Q&A: Author Matt de la Peña on writing, relating
It was the kid in the back of the auditorium who caught Matt de la Peña’s notice. He was bigger than most of the other students, distinctive with his shaved head and neck tattoos, and he clearly didn’t want to be there.
The high school was in a rough part of San Antonio, Texas — most of the student body was Hispanic and about 90 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch. So, de la Peña began his talk, which starts with his story: growing up poor and mixed-race in Southern California, in a tough neighborhood, feeling discouraged by class work, prizing sports as a way out.
At the end of the talk, the kid in the back, Joshua, approached de la Peña to read him some stories. Joshua had written them, mostly about gang life in San Antonio, and “they were beautiful,” de la Peña wrote. “And ugly. And sad. They were full of heart. This Mexican kid, who was a thug, who was not pretty and felt like he was too big for his grade, too old — he had all these feelings he didn’t know what to do with. So he wrote them into stories.”
Even though the story with Joshua is in limbo — he dropped out and de la Peña hasn’t been able to find him so far — Joshua’s experience mirrored de la Peña’s: writing the roughness and resiliency that he knew from intimate experience.
Beginning with his first book, 2005’s “Ball Don’t Lie,” de la Peña has written books that address race and class, combining those issues with the immediacy of being a teenager. He will be at Mesa County Libraries’ Central Branch on Friday, conducting a writing workshop for kids ages 12–18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and giving a public presentation at 6 p.m.
He spoke with me by phone from his home in Brooklyn, New York, taking a quick break from the rigors of new fatherhood — daughter Luna was born nine weeks ago — to discuss writing and reading and why he made me cry.
Rachel Sauer: I just finished “I Will Save You” and I cried really a lot, so I blame you. Tell me about creating the character of Kidd — where did he come from?
Matt de la Peña: He’s sort of an evolution of a character I wrote before (Rondell in “We Were Here”). I kind of based it on “Of Mice and Men,” the George character and the Lenny character. Once I wrote Rondell, I thought I would love to explore this a little further. I’ve also, throughout all my books, I’ve really been interested in the idea of self-sabotage, the kids that don’t believe that they’re deserving, and so I’ve been doing this in three previous books. Then, when I wrote Kidd, I thought, I’m going to just push it a little bit further and have the Kidd/Devon dichotomy.
A lot of that book comes from my hometown — my dad worked at the zoo, the campsites, we used to stay there because we couldn’t afford a vacation, so we stayed there for like six bucks a night.
Sauer: You’ve written about being an indifferent student through elementary and high school. Why was that?
De la Peña: I think growing up, not seeing anybody in my school being into school, it was just sort of a modeling element. Early on in school I realized that there’s no way I could go to college the traditional way with my parents paying for it or getting in because of grades, so I paired basketball with this possibility of college. It was this dream of basketball and I sort of put all my eggs in that basket.
Sauer: In an essay you wrote for NPR, you mention a college professor who made you promise to read “The Color Purple,” and when you did, it pretty much changed everything for you. How?
De la Peña: It had really been my dream to get to college, be first in family to get to college, and once I got there I felt very fortunate. I got very invested in education, started to really care about every class, especially psychology classes. I was really invested in them. And then when I was introduced to diverse literature, it changed everything. Growing up in a machismo culture, I had a chip on my shoulder, I thought the world was out to get me because of where I was from. But reading this literature, reading “The Color Purple,” I realized I had a very easy life compared to some. I felt it viscerally, and just the fact that it made me feel this emotional reaction was totally shocking.
The weird thing is, as a reader you blaze down a trail that you feel comfortable with, so I went all in with African-American literature, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, especially African-American female authors. It took me a while to get to Hispanic literature, but once I found powerful Hispanic authors, I just went, oh, wow.
Sauer: What’s the first thing you remember writing?
