Matt de la Peña’s debut novel, Ball Don’t Lie, was an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA-YALSA Quick Pick and is soon to be released as a motion picture starring Ludacris, Nick Cannon, Emelie de Ravin, Grayson Boucher, and Rosanna Arquette (based on the screenplay he co-wrote with director Brin Hill). de la Peña’s second novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, was an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adult (Top Ten Pick), a 2009 Notable Book for a Global Society, a Junior Library Guild Selection and made the 2008 Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Literature Blue Ribbon List. His third novel, We Were Here, will be published by Delacorte in October, 2009. His short fiction has appeared in various literary journals, including: Pacific Review, The Vincent Brothers Review, Chiricú, Two Girl’s Review, George Mason Review, and Allegheny Literary Review. de la Peña 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 athletic scholarship for basketball. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he teaches creative writing.
You can learn more about Matt by visiting his website and his Facebook page.
The story of one boy and his journey to find himself.
When it happened, Miguel was sent to Juvi. The judge gave him a year in a group home—said he had to write in a journal so some counselor could try to figure out how he thinks. The judge had no idea that he actually did Miguel a favor. Ever since it happened, his mom can’t even look at him in the face. Any home besides his would be a better place to live.
But Miguel didn’t bet on meeting Rondell or Mong or on any of what happened after they broke out. He only thought about Mexico and getting to the border to where he could start over. Forget his mom. Forget his brother. Forget himself.
Life usually doesn’t work out how you think it will, though. And most of the time, running away is the quickest path right back to what you’re running from.
On Young Adult Fiction
Why write teen fiction?
My first novel, Ball Don’t Lie, was pitched to both adult and YA editors, and when my agent came back to me and said, “Hey, Matt, congratulations, your novel sold to a YA publisher at Random House,” I pumped my fist and sprinted around my neighborhood – really. It wasn’t until a week later that I asked him what YA stood for. I had no idea. When he told me YA stood for “young adult” I said, “Dude, you’re gonna have to be a little specific.” He said the book would be marketed to teens and that I might have to take out some of the swearing (there was a lot) and maybe tame the most graphic of the sex scenes (it was pretty graphic). But that’s how ignorant I was about the genre I had entered.
Now I understand YA a little better. I suppose I’m really drawn to the “coming of age” story. Everything is new, exciting, alive, dramatic. It’s such a big part of our lives. Personally, I think we experience about a dozen “coming of age” stages over the course of our lives. But around high school age we go through that first one, and the first of anything usually leaves a pretty big impression. I love following teen characters, watching them make sense of their lives.
How much research do you do to get into the mindset, the culture of teenagers?
It’s strange, in some ways I have the absolute worst memory imaginable. Recently an ex-girlfriend found me on Facebook and we got to talking and she wrote, “Hey, remember that time you got in a fight with Rene Muñoz in front of the library because he said my new haircut made me look dyke-y?” I wrote, “Oh, yeah. Man, that was crazy.” But really I had no idea what she was talking about. Sometimes I totally forget big things that have happened to me. But I’m much better at remembering the tone of my teenage years. I remember what made me sad and what got me hyped. I remember what it felt like when I discovered the power of a pretty girl. I remember being alone – even when I was with other kids. I pull a lot from that. I also played basketball all through high school and college, and that experience informs everything I do. Hoop brought us together, from all over the country, and I learned everything from that context.
Ninety percent of my research is about plot stuff. I still play ball at the local YMCA in Brooklyn. I’m always listening to the kids who pas through those games. I’m always looking to steal.
What are some of the themes you tackle most often in your works?
Race is important in all three of my books. In Ball Don’t Lie, main character Sticky is a scrubby white kid existing in a gym populated only by African-Americans. Mexican WhiteBoy is about a kid trying to make sense of both his Mexican side and his white boy side. In my newest novel, We Were Here, coming out October 13th, main character Miguel is also bi-racial – half Mexican, half white again (like me!). When he’s sentenced to a year in a group home (for a horrific crime he didn’t mean to commit) the guys quickly give him the nickname “Mexico” because of his brown skin. The irony is he doesn’t speak Spanish and has never even been to Mexico. In all three books teen characters are trying to make sense of racial identity issues. But what ends up being just as important as race, in my estimation, is class.
