It is always a pleasure for us to publish translations of interviews with Spanish and Latin American SF&F authors. This time, Ricardo Acevedo interviews José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, a.k.a. Yoss, and Cristina Jurado translated their talk into English. The interview was originally publish in miNatura but Ricardo and Cristina have kindly allowed us to reproduce it here. Hope you enjoy it!
If Yoss had been born in another place, different than Habana, he would have been a media star. He sure would had been a recurrent character in gossip media and the Internet… Read, hated and admired by some, tolerated and loved by a few. Science fiction writer, rock singer, creator and fan of role games, provocateur, megalomaniac, narcissist, accused of all kinds of crimes -imaginary and real-… Here there is the metaphorically naked Yoss, even though we admit than interviewing him without clothes would not be a hard task to accomplish.
I want to clarify that this is not an arranged interview. In fact, Yoss himself suggested some of the questions ().
Revista Digital miNatura: Yoss is a guy who runs every morning in the waterfront of Habana . This sight would be a normal one, but if you add the long hair, wristbands and weird shorts (do you design them?), you look like an old rock star. Why do you dress like that?
Yoss: Well, I must point out that I don´t run at sunrise but at sundown. I´m afraid, I´m a compulsive morning sleeper. One of the reasons that push me to become a professional writer was not having to weak up early. My running shorts are souvenirs from the countries I visit or presents from girlfriends. They are very common gym shorts made out of Lycra. I only like them dark and short. I run without a top, even in winter and in Europe, because after one kilometer I sweat so much that I don´t make enough money to wash all my t-shirts.
On a more serious note I must tell you that, as a child, I read books like SANDOKÁN by Emilio Salgari; LOS CONQUISTADORES DEL FUEGO, by J. H. Rosny; CONAN by Robert E. Howard… and dreamt about looking like my heroes. I wanted to use boots, long hair, wristbands, and broad belts with big buckles, going around torso-naked and showing muscular arms. As a child, I could not choose my wardrobe, so I decided to patiently wait. When I was 11 years old I discovered that many rock stars (al least in the ´80s) dressed like that. I also liked rock, heavy metal in particular, so there you have it.
Some say that I live perpetually dressed up. It´s true, I couldn’t deny it. But I´m privileged enough to dressed up as what I´m: a rocker that writes science fiction and fantasy, living out of his writings. Is that a bad thing? Aren´t some perpetually dressed up without anybody giving them a hard time? I´m talking about “normal” people who work from 8 am to 5 pm because they don´t dare to pursue their dreams and non-standard hopes, since they are afraid of being judged and condemned.
Society values you for what you look like and how expensive your clothes are, shame on them! After all, they are not living with you. You are the only one living with yourself forever. So, why not doing whatever you feel? If people talk and criticize, so be it. Anyhow, they would gossip about anything.
Rockers in our days don´t dressed like that and don´t even have long hair… so what? I don´t believe in fashion, an excuse for the big firms to force you to waste your money in new clothes when the ones you have since 5 or even 10 years ago are still wearable. If I were the last person dressing up like this in the planet, I wouldn’t mind. I also wouldn´t mind if everybody else decide to imitate my style (interesting basis for a short story, something called LA EPIDEMIA YOSS). I suppose this interview will include a picture, right? Let the readers be the judges. I don´t believe I attract too much attention, though… at least in a heavy metal concert or in a fandom convention. In contrast with many rockers that work in banks during the day and wear their rock colors at night, I have fought to use them all the time. It´s my decision and I would pay any price, if needed.
Revista Digital miNatura: You have finished 5 novels this year, which will be published. Can you share your discipline as a writer?
Y: Well, that statement is not really true. I wrote 2 novels, one book of essays and articles, and an anthology of short stories about Conan, the Cimmerian, for which I have compared and reviewed translations and stories, as well as written a foreword.
|Cover art for Condonautas|
Even if it sounds strange, I´m a methodical guy. I have a routine: I write everyday, from Monday to Friday, after 1:00 pm, when I come back from the gym and I get a shower, get dressed, review my e-mails and eat lunch. I normally write until 6:30 pm (at least in the summer), and then I go back to my exercises and I run 12 kms, at the waterfront of Habana, if it´s not raining.
