Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I remember thinking when Ball Don’t Lie came out that it was going to be a perfect book to share with the teen patrons of our library. I hadn’t read it yet, but I booktalked it like crazy and honestly, it practically sold itself. That book was always checked out. I also remember when I moved from the public library to a high school library that it was literally one of the first books I ordered for the collection. The school hadn’t had a librarian for eight years so there were a lot of holes to fill; Ball Don’t Lie was in the first order I placed. Why? Because in between those two jobs I’d actually snagged a copy for myself, read it, and fell in love. I was expecting to like it because the reviews were crazy good, and I was so happy to have what I thought was a book that filled a need, that would appeal to certain readers, a book about sports, with a memorable voice and great characters. But it was so much more than I was expecting
It’s kind of funny that this particular book stands out for me, among the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve purchased for various collections over the years, but it does. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I think it’s partly because even though I expected to like it, Ball Don’t Lie confounded all my expectations and (I hate to say it, but it’s true!) taught me a valuable lesson. I dove into that book expecting to find a story I could wholeheartedly and enthusiastically recommend to others, but what I found was a story for me.
Ever since then Matt de la Peña has been on both my “books to recommend” list and my “must-read author” list, and he’s never disappointed. In fact, just the opposite. And that was before he wrote some books about natural disasters (my obsession with natural disaster tales is a whole different post.)
Thanks, Matt, for taking the time to talk with me, and for earthquakes and sharks and biker gangs and Shy. And thank you for Sticky and the quiet stories and for bouncing back and forth.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I was a basketball junkie. I’d take buses to the best hoop courts in southern California to see what the regulars there were all about. I had no money. I never went to parties. I didn’t drink. I was a mediocre student who wrote secret spoken word poetry in the back of class. I was very into the ladies.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I couldn’t see that far ahead. My dream was to be the first de la Peña to go to college, and I needed basketball to pay my way. That was as far out as I could see. Every night I’d assess whether or not I got closer to my dream that day. I’d think about how cool it would be to go to college as I lay on the floor in my room, shooting a basketball up at the ceiling and letting it fall back into my hands. I wouldn’t let myself go to sleep until I did that for an hour.
What were your high school years like?
I liked school, but I also knew I was never going to get money for college because of my grades. I think I could have done really well in my classes if I would have spent more time on them. But I did the math. If I spent more hours on the game of basketball, I’d have a better chance of getting a free college education. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But I had to study less to go further academically. There were, however, a few teachers who “captured” me. English teachers. Mrs. Blizzard, my 11th grade English teacher was probably the most influential. She told me I was a great writer. And even though I didn’t believe her at the time, I loved her class. She allowed me to keep the school copy of The House on Mango Street.
What were some of your passions during that time?
Loved hoops, as I’ve already said. But I also loved pretty girls. And hip hop. I wasn’t too culturally clued in, though. We didn’t have cable, and I had only seen two movies in the theater by the time I was in high school.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
I really butted heads with my old man. He was a teen parent, and I guess you could say I sort of robbed him of his childhood. I also think he resented the fact (at the time) that I seemingly had more opportunities because I was good at a game. He didn’t really understand basketball. He understood hard work. And here I was playing a game all day. And it was going to pay for my school. I didn’t always live at home during my last year of high school. Things were too tense. (We have a great relationship now.) Those issues made me grow up quickly, I think. I had to become my own person and fend for myself.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
I learned via basketball that hard work can take you places. I treat writing almost exactly the way I treated basketball back in the day. I clock in and do the work. I know we try to teach young people growing up in tough neighborhoods to have goals greater than professional sports. But I think sports dreams are useful. They teach young people how to aspire. And they also teach defeat, which is a vital thing to understand as a human.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
I would have told myself to dig in a little more in the classroom. I thought I could learn everything I needed to know on the streets, in gyms, by keeping my mouth closed and observing real life. But committing in the classroom doesn’t mean closing your eyes to real life. I wish I had invested in both types of learning. And, yeah, I think I would have listened. I’ve always listened to old people.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I wish I would have let people in more. I was so focused on the future that sometimes I didn’t share my dreams with friends and girlfriends. I think that’s sad. I can remember one girlfriend in particular who was so good to me. I know she wanted to “know” me. But I was brought up under a very common working class machismo approach: don’t talk about it, be about it. I should have let her in the way she had let me in about losing her father.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
The freedom. And the sadness. And the little moments of triumph I was experiencing for the very first time.
