Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Matt de la Peña

Stacey Hayman

Matt de la PenaMatt de la Peña has a long list of accolades, from YALSA’s Best Book for Young Adults and Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers to being chosen as a Junior Library Guild Selection repeatedly to achieving a place on the 2014 honor list for The Pura Belpré Award, and he’s also earned a devoted audience who thrill to see their lives reflected back from the page. The authenticity of his characters is a direct result of how much of his own life and experiences Matt is willing to put on the page. Born in National City, California, the half-white, half-Mexican young man was able to attend college on a sports scholarship and graduated with a B.A. from the University of the Pacific. His graduate school application to San Diego State University, where he earned his M.F.A., was submitted on his behalf by his college professors. Now living in New York City with his wife and child, this wise beyond his years author has found a well-deserved and passionate readership that stretches from coast to coast.

SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)

MP: They’d describe me as a hoop-playing ghost. Basketball was a big part of my identity, I think. But I was MIA in just about everything else. I never went to parties, didn’t hang with a ton of friends, wasn’t very talkative.

SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?

MP: Best: I discovered Muni Gym in Balboa Park. My old man worked at the San Diego Zoo, and I’d hitch a ride with him, sleep in our broken-down VW Bug from 6 a.m.-8 a.m., then start the hour-long walk to Muni where I would play ball the rest of the day with the best pick-up players I had ever met. It was also a homeless shelter. I learned the world at Muni. Worst: My mom – who had no money – gave me a watch when I graduated high school. I was against wearing watches back then (still am!), and I asked her, “What am I going to do with a watch?” I caught myself right after and apologized, but the damage was done. I wish I could reach back in time and grab that me by the neck and knock some sense into him.

SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?

MP: I wasn’t much of reader back then, but there was one book that got me. The House on Mango Street by Cisneros. I loved burritos. I listened to a lot of rap and hip hop back then so my favorite band was either EPMD or De La Soul. I never watched TV because we didn’t have cable.

SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?

MP: They called me the Dairy Queen King when I was in high school. I was famous for stealing ice cream cakes from Dairy Queen. Usually on dates (because I couldn’t afford to do anything else with a girl). I’d wait until the worker had turned his/her back and I’d swipe a cake out of the freezer and sprint out of the store. Very romantic.

SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?

MP: I really, really wished I would have engaged in my science classes, especially physics and biology. I love reading science-related books and essays now. But back then I assumed it wasn’t for me. Basketball was my ticket. Punk! I think creative writing is a class that should be an option for all creative students. Right now it’s all about the essay. I think we’re losing a lot of talented young writers because they’re never shown the freedom one can find in creative writing.

SH: If you could be a character from any book, including your own, who would you want to be? Why?

MP: I would want to be Suttree from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Suttree. Nobody will understand what that means because nobody has read that novel. It’s my all-time favorite.

SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?

MP: I describe this in Mexican WhiteBoy. My Mexican grandma always passed out her homemade tortillas based on family rank. If you were doing well, you’d get an early tortilla. If you’d messed up recently (one of my uncles was always in and out of jail) you’d have to wait. None of us could have named this phenomenon back then, I don’t think. But now I see it so clearly.

SH: You get three wishes, what are they?  Yes, you can wish for more wishes but do you want to be *that* person?

MP: 1. The chance to record one album of my little singer-songwriter songs that I currently share with no one. 2. That suburban white kids would be more willing to read about urban brown kids (because their teachers and librarians sometimes steered them that way). 3. A small house on the canals in Venice Beach, California (where I could write the rest of my books).

SH: Is there a book, besides your own, of course, that you think everyone should be reading?

MP: Bud, Not Buddy and The Color Purple. You want to know what “voice” is? Read those books.

SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?

MP: Arrogance and entitlement. It’s so insanely silly to feel like you’re better than anyone else. Pari Passu! We all suffer equally. All life is one life.

SH: When you’re done writing for the day, or taking a little “me” time, do you have a hobby or special treat you indulge in?

MP: I like to play silly songs on the guitar for my daughter. And I like jogging the park by my apartment in Brooklyn.

SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?

MP: From me: disciplined, loyal, badass. From others: disciplined, loyal, buster.

SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?

MP: I’m sitting with John Lennon, Cormac McCarthy, Sandra Cisneros, Elliot Smith and Julio Caesar Chavez. And we’re eating burritos, of course.

SH: When asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you say? Were you telling the truth?

MP: I always wanted to be a pro basketball player. I never even considered anything else until I got to college.

SH: Who was the first person who told you should be a writer?

MP: Mrs. Blizzard, the long-term sub I had for English during my junior year of high school.

SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as An Author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?

MP: I took a girl out to dinner. She was really pretty. I was living in LA. I’d always wondered what it would be like to take a girl to a nice restaurant. And I have to say, it was pretty cool.

SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?

MP: I’m a working class writer. I do not wait for a certain slant of light to come in through the curtain. I clock in early (around 7 a.m.) and bust my ass until the afternoon (around 3 p.m.). Every day. I read a lot during this time (writing fuel). And I listen to a rain storm. I write mostly at the Brooklyn Writers Space, surrounded by a bunch of other writers working hard.

