Angelo “Sarge” R. Lacuesta is all about stories. Just get the 52-year-old writer started on his nickname.
“My father named me after The Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’” he tells Lifestyle. “I never tire of explaining this, mostly to disabuse people of the notion that I have a military background!”
His father, of course, was the late great banker-screenwriter Amado Lacuesta (“Working Girls”); his mother is the essayist Lolita Rodriguez-Lacuesta.
The eldest of four children, Lacuesta remembers writing his first poem at 4, and then in earnest by the time he was 11. He published his first poem—a Filipino poem—in The Manila Times when he was 15, and his first short story—also in Filipino—in Philippine Graphic in 1995.
After being accepted into the University of the Philippines’ (UP) prestigious Intarmed program (which allows a student a fast track to becoming a doctor), he instead chose to earn a biology degree before heading to med school.
But Lacuesta dropped out of med school. “I was scared I might want to quit the program, because by the end of high school, I had firmly decided I wanted to be a writer—whatever my day job would end up being,” he says.
“If I’d gone to Intarmed and quit, I would not have received a full degree. Instead, as I recall, I would have received a certificate. So I took the long way round, and am glad I did. My years in UP Diliman were perhaps the most formative in my life.”
He also proudly lists the long tradition of writers with premed education such as William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov and Franz Arcellana. “I may not write as well as them, but I think I can put up a good fight in the operating room.”
Instead, he entered the advertising industry a year after leaving med school and started his own small advertising agency, Logika Concepts, Inc., now spawning Logik Media Corp., of which he is president and director for strategy—and isn’t so small anymore. Lacuesta has added a digital development agency to his portfolio, producing content for five territories across the region.
But what he has done a lot of is write. It is not a stretch to state that Lacuesta is one the country’s best short story writers in English, with the awards to show for it, as well as his chiseled prose, his landmine endings and ability to mix nostalgia with speculative fiction. He has published 11 books, the most recent being 2019’s “City Stories.”
Together with his wife, the poet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, he started the small publishing company Good Intentions Books in 2018, though he has plans to scale that up, too.
But he has experienced his own share of tragedy. In 1997, Lacuesta’s father Amado died of a heart attack. He was only 49.
“I was 26 when I lost him and it certainly was the most destructive event in my life—not merely for the loss itself,” he confesses. “After he died I made a number of rash career and life decisions, leading me to understand why, as some have said, it’s very bad to make big decisions after a life-changing moment. Happily, I also inherited much of my father’s luck and pluck, so I am here today, very much a happy survivor.” He and his wife are also the happy parents of an 11-year-old son, Lucas.
While Lacuesta has been regularly producing impressive short stories, he has yet to produce a novel—until now.
“Joy: A Novel” (Penguin Random House SEA, Singapore, 2022, 197 pages) is his first novel and is every bit as unexpected, engaging and excellent as one would expect from a writer who has spent decades honing his skill at shorter fiction.
Though relatively slim, “Joy” tells a tale over several decades, with Lacuesta playing sleight of hand with time as the reader slips in and out of years and narrators.
The protagonist, Lucas (yes, he is deliberately named after Lacuesta’s son) toils in advertising when his long-missing father emails him out the blue from Los Angeles, where he had escaped with his mistress after winning a big songwriting contest in Manila.
The email triggers Lucas’ memories of his strained relationship with his socialite mother, his father’s career in the recording studio and his own feelings of abandonment. At the same time, he reconnects with a high school friend named Dedes, now also in Los Angeles, and begins a distinctly not-safe-for-work (NSFW) relationship. It is a “will-they-won’t-they” story with more than one relationship, and more at stake than romance.
Lacuesta expertly mixes the fictional with real details to the point that you can’t tell the difference. Every chapter could easily read as a standalone short story, yet this is no stitched-together narrative. Lacuesta shows “Joy” is the next step in his evolution as a fictionist, the culmination of all those years writing short stories, and the kind of first novel one dreams of.
Lacuesta spent six months writing “Joy,” but says the individual stories have been in his head for years, and described the creative process being “impressionistic” as he wrote the bulk of it during the pandemic, dipping in and out of it while doing other things.
The most challenging element had to be the unusual plot progression he had chosen: “I didn’t want a tight, serpentine plot. I didn’t want a formless, ethereal story that happens up in the air or in someone’s mind. I wanted some direction, but only in the natural and beautifully fatal way that life and time peculiarly perform: They have an inescapable direction forward, but they are perceived by the one who lives his life and his time in a different way.”
Lifestyle interviewed Lacuesta over email. Here are excerpts:
You built a formidable and prolific reputation as a short story writer. Was it always your goal to write a novel, or was ‘Joy’ something more organic, like a short story that demanded to be turned into a novel?
It was often a wistful notion, certainly, if only for the sake of fulfilling a list of things I wanted to be in life—“a novelist.” But the thing is that I have always loved the short story—as a form with so many possibilities, and as a very Filipino way of sharing a narrative. So I would have been completely happy—and complete—if I produced nothing but short stories.
I think the novel for me, in terms of form and process, and the way it sits in my head, is in many ways a “long story.” I know I’m at great risk of devaluing it or oversimplifying it, but perhaps it primarily functions as a strategy in approach. It also makes sense when I think of it in reverse: There is certainly a bit of a “novelist’s” approach in the way I think about and write my short stories.
Many of my stories attempt to cover and gather a loose, free world of people and images and emotions, rather than the tight, contained narrative that many readers expect in more formalistic short stories.
