Friday, March 8, 2013

Industry Q&A with author Matt de la Peña

Tell us about your most recent book and how you came to write it.

I just finished writing three new books (one YA, one middle grade and a picture book) that will come out in 2013.

The YA is called The Living. The two main characters (both half Mexican like me) are working on a luxury cruise ship for the summer. While they're at sea, the "big one" slams California. They have no idea if their border towns have survived. Or their families. And a more immediate concern is that the massive earthquake has unsettled the ocean, as well, endangering the ship. I grew up in southern California, constantly worried about earthquakes, and I'd always wanted to write about what might happen if one of my greatest fears was realized.

The middle grade novel I just finished is part of Scholastic's Infinity Ring series. It's called Curse of the Ancients. We were allowed to take our characters back to any part of history. I chose southern Mexico during the heyday of the Maya. It gave me a reason to research this amazing civilization.

The picture book is called Last Stop on Market Street (illustrated by Christian Robinson). It's about a boy and his grandma riding the bus from church to the soup kitchen where they volunteer on Sundays.

Do you think of yourself as a diverse author?

When I first started writing I didn't even think about it. I wrote about what I knew. Growing up biracial, I was always trying to figure out how to define myself racially. Was I a white kid? A Mexican kid? The problem was, I never felt I actually deserved either label. Not full time. I was a white boy among the Mexicans and a Mexican among the white boys. I started out writing a lot of spoken word poetry about identity, trying to figure myself out. Then I was introduced to Sandra Cisneros and Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Junot Diaz. I fell in love with literature through books that had characters that were "other." I also realized that the little poems and stories I was working out might be worthy of publication, if they were good enough.

Now I'm very aware of the characters in my books -- though for me it's as much about class as it is race. My goal is to dig into identity and expose readers to the moments of grace and dignity that exist on the "wrong side of the tracks."

Who is your favorite character of all time in children’s or young adult literature?

Esperanza from The House on Mango Street. I love that girl. She's so authentic, and she's a part of the landscape of her poor neighborhood, and she's a poet. These things all mix together in Esperanza's story. She reports from the inside. And she dreams. And she shows us her sadness. The writing is beautiful and sparse. A perfect little book. My favorite vignette is called "Darius & the Clouds." Cisneros let's a little thuggy kid have one of the most profound moments in the story. And it's so organic.

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say you are forced to sell all of the books you own except for one. Which do you keep?

I'd keep Cormac McCarthy's Suttree. I'm not the kind of guy who reads books more than once, and I've read Suttree three times. It's messy, it has no definable plot, and it's the best novel I've ever read. I carry it with me when I head to the Brooklyn Writers Space to write.

What does diversity mean to you as you think about your own books?

For me personally it's about mixed identity. I love watching my characters trying to piece together who they are. I love to have them listen to people older than them who are often times of a different race. They take it all in. They keep quiet. And then they go back to a quieter place and figure it out for themselves.

One of the biggest mistakes I've ever made as a writer happened during the first draft of my second novel, Mexican Whiteboy -- which is also the most autobiographical story I've ever told. I guess I could say that the book was born out of guilt. Growing up, I hated that I didn't feel as Mexican as my cousins and uncles. Maybe I was a sellout for going to college. For not working with my hands. Who did I think I was anyway? When I wrote the first draft I judged the main character. I was mean to him even. And the book fell apart. In the revision process I had to pull back my judgment completely. It's not the job of the writer to judge his character. That's the job of the reader. It was a huge lesson for me. And I think it's an important part of successfully writing about diverse worlds. We present it like it is, trying to be as honest as possible, but it's wrong to try and dictate what a reader takes away from our story.

What is your thought process in including or excluding characters of diverse backgrounds?

I love writing a scene that features a collision of cultures. In my novel We Were Here, the main character, Miguel, is half Mexican (surprise, surprise). He ends up on the road with a Chinese/Vietnamese character and an African American character. They end up calling Miguel "Mexico." He's got dark skin. He's Mexican. So they call him Mexico. The irony is that Miguel doesn't even speak Spanish. These moments are fun for me, and there's a lot you can do with humor, but there are also real opportunities for depth and exploration.

