I tried for a long time to juggle these two lives until the day when one of my project friends got killed in a stupid accident playing chicken with a train. I decided then I would try to live only one life – one that had some kind of purpose.
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
Researching and formulating questions for this series (especially well ahead of deadline) is one of my favorite parts of interviewing; it’s a process that invariably leaves me with a whole new appreciation for the author in question. I love how one interview gives a glimpse, and a couple blog posts present an idea, but immersing yourself in as many of an authors’ words as you can find offers–well, it’s not a whole living person, obviously, but the shape of their collected words is, I think, maybe a shadow of the whole?
I usually come away from the experience with a desire to be president of the fan club, or the conviction we could be best friends, or possibly wishing they would adopt me (sometimes all three.) I always come away from the experience beyond thankful they agreed to participate in this series, and never has this been more true (including the fan club/best friends/adoption part) than the weeks I spent getting to know the word-shape of Francisco X. Stork. I read the interviews and the reviews and the articles and learned a lot. But I was sick earlier this year, really sick, and ended up indulging myself by reading his complete online journal, something I don’t normally have time to do. It was kind of an extraordinary experience. I was left not only wanting to immediately re-read all his books, but also wanting to read everything, to talk and listen and explore and to ask questions every day forever. I wanted to be kinder and more creative and honest and to think carefully about all kinds of topics. I was inspired. What an extraordinary man. And then I got to interview him and that felt pretty extraordinary too.
Thank you, Mr. Stork. (And if you would like to start a fan club or are looking for a new best friend or possibly want to adopt me, I’m totally in.)
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I was a mixture of outgoing and shy. I did things like act in plays and compete in speech tournaments but I also spent a lot of time alone reading and writing very corny poems and stories. I was a little insecure about my looks. I thought maybe my nose was too big.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I always wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. But there was a period during my high school years when I really, really wanted to be a light house keeper. Doesn’t everyone at one point or another?
What were your high school years like?
I went to Jesuit High School in El Paso, Texas. The school had a very rigorous academic program and I struggled at first. But after a few months I discovered that I could actually get good grades if I studied and from then on high school was more enjoyable than not. I actually liked going home and spending my evenings doing homework, Jesuit High School was an all-boys school so the other thing that was fun was going to speech tournaments at high schools where there were actual girls! During those four years I met many teachers that were inspiring but I will always be grateful to Father John Hatcher (now the director of St. Francis Mission in the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota) who saw that I was smarter than I let on and challenged me to just be myself.
What were some of your passions during that time?
I tried out for football and cross country and basketball but the only thing I was really good at was tennis and that was the sport I played. It turns out that it was the sport I enjoyed the most so it worked out well. The tennis team shared the same locker room with the football team and we got a lot of grief when we put on our white shorts but it was worth it. But my favorite extracurricular activities were acting and speech. In speech, my specialty was original oratory where I got to write my own speech, memorize it and deliver it. In my most successful speech, I imagined Don Quixote riding down the streets of El Paso and wondering where all the people with ideals had gone.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
While I was going to high school, my mother and I lived in subsidized housing or projects which was a very different world from the orderly and civil world of Jesuit High School. It was like living two lives. During the week I was a star student that gave speeches about the need for ideals and in the evenings and on weekends I did all I could not to get noticed. Eventually I did get noticed and I had to become friends with some of the project kids in order to survive. These friendships led me to participate in high risk activities. I tried for a long time to juggle these two lives until the day when one of my project friends got killed in a stupid accident playing chicken with a train. I decided then I would try to live only one life – one that had some kind of purpose.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
Each year, Jesuit High School gave a full tuition and living expenses scholarship to one of their seniors so they could attend a Jesuit college. Receiving that scholarship, which allowed me to attend college. Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama determined the direction of my life.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
Despite all my accomplishments, I had this nagging feeling that I was not good enough. I didn’t know it then, but I know now that feeling like that was a symptom of the illness of depression that I was already suffering from. There was also sadness and shame at the way I was feeling. These were feelings I wrote about in my journal but never talked about with anyone. Looking back, I now see that there were lots of people that would have listened and understood. So the advice that I would give my teen self is to seek out one of those people and talk to them about what was happening inside of me.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
My mother and I fought a lot over nothing. Maybe it was the economic pressures we were feeling or maybe it was the crazy life I was leading on weekends. It could be that she was just lonely and needed more of my attention. It takes a long time to learn how to truly love someone. I wish had learned how to truly love her a little sooner than I did.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
Sometimes I miss the “newness” of those days. There were many new things that I was experiencing. Discoveries about myself and others and life. I try very hard to keep that newness going even now in my old age.