A lot of teen fiction takes place in an upper-middle-class context. The characters are cool financially so they stress on other stuff like popularity and social clicks and who’s taking who to the prom. Some of that stuff is great, by the way. But I’ve always wanted to write about the other side of the tracks, the have-nots – maybe because that’s who I was. I’ll never forget this epiphany I had when I lived in LA. I saw this kid sitting alone on a bus stop bench, hood up, headphones on, holding a basketball. People pulling up to the stoplight were oblivious to his existence. Folks in nice cars like BMWs and Mercedes and Jags. They didn’t see him. I tried to figure out what that meant to me. And then I said to myself, “Man, I’m wanna write about kids like him. I wanna show how his life is just as beautiful as the lives of the rich folks sitting in those nice cars. I’m wanna make people ‘see’ him for three hundred pages.” And I guess that’s what I’m still shooting for.
Oh, and I also like when one of these kids falls for a super pretty girl, and it shakes them of their cool for a sec.
I notice there are a lot of YA book series in the market; do you think this is a trend with longevity?
There are so many great books out there, so many amazing authors. It’s hard to sift through everything. I think teens respond to series because if they discover something they really respond to, they wanna keep going down that seam. I’m the same way with authors. If I find one I love, I read everything that person has ever published. Maybe teens focus more on characters. If they come across a character that pops they wanna read everything in which that character appears. I think series will continue to be popular.
Man, I wish I could think up a cool series. As a writer that must be kind of fun, too. I bet the books go quick. You don’t have to spend all that time figuring out who the heck your character is. You just tell the story.
What are three sources VITAL to writers interested in writing YA fiction?
- SCBWI is an invaluable resource for prospective teen authors. I just went to their annual conference in LA, and it was great. Check out: http://www.scbwi.org/
- Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. A great resource!
- Gotham Writers Online. Any class or writing group really. It’s pivotal to get feedback from peers and colleagues. [link]
Any closing comments you'd like to make regarding teens and writing?
I think the single greatest mistake you can make as a teen author is to “write down” to your audience. There didn’t used to be such a big delineation between teen and adult. Many great adult books of the past (Catcher in the Rye) would be categorized as teen novels today. Now that more people set out to write teen novels I think there’s a belief that the writing has to be more simple and more explicit. Not true. You can be just as ambitious and artistic. When I read a book where an author is writing down to teens I immediately smell a rat – and I think teens do, too.
I’m lucky. I’m fully aware that I’m not smart enough to write down to anybody.
From forthcoming novel, We Were Here
Here’s the thing: I was probably gonna write a book when I got older anyways. 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 flag and shot a bunch of rifles at the clouds. Or maybe the book would just be something about me and my brother, Diego. How we hang mostly by ourselves, pulling corroded-looking fish out of the murky levee water and throwing them back. How sometimes when Moms falls asleep in front of the TV we’ll sneak out of the apartment and walk around the neighborhood, looking into other people’s windows, watching them sleep.
That’s the weirdest thing, by the way. That every person you come across lays down in a bed, under the covers, and closes their eyes at night. Cops, teachers, parents, hot girls, pro ballers, everybody. For some reason it makes people seem so much less real when I look at them.
Anyways, at first I was worried standing there next to the hunchback old man they gave me for a lawyer, both of us waiting for the judge to make his verdict. I thought maybe they’d put me away for a grip of years because of what I did. But then I thought real hard about it. I squinted my eyes and concentrated with my whole mind. That’s something you don’t know about me. I can sometimes make stuff happen just by thinking about it. I try not to do it too much because my head mostly gets stuck on bad stuff, but this time something good actually happened: the judge only gave me a year in a group home. Said I had to write in a journal so some counselor could try to figure out how I think. Dude didn’t know I was probably gonna write a book anyways. Or that it’s hard as hell bein’ at home these days, after what happened. So when he gave out my sentence it was almost like he didn’t give me a sentence at all.
I told my moms the same thing when we were walking out of the courtroom together. I said, “Yo, Ma, this isn’t so bad, right? I thought those people would lock me up and throw away the key.”
She didn’t say anything back, though. Didn’t look at me either. Matter of fact, she didn’t look at me all the way up till the day she had to drive me to Juvenile Hall, drop me off at the gate, where two big beefy white guards were waiting to escort me into the building. And even then she just barely glanced at me for a split second. And we didn’t hug or anything. Her face seemed plain, like it would on any other day. I tried to look at her real good as we stood there. I knew I wasn’t gonna see her for a while. Her skin was so much whiter than mine and her eyes were big and blue. And she was wearing the fake diamond earrings she always wears that sparkle when the sun hits ’em at a certain angle. Her blond hair all pulled back in a ponytail.
For some reason it hit me hard right then—as one of the guards took me by the arm and started leading me away—how mad pretty my mom is. For real, man, it’s like someone’s picture you’d see in one of them magazines laying around the dentist’s office. Or on a TV show. And she’s actually my moms.
I looked over my shoulder as they walked me through the gate, but she still wasn’t looking at me. It’s okay, though. I understood why.
It’s ’cause of what I did.