SH: What one thing makes you feel happiest? What makes you sad? What scares you?

MP: My baby girl makes me happy. When she smiles it slays me. Watching young people ducking certain things out of a fear of failure – that makes me sad. I’m so scared that I’ll wake up one day and forget how to tell a story.

SH: If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?

MP: Time travel. I was one of the writers in Scholastic’s Infinity Ring series. The characters travel through time. It made me wish I could travel through time, too. Imagine all the amazing and not so amazing things you’d see.

SH: A series of choices: Comedy or drama? Appetizers or dessert? Elevator, escalator, or stairs? Introvert or extrovert? Sweet or salty? Rustic camping, luxury cruise, or road trip? Letter, email, phone call, or text?

MP: Drama. Dessert. Stairs (heart healthy!). Introvert. Sweet. Road trip. Text (I hate talking on the phone) (I wish I wrote actual letters to people) (Maybe I should start writing letters).

SH: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? How old were you when you got that advice, and then how old before you realized it was worth taking seriously?

MP: “Don’t talk about it, be about it.” I used to hear this on the court when I was a kid. It was a response to trash talk. Little did I know it would become my motto in life several years down the road.

Ball Don’t Lie

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SH: Sticky is bounced from one foster home from another. Each time the motivation for taking him in is so different and the reason why he leaves is just as unique. Do you think Sticky could have described his dream home and family if he had been asked? Did you grow up knowing many kids in foster care?

MP: My mom was sort of fostered off. She ended up living with her great grandmother. So I’ve always been fascinated by the foster care system. And then I worked in a group home for a couple years after college. A lot of those kids had come from foster houses. I learned that some foster parents take kids in because of the money they get from the government. I wanted to explore that. I don’t think Sticky would be able to explain his ideal home. I don’t think he’s ever seen it. So the gym, with all the shady characters, becomes a sort of alternative home. And Anh-thu, who refuses to leave his side, teaches him love.

SH: When Sticky starts to think of himself as Travis, it feels like he could start living a different life. Where do you think Anh-thu and Travis are today?

MP: I hope they’re together. I don’t believe in happy endings, but I do believe in hopeful endings. Sticky was just starting to become whole when the book ended. I hope he’d continue down that road. I can tell you this, he’d be incredibly loyal to Annie.

SH: How involved were you with the film that was based on this book? Did you get to help select the cast? Did you get to visit the set or attend the premier? Most importantly, would you do it all again?

MP: I got to co-write the script with the director. It was a really educational experience. I saw how powerful the visual story is. And I started to brainstorm ways to bring that concept to my novels. I didn’t get much say in terms of casting (though I did request that Dania Ramirez be in the movie – because at the time I planned to marry her, and I thought this was my chance). I was on the set for a couple days, and the premier was an overwhelming experience. You write these little books alone in your little room. And then you see it on the big screen? It’s confusing and awesome and a little unsettling.

Mexican WhiteBoy

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SH: Sofia is a fabulous champion for her cousin Danny! Do you have a cousin like Sofia? Or were you the champion of your cousins?

MP: I have two cousins like Sofia. They were all heart when I was growing up. Their situations were tougher than mine, too. I’ve always wanted to write about family loyalty like that.

SH: Would you rather have been asked to join a game of stick ball or H-O-R-S-E as a kid? How about now? Who would you pick for your team first, Uno or Danny?

MP: I’d pick Uno, because he’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written about. I love that kid. And we’d be playing hoops. I was much better at basketball when I was young. It took me to college, so in a way I owe a lot to that game.

SH: Did you have one summer that significantly changed your life or your perception of how you saw yourself? How old were you and what was the event(s) or person that made the difference?

MP: I didn’t have one specific summer like this. But I will say that all through grad school, I’d been working on stories about Danny and Uno. I wanted to write about the mixed-race experience. I wanted to write about code switching. That stuff has been my reality all the way through, but to make a good novel, I think it’s best to focus on a specific stretch of time. When I landed on that summer, the book began to take shape.

We Were Here

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SH: What was the biggest challenge to establishing so many characters, slowly spin out the backstory and keep everything moving in the current story?

MP: This book was special to me. In a way, this was a culmination of the things I’d been trying to do in the two previous books. But now I had located what I was really getting at. The existential battle kids are unconsciously fighting when they come from the “wrong side of the tracks.” So that was my focus for all three main characters. Rondell wants God to “see” him. Miguel wants his mom to “see” him. Mong wants the world to know he existed before he’s gone. Of course, the best way to render this is on the move and as subtle as possible.

SH: Miguel mentions the titles of books he’s reading and even gave a mini book talk in his journal. Are these titles special to you? Or are these titles you selected specifically for Miguel to find?

MP: This was a very personal list of books. When I worked at a group home, we had a lot of “classic” books, which made me feel justified in planting books that impacted me when I was starting to read seriously. I loved writing about these books so much.

SH: If you carved a message into something permanent like Mong, what surface would you choose and what would be your message?