Every Day I Write the Book
You’ve spoken many times about journaling, and about the importance of having “a place to write where you don’t lie to yourself; you don’t care what or how you write; you don’t expect any other living person to read what you write.” In fact, your advice to aspiring authors is to “keep a journal and write every single day. Put anything you want in there and don’t think too much about what you are writing” though it’s clear you view journaling as much more. You’ve written about how keeping a journal helped you gain perspective on depression, and about how it helps you become “a deeper, more reflective person,” about how the act of writing for yourself alone honors “the creative impulse and enthusiasm you were born with.” You’ve also said that for you the “motivation to write is different from the motivation to be read,” and I’m wondering if you could talk about the ways that journaling both frees you from your life as a professional writer and fires your creativity. Do you ever re-read your past journal entries? What advice would you give those of us who would like to foster the habit but feel self-conscious or unmotivated?
I started writing in a journal when I was in high school and I’ve kept up an almost daily practice since then. Although I studied literature in college and graduate school, I never took any creative writing courses. I never went to writing retreats or participated in a writing group. I say all this because I truly believe that it was in my journal where I learned to write. Journaling gave me the ease and lack of self-consciousness that I needed as a writer. Journaling is the equivalent of practicing the scales every day for a pianist. After many hours of practice, the pianist’s fingers move quickly over the keys without conscious thought and the pianist can concentrate on things like the emotion expressed in the music.
Journaling also helped me develop a kind of internal solitude that allows me to write the book that is in me while quieting the ever present internal critic. That freedom that I feel in journaling when I forget about a reader can be carried over to some extent to the novel I am writing. It at least allows me to get through a first draft which is when that sense of “going for your book” really matters. I rarely go back and read what I’ve written in a journal. But sometimes when I do, I find the seeds for future stories and characters.
The thing about journaling is that it has to be done with honesty. My journal is the one place where I never lie to myself. Being honest with myself often means digging and sifting through motivations and feelings until I get to the truth and it is an exercise which becomes extremely valuable in the creation of my characters. The more I know myself the more I will know the characters I create. I think that a lot our self-consciousness and lack of motivation with respect to journaling stems from our impatience. We really would like to jump right in and get going on that best seller that in us. Journaling takes you on a different, slower path where what is most important is the creation of your soul so that then you can give something that is lasting and of personal value to your readers.
I want to highlight two different journal posts from the last couple years and ask if you could tease out some of the connections, if any, between them. In “Writing That Opens Windows” you champion writing that “opens up windows,” that offers readers a new way to process thoughts “shaped since childhood by ancient prejudices and fears, by commercial expectations of success, by the media.” This kind of writing is “a practice, a technique, a decision that is made before you start to write and constantly as you progress in your work,” you say, “an ever-present, bold search for the unpredictable.” It comes down to choices, to the “innumerable places when your story can go in one direction or another, when your character can be this way or that, when you can choose to say or not say something.” In “The Diversity Discussion” you talk eloquently about not having all the answers, about simply writing “what comes out,” about the potential for divisiveness in diversity discussion, and about the seemingly obvious need for empathy and representation. I’m wondering to what extent “diversity” considerations impact your quest to create writing that opens windows? What works have opened windows for you?
Writing about Mexican-American young people was never a decision. It was a very natural process for me and will continue to be one. The real decision was more about what kind of Mexican-American young characters I wanted to portray. I’ve always felt that it was important to create characters that inspired young people and helped them to be proud of who they were. That doesn’t mean that all my characters are good. There’s some really bad people in my novels. But it does mean that my main characters, despite their inner flaws and outer problems, grow and at the very least begin to develop the kind of virtues that we all need to be fully human.
I remember feeling inferior when I was a teenager. Part of that was just me but part of that came from how others saw me. What can I do so that a young person doesn’t feel that way? I can create characters who open the windows in a young person’s mind so that they can see, recognize and feel how valuable, special and unique they are. I think that my own inner windows were opened by the Latin American authors that were beginning to be recognized world-wide when I was in high school. There was something about Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude and Borges’ Ficciones that made me feel so proud about Spanish speaking writers who were the best of the best and who were writing about universal themes. Their characters were like me and they were like all human beings at the same time.
There are a number of openly religious YA authors, and many others who easily discuss matters of faith or spirituality, but religion in YA fiction is still considered by many to be “the last taboo.” You write extensively about these topics, and your fiction often features characters grappling with the spiritual, with the sacred, or who in some way embody the exploration of Big Questions within the story. Your uniquely gentle and inclusive vision of faith and religion permeates your work, and as a result you’re often asked about the lack of “genuine engagement with religious and spiritual issues” in the field. You’ve cited the high degree of difficulty, the potential for alienation, the fear of being didactic as reasons some authors choose not to include spirituality in their work. But what are the consequences? Given our current social, cultural, and political climate, what does it mean that religion is the last taboo of YA fiction? What happens to us—readers—if the explicit exploration of faith and spirituality is frowned on, or when those questions are deemed irrelevant in modern society? Why do you feel that young adult literature is the perfect vehicle for exploring those questions while so many others see religion as a line they simply won’t cross?
