The first time I read Matt de la Peña’s work was three years ago. Back then I was knee-deep in contemporary novels of the coming-of-age stripe, particularly those featuring Latino protagonists. There are many novels that detail the immigrant experience of coming to the United States, but I was searching for a voice that tackled the issues affecting youth born and raised here, for fiction that covered the Latino family dynamics where race and class collide right within your own kin.
Matt de la Peña’s Mexican WhiteBoy, published in 2010, did exactly that. His protagonist, Danny Lopez, is half-white, half-Mexican, a sixteen-year-old sent to live with his aunt in National City, a border town near San Diego, while his mother tries to set up a new life with a rich lawyer. The New York Times reviewed the novel as “emotionally rich, a vivid portrait of a So-Cal barrio and its inhabitants.” The youth in the book are real and messy and unsure. And like Junot Díaz, the Spanish words used in the novel are never italicized or over-explained.
Finally, an author that spoke my language.
Matt de la Peña is originally from San Diego. A jock, he came to writing through spoken word and poetry. When he realized that his basketball dreams weren’t moving on past the college level, de la Peña took writing more seriously. He received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and has published five novels, including Ball Don’t Lie, We Were Here, I Will Save You, and his latest, The Living.
Last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting de la Peña at a writer’s conference here in Los Angeles. The Living is a unique take on the “end of the world” genre: its protagonist is a biracial, working-class boy named Shy, who is working on a cruise when “The Big One” hits. The Living is action-driven but doesn’t lose the literary form, while still exploring the themes of race and class.
De la Peña, who lives in Brooklyn, recently chatted with me over the phone about his love for multicultural literature, the revision process, and how Mexican WhiteBoy came to be banned from schools.
The Rumpus: How did a basketball player end up becoming an author?
Matt de la Peña: When I was in school, I was very much into just sports, mostly basketball, and didn’t really see myself as much of a student. But once I got into college, I figured I wasn’t going to be play beyond college. I started to think what was I going to do, since I wouldn’t be able to make a living with basketball. There were a couple of things I liked to do. I wrote poetry, spoken word mostly. I always thought books were just the canon, things I couldn’t identify with. And then I was introduced to really amazing multicultural literature—it was all things I was trying to do unsuccessfully in my poetry. It really just changed everything. I was introduced to authors like Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel García Márquez, Junot Díaz, and a lot of African American literature, as well.
Rumpus: What titles really inspired you?
de la Peña: There are two. The Color Purple really floored me. That book was just incredible because I loved the language. The biggest deal of that book was that I loved the poetry of broken English. Broken English and vernacular. It just floored me that you can actually capture the way people really talked. And I also really connected to the social class element.
The second book, which was probably more from a professional standpoint—when I read Junot Díaz’s Drown, I was like, Oh my god, you can write these stories and people will actually read them beyond your own little community. This guy’s book is blowing up and it seems like [he’s writing about] the neighborhood that I grew up in. That was a big deal. I read that in graduate school, so that’s when I was really taking writing seriously, but I didn’t know you could do it. I didn’t know you can actually be an author. It was a weird epiphany.
Rumpus: Your novels always come from the standpoint of being mixed-race. You, yourself, are Mexican and white. Can you talk about that?
de la Peña: Growing up as a mixed-race kid myself, when you are in the middle of it and you’re young…you don’t think about it consciously. It’s your reality.
I’ll tell you a short story. I worked in a schizophrenic home when I was an undergrad. You learned to be jaded to the crazy things they would say to you, but there was one man that I always gave crazy respect to, even though he would say the exact same thing to me every single day. I would walk in and he would say, “Hi, I’m Manuel and I have a Harley Davidson. Do you know my friend Sheena Easton?” And I would say, “No I haven’t met her.” He would look at my face. “Are you Mexican?” And I would ask him how could he tell. “I can tell by your facial structure.” Then he would say more crazy stuff. I started to ask myself why was I so respectful to this guy when I’m jaded with everyone else. What I realized is that he was a Mexican American man that was older than me, and he reminded me of my uncles and my dad.
Being the first to go to college in my family was a great thing, but it was also a source of guilt. I felt like almost a sellout going to college. This man was a symbol of what I left behind. When I got older and started writing about these themes, that guilt started to emerge. That was sort of where it all came from. The whole guilt thing of not feeling Mexican enough was a big deal, too. On the one hand, you have your grandmother who is anointing you as a chosen one because you are light, but then you feel like you’re less because you are lighter than your cousins, who are more down on the streets. You know? So that confusion was all I wrote about.
Rumpus: I think there’s something so interesting about how race plays in family dynamics. That is a subject that’s rarely tackled in contemporary literature with Latino protagonists, and you tackle it well without offering a solution or being preachy.
So, walk me through your writing process. How do you begin a project?
de la Peña: I feel like I have a lot of novel ideas, but they often come up while I’m already in the process of working on a book. You have to watch out with the slutty new idea. This other idea comes calling to you wearing just a towel, out of the shower. And she says, “Hey, you should check me out.” You kind of want to write that one. It’s new. It’s fresh. You haven’t even thought about it, really. What I do instead, I take a timeout and I write about half a page and store it in this file called “Future Novel Ideas.” When I finish a book, I’ll go to that file and look through them. And I’ll say, these are three that really excite me and I want to do them next. You have the business part; of those three, is the publisher excited about one? Is the agent?
A lot of people think that they are really cool because they don’t outline. In my writing group, they would say, “I will never outline. I let the characters take me.” C’mon, man—I outline the story, but it’s only like one page. It’s a list of possible reversals in the story, like things where everything will just change because of this certain reveal or this certain action. Then I start really digging into the character because, to me, I don’t care what the story is. All that matters to me as a reader are characters. I want characters to be real, authentic, and rounded. I will be digging into characters for at least a month. Who they are. What they are like. Outside of the story.
Once I start writing, I am a huge reviser. To me writing is revising. I probably turn over every sentence that I write, to see if I have the rhythm right. That’s why my first drafts take a really long time.
Rumpus: You are revising while you are creating it? You don’t do a complete draft and then revise that?
de la Peña: You know what’s crazy? Whenever I teach writing I tell them to never revise as you go. Finish the first draft. This is my writing advice. I can’t do that myself. I’m lying to everybody. I write a paragraph, and then I rewrite that paragraph. I want to feel like I’m standing on firm ground before I move on to the next paragraph. Mentally, I have to do that. To me, if the writing doesn’t have rhythm, it feels dead. I lose all confidence. The music has to emerge to feel confident enough to move on to the next major chapter.
Rumpus: You’ve written your books at the Brooklyn Writers Space. What’s that like?
de la Peña: I just left there. It’s like going to work. When you first quit your regular job and you become a full-time writer, you are paralyzed with free time. You have so much free time. When you are at home, you have a guitar. There’s a cat. You got to find ways to create an environment when writing is like going to work. Be efficient with the hours you put into the book. So I go there the same time, every day—like 7:30 am—and I leave around 2 pm, or longer, if I have a deadline.
When I’m there, it’s pure silence. There are other writers there, too, and I get super competitive. I have this weird fear that some guy next to me is writing this amazing novel, so I got to compete.
Rumpus: Talk to me about Mexican WhiteBoy being banned in Arizona in 2012. How did you find out about it?
de la Peña: I got this e-mail from this girl. She wrote how much she loved Mexican WhiteBoy and she asked me to come visit her school. She wrote back, two months later, saying she spoke to the librarian. This girl, Ana, she started doing all these bake sales to raise money to have me visit her school. I’ve never seen a student spearhead a visit like that. It was pretty cool.
I was set to go to Tucson High School and meet her. Then I got this e-mail out of nowhere, from a woman saying that my book has been banned from this school and what can you do about it. I thought it was a joke. Slowly but surely, I started hearing from other people that this Mexican American Studies program had been dismantled in Tucson, Arizona. Then I heard from this woman called Deborah Reeves—she’s an advocate for Mexican American and Native Americans books—and she said that the kids were reading Mexican WhiteBoy when the superintendents literally pulled it out of their hands. She told me about all the other great authors who were also banned, including the people that I love like Junot Díaz and Sandra Cisneros.
I was thinking if my book was illegal to teach at this school, there’s no way they were going to let me visit. But the librarian was very savvy. She played dumb and said to the principal that she probably didn’t think I was one of the banned authors.
The New York Times followed me into the school. And it was a crazy experience, because I thought I would find a bunch of Mexican American students who were deflated because this program, that was so innovative and proven to be helpful to many of those students, was taken away. But when I got there, what I found was that what this situation had done had created a generation of activists. They were picketing the school. They were going to board meetings. Chaining themselves to desks. They were really fighting for this program. And it was cool to see that it has given them something to fight for. But the thing that is crushing is that it is purely politically motivated. These kids were the ones affected.
Basically they were saying, You students from Mexican American descent can’t learn from a Mexican American author. That’s so insane. They said that the book promoted racial resentment. But I think they totally misunderstood the title and probably didn’t read the book.
As an author, you go into the school, it gets written about in the paper. It sucks that your book was banned, but you almost benefit from it. The bummer is all of the incredible educators. Nobody is writing about them. They are on the frontlines still, to this day, fighting to reinstate those programs.
Rumpus: Where do you think the fear is coming from?
de la Peña: This is me putting it simply; the politicians are one demographic and they see that Arizona is changing. I feel like the only instinct to retain power is to have education favor you. You have this Mexican American program that helps kids take ownership of their race and their power. It threatens the political powers that are in place.
Rumpus: Let’s shift gears. Let’s talk about the author’s role. The role of an author goes beyond just writing the book when it comes to marketing and branding. But then there’s a backlash recently from authors like Jonathan Franzen and Elizabeth Wurtzel, who practically say the Internet is killing the author. What’s your take?
de la Peña: I only know what it’s like to be an author with social media. I can’t compare. I do think we lose the mystery of the author. Today, I get tons of e-mails and Facebook messages from readers, and my goal with Twitter and Facebook is, if someone reaches out to me, I’m going to respond to them. I don’t want to be an elitist author who is untouchable. I’m just a regular person, too. I will always respond to everybody.
My fear is you have to be careful as a writer to not get caught up in social media and blogging, because it can start to feed into your writing time. When you are writing a book, it’s such a long journey where the payoff is way at the end, sometimes years away. The payoff of the blog post is today. You get the reinforcement, comments or “likes” immediately. It’s appealing. You have to be patient with the book.
Rumpus: Your latest novel, The Living, is set on a cruise—which, by the way, I can’t stand cruises and your novel proved that I’m right.
de la Peña: I had to go on a cruise for research. The only way to get through a cruise is to knock down piña colada after piña colada.
Rumpus: The Living is a new venture for you.
de la Peña: I’ve written four quieter books of mixed-race kids coming from a working-class neighborhood. I love those books. I’ve done that four times. I’ve explored these themes. You sort of want to take those themes and put them in a different context.
I’ve always wanted to work with this threat of the earthquake. I grew up in California and you are always worried about “The Big One.” I thought it would be very interesting to set it on a cruise. I’m going to challenge myself to do this quiet, background, thematic strain about class. To me, in any of these action-oriented movies, the cast is all white or they have token minorities in there. They are not really doing it. They are putting [in] an African American character because they think, That’s what I should do. I’m going to own these kids that grew up on the border and place them in an action story.
Rumpus: With your latest, I kept thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. But I also felt that the chapters, where the tsunami hits the ship, reminded me of Life of Pi.
de la Peña: Cormac McCarthy is my favorite author in the world. I love him so much. There’s one book that informs me more than The Road—it’s called Suttree. That book is a huge influence on me. I’m not smart enough to emulate him, but he inspires me. He never infiltrates my writing directly. He writes incredibly intelligently about people that are marginalized. Blood Meridian is incredible. It’s very heavy. It’s a journey. Suttree is more visceral and heart.
Rumpus: There was something interesting about The Living: the role of the privileged girl, Addison, being stranded on the raft with Shy. The dynamics become less about race and more about class.
de la Peña: The ideology of the book is embodied in the character Shoeshine. He is the heartbeat of the book. He doesn’t want anything. He doesn’t want money or anything. When it gets down to it, we are all the same. There is this incredible line in the McCarthy’s book Suttree, when a character, Pasteur, says, “We all suffer the same.” Even if you grow up with money, you are going to suffer. If you grow up with nothing, you suffer. We all suffer.
Rumpus: To me, the crux of the story is when Shy understands that “everyone’s days were numbered and it didn’t matter if you were in first class or worked in housekeeping.”
de la Peña: That is the crux of the story. I think we all try to figure out ways to ignore the fact that life is about suffering. In the modern world, that’s what we’re surrounded with. We have all these little tools, such as phones and the Internet, to help us forget about suffering. Whenever you are tired, you don’t have to really sit in the abyss of what it means to be alive. We always find ways to avoid it. When a ship sinks, you are sitting in it. There is no way to avoid.
Featured image of Matt de la Peña © by Heather Waraksa.