That said, writing a novel-length story has given me more confidence in my writing stamina and constitution—and a new perspective on my creative process. For example, I’m excited about the possibilities of being able to write more, and by writing more I mean thicker stories and more books.
A book of 10 short stories, for example, is really 10 separate discrete worlds, each with its own tone, temperament and momentum. This is why it’s harder to complete a book of short stories than one thinks! But a novel—to me it’s a singularity, in all the senses of that word: completely distinct and peculiar; infinite and condensed; and capable of conflating leaps in language, form and content all at once.
How did ‘Joy’ wind up published by Penguin SEA?
Shortly after publishing her amazing collection “Cursed and Other Stories” with Penguin Random House SEA, Noelle de Jesus, who is a dear friend, suggested I contact them, too. So I cold-emailed them and asked them if they’d consider a new book from me.
When they asked for an outline, I hastily put one together from a bunch of stories I’d had in my head for a number of years. To my elation and horror, they accepted the outline and gave me a generous deadline, which of course I repeatedly missed. I will always be grateful to Noelle for her generosity and her guidance, and to Penguin for their phenomenal patience.
The book is dedicated to your father, and ‘Joy’ is wrapped around the absence of the protagonist’s father. Why choose this element for the book?
It actually never occurred to me how much a trope the “absent father” was until I Googled it right after the book was published. I am quite sure it was a self-induced blindness; it turns out I’ve written about fathers and sons all these years. The reason, of course, lies in my own life story—my father is like my phantom limb of sorts, though very often I feel it’s the other way around, like I am his lost appendage.
One thing that will surprise longtime readers of your work is the NSFW—though essential—nature of a big portion of it. Was this something that intimidated you at any point?
I just read that part again and it is indeed quite graphic. When I was writing it I was most concerned about keeping it real. Real sex (or in this case, real virtual sex) is drenched in bathos and pathos, and what intimidated me was the fact that so many writers have written about sex so beautifully. I confess I needed to drag out my early influences to write it out—John Updike and Nicholson Baker, whose love scenes are so compellingly real and tender and in the moment. At the end of it I wanted to show readers—Filipino readers, especially—how sex should (and must) naturally happen in a story about life. I mean, why should we avoid it in literature?
That same part also spoke about isolation, particularly of communicating behind screens, no matter how intimate the relationship. This seemed to be an experience everyone discovered during the pandemic, but I understand you presciently wrote this in before the pandemic?
I wrote this during the pandemic, but I had planned it out before that. The social media age has been isolating us all since it began, roughly, in the mid-2000s. Where the internet at first created a sense of global connection, it then divided us into communities, and then into tribes, and then, I fear, into individuals whose sense of connectedness lies mostly in the way we are influenced by surface movements: “influencers” paid to influence our buying habits, fake news fabricated to shape our political or social positions, memes put together to trigger some quick sentiment or emotion. At our deepest, many of us are again lonely, unsure and unattended to—pandemic or no pandemic.
There is a very important made-up super robot anime ‘Kabuto Kaizer’ in the book that is clearly modeled on ‘Mazinger Z,’ and you recently edited a book about Mazinger Z. Is there a connection, or was Mazinger Z always influential to you?
Yes. It was really by complete coincidence that I attended a seminar on Japanese super robots around the time I was writing “Joy.” I had also become quick friends with Victor Calanog, who was one of the writers of “Mazin Go!,” that authoritative book on Mazinger Z and who asked me to write the introduction to it.
All coincidence, but also not. Mazinger Z to me is a very Filipino character: He’s an underdog whose main point in life seems to be not to win, but to keep on fighting—and keep on loving. Of course, Japanese super robots became emblematic of how the Marcos dictatorship viewed citizen heroism—they apparently saw the super robot shows as a potential threat to their authority.
An added irony is that these shows came from a country that brutally occupied ours just a few decades prior, and I always saw these cartoons as an expression of their yearning for their lost empire. So there’s a lot to unpack in the Japanese super robot phenomenon here in our country.
So how different was it working on a novel compared to short stories?
I think writing a novel is more fun because you can get away with more. More characters, more narratives, more digressions, more of a sense of place and time. Working on it is pure, concentrated hell, but I am hoping it gets easier—or that I’ll get used to it.
How does it feel to have written your first novel, something most fictionists dream about?
It feels great to be able to call myself a novelist, just as I am able to call myself a short story writer and an essayist. Perhaps the best way to explain this feeling is that I now know I am able to write a novel if I have a story that can bear some length in telling. I hasten to add, though, that I don’t care about word count and whether a novel is a 1-million-word doorstop or a slim volume that won’t even fit the title on its spine.
What is next for you?
Surprisingly, I am writing a book (or maybe a chapbook) of poems—something more personal and handmade, if you will. None of the marketing push and the pressure to sell many copies. I also aim to finish a sort of high-concept short story cycle. And yes, I am planning another novel, this time something a bit glossier and cheekier. I already have the title for it, in fact!
What would you like readers to take with them after reading ‘Joy?’
I would like Filipino readers to come away with an unexplainable, unspeakable joy, for our people, our music and our culture. And I would love for international readers to understand—without needing explanation, interpretation, or translation—why, despite everything, we are an unexplainably and unspeakably joyful nation.
Available from Fully Booked and National Book Store. Signed copies are available at facebook.com/GoodIntentionsBooks.