April, 2013

Interview with Author Matt de la Pena

I first heard author Matt de la Pena speak in 2011 at the ALAN Conference in Chicago. When I became the ARA for SCBWI Missouri, I immediately began lobbying to bring him to  our fall conference and I’m thrilled to report that he will be joining us in November 2013-I believe all of you will enjoy his wit and outlook on life as much as I did. I recently e-mailed Matt and asked if he’d agree to answer a few questions for Mo Scribbles. He graciously agreed. Read on to learn a little more about this fantastic author.

Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.
I was a mediocre student all through middle school and high school. I definitely didn’t think of myself as a future writer. Basketball was my thing.I ended up going to college on a basketball scholarship, and it was there that I discovered literature and (eventually) my voice as a writer. My professors saw enough in my work to apply me — without my knowledge — to MFA programs increative writing. They asked to meet with me one day and explained that I’d been accepted by two of the five schools they sent my stories. I was ecstatic. I had no idea that you could “study” creative writing. The three
years I spent in grad school were amazing. I read everything in sight and watched my stories get stronger. One of the most important parts of the program, I think, was the chance to read and critique the work of others. I learned so much about craft listening to my classmates workshop a story that wasn’t mine. After grad school I started my first novel — what would become Ball Don’t Lie.

Who is your agent? How did he/she become your agent and what was your querying process like?
I was so ignorant about this process. Have to say, my MFA program didn’t prepare us at all for the practical part of getting a book published. I went into one of those “guide to literary agents” books, found five agents (all of them lived in LA, where I was living at the time) and sent out some incredibly unprofessional query letters (someone please ask me about theseletters while I’m in MO). The first agent I signed with passed away a few months after he sold my first book. I’m now represented by Steve Malk — who is one of my favorite parts of my career.

What steps did you take after you got your first book deal? What are the essential marketing things you recommend authors do from signing the book deal contract
to the release of the book?
Oh, man. I had no idea what I was doing. I assumed I was going to become instantly famous and start dating Angelina Jolie. But she never called. Which I still think is weird. The best advice I can give is to stay focused on the work. It’s great to network through social media and to be open to all events the publisher may ask you to do, but at the end of the day a writer should be focused on writing. My first agent once told me, “Don’t cross your fingers while I’m out trying to sell this. Makes it hard to type.” Find a balance. Be a good person. Be generous and humble. Don’t only tweet out praise for you and your book (guys like me will be tempted to key your car). Be good to the people who work to edit and promote your work. And always be thinking about the next story you want to tell.

In January 2012, it became illegal to teach your novel Mexican White Boy in Tucson classrooms. Can you tell us your reaction to that?

I always wanted to get banned. I really did. How cool would it be say, “Man, my books are so raw people can’t even read ‘em.” But when the Arizona thing happened, I was deeply saddened by the reality of the situation – my book Mexican WhiteBoy was essentially taken away from the readers who most identify with the world. That’s when I realized the incredible travesty of censorship. The decision makers in Arizona are keeping Mexican-American readers away from Mexican-American storytellers. It quickly became clear to me that the decision was motivated by political fear of a growing population. Those in power wanted to keep their power, and one of their strategies was to limit the amount of information the feared group would be exposed to — especially if it might
collectively motivate them. Truthfully, AZ decision makers are okay with the growing population of Mexican-Americans as long as they’re “good” Mexican-Americans. Really dangerous stuff. However, the strategy is backfiring. What they’ve ultimately done is create a generation of activists. I met some incredibly motivated students at Tucson High who feel they’ve been given a cause. And they’re hungrier than ever for information. The worst part is, they probably “boxed” my book based on the title alone. There’s absolutely nothing in the book that incites “racial resentment.” The character is as white as he is Mexican. If you want more information about what happened in Tucson, here’s a NY Times article about my visit to Tucson High:


You’ve published a wide variety of material: YA novels, picture books, short fiction, articles, and essays. Do you prefer one type over the other? Why?
My YA novels are my heart. I’ve had a lot of fun doing the picture books and the articles and essays, but I love writing novels. I love following a character around for three hundred pages.

You teach creative writing at NYU & Vermont College. Tell us about your writing schedule and how you stay productive while juggling teaching, your travel schedule, and writing deadlines.
When I’m in Brooklyn, I treat writing like a traditional job. I clock in at 7:30 and I write until 3:00 or so. When I’m on the road I have to be a little more creative. I have to write on planes and in hotels after school visits. I just try to work my butt off. There are definitely some brilliant writers out there who can sit down and bust out a beautiful draft of a novel in three months, but I’m not one of them. I have to work really, really hard.

Do you have a story about a favorite place you’ve visited as a writer? Or any perks/pitfalls you’d like to share as someone who has succeeded?

The talk I did at Tucson High (where Mexican WhiteBoy was boxed) was probably my all-time favorite visit. I love it when literature becomes bigger than itself. I’ve also had really great experiences in smaller towns like Pleasanton, Texas and Madras, Oregon and Lincoln, New Hampshire. Big cities are fun, but there’s something really special about visiting small towns and meeting kids with big dreams.

Tell us about your latest project.

My next YA novel, The Living, comes out November 12. Shy is spending the summer working on a luxury cruise liner (I had to go on a cruise for research!), but while he’s out on his second voyage the “big one” rocks the west coast of America. He has no idea if his family back home is dead or alive. Worse yet, the earthquakes cause a tsunami that sinks the cruise ship. Shy finds himself adrift in the ocean, alone, in a busted-up lifeboat. It’s a disaster novel from the POV of my usual working-class characters. I’m currently working on the sequel which is titled The Forgotten. If I’m not finished by the conference, I’m going to be in big trouble!

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
To steal a phrase from the hoop world: Don’t talk about, be about it. We all have dreams and ambitions and inspired story ideas. But the only thing that matters is what ends up on the page. Writing groups can be incredibly helpful. SCBWI is an invaluable experience. But try and keep your WIP a little close to the vest. Sometimes the passion it takes to verbally describe a great new idea will zap the energy you need to actually write it.

Sign up for Newsletter: