or grocery list or whatever, I create an outline. Before starting, I need at least the bare bones of an outline, a sense of direction with some stops indicated along the way. I can’t help it; I was taught by nuns.  (Even though I first create a roadmap, that doesn’t mean I’m going to follow it all the way.  I’m basically a wordy cartoonist with a short attention span, the kind of guy who is easily seduced by detours.)  The time I invest in an outline varies, depending on the project. When writing screenplays, for example, I create a detailed beat sheet, including dialogue, before writing any scenes.  It seems I am always writing, whether I am looking out the window, watching a TV program, walking the dog, or sitting at my computer screen. My muse must be lazy because I do a lot of sitting and staring.  That said, I believe I am at my happiest and most productive when I am lost in a writing project. It’s been described elsewhere by much smarter people as the concept of “Flow,” which in Mexico has more to do with backed-up plumbing than creativity.

Did you hire an editor to review your manuscript before publishing?
I was one of the lucky ones. As part of my contract with FUZE, they provided me with an absolutely amazing editor. By the time we were done working together on my book, she knew my book better than I did, inside and out, left and right, chapter and verse, word-by-word. My original manuscript was going to be modeled along the lines of a David Sedaris collection of stand-alone essays.  My editor convinced me to give it more of a narrative thread and guided me through the process of making those connections. Now I’m a true believer. I would never publish a book without first running it by an editor. I also feel fortunate in the book designer that FUZE selected for me. In my opinion, the book designer knocked the cover, as well as the inside design, out of the park. It’s exactly what I was hoping to get, a whimsical, colorful cover that reminds me of one of those Road Runner cartoon landscapes by Chuck Jones.

Besides writing, do you have any other passions?
Food and drink. If a cartographer were to divide my body into distinct neighborhoods like a map of Manhattan, I would, of course, have uptown, midtown, and downtown sections. Likewise, there would also be two large, generalized areas known as Eastside and Westside. (In case you’re wondering, I sleep on my Eastside.) My body would be host to a medley of smaller neighborhoods, from historic to modern, charming to seedy. Upper Body would include such areas as Bald Peak and Braintown. Whereas the far end of the island, a large section known as Lower Body, would end in Toeville, my own private Montauk. But my favorite neighborhood, bar none, the one where I seem to spend so much time and devote far too much interest, would be a midtown area that locals refer to as NoJo—or North of Johnson, an area known to doctors as my stomach.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Johnson neighborhood. It’s one of my favorite haunts and I know every corner of it intimately. I always have a good time whenever I visit it or share its side-street pleasures with another. In fact, some of my favorite moments have been spent on the Johnson playground, even with its aging equipment. But there’s no place like NoJo.

What’s next for you?

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