Sometimes I´m swamped –like with INGENIEROS Y JENIZAROS, a science fiction novel that I just finished in 45 days- and I keep on going into the night. Outside of my work, I go to the movies, read, go out with my girlfriend and socialize. The same on the weekends: I go dancing, to the beach, to the cinema. Man does not live by bread alone, and woman, even less.
As you see, I almost have a close working schedule and I´m my own boss. The advantage is that, if one day I don´t feel like writing or I´m into reading a book, I don´t have to work. But if I don´t write, I don´t get paid. The truth is I liked to work and, when I can´t do it because I´m traveling out of Cuba for more than a month, I start to feel uncomfortable, like a frog out of the water or a drug addict in need of a dose. For better or worse, I have never experienced the writers´ block: I´ve always have too many stories waiting to be told.
I really enjoy writing and they pay me well enough to live out of it, even if I don´t have a steady salary every month… I can´t complain. I´m a happy writer, an exception to the rule, I suppose. I don´t suffer or torture myself, and creative inspiration and existential anguishes don´t keep me up at night. I love what I do, like a fish loves to swim. Does the fish know that the water exists when is swimming through it? I guess it doesn´t. To write, for me, is like swimming in the water of life: it´s to be alive! And to be alive is absolute happiness.
Revista Digital miNatura: There are many urban legends about you (all malicious, of course). One of the most famous is about the day you met Arnold Schwarzenegger () in Habana and he asked you if you were José Miguel of Timshel. Is that true? Can you share with us another bizarre story like that one?
Y: People always exaggerate! Well, that´s the genesis of all urban legends, I suppose. I met Arnold in December 1996 at the UNEAC Habana headquarters. He didn´t know who I was, of course, and we exchange few words. I din´t tell anyone until 2 or 3 years later… and then, I almost didn´t believe it myself. I spoke to Conan! Or, at least, the most famous actor who played this character.
Another bizarre story? In 2009 my mother broke her hip and I used to take her every day in a wheelchair to the nearest hospital for physical therapy. A photographer of the Cuban newspaper “Juventud Rebelde” saw us crossing the street and he must have been attracted by my rock-and-paramilitary appearance -camouflage pants, boots, long hair, tank top and spiky wristbands-, in contrast with my mother in a wheelchair with her cane and her handbag. A picture was published the following week and at least 30 people called or came over. They gave us 5 copies of the newspaper as a present. There are many ways to become famous!
Y: Absolutely not. I´m not a Christian and I don´t believe in regretting. It´s not worth crying for what it's done. It doesn´t solve anything. I never agreed with the statement: “Do wrong and then feel sorry, so you can commit sins again”. I think it is false, hypocritical, and an easy way out, like Catholicism in general. I don´t regret doing it, but I feel sorry. There is a difference.
I took a risk and I made a judgmental mistake. I paid for it, and I deserved to pay. The one who never takes risks, never losses or wins. I wouldn’t do it again, just because I already did it. If they warned me about all the fuss, I would have acted the same. I played to be a semi-god: my proposal was a socio-literary experiment, a non-fiction short story about a real person who I don’t know, even though I had a lot of information about her. All I wrote was true, as true as one can be in this, our subjective world. What I did not see directly, I was told by people I trusted. The girl thought I didn´t have the right to write about her. Maybe. Probably. But the key of the matter is that, once it was published, I could not do anything to stop it. Our privacy rights were longtime lost in a world of Security Agencies and Internet spying on citizens, and camera TVs surveiling the streets. I was not the first one.
It´s sad, but we live in a society where people –with their rights and wishes- are not very much respected. The case surrounded APORÍAS showed that. I just wanted to exposed that and I think I succeeded. I didn´t have a personal vendetta against the girl, even though his resentful boyfriend still sends me threatening e-mails from Miami, without realizing that the best thing is to forget about it. To me, this incident is over and I want to believe the same applies to her. The ex-boyfriend should get over it too.
