In our new feature, Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.
This time out we’re chatting with screenwriter/author Mark Perez to discuss his new novel “How To Win At Life By Cheating At Everything,” how he’s been conning people for 20 years, and… how he may actually be Greg, his own foster son?
TrunkSpace: Your debut novel, “How To Win At Life By Cheating At Everything,” is described as a con-man’s guide to life. You have worked in the entertainment business for years. Does that particular industry allow for more con-based wiggle room than others?
Perez: (Laughter) I guess one could argue that the entertainment biz is built on a sort of grift. When your whole business model is focused on the selling of an idea. Not a real thing, mind you, but the concept of a thing. You can imagine how much bullshitting has to be going on. How much hyperbole. How much shadiness. And lets be honest, how much straight up lying. If you’re an agent, it’s literally in your job description. I’ve been conning people for 20 years. Right to their faces. It’s called a “movie pitch.”
TrunkSpace: The book is part memoir and part graphic novel. What ultimately led to you deciding that a visual element was part of your vision?
Perez: It was always a part of the plan. I wrote the project for Dark Horse Books. They made their bones on comic books and they were just starting to branch out into more prose-centric novels. So, the idea was always to think of it in terms of a quasi graphic novel. Not as much art as you would see in that particular format, but still quite a bit of it. Then I thought it would be interesting to add some photos from the 80s. Reflecting the time when the character purportedly grew up. Almost as if the book were this sort of a diary of a conman.
TrunkSpace: Speaking of vision, is the novel/book world the only place a creative brain gets to fully see its vision come to fruition without outside sources having their say? Much of your career has been spent screenwriting, which is well-known for being a notes-driven outlet.
Perez: I often say that in writing a screenplay, there is a lot of math you need to always be considering. Page 30 is the hook. Page 60 is a turn. Page 90 is the fall. Page 120 is the end. Now, there have been crazy creative people who have made some amazing art inside those parameters. But, there certainly are hardened rules to be mindful of. In writing this book, there were no rules. I could basically do anything I felt like doing. And then add pictures to the mix, too. Write jokes with visuals. Age a photo and make it look like I found it in a drawer somewhere. It was freeing in a lot of ways. I let loose, didn’t give myself any rules, and then reflected on what the final product was afterwards. In other words, I didn’t hold myself back along the way.
TrunkSpace: By not writing in a note-heavy environment, did you still rely on someone to test the material out on or was the process itself more solitary than you are used to working in?
Perez: I always give everything to my wife. We have been together since college. From when I was writing scripts on a broken card table in our shitty apartment in Hollywood, to right up until this book, she’s always been a part of my process. But, beyond that, it was cool that I didn’t have to send 100 drafts to managers and producers and executives who usually only tell you what is flawed about your project. Also, I had a great editor. A book editor is on your side, so to speak. She gave notes that added to what I was trying to say in the book as opposed to saying things like, “It’s great. I love it. But can you make the lead character a woman. Set it in World War I. And can you give her super powers? Lady super powers are really hot right now.” Writing the book was less painful in that way.
TrunkSpace: While the book has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, there is also a heavy, dramatic relationship element to the storytelling. Can you tell us about that and why it was important to you to balance those elements?
Perez: First of all, thank you! I sat down to write a book that was two things. I wanted it to have a linear storytelling quality, with a main character that had a bit of an arc. But also, because it was going to have such cool art in it, I wanted it to be a book you could pick up in line at Urban Outfitters, read page 47, and maybe get a quick laugh. I have a very close relationship with my dad. And by making it a father/son relationship story, I could tap into something that was near and dear to me. So, while the book is clearly goofy, I tried to make that relationship real. Because at the end, underneath all the cons, and jokes, and cynicism, there’s a little bit of a love story between father and son.
TrunkSpace: With this being your debut novel, have you placed expectations on it, not only in terms of its success but how it may change people’s view of you as a writer?
Perez: I’m excited about it because I get to sell my writing in a different way to Hollywood. Instead of sending out a new spec script to the town, I get to send out a cool book with pictures in it! People around here have very short attention spans lately. Especially when they’re reading 100 scripts a week. So with this project, I might be able to reach them in a different way. And as far as expectations, I’m just excited that I’ve written something that some people may actually read! In my career I’ve sometimes toiled over screenplays for years that only end up getting read by literally ten people. So, if I get twenty people to read this book, I’ll be ahead of the game!
TrunkSpace: Just so we’re clear, are you conning your way through this interview right now?
Perez: I’m not actually Mark. He’s currently at a gentleman’s club he often frequents. I’m his foster son, Greg, who he forces to do this shit for him. Help me. Please.
TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Perez: I always think of the cliché. “I hate writing. But, I love having written.” And I guess it’s a cliché because it’s so true. I’ve spent the past 20 years sitting in front of a computer trying to come up with stuff. I’ve written every fat buddy character. Every foulmouthed neighbor kid. Thought of every comedy idea from The Hardy Boys grown up to be losers to a movie about ghosts raising a baby. (It was called RAISED BY GHOSTS, no bullshit.) And after every experience, I announce to my wife that I hate writing and that I’m retiring. Then I go to a batting cage or take a long drive and I come up with some other wacky idea that I feel the immediate need to write for no reason. And then the process repeats itself. It’s very healthy. I’m not at all crazy. Anyway, who am I kidding? It’s better than working for a living.
TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Perez: I’ve tried them all. Locking myself in a room until I write an entire script. Or taking a year to do it by writing only half a page before I go to sleep every night. I write on a laptop at my pool. (Yep, I have a pool.) I write on a desktop in the dark. I’m always trying to trick myself that writing is actually fun and exciting. Hey, let’s try writing on a beach! It’ll be fun! With the water and the sun and… it never is though. Fun or exciting. It’s always painful, the writing part. Except this time maybe it’s painful on a beach. My wife once forbid me from bringing my laptop on vacation one year. And I maniacally wrote an entire movie in a notebook. It was called ACCEPTED and it got made at Universal. On the flipside, I’ve also spent three years writing a spec in the perfect conditions that everybody thought was terrible. So, who knows???
TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Perez: As far as screenplays go, I like to bust out a first draft right away. Without looking back. Because if I did stop and edit, I would be constantly changing things before I knew where I was gonna end up. I prefer to write the whole thing, read how ragged it is, and then go back and edit. As far as the book goes, I can’t even imagine if I had gone back and edited along the way. I think doing that with 30 or 40 thousand words would be maddening.
TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Perez: Oh God, you name it. Is this funny? Does this seem real? Are people going to hate this? Is this entire idea shitty? Am I a total fraud who should kill himself? I’ve sold a ton of screenplays and was lucky enough to get this book published and I still can’t believe anybody pays me to do it. I was much more confident as a dumb kid who moved to Hollywood to try and make it. I was a much worse writer, but much more confident.
TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Perez: I just finished the first draft of a memoir called JEWS OF THE CARIBBEAN. I’m first generation Cuban American. And I grew up with my dad, sister and my very Hispanic grandparents in Hinsdale, Illinois. Which is basically the John Hughes Chicago suburbs. We moved around a lot before and after that time, and my father always used to tell me that we could make it anywhere because the Cubans were the “Jews of the Caribbean.” My dad preached other weird shit like that to me growing up. So, I decided to write a book about it all. I also wrote GAME NIGHT which is a movie coming out March 2nd, 2018 via New Line/Warner Bros. It stars Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler and Jeffery Wright. I’m pretty excited about it.