I write about issues of spirituality and religion and faith because they are matters of personal concern and the writing process is that much more interesting and relevant if I write about things that I deeply care about. Writing is for me a path of discovery and revelation. The important thing in this process is the genuine questioning that takes place, the opening toward mystery. This is different than writing from the perspective of having the answers and arguing for their truth via the characters and plot of the story.
I write about spiritual issues because I remember my own adolescence as a time when childhood beliefs no longer rang true and I needed to find my own spiritual path. To write stories about young people without acknowledging the questioning and search for values and for transcendence that goes on during this period of their lives would be to leave out a vital fact of human development. The sad part is that this search for meaning, which is innate in all of us, can be, not lost forever, but certainly diverted into things and activities that are ultimately not satisfying or worse. So writing about this inner search is my small way of trying to revive what may be a dormant need in the heart of the young person. The great works of literature have always been preoccupied with life’s purpose, why should YA fiction bow out of, as T.S. Eliot says in his Four Quartets, “…the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again and now under conditions that seem unpropitious.”
Speaking of appearing didactic… “It’s not really cool for a writer of young adult literature to confess that his books are motivated at least partly by an intention to teach. Such a confession creates horrible images of pedantic, preachy, boring books,” you said in your 2011 Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award acceptance speech. But writing just those sorts of books “is where the gladness in my heart meets one of the world’s great needs,” you write. It’s rare for an author to admit right up front that there might be more to their work than simple Story, and yet, it seems a bit disingenuous to suggest that most authors don’t have, as M.T. Anderson puts it, an “ideology” that they are exploring in their work. How do you tackle the big questions, especially with an active eye towards teaching or helping young people, without becoming didactic, preachy, or overbearing? You examine part of the question, I think, in your journal entry “Integrity,” when talking about the tension between “responsibility to the work and responsibility to the reader,” but I’d love to hear how those seemingly disparate goals interact in practice, and how you know you’ve reached a balance in your work that feels honest.
One of the things that happens when I read a book that affects my life and how I am living it is that I sense behind the words of the story a kindred spirit – someone who has anguished and struggled with what I anguish and struggle. When I think about my books touching someone that way, I feel a great responsibility as a writer and as a person. If I’m going to write about characters with moral courage, I need to try to have some it myself otherwise a) I’m going to feel like a big phony and b) I’m not going to touch that other person’s soul.
There is an ethical component to my writing that affects not only the subject matter of what I write but also (I often wish this wasn’t the case) how I must act in the world. I’m okay confessing that I seek to provide hope through my writing just as I’m okay confessing that I hope my books teach. The key to resolving the tension between the artist and the educator and the person of faith comes down to craft. At the moment of writing, my personality, my aspirations, my beliefs, all that constitutes my “self”, needs to disappear as best it can so that the “self” of the characters can become real in the eyes of the reader. Some of my characters share some of my own ultimate concerns, of course they do, they are part of me. But they must also be their own persons and have their own beliefs and doubts and their very own faith and hopes and loves. So if there is any teaching to be done and any hope to be conveyed, they, my characters and their lives, will be the vehicle through which teaching happens and hope comes. This will only occur if I succeed, through the application of careful craft, to make my characters believable and unique in their own right and not just a mouthpiece for their poor creator.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from M.T.Anderson: You tend to choose grim subject matter – murder, mortality – and yet your characters often find redemption. Now, what would you write about if you had to write a comedy, pure and simple?
Are you trying to tell me something Tobin? My light and funny book would be about this guy who falls madly in love with the most beautiful girl in town. Only he’s not all that bright, kind of not all that good looking either and has zero talents or anything else going for him for that matter. But he knows all this and that’s his saving grace. He decides that the only chance he has to win her is to dress like a knight and go out jostling every weekend against other like-minded idiosyncratic individuals. There are events where this happens on a regular basis. Fairs and what not. He hopes to win the Grand Tournament and be knighted Caballero Numero Uno by a good politician, when they find one. With a little good press and some old fashioned self-promotion his beloved will hear of his exploits and . . . well, how could she resist when he tells her it was all for her. All of this happens in Vermont, of course.
Francisco X. Stork has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Melissa Marr. Watch for an interview with her coming soon!
Francisco X. Stork is the author of the acclaimed Marcelo in the Real World which received five starred reviews and won the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens; The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, named a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection; and most recently The Memory of Light, which has received multiple starred reviews. He was born in Monterrey, Mexico, spent his teenage years in El Paso, Texas, and now lives outside Boston, Massachusetts, with his family.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir