In Conversation with Matt de la Peña

posted on
February 9th, 2010
written by

Matt de la Peña is the author of three acclaimed novels for young adults, and has also had short fiction published in various literary journals. I’ve known Matt awhile—our friendship began when we were forced to ride around in a stretch limo together at the Rochester Teen Book Festival. Yes, sometimes this job is hell.

While on tour for Once Was Lost, I picked up a signed copy of Matt’s latest book, We Were Here, at BookPeople in Austin and read it on the way home. This story, about three boys who break out of a group home and embark on a journey down the California coast, moved me from page 1, when the narrator, Miguel, muses about the book he’ll someday write:

“About what it’s like growing up on the levee in Stockton, where every other person you meet has missing teeth or is leaning against a liquor store wall begging for change to buy beer. Or maybe it’d be about my dad dying in the stupid war and how at the funeral they gave my mom some cheap medal and a folded up flag and shot a bunch of rifles at the clouds.”

Later, Miguel joins up with Mong and Rondell, and together they’re three characters I’ll never forget. While traveling for OWL and doing school visits and trying to connect with bored-looking teenage boys, I kept thinking, “I wish they could be listening to Matt de la Peña instead of me.” Not that I don’t have anything to say to bored teenage boys, because I think I do and usually once I get my talk rolling they are bored no more, but We Were Here truly speaks their language. It speaks your language, too, if you’re a writer, with prose that is both immediate and poetic, clear and complex, and has real drama and humor without straining for either. Matt and I have been having an email conversation about WWH for a few weeks—edited below for your reading pleasure.

My first and most important question before we even start: how do you get the little accent mark/tilde thing over the n in Peña?

So, the tilde over the “n” is tricky on the web. It’s easy on word — you just go to special characters. But I really don’t know what to do on the web. They make it hard to be Mexican online. And when I see my name without the tilde I feel naked. And I feel like I’m disrespecting my grandma.

(Fortunately, I figured out how to do this, because of course there is an entire wikipedia entry about it. On a Mac, you do option+n then the letter you want under the tilde. /PSA) Okay, at the risk of sounding like I’m asking where you get your ideas, what was the genesis of We Were Here?

When I was writing short stories I developed a weird strategy. I’d always take two partially finished stories and throw them together, no matter how odd the fit (sort of like Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked). It usually took me in totally new directions. One time I paired a landscaping story with a story about a relationship that was messed up by a cheating dude (not based on my own experience) (well, maybe a little). It seemed to work. For We Were Here I did something similar. Main character Miguel’s crime is something I took from a college basketball teammate of mine. He came to the first open gym of the year with one of those house arrest anklets. It wasn’t until six months later that he told me what happened. It broke my heart. And I always secretly watched him when everybody was goofing off or messing with each other. He’d be laughing like everybody else, but there was always something sad in his eyes. Such a complex crime (I guess I shouldn’t give it away). So, I took his crime and made it Miguel’s backstory. I also worked in a group home for a couple years after college. Tough job, but I remember looking through all the kids’ files after they went to sleep. Heartbreaking stuff. At least in some cases. So I threw Miguel into a group home setting. And last came the trip down the California coast. Seven years ago I started a failed novel about a musician living in LA. He’s originally from Stockton in Northern California. After his old man dies he drives the coast to LA and stops at random places to hang out solo. The book died because it didn’t have enough plot. But I stole the section where he travels the coast and gave it to Miguel, Mong and Rondell. And the last thing I had to do was find the right voice. Remember that story collection we were both in, Does This Book Make Me Look Fat? That was the first time I’d ever done 1st person in YA. And I was sort of practicing the voice I eventually gave to Miguel.

Anyway, that’s a very long-winded answer to your question, I know. The point is, We Were Here is a bit of a mashup. It came from all over. But the genesis, the core story I wanted to explore, was what happens to a kid who commits the kind of crime Miguel commits. What does that do to his psyche moving forward.

Ever since you mentioned Half Baked, I am jonesing.