Every Day I Write the Book
I think most readers know you love sports and that you went to college on a full basketball scholarship, so I’d like to ask you about another passion that you mention briefly in various interviews: music. Given three wishes in a recent VOYA interview, you asked for “the chance to record one album of [the] little singer-songwriter songs” you “currently share with no one,” and talked about the “silly songs” you play for your daughter on the guitar. I’m also struck by the way you describe your editing style as finding the rhythm in your writing, as waiting for “the music…to emerge,” and by your early love of spoken-word style poetry. Could you talk about the role of music and musicians in your life, and about how it influences your writing? Will we ever get to hear that secret album?
I love how immediate music is. If I went to a club tonight and listened to a guy play acoustic songs, I would be able to experience his art right then and there. It’s different with a novel. You have to sit with it much longer, usually alone, and you have to do more work. I love the visceral immediacy of music. When I’m writing (and revising), I try to keep musicality in mind. My dream is for a reader to experience the sentences and rhythms and pacing on an immediate, visceral level, while experiencing the overall story and character arcs on a grander, more cerebral level. Hip hop influenced poetry is really fueled by sounds. I think novelists can aspire to that ear. Cormac McCarthy, for instance, is a writer with an amazing ear. I really value that.
One day I have to record an album. I’m not saying it’s going to be any good. But I need to go through that process. I think I’d learn so much. And I have dozens of tiny little songs I don’t want to forget.
“In a starred review, Kirkus called The Living ‘an addictive page-turner and character-driven literary novel'” which, according to Kirkus, made you want to “hug every single person at the company.” The star, while thrilling, wasn’t even the best part, apparently, but rather their use of the word “literary.” “My one fear of writing a more ‘commercial’ novel is that people would not see it as literary,” you confessed, describing “the literary value of a novel [as] the absolute most important part of a book I’m reading or writing.” I’m curious because “literary” vs “commercial” fiction is not necessarily a topic that many writers discuss quite so honestly, but it’s obviously an important distinction for you, and one you openly aspire to. What do those terms mean to you and why do you find the “literary” label so exciting?
I love reading quiet books. “Small” books. That is what I reach for myself. I want a great character and an interesting use of language. For my first four novels I tried to create well-written, character-driven stories set in diverse neighborhoods. Those books are my heart. But I think I needed to challenge myself to try something different. I worried that if I felt too comfortable as the writer, the reader might feel too comfortable, too. So I tried writing a socially-conscious, literary thriller. And, wow, was that hard. My editor said about the first draft of The Living, “Wow, Matt, you’ve managed to write an action-adventure story with no action or adventure.” She basically crushed my dreams. So I started over. I still had to dig into my characters, but I had to turn up the plot/story elements. That’s when I said to myself, “All right, let’s bring in the sharks!” I had a blast writing The Living and The Hunted. And now I’m writing a quieter book again. Moving forward, I hope to bounce back and forth between the two kinds of book.
But, yes, that line in Kirkus made me want to cry with happiness. Because at least one person had connected with the book on those two levels.
One of my favorite things about The Living and The Hunted is the way you explore issues of race and class as “part of the story instead of the story itself,” using their intersection to inform and deepen the plot without becoming the focus. You’ve talked about the need for diverse characters “to feature in stories where race isn’t the story,” and about how more “characters of color need to make [the] leap” from the barrio to Hogwarts, Panem, or the deck of a doomed luxury cruise ship. Would you talk a little about why diversifying the types of stories that feature diverse characters is so critical, and about the current state of the “silent revolution” (getting “stories about mixed-race kids to end up in the hands of middle-class suburban white kids”) you’re “secretly trying to nudge along”?