Revista Digital miNatura: When did you realize that you could live out of your writings?
Y: I guess it was around 1995. Between 1993 and 1995 I wrote screenplays for Radio Cadena Habana and I worked as cultural promoter in CUJAE: literature was part of my income. From 1995 I can proudly say that it has been my only source of revenue.
There have been good and bad years. Often, I had to tighten my belt, and sometimes I could afford more expensive things like swords, costly books, etc.
But I´m still here, 18 years later, after I decided I wanted to be a professional writer. I support my mother and my home. I don´t live lavishly, no trips to the Caribbean (wait! I live in the Caribbean!), no car, no kids, no pets, no expensive shopping and no exotic restaurants every week. I also don´t have a swimming pool in my back yard (I don´t have a back yard) and I don´t visit a new country every 3 months. But I have something more valuable than all of that: I´m the only owner of my time. That means I can wake up whenever I want. Since 1993 I haven´t written anything I didn´t feel like writing. I hope I never have to do that.
Don´t call me to write any more TV or cinema screenplays, even if they are based on my own novels. I´ve tried it, and I know that directors and assistants do their thing at the end. Let me write books. That, at least, is a deal between the editor and me.
Being an artist means that you have no official pension or retirement plan. That is a bad thing. Fortunately, one can live out of it all his life, at least while his brain works. I expect to live out of my writings (and novels, essays, anthologies, etc.) up to my 90s… If I don´t suffer a brain stroke. After that, we will see…
Revista Digital miNatura: If you were not José Miguel “Yoss” Sánchez, who would you like to be?
Y: Do you know Joaquín Sabina´s song titled “La del pirata cojo”? Which life would I have liked to live if I wasn’t me?” I would have loved to be a citizen-soldier of ancient Sparta; a buccaneer of the XVIII century in the Caribbean. I dreamt of being not only a soldier but also of meeting Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald in Paris. I would have loved to hang out in Nikola Tesla´s lab when he invented the alternated current to see his engines and generators; to accompany Captain Cook in his first trip to Polynesia; to spend years in a Shaolin temple learning “wu shu”; to study with Miyamoto Mushashi his fencing style; to learn with Bashó his inimitable haikus. It sounds like I could only be happy with a time machine or being one of the Immortals. “Many lifes” is a “long life”.
But Wells never reveled to me the secret of his time machine, and I´m not a highlander from the McLeod clan. If I weren’t a writer I would have been a rocker or an athlete. My dream as a child was to be part of a team of city landscapers that prune trees with their harnesses and boots… or follow my studies and become a biologist dedicated to preserve biodiversity in the Cuban archipelago. I am sure I would always be an avid reader. Without reading, which is to dream in words, I cannot imagine life. That is also part of my desire to write. When I am into a book, I can always say that it´s for research for a new project. Some people even believe me.
Revista Digital miNatura: In the past (in a outburst of craziness) you talked about different literary mafias, is there a fantasy mafia in Cuba?
Y: It wasn´t an outburst, I really believe there was, is and will be literary mafias, in Cuba and everywhere. A fantasy mafia in Cuba? Interesting question… and compromising. If there was one, I could be one of the “padrinos”… In reality, it´s not like that. Nobody has finished with cement shoes at the bottom of the river Almendares because somebody didn´t like one of his books. But there are authors with influence, that´s for sure. It´s inevitable that opinions and taste of people -like me- with many published books in a particular literary area, would have a certain effect over more junior writers.
I don´t deny it, and I even confess that I like to exert this influence: through the many times in which I´ve been member of the jury in national or regional literary awards; in the selection process of the anthologies I have worked on; in my published critics; in my observations in literary workshops where others read their texts; in live readings; in meetings with authors … I try to expand my ideas of how science fiction must be written. It´s a difficult genre and, in order to cultivate it, the learning curve lasts a lifetime. I think I am in the early stages.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong in thinking like this. J. W. Campbell, great editor from ASTOUNDING –one of the founders of the Golden Age of Science Fiction- influenced authors from the pages of his publications much more than from the short stories (some, very good stories like the one in which the later film “The thing” was based on) he wrote.
