Why I Wrote an Action-Driven Disaster Novel by Matt de la Peña
By the time my first novel, BALL DON’T LIE, came out in 2005, I had a very clear vision about who I was writing for. I was so specific I even had a name in the back of my mind. Cory Anders. Cory was on my college basketball team, and he exemplified a lot of guys I played with. He was an amazing athlete. He was funny. He came from a rough background (challenging childhood, already had a son of his own back home). And he was also smart. If you passed him on campus you might not assume that last part – he was big and strong, had dark skin, wore thuggish-looking clothes and could drop a scowl scary enough to make a grown man cross the street – but he was one of the more academically talented teammates I ever had (though this didn’t always translate into good grades). When I moved on to graduate school to pursue my MFA in fiction, I thought of Cory every time I sat down to write. He was my main character, my intended audience, my critic, my imaginary sounding board. I explained this to a professor one day during office hours and watched a puzzled look come over his face. “That’s great in theory, Matt,” he said. “But let me ask you a question. Does Cory buy books?”
Oh, damn, I thought. I’d never considered that part of the equation. Did Cory buy books? I’d never seen him in a bookstore. I thought about my professor’s question for a long time. But I was stubborn – and used to being poor – so I ultimately ignored him and kept writing for Cory.
Fast forward to today. I’ve published five YA novels – my fifth, The Living, came out last week! – over the course of an eight-year career. It turns out my professor was right. Cory doesn’t buy books. But that doesn’t mean Cory doesn’t read books. Here’s what my professor wasn’t hip to. There’s a world of savvy teachers and librarians out there who take it upon themselves to search for books that will appeal to kids like Cory. I’m not exaggerating when I say the number one reason I have a career as an author (instead of a part-time cashier gig at some place like Big O’ Tires) is because of educators – which is why I buy them shots of tequila whenever the opportunity presents itself. (You think I’m kidding.) My point is, my books have received such great support from schools and libraries it’s allowed me the freedom to write the books I want to write. And that’s what I’ve done.
My first four novels are quiet, thoughtful stories in which race and class are in the forefront. In We Were Here, my third book, I think I touched what I was reaching for (making it my personal favorite). I played with racial confusion (the protagonist is mixed), and I studied class again (the story is set on the “wrong side of the tracks”), and the journey was satisfying enough without offering any actual answers. After the book came out, I spent a few months trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I started writing I Will Save You, which veers more into mental illness, because I wanted to get out of my comfort zone as a writer. But by the time I finished, the novel fit pretty closely with my previous three. I like that about my first four books. They feel cohesive. But it was time to truly reach. I wanted to be scared again, the way I was when I started my first book. I wanted to shadowbox with doubt. I wanted to mess up so bad it would test the limits of my self confidence. And then it came to me. Instead of starting with character, the way I had in my previous four books, I would start with an event. An earthquake. But not just any earthquake, the “Big One.”
The main character in The Living, Shy, is still the heartbeat of the story, but the plot is much louder than it is in my previous books. The stakes are more obviously high. I had always brought the conflict to my characters in the past, letting them wrestle on their turf. This time I brought my characters to the conflict, which was waiting for them on the deck of a luxury cruise ship. Why do this? I wanted to see if middle class suburban readers would be more likely to read about working class, “multicultural” characters if the book wasn’t set in the barrio. My goal was to try and make Shy, a half-Mexican kid from a border town, the star of a “bigger” book. Because I think characters of color need to make that leap. (Some already have, I know. But there needs to be more.) I want kids like Cory to not only see themselves in books, but to see themselves in books read by everyone, even students in the fancy private school on the other side of town. How’s that for validation? Watching a kid who seemingly has it all read about you.
I’m super excited about The Living. I can’t for readers to get a hold of it. But I’m nervous, too. Which is just what I needed as a writer.
Matt de la Peña is the author of five critically-acclaimed young adult novels: Ball Don’t Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, I Will Save You and the recently released The Living. 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). 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. You can find Matt online at http://mattdelapena.com/ and on Twitter as @mattdelapena.