Like most people who have grown up in southern California, author Matt de la Peña has always feared the arrival of the “Big One”—a massive earthquake that would decimate the US West Coast. In his latest young adult novel, The Living (Delacorte, 2013), de la Peña explores issues of race, class, and identity, set against the backdrop of a cataclysmic event that hurls humanity into a fight for survival.
This is a departure from your work, but at the same time touches upon similar issues in your previous books. What inspired you to write The Living?
The Living is definitely a departure for me in terms of the size and scope of the contextual story. After writing four quiet, class and race conscious novels, I thought it was time to take on something outside my comfort zone. I challenged myself to attempt something louder. But there was a second benefit to writing a novel with disaster and adventure. Deeper moments of class and race exploration–the scenes that make me salivate as a writer–became part of the story instead of the story itself. In terms of the actual plot, I grew up in southern California and I was always freaked out about the “Big One” hitting, an earthquake so massive it would level the entire state. In The Living the “Big One” finally hits. And it’s bad.
If you were to categorize this novel into a genre, where would you place it?
Is it legal to quote Eminem here? “I am whatever you say I am.” I never set out to write in any specific genre. I think it’s best (for me at least) to write the story that most excites me at the time and let the publisher come up with the categorization—or readers. I was definitely trying for something bigger, something that was more of a page-turner, but I never considered actual genre. I didn’t even know my first novel, Ball Don’t Lie, was YA until a young adult publisher bought it. My hope is that it still has as much literary value as my previous novels, even if it’s viewed as more commercial.
This is also the first time that you publish a duology. What motivated you to tell this story in two books?
I knew right away I would need more space for the story. There’s a lot of action in the first book, but there’s also a dark, social injustice undercurrent running through the novel. In the second book, which comes out next year, this element leaps into the forefront. It was a really fun challenge to write my first sequel. I kept thinking, Look at you, Matt. You’re kind of like Stephenie Meyer. Also, normally when I’m done with a book, I’m excited to move on to the next idea. But I really love working with Shy, the main character of The Living. I’ve never told anyone this before, but I rescued Shy out of a long failed novel I wrote several years ago. That particular story didn’t work, but I knew I had to find a place for him.
Your main character Shy has a unique name with an interesting story behind its origin. How did you come up with that name?
I’ve always liked the idea of a young, bi-racial, working-class kid being named Shy. When you grow up in the kind of neighborhood Shy does, you’re supposed to be tough, good with the ladies, and too cool for school. Shy’s all of those things—sort of. But, his name is Shy. [It’s] a paradox. In the book he explains to a girl named Addie that his old man nicknamed him Shy as a play on a crass saying involving the old shoe polish brand, Shinola. It’s not a very flattering story.
In your acknowledgements you mentioned taking a cruise to do research for this book—what other research did you do to get the setting and the horrific experience onto the page?
I definitely went on a cruise. I really did put a plea out on Facebook saying I would pay for someone to go with me. But there were no takers. I knew there was no way I could write the book without experiencing a cruise for myself. I spent five days at sea walking around with a notepad, writing down everything I saw, everything I felt. I walked Shy’s path before I wrote anything. The cruise staff was incredibly helpful. They let me explore the staff quarters and interview anyone I wanted. I got to hang out in a staff bar so I could eavesdrop on conversations. I shadowed a towel boy (Shy’s main job on the ship) one day. I’m so happy I went on the cruise, and I was probably better off rolling solo—it made me focus on the research. One of the details of Shy’s experience at sea is his evolving relationship with the ocean. It really does whisper to you—especially at night.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz is always asked whether Yunior—the narrator in most of his books—is his alter ego. Are Shy and the protagonists in your previous books very much like you?
I think Junot Diaz is a genius. His last [short story] collection, This is How You Lose Her (Riverhead, 2012), is my favorite. Yeah, I think there are a lot of similarities between me and Shy—and Miguel from We Were Here (Delacorte, 2009). I had a tough exterior when I was young. I chose ball over books. But there was also a hidden sensitive part of me. I think you have to be incredibly honest as an author. If you’re going to write a character who resembles you in certain ways, you have to be willing to lay it all on the line, to expose your shame and vulnerability. Yunior is a great example of how this can move the reader. I have loved him through every single one of his missteps.
There has been a lot of discussion in kid lit circles about the need for diversity in children’s and young adult books. Do you think this is a passing trend? Or could this possibly the beginning of actual change in the industry?
I don’t think the publishing industry in general is going to seek more diverse characters out of the goodness of its heart (though some editors do, obviously). I think there’s going to have to be a market. And that market is getting stronger every year. What bums me out, though, is the way diverse characters are sometimes positioned once the book exists. If there’s a Mexican American main character [the book] is often set aside for Hispanic Heritage Month, or it’s earmarked for reluctant readers. I’d love to see more diverse characters hit the big time or be pitched to kids in suburban schools. I’ll admit, a lot of writers of color start out writing a novel directly about race. For me it was Mexican WhiteBoy (Delacorte, 2008). But for diverse characters to truly start breaking the mold, they’re going to have to featured in stories where race isn’t the story. I’m seeing this more and more lately. Soon we’ll see the Mexican Harry Potter and the African American Hunger Games–only they’ll be something brand new, something we’ve never seen before. After that, there will be no turning back. I’m actually super excited for the future of diverse titles.
A recent CBC Diversity blog series about authenticity focused on whether the author of a book with diverse protagonists should share the same background as their characters brought up very interesting points on both sides of the argument. What do you think about this?
This is a dangerous question. I believe you can write anything you want as long as you absolutely nail the heartbeat of the characters and world. If you’re good, you can write across race, or sex, or age. But there are times when an author writing across race hits a false note. And suddenly I find myself way too aware of the author. I see the effort. I sense the blind spots. I call this cultural transvestism. It really comes down to execution.
Last year, your book Mexican Whiteboy was removed from the curriculum in Arizona as a result of a law [which was recently overturned] that declared Mexican American Studies (MAS) courses illegal and anti-white. You were still able to visit Tucson High School, and donated copies of your book to the students. Have you had any contact with school since then?
I get sporadic updates from the librarian, the lawyers and some of the teachers. I also still talk to Ana Verdugo occasionally, the girl who spearheaded my visit to Tucson High. My visit in the middle of the MAS program travesty was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. The teachers and students who were being punished were so brave and passionate. It made me want to be a better writer. I will never forget them. We are linked forever. I’ll actually be at the Tucson Book Festival this March, which will be my first time back since.
Are there any other projects you are working on after The Hunted publishes in Fall 2014?
After that I’m going to start my first standalone middle grade (and also the first book I’ve ever set in Brooklyn, where I’ve been living for the past eight years). After that I’m going back to YA for a more romantic sort of story set in the shadow of the Mexican drug trade. I’m super excited about both projects.
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