But, one thing is to preach what you like and another is to censor what you don´t. I differentiate between the aesthetic judgment and the aesthetic taste and I believe in a democratic literature. If I don´t like something that somebody wrote, I can share my opinion but I will always defend his right to publish it. There are many kinds of fantasy and science fiction that I´m not interested in writing or reading. But that does not mean that they are worse that the ones I like. Often, in many competitions in which I have been involved as a judge, I had to reach a compromise between what I liked and what I believed is good. I ended up awarding what I considered was good, even if I din´t like the topic or even the approach.
Going back to the mafia metaphor, if I was Vito Corleone, I would have not permitted Sollozzo to use my contacts in New York for his heroin business. But I would have never reported him to the police or prevent him from establishing his own network in the same city. The fact that I believe drugs are bad is one thing, and to impose my point of view to an entire city, is another. That´s the difference between having an opinion and being a dictator. I don´t have the soul of a dictator. Freedom, of course, has a price: responsibility while choosing. Like the Romans used to say: “Caveat emptor” (beware of the buyer). If people like romantic fantasy literature, like Stephanie Meyer’s works, or books based in our myths, or even full of poetry… Good for them! Those are creative options, totally acceptable. Those who write them should not believe to be authorities over other people´s taste. They have not exclusivity over the right to decide what is really fantasy and how to write science fiction. I will always jump in to criticize their attitudes, never their works. Unfortunately, in Cuba there is a tradition of aesthetic discussions turning into personal accusations.
I´m not a resentful guy. I have discussed with Cuban fantasy authors about aesthetic criteria and we have agreed that, before anything, we are simply friends. That´s the way it should be: friends must be accepted with their defects and virtues. To conclude, yes, there are mafias in fantasy literature and, in a way, I´m part of the mediator court, which tries to control conflicts. Any conflict would be a big mistake: we are so few that, to fight among us, would be stupid.
Revista Digital miNatura: Many critics consider TIMSHEL () as your “Swan Song”. Are you no longer the “white hope” of Cuban science fiction?
Y: Good question, and very provoking one. Never try to provoke a provocateur. Be careful what you wish for! Here I go! I don´t know whose critics are those, but considering that TIMSHEL was my first book, why call it a ‘Swan Song’? Unfortunate expression, swans only sing when they are going to die. It would mean that anything that I wrote afterwards was no up to the task. And that book was a collection of adolescent short stories that I wrote when I was 17 or 18 years old.
It´s an ungenerous judgment that denies what I became afterwards: a reality in Cuban fantasy. I'm megalomaniac and narcissist, I don´t deny it, but my status has been confirmed by others critics, in Cuba and elsewhere. It is revealed through my long list of published works in Spanish and other languages, inside and outside the island. Anybody can read about it in Internet and even Wikipedia. After TIMSHEL I have published 21 more books, excluding 5 anthologies in which I participated entirely or partially. 26 books in total. Then, more than one book per year since 1989 and 13 of them related to fantasy.
There has been novels translated to different languages like SE ALQUILA UN PLANETA, published in Spanish and French, and next year in Italian and English. Some of my short stories books have appeared in other countries, like INTERFERENCES, published directly in French. I wrote novels in my youth, full of mistakes, that I would re-write today if I could, ashamed of them even though they became so popular, like LOS PECIOS Y LOS NAUFRAGOS (2000). I have won Cuban awards (Calendario y la Edad de Oro), international ones (Domingo Santos, UPC and Julia Verlanger Awards… a honorable mention in the Alejandro Magno Award).