I’m a mixed person. I’m as white as I am Mexican. But I’m also as Mexican as I am white. This puts me in an interesting place in the call for more diversity in books for young people. I feel like I have a good vantage point. I think writers who are diverse have to pump out at least one book that’s “about” diversity – a book that hits race head on. For me that book is Mexican WhiteBoy. I didn’t write about the mixed-race experience to provide any answers. I just asked the questions that circled my own head as a young person. But once I’d completed that project, I started to look for stories that weren’t as directly focused on race. If your main character is mixed, race is always going to be a variable, but it doesn’t have to be the variable that drives the plot. In my next two books, race receded into that background a bit more. But I was still labeled an “urban” writer – whatever that means. When I wrote The Living and The Hunted, I tried to focus solely (at least on the surface) on natural disaster and a nefarious drug company. Maybe the book talk version of the story would appeal to the kids in the private schools, too. Subversively, of course, my dream was to get my mixed race characters into the greatest number of hands. I wanted a kid from a rich private school to fall for Shy without consciously thinking about the fact that he/she was falling for a mixed kid from a poor neighborhood. I feel like this part of the process matters. And I can’t wait to encounter a huge Hunger Games-level book that features a diverse character. I feel like that would be analogous to Barack Obama getting voted into office. Pretty wild that kid’s books are a little behind American politics.
You’ve talked about the divide between the barrio and the “fancy private school on the other side of town,” between the wrong-side-of-the-track kids and the middle-class suburban kids, and examined the intersection of race and class in your work. But “most people seem to focus on themes of race in my books,” you’ve said, whereas “class is just as important (if not more important), but…anytime race is involved, it becomes the focus.” So let’s talk about class for a moment. Fiction definitely has the power to create empathy, but is there more to it than that? Why is examining class struggle in fiction so important and how do your own experiences with income inequality impact the stories you choose to tell and the way you approach your characters?
I will always write about kids growing up with less. My own experience with poverty is the single most defining piece of my childhood. If my stories create empathy, great. But that’s not exactly what I’m after. I just think the lives of kids growing up in difficult circumstances are beautiful and worthy, too. Even when they’re messing up. Truth is, these kids start the race of life (and America definitely makes us believe there is a race) way behind the pack. For me, the most interesting journey to follow is the kid who’s fighting to catch up. Even if he never gets there, his story is still so valid to me. Class is definitely the unspoken part of the diversity equation. The book I’m writing right now is directly confronting the potholes (real and imagined) one confronts when “getting out” of the neighborhood. The project is making me see all the complexities of my own journey from National City (near the Mexican border) to Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Susan Juby: You switched gears and genres when you wrote The Living and the follow-up, The Hunted. Now you’ve also written a picture book. Can you talk about what it’s like to keep trying new things and what you’ve learned from pushing yourself into new genres and new categories?
I guess I’m trying to keep myself from slipping into a comfort zone. The interesting thing is all these projects might be different in form or genre, but I’m following kids from the same working class world. So in that way, they all have a similar heartbeat. I will say, though, I love the strange mix of innocence and sophistication in great picture books. I have a one-year-old daughter so I read a ton of them. Some are so amazing, even on a 78th read. I bow down to the creators of great, enduring picture books.
Matt has has contributed a question for the next writer in the series, Ernest Cline. Watch for an interview with him coming soon!
Matt de la Peña is the New York Times Bestselling author of six critically-acclaimed young adult novels: Ball Don’t Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, I Will Save You, The Living, and his most recent book, The Hunted. He’s also the author of the award-winning picture book A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (illustrated by Kadir Nelson) and the multi-starred Last Stop on Market Street (illustrated by Christian Robinson.) 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 basketball scholarship. de la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn NY. He teaches creative writing and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Armada by Ernest Cline and Beautiful Darkness (again) by