Sara, I want you to seriously trust me on something, okay? Häagan Dazs’ Caramel Cone. Please try a pint. This son of a bitch ice cream is so good I can’t believe it.

(Insert several-day interval during which I ignore Matt’s advice, yet do consume a pint of Everything But The, against doctor’s orders.) The case files. The scene in which Miguel reads his friends’ case files had this powerfully physical effect on me I don’t often get when reading. I had to keep putting the book down, and was talking aloud to myself: “Oh God. Oh no.” Did you know when you started the story what would be in each of the three main characters’ files? On a related note: how much do you know when you start a book? Do you have it pretty well mapped out or do you allow yourself to be surprised, and allow the story to change because of those surprises?

Check this out. I’m in a writing group here in NYC made up almost exclusively of adult novelists, and they think it’s hilarious that I outline. Seriously. They tease me at least once a month, like I’m the lowest of the low.

“You don’t REALLY outline, do you?” they say.

“I outline.”

“Honestly? But why?”

“Because I don’t want every damn book I write to take twelve years,” I shoot back, which hits a couple of them where it hurts.

Before I really start writing a book I take tons of notes. What if this happens? What if that happens. Maybe this character does this or says this. Stuff like that. I just looked back at my We Were Here notes about the group home files. I wrote down a ton of ideas, but almost all of them went out the window when I started writing. One note, however, made the cut. I thought I could use the files as a way to hide exposition about the guys Miguel is traveling with. It grew from there, of course.

In my final outline before breaking ground, I have one line about the files: “Miguel takes files before he breaks out / on the road at some point he reads Mong’s and Rondell’s but not his own.” It wasn’t until I revised the scene that I knew what it meant to the story. When he reads the files he “sees” the guys for the first time. The become real people with real sadness. Hopefully they become more real to the reader in this scene, too.

When I started the book I didn’t know what the files would say. When I got to the actual scene I still didn’t know. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I went back and wrote that part. And then I understood that for Miguel this is a huge moment. He develops empathy for his guys. His protective shell is penetrated. He also starts to rebel against the idea that a file can define who he is, who Rondell and Mong are.

I think outlines are good — though I do agree that they can be taken too far. My initial outline is only a page. It lists the major plot points and reversals. And even THOSE change along the way. At this point I think it’s all about balance. I like to have some sense of where I’m going, while still leaving room for epiphanies. I think there’s a saying in playwriting: Always leave a door open because you never know who’s going to walk in.

When Miguel reads the files, you get to see him for the first time, too, in a new way. Though he probably wouldn’t call it this, it’s like he’s experiencing being on the giving end of compassion for the first time. And you hope he figures out how to be on the receiving end of it, too, as the story goes on. One thing that I’d think was challenging for you as a writer: you have these three boys, all from the kinds of lives and experiences that lead them to being in a group home, and the way to survive is to NOT share your feelings, NOT be vulnerable, NOT show compassion, NOT talk about feelings. Yet the book hangs on their connections with each other, and in truth it’s a very emotional story. The book is Miguel’s journal, essentially, and a lot of times it’s clear that he feels completely opposite of what he says he feels—he cares when he says he doesn’t, he’s sad but tried to dismiss his sadness, he feels obligated to the other two though he makes claims about them all having their own lives to lead. Was it hard to write this emotional story through the eyes of a guy whose survival depends on not feeling things too deeply?

Miguel’s character was surprisingly easy to write. In fact, while I was finishing up the final draft of the book I kept thinking, Man, I think I totally figured out how to write a book! It’s gonna be smooth sailing from here on out! Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. My next book, I Will Save You (which I just revised for the 28th time), was the most difficult writing experience I’ve ever had. So, yeah, I still don’t understand anything about this novel writing thing. It’s so damn elusive.

I think Miguel was easy to write because of my background. I grew up in a tough, working class family/neighborhood. Machismo was coming up through the floorboards. In my family dudes don’t cry or show their feelings in any way. Let’s say I got hit by a car, and one of my arms was laying on the north side of the road and my other arm had landed under a bush on the south side of the road. My dad would point down at me and said, “Bro, you better not cry!” Growing up in that kind of world, you learn the little subtleties that stand in for emotion. Like you said, We Were Here is a pretty emotional book, it’s just the emotion is related in a different language, and the characters are all armed with serious defense mechanisms.