My short stories have been published in many magazines, not only Axxón or miNatura, but also in French, Japanese, Bulgarian, Chinese and Russian ones –both in paper and digitally-. I also contributed with my texts in some anthologies of Spanish science fiction. I´m interested in non-fiction, as well. I recently published LA QUINTA DIMENSION DE LA LITERATURA, containing 10 years worth of my articles and essays about Cuban and International science fiction. I wish I could fill up a bit the emptiness of theoretic literature about the genre in Cuba. I´m preparing a book for 2014 -150% CF- a reading guide with 150 reviews of novels and reference to equal number of key authors.
I´m not only interested in science fiction. I have published LEYENDAS DE LOS CINCO REINOS, an epic fantasy book (sub-genre long time forgotten in Cuba, except for Michel Encinosa, Sigrid Victoria Dueñas and a handful of dreamer authors). There is also LAS QUIMERAS NO EXISTEN, a small book with 4 fantasy stories.
I am not the “white hope” of Cuban fantasy? Of course not. I don´t agree that authors are young promises until they become sacred cows. I´m not a young hope anymore, white, black or of any color. And I´m not “young” either: I´m a confirmed reality.
Revista Digital miNatura: You are not a typical Cuban: you don´t smoke, drink or do drugs. You love sports and bodybuilding. What can you tell from that part of your life?
Y: First, I want to clarify that I´m not following any religious or dietetic fundamentalism. I´m not vegetarian and I don´t believe in God, Alá or Shiva. Cigarettes and alcohol never tasted good to me and I never felt the need to drink or smoke to prove my manhood (hard challenge to prove myself when I was told that real men did those things). Well, there are many men in prison and I have never been in one… except for book presentations or readings among prisoners.
I pity the man who´s virility is subject to certain parameters, set up by others. Real men smoke, drink alcohol… and wear short hair and beat women? If that´s the case, I don´t want to be part of them… Considering the enormous amount of atrocities done by those “real” men, I have no interest in participating in their dealings.
Drugs, simply, don´t interest me. Altered states of consciousness? I have spend all my life trying to cultivate my memory and perception. Then, how am I going to consume a substance that diminishes my self-control? Absurd!
Regarding sports and bodybuilding… even if I´m an atheist, I can say without exaggerating that my body is my temple. Being a writer is not only a lonely business (not always, at least in Cuba) but also a very sedentary one. I intend to write until reaching my 90s at least, so exercising is part of my investment. It works until now: I´m 44 years old and nothing hurts in my body, even though I have 18 fractures in my skeleton… evidence of an adventurous and troublemaker youth, I must confess. I want to continue like this until my death. One is never too old to play sports. I have a broad back; I do 6 series of prom-press, and 30 of weights. So I don´t look like a writer because I don´t use glasses, smoke in pipe, be overweight or walk hunched down. People should change their idea of what a writer looks like. After all, Hemingway practiced boxing, didn´t he?
Revista Digital miNatura: Cuban fantasy is in general a men´s land? What do you think about hard science fiction women writers?
Y: Historically, many more men than women have cultivated literature. It´s a sad truth, inside and outside Cuba. Historical machismo had, and still has a heavy weight in our culture. But, right now, there are many female voices that are doing great things in Cuban fantasy. I already mentioned Sigrid, but there is also Gina Picart, a renowned author with EL DRUIDA, MALEVOLGIA, HISTORIAS CELTAS, LA CASA DEL ALIBI and other published books and awards; Elaine Vilar Madruga, recent winner of the Calendario de CF award (I was one of the members of the jury) with her not-yet-published- novel SALOMÉ, coming in 2014; Anabel Enríquez already has published a short story book NADA QUE DECLARAR, and is preparing another one, and a book of essays about science fiction in films. They are not a lot, but enough to exceed the sad category of “exemptions to the rule”. I believe that in the next few years there will come out new female authors, like Daína Chaviano, Chely Lima, Ileana Vicente and others.
In relation with the second part of your question, why they are not women in hard science fiction? Honestly, I have to say that –apart from C. J. Cherryh- I don´t know any other female writer who could be placed in this category. I really liked the Chanur saga, but neither CYTEEN nor ESTACIÓN DOWNBELOW or RIMRUNNERS are any of my favorites. It´s not an aphorism, just a matter of taste.
There are other female authors that use “hard” elements in their novels. It´s one of the current tendencies, like dignifying the space opera, the genre mix. Lois McMaster Bujolds does it in the Vorkosigan series; Joan D. Vinge did it in LOS PROSCRITOS DEL CINTURÓN DEL CIELO and in her two-book series LA REINA DE LA NIEVE Y LA REINA DEL VERANO. And Catherine Asaro, even though uses quantum physics knowledge in her book series, does not really write hard science fiction (if I don´t say it, nobody would notice) but, does it really matter? Categories are no that important, quality is… in any genre.
Revista Digital miNatura: Which science fiction author do you hate the most?
Y: You´ll be surprised: Philip K. Dick. Or, at least, the Philip K. Dick that many adore. Why? First of all, because he was able to write undeniably wonderful things like “The Man in the High Castle”, “Ubik” or “Eye in the Sky”, but the majority of his novels were sloppy and chaotic, based on existentialist paranoia… and little more than that. In my opinion, he was better storyteller than novel writer. I have nothing against the New Wave and the exploration of interior spaces. I like works from those years and I think the movement brought interesting considerations into the literary vision of the genre.
I believe that, for Dick, the worst was to die so young. A fierce cloud of copycats surrounded him, what Miquel Barceló called sarcastically “Dickian folly”: they took him as a prophet. They maintain that he sensed the untruth around us, that he foresaw Internet and virtual reality. Dick did not have great knowledge about science and technology and, in his best novels, he smartly maneuvered to cover up for it. In most of them, the least accomplished, he can´t deceive anyone.
I need to clarify: his exploration of human fears is acceptable, but some praise him as the only true science fiction. What happens is that they are full of humanistic culture but empty of technological knowledge, they are nerds but no geeks, and they are incapable of understanding something else. That´s why they shout: “The grapes are green!” and pull their hair.
Revista Digital miNatura: Poe wrote in a letter to James Russell Lowell (): “My life has been whim — impulse — passion — a longing for solitude — a scorn of all things present, in an earnest desire for the future”. What is your dream as a writer?
Y: As Robert Silverberg said, I want “to remain between the achievements of Daniel Keyes and Isaac Asimov”. What I mean is that I don´t want to publish only a couple of significant books or 400 of doubtful quality, but 40 or 50 novels at most. Some will be better than others, but all will be enjoyable to read. I hope I can give 3 or 4 good punches. Like Edison, I believe in inspiration and genius… but I just hope to surprise. I would not spend 5 years reviewing a novel to make it perfect. I´m not that obsessive, but I would not write 5 books in a year. One every six months is enough for me. I´m not that sloppy, and I don´t believe my time is up either… I just think I will reach my 90th birthday. If from each 5 stories, I finish a good one and the rest are ok… I´ll be happy.
Revista Digital miNatura: We always end up asking about future plans of advice for the new wave of writers (you can say something about it, if you wish) but miNatura really wants to ask you: is there anything that you have never reveal to any interviewer before?
Y: What? Let me think about it… well, when I was little, I was ambidextrous, but my grandma told me that people don’t like others who are more skillful, and that I had to choose to be left or right handed. Like a good westerner, I learn to write right-handed, but there are many things that I do more naturally left-handed: to pick up the phone, to throw punches when I box, and so forth. Curiously, I can brush my teeth with either hands, no problem. My right hand is for works of precision, and the left one has more strength. Sometimes I regret it: I should have been more stubborn as a child and have imposed my capacity.
 We will let our readers discover them by themselves
 He comes to Cuba since the XV Festival del Cine Latinoamericano (1993)
 Aporías de Ayalí, an hyperrealist tale published by La Gazeta de Cuba
 Published by Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (1989) and winner of the David de Ciencia Ficción 1988 award.
 Poeta, crítico, editor y diplomático estadounidense.