I like to just go for it. I include whoever feels right for the story. I grew up playing basketball in gyms. You talk about a mix of races. And these older guys were like family. They taught me the world. It may not have always been right, but it was their version of right. And that's what I try to bring to my books. My main character's version of right.

Please write an example of a paragraph that is tone deaf when it comes to cultural diversity, then write the correct version. Explain the differences in the third paragraph.

Paragraph 1
Danny’s lucky he still has his dad’s side of the family. His mom has moved him and his sister around a lot since the divorce, but his dad’s side is good at making sure he still visits. When he’s there, it reminds him of his dad. They’re always joking around and drinking and telling stories. The problem is, their stories are sometimes in both Spanish and English, and since Danny doesn’t speak Spanish, he doesn’t understand everything they’re saying. He tries to act like he does, but that makes him feel like even more of an outsider.

Paragraph 2
Danny’s so lucky he still has his dad’s family. The Lopezes. Throughout all the moving around they did after his dad left, the different towns and high schools and apartment complexes, Danny’s relatives made sure his mom still dropped him and his sis off in National City for Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day and every other Christmas. Where all the tios and tias and cousins are cracking on each other and playing horseshoes in the dirt alley behind the house and eating baby empanadas and toothpick-stuck chorizo bites off plastic trays. Where they are drinking homemade horchata and Pacifico and Bud Light and tequila with lime—always tequila. And since their snaps are a random mix of both Spanish and English, Danny gets only half of every joke. Not enough to laugh. But he laughs anyway. He points at whoever’s currently taking the heat, puts a fist to his mouth and says in his head, Oh, shit, that’s cold! He slaps Uncle Ray’s hand and laughs some more, but they know he doesn’t quite have the whole picture.

And he knows they know.

More isn’t always better, but in this case paragraph 2 gives us the nuance of the situation. I love working with bi-racial characters in particular, and to really render the context and emotion of this scene, you have to give the reader the music (through voice and rhythm) and the color (the exact alcohols they’re drinking and the foods their eating and the way they’re punctuating a dig). Danny is clearly longing for the music and color of his old man’s world, and if it’s not in the paragraph, the reader has no idea what he’s reaching for. It’s also vital to have that last beat in paragraph 2 be subtle and visual. His family knows he doesn’t quite get it all. And he understands that. It’s what the entire scene is really getting at. But I think it works better to leave it there for the reader to run with. In the first paragraph, it’s too overt, I think. Like an essay. It doesn’t allow the reader to participate. Overall, I think the keys to getting this kind of writing right are music, color and nuance. It’s a balancing act, though. Go too far and the writing feels worked. Forced. It’s all about finding the right balance through turning lines over, again and again, until it hits the right note. Revision is key.

Matt de la Peña is the author of four critically-acclaimed young adult novels – Ball Don't Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, and I Will Save You. He’s also the author of the award-winning picture book A Nations Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full athletic scholarship for basketball. de la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. He teaches creative writing at NYU and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country. You can visit him at


  1. Hi Matt, thank you for this post, especially the enlightening example in the two different paragraphs. In number 2, the sensations that Danny longs for are so vivid, and this passage adds a sense of his sweetness too.

    I'm still quaking after that section you read at McNally Jackson in January!

  2. Matt! Love seeing your writing.

    For those of you that are not following the shutdown of the Mexican American Studies dept at Tucson Unified School District last year, Matt's MEXICAN WHITEBOY was listed in court documents as an example of a book that taught Mexican American students to hate white people. His book meant a lot to a student there. Prior to the classes shut down in the middle of the day, she had worked with a teacher to get him to visit. There were concerns it would be cancelled. It went on as scheduled. The New York Times covered his visit. I covered the situation at my blog for several weeks as it unfolded.

    Chris Crutcher had some perfect words about what was happening out there...

  3. I love writing a scene that features a collision of cultures.