MP: Funny you should ask. There’s a bar by my apartment in Brooklyn with chalkboard walls in all the bathrooms. I write my message every time I’m in there. It’s the title of one book. Because I think the book contains more truth than any book I’ve ever read. I mentioned it before. Suttree.

I Will Save You

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SH: Have you ever seen the grunion run and how did you even hear of this? Or is it still something you hope to do?

MP: Every summer we’d spend a week at those exact campsites in San Diego. It used to cost six bucks a day. So it was our vacation. And I’ve seen the grunion run a handful of times. It’s a surreal sight.

SH: Has anyone ever given you a philosophy of life book? If you were able to find a book like the one you created for Kidd, who would be the first person you’d want to receive a copy?

MP: I’d hope my little daughter would eventually stumble into my philosophy of life book. And then I’d hope she would decide to do things differently.

SH: Devon is not good for Kidd. Do you think Kidd would have been able to struggle against Devon’s influence if he hadn’t had the support of Mr. Red or Olivia? What do you think they’re all doing today?

MP: I used to think you could go at this world solo. That was my own approach back in the day. But now I realize how important community is. Malcolm Gladwell has some great things to say on this subject in Outliers.

The Living

SH: Rodney wants to be a chef–not a cook. Are you interested in the culinary arts? Do you have a special food you like to make–or maybe to eat?

MP: I wish I could cook! I can make a quesadilla, but that’s about it.

SH: Have you ever used the hand holding test to determine your compatibility with a lady? Was it pretty accurate?

MP: I may or may not have performed the hand holding test back in the day. It’s really just a way to get close to a new girl. To break that invisible wall that separates two people. Then again, I think you can tell a lot about your vibe with a person based on how it feels to hold his/her hand.

SH: Romero Disease sounds horrible. How did you come up with the details of its origin and the extremely unpleasant way it manifested in people?

MP: This is where two doctor friends saved the day. They broke down everything for me, and we started piecing together how something like this might work.

General

SH: Did you have a childhood nickname? Was it something you liked or would you have wanted something different? Do you like to give people nicknames?

MP: People have tagged me with the following nicknames:  “de la Soul,” “Spain,” “DLP” and “de la.”

SH: You tackle some tough issues in your books. Do you get more feedback on the prevalence of underlying anger, the complex perception of race relations, underage drinking, language, or father/son relationships?

MP: Most people seem to focus on themes of race in my books. Class is just as important (if not more important), but I think anytime race is involved, it becomes the focus. Race is a complex conversation in this country, I think.

SH: Being bilingual is important in so many of your stories, how many languages have you mastered? Are there any languages you’d really like to learn?

MP: My Spanish is very bad, sadly. My goal is to get it tight in the next couple years.

SH: You’ve lived on both the East and West Coast. Do you have a preference? Have you ever considered someplace in the middle of the country?

MP: I miss California so much. I miss the Pacific Ocean. I miss the weather. I miss the mellow vibe. The creative energy in New York is incredible, and I’ve met some amazing people here, but I would love to move back to southern California. I also really like Portland and the Carolinas. For the first time in my life, I’m open to living in the middle of the country if I found a good spot to raise kids.

SH: What’s the best, or most surprising, question you’ve ever been asked–on any topic?

MP: A few months ago, at a rough junior high in Newark, New Jersey, I signed about 100 books for students. One girl (frizzy braids, soiled jeans, messed up teeth) took her copy and looked at it and then looked at me and said: “Ain’t you gonna ask for MY autograph, mister?” Her girls laughed and laughed and said: “Now why he gonna want your autograph, dum-dum? You ain’t famous!” Normally, I would have laughed it off, too, but I saw her face. Instead, I handed this girl my Sharpie and held out the inside of my forearm and told her: “Hell, yeah I want your autograph, sister. I don’t have a piece of paper so why don’t you just write it here, on my skin.” ‘Cause maybe that’s what it takes to be someone when you come from nothing.

Books by Matt de la Peña

Ball Don’t Lie. Delacorte Press, 2005. 280p. $16.95.  978-0-385-73232-1. VOYA October 2005. 5Q 4P J S

Mexican Whiteboy. Delacorte Press, 2008. 249p. $15.99. 978-0-385-73310-6. VOYA October 2008. 5Q 4P M J S

We Were Here. Delacorte Press, 2009. 357p. $17.99. 978-0-385-73667-1. VOYA December 2009. 4Q 3P S

I Will Save You. Delacorte Press, 2010. 306p. $16.99. 978-0-385-73827-9.

The Living. Delacorte Press, 2013. 311p. $17.99. 978-0-385-74120-0. VOYA December 2013. 5Q 4P J

Infinity Ring: Curse of the Ancients. Scholastic, 2014. 189p. $12.99. 978-0-545-66535-3.

On the Internet

Official website: http://mattdelapena.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/matt.delapena.5

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mattdelapena

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  1. […] Resources: Author’s website VOYA Author Interview Discussion […]

  2. […] Interview with the author:  http://voyamagazine.com/2014/09/28/wouldnt-you-like-to-know-matt-de-la-pena/ […]

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