De la Peña: Most authors come to writing through reading, but for me it felt like the opposite. I used to write a lot of spoken word poetry all through high school. I never showed it to anybody, it was just this weird thing I would do on my own. I guess it wasn’t until I read Junot Diaz’s (short story collection) “Drown,” and when I read that I was like, wow, these little poems that I write, this guy got them published. I felt like, wow, people would actually read this? They’d buy a book of this? I’d always thought books were “Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” books like that. I was just kind of shocked that here this guy had published a book about people that felt very familiar to me.
I went to a small college, and I had professors who just sort of made me believe it was an option. I never showed anybody any of my writing until I sent my stuff in to a contest in college and it was like a $3,000 prize contest. It was the first time I ever showed my work to anybody, and they called me and said I won. I couldn’t believe it that people had actually liked what I had written.
Sauer: Why did you choose young adult literature?
De la Peña: Total accident. I wrote a book and it just so happened when I got an agent and he was shopping it, it coincided with when young adult literature was starting to take off and make publishers money. My agent called and said, you’re going to be published young adult, so in my first book I actually had to take some of the adult retrospective stuff out.
I had gone into an MFA program, and it was kind of snooty and people were super literary, so once I decided I liked that young adult space, my goal became to bring that literary element to it. The most important thing to me is not just to write a book with teenagers, but one with literary merit.
I feel very lucky because I get to go into high schools all the time to do talks. But I think if you approach those things humbly and spend less time trying to talk and more time listening, these kids, they just hand you the answers. I think the big difference between young adult literature and an adult model is with a 16-year-old character there is a tiny bit less of a reflective tone. It’s not a 40-year-old looking back at when they were 16, it’s a 16-year-old now, a little more immediate. I think when I read a young adult novel that has that retrospective tone, it doesn’t ring true.
Sauer: In the NPR essay, you also mention John Green’s Nerdfighters, how they’re great but how that maybe wouldn’t fly in the neighborhoods you write about, the characters you write. How do you address the idea that maybe the kids you write aren’t necessarily the kids who are going to read what you write?
De la Peña: So, my favorite thing in the world is to go into a high school, be speaking to 500 kids in an auditorium, and the Nerdfighters are there, the kids who try hard at school, who are into art and drama and wear it on sleeves, and they’re great. And then there are the kids in back with their hoods up, who probably don’t want to be there. But then when I talk and see them start to identify with me, my favorite thing is when that kid who didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to listen to some author talk, when those kids come up after and ask questions or just talk to me. They aren’t bad, they’re just so academically aloof, they’re too cool for school.
Sauer: Do you think it would have made a difference in high school if you could have heard a talk like you give now?
De la Peña: I think, honestly, it could have changed my life. If I could identify with an author and hear them talk about themselves and be very honest, I think I would have immediately given it a chance. Literature needs for these kids to give it a chance.
I think the most important things to me as a writer right now is more diversity in literature, having the kid who’s not necessarily the suburban white character be the hero. When I first got into writing these books, I never thought about this, but after book two, “Mexican WhiteBoy,” I thought how cool is it that these kids I grew up with can see themselves in my books? That’s powerful. As I got further into my career, I would see inner city kids, I would see suburban white kids reading about these kids I grew up with.
Sauer: You kind of veered in a new direction with “The Living” (released in November 2013). The hero is a mixed-race kid from a gritty neighborhood, but he’s working on a cruise ship that gets caught in a tsunami.
De la Peña: My big difference with that book is instead of going to this kid and hanging out with him and his friends in his neighborhood, I wanted to take him and put him into a different neighborhood — in this case, a really expensive cruise ship. I wanted to rip my character out of the neighborhood and take him and put him in a bigger context; first of all, to see how he reacts, and second of all, maybe appeal to a wider range of readers. Maybe some kids will come to this book because, oh my gosh, a cruise ship is sinking. And it just so happens that the lead character is half-Mexican and from a rough neighborhood.
It was kind of an experiment, I’d never written this kind of book before and my editor gave me the worst comment ever when I turned in my original draft: “Wow, Matt, you’ve managed to write an action/adventure book with no action or adventure.” So, it was pretty much open up a new file and start from scratch.