Beautifully done. Speaking of revision, how do you approach it? Like, imagine you’ve got your editorial notes in one hand and beverage of choice in the other…then what? Or do you revise a lot on your own before your editor even sees it?

First drafts are painful for me. Staring at a blank page, making those big sweeping decisions. But I love revising. I’d say I probably revised We Were Here about 18-20 times before I handed it in. But that’s mostly because language means everything to me. Sounds and rhythms. Sometime the sound of the dialogue mean as much to me as the content. Especially with the kind of kids I’m writing. They have to flow. Have it hit right. Cap on each other quick. I also think good urban language (like most types of language) has to have a poetic sensibility. If that makes sense. Beautiful-ugliness, that sort of thing.

I get really stressed out before I read my editorial letter. I think this is one of the biggest challenges authors face. We sit with these books for months and months, all alone, complete control, and then we have to step back and consider some else’s vision. It’s extremely helpful, of course, but it’s hard to mentally adjust at first. I usually try to read the letter and then read the entire novel from my editor’s POV. And then I take notes for a couple weeks. Just jot down little thoughts, possible changes, etc. During this process I figure out which elements I agree with my editor about and which elements I plan to fight. At the end of the two weeks my editor and I will have a long conversation about everything. Sometimes it goes great. Sometimes I want to leap off the Brooklyn Bridge. Then I put my head down for a couple more months and basically rewrite every sentence in the book. I think I have a pretty inefficient revision style, but at this point I still feel the need to go through and tinker with every sentence, just in case the sentence works better a different way.

That work pays off—this book is filled with so many little gorgeous moments. And they sneak up on you, in the middle of an otherwise ridiculous verbal wrestling match among the boys, for example, or in a remark Miguel would consider off-hand but is an emotional punch in the gut. On the topic of things that make you cry, Rondell has got to be one of the best characters I’ve ever encountered. How did he develop?

Rondell. Of Mice and Men was obviously an influence. But Rondell is mostly based on one very religious ex-teammate of mine. At least he was who I pictured. This guy from ghetto Miami. He was simple and complex at the same time. He said five incredibly dumb things in a row and then he’d come out with something profound as hell and you’d look at him and go, “Dude, who ARE you?” Rondell is all heart. He lives in the now. His one intangible hope is that God is able to see him, too. Even though he’s messed up a couple times. The hardest scene to write in the entire book was [redacted by SZ to keep spoilers out!]. I love Rondell. So much. But I knew I had to show the other side, the reason he was in the system. The line that kills me is when he turns to Miguel, after what he’s done, and says, “I’m scared.” That makes me incredibly sad.

I’m so happy you like Rondell. Miguel likes him, too, even though he’s always saying what a pain in the ass big Rondo is. It’s funny, I didn’t plan to have Rondell play such an important role in the book, but he kept popping his head back in.

I love this quote: “…if there was really a so-called God he better be seeing Rondell. Even when the guy was locked up. It’d be entertaining as hell. Plus it’d be messed up if somebody who was God only cared about seeing seeing people who did everything right, or rich people, or smart people. He should see people like Rondell, too. Rondell’s life shouldn’t mean any less than anybody else’s.”

Miguel’s reactions to Rondell were some of the most profoundly moving parts of the book, to me. At the same time, Rondell provided a lot of much-needed comic relief, as in the scene in which Miguel tries to explain international currency and Rondo’s just not getting it. Comic gold.

Anything you can tell us about I Will Save You?

It’s a love triangle. Narrator, Kidd Ellison, has run away from a county house for disturbed youth. He’s spending the summer as an assistant maintenance worker at the San Elijo Beach Campsites in California. He immediately falls in love with one of the campers, a rich white girl named Olivia (who has a secret). Olivia gives Kidd hope. Makes him want to try hard at life. But then Kidd’s oldest friend, Devon, shows up. And Devon has a serious death wish. And he’s not leaving until he teaches Kidd a few things about life. And Olivia.

Why am I already worried about Kidd? Okay, so I don’t think of you as a “writer of color,” but I’m curious if you have any thoughts about your identity as such.

When I was in college I worked at a schizophrenic house. It was both fascinating and frustrating as hell. There was the guy who thought he was Batman. An older woman who was constantly eating her clothes. Literally. Many of the residents didn’t speak at all. But the resident I’ll never forget was a long-haired Mexican man named Manuel. Every time I went to work we’d have the exact same convo, word for word:
Manuel: Excuse me. Hi. Can I ask you something?

Me: Okay.

Manuel: Do you got some Mexican blood in you?

Me: Yeah, I’m half. How’d you know?

Manuel: I could just tell. I see it in your face. What’s your last name?

Me: de la Peña.

Manuel: Oh, you got a cool name like me. Do you know my Auntie Rosa?

Me: I don’t think so. Why, does she live around here?

Manuel: No she lives in Mexico City. But she died twenty years ago. By any chance do you know Sheena Easton?

Me: I don’t.

Manuel: Did you know I’m gonna get a Harley?

This exact exchange probably happened over 200 times. And I engaged every time. One day my supervisor asked me, “Why do you go through that every time you walk in the door?” I told her I didn’t know. I went home that night and thought about it. A couple weeks later I wrote a poem called “Manuel” (pretty creative title, right?). In the poem I said how I would ALWAYS talk to Manuel. Because Manuel was my grandma’s tamales hot off the griddle. And he was my uncles talking shit and throwing horseshoes and drinking beer. And he was everything I ever wanted to be.

I think most writers have their little hang-ups. One of mine is the guilt I felt growing up about being the lightest in my family. I never felt Mexican enough. I felt like a sellout for going to college. Pretty stupid, right? But my fiction always seems to include these mixed race kids who are trying to navigate both the landscape of the story at hand and their own complex identity issues.

“Complex identity issues” could be the pitch for the entire body of contemporary YA.

More author interviews

Matt’s web site

Ball Don’t Lie (the movie) at IMDB

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  • Bryan Bliss - February 9, 2010 at 11:58 am -

    Great interview…

    I recently read BALL DON’T LIE and it transported me back to when I first read HOOPS by Walter Dean Myers. It made me remember how much I loved playing ball as a kid. But more so, I kept thinking, “Damn, Sticky, don’t put your shooting hand out in front of a gun!”

    So, yeah, I was invested.

    Now it looks like I need to go get WE WERE HERE…

  • Paul Greci - February 9, 2010 at 12:23 pm -

    Great interview! I read Ball don’t Lie when it first came out and now have We were here sitting on the table. I’m glad the interview didn’t give away too much!

    For fifteen years, I worked in school for teens who had exhausted all their other public school options. Amazing kids, many with heartbreaking stories.

    I also really enjoyed hearing about Matt’s writing process. I’m on the 20th-something draft of novel right now.

    Thanks, sara and matt!!

  • Brodi Ashton - February 9, 2010 at 9:29 pm -

    Loved the interview. Love what he said about “I also think good urban language (like most types of language) has to have a poetic sensibility. If that makes sense. Beautiful-ugliness, that sort of thing.”

    I’ll have to check out the book. Thanks!

    • Sara - February 10, 2010 at 10:00 am -

      @Brodi Ashton, I agree. The language in this book is totally believable – like in Coe Booth’s TYRELL. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious someone writing “urban language” has never actually been “urban” (that word always makes me think of Stanley on THE OFFICE), but in Matt and Coe’s books it’s dead-on.

  • DeAnn Campbell - February 10, 2010 at 8:42 am -

    Wonderful interview. Great insights. I want to read that book!

  • Melissa Walker - February 13, 2010 at 8:04 pm -

    Love this interview!

    I adored WE WERE HERE as well–broke my heart in all the right pieces.

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