Author Matt de la Pena on writing, culture and life

by JENNIFER MORROW and LINDA MACHUCA BARAJAS

Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Pena ’16 returned to campus in May to be the university’s Commencement speaker and to be inducted into the liberal arts fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa.

De la Pena is the author of several young adult novels and picture books and is recognized as a champion of diversity.

English students Jennifer Morrow and Linda Machuca Barajas interviewed him the day before Commencement.

Q – How does it feel to be returning to your alma mater as Pacific’s 2019 Commencement speaker and being inducted into Phi Beta Kappa?

A – Being the keynote speaker is very scary. Hopefully I don’t faint or get murdered in some way (laughs). So, that part scares me. That part makes me nervous, but being on campus reminds me of this amazing moment in your life when you were trying to figure out who you were, so when you walk on campus, especially [because] it’s so beautiful today, you remember…I didn’t know who I was going to be. I didn’t know what direction I was going in. I hoped I would be OK. And when you’re back here you just feel those moments or those memories that are super nostalgic.

And the Phi Beta Kappa stuff? It’s funny; I was a pretty good student, but I wasn’t one of the best students, and that is a tremendous honor that you never see coming. So, I think sometimes what you realize is that you set out to do one thing, you don’t get to that place—you get to another place—but you still made this journey, you know?

Q – You mentioned that moment of uncertainty when you’re not sure about your next step—how did your time at Pacific influence your next step and ultimately influence you to pursue a career in writing?

A – I came to this campus as a basketball player; I was here on scholarship. First of all, no one in my family had ever been to college. It was a foreign idea that a sport helped me get to. And then when I got here I was exposed to great literature by amazing professors who were so passionate.

I feel like I’m lucky—I had four professors in the English department [at Pacific] who literally changed the trajectory of my life. And I think that that doesn’t happen at a big university. You’re just a name on a roster there. Next year I’ll be teaching at San Diego State, and I’ll be in a place where [students] are names on a roster. But here, you can have a professor get to know you and see what you’re interested in, and sort of introduce you to literature based on what you are into.

So there’s that, but also, the world of education just opened up to me. So I entered as a basketball player and I left a student, if that makes sense. And not just a student that’s trying to get an A or a B, but somebody who’s just intellectually curious.

And also, I should add, I had never shown anyone the writing I’d been doing all through high school. I never showed it to anyone because I didn’t think, as a guy, you were supposed to write. But this place made me feel safe, and I shared my work for the very first time. And I had professors saying, “You’re pretty good! Maybe you could do something with this.” And you go “Wow,” you know? It’s like that power of suggestion.

Q – What advice would you give to young writers?

A – I would say speak less and listen more. Because for me, I’m someone who records the world. I don’t write fantasy; I don’t write science fiction. And I think those genres are amazing, but that’s just not my interest. So I write realistic fiction. I write real stories about real people, mostly growing up on the—quote unquote—“wrong side of the tracks.” So, the reason I say “speak less and listen more,” is that if you just sit and let people feed you, [whether] it’s the way they act, the way they talk, the conversations you hear; I mean, the stories are out there. Sometimes I don’t even know if I’m writing, or plagiarizing the world, if that makes sense. So that’s a big one.

Also, be a reader. Read everything. Read books in your favorite genre, read books outside of your favorite genre, but also read off the page. Read people. Read interactions. Read the world. There’s so many interesting things all over the place. Just study them because that’s all you’re doing as a writer: you’re just sort of taking that in and working with the material in your own point of view, and then you’re funneling it out—hopefully with a bit of craft so that it can make the best story. Like all my friends…have you ever been sitting at a coffee shop with friends and one of them launches into an interesting story, but kind of personal, and they look at you like, “You can’t write about this.” And I always say, “Listen, I would never write about that. I’m not going to write about that.” And then I secretly hit record. And then you know this is the real stuff. I used to leave every party early so I could write about some of the stuff I saw.

I think you have to almost make a decision—am I willing to lose a bit of myself to become the best possible writer?

Q – You write realistic fiction, and with that comes the need for honesty, which can be very vulnerable. How do you stop inner voices telling you not to go to that intimate place in your writing?

A – OK, so this is the sad thing about being a writer, why I almost wouldn’t want my daughter to be a writer: you lose a bit of yourself. I have this idea—I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s just an idea I’m exploring—I think the minute you write about something, it no longer belongs to you, and it’s no longer as authentic. If I were to sit here and tell you a story, and it’s a very personal, vulnerable story and kind of moving, in that moment it’s kind of wonderful. It’s beautiful. This is what you want to share…but! Now it’s lost its power for you.

So I think you have to almost make a decision—am I willing to lose a bit of myself to become the best possible writer? Because if you go up against a topic that you know is super vulnerable, and it’s like “I don’t know if I really want this out in the world. I don’t know if I want to share this. What’s my mom gonna think? What’s my cousin gonna think?” If you feel nervous about it, then that’s what you have to write about. And that’s a sad fact. You just have to go where the vulnerability is. And it’s kind of sad.

Q – Is part of that fear about your writing not being interpreted the way you intended it by others?

A – It’s possible. But also just…you feel the manipulation. So, if I’m doing a speech, it’s very similar to writing a story. If I’m doing a speech and I’m saying something very personal, like growing up and the way my interactions with my father were, I’m saying it, but I also know I’m saying it in a way that I know is going to affect the audience. I know I’m saying these things to get a reaction. And when I get that reaction, I suddenly am aware of my manipulation, and therefore it loses its purity. You see what I’m saying? I think you almost have to realize that [as a writer] you’re going live a life that’s a little less pure, and you don’t get to own those things for you anymore. They’re just sort of…material. Nora Ephron, I think, said: “Everything is copied.” And it’s kind of the same thing. Whatever happens to you, you just kind of use it.

You’re more likely to be empathetic to someone if you travel with them for a second. It’s much harder to hate people who are sitting with you and having a conversation with you.

Q – You have spoken about being inspired by English teachers and professors. How did they influence you? Were there books you read in their classes that influenced you?

A – 100%! “The Color Purple” I was introduced to here, on campus, by a professor named Heather Mayne. That was a huge memory for me because she gave me one specific book that really moved me. So I remember that—the class I had with her was African-American female authors. And that was a hugely important class to me, because what happens when you’re a pretty good reader is that you go down these paths, right? So I went from Alice Walker, and then I discovered that she loved Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” So I was like, “OK, I’ll check that out.” And then you read more about that, and you’re like “Oh my God, Toni Morrison credits Zora Neale Hurston too. Let me check out her work.” So you go on these little fictional roads, and that took me on a really cool road.

And then I took Camille Norton’s creative writing class, and that was the first time I ever took a creative class. And I was just overwhelmed. It’s so vulnerable. You’re like “What are they gonna say about my work?” and “This one guy made a negative comment; I’m gonna wait for him outside of class!” You know, you have that kind of mentality; it hurts, you know? Not only that they’re critics—people aren’t going to see what you see—but also, it taught me how to better collaborate with other people and be a better reader for them. I think if you can be a good critic of other people’s work, and try to help them with their work, it actually really benefits you as a writer because you’re seeing “Oh, I’m not trying to make this the way I would write it, I’m trying to make it the best version of what they’re trying to do.” And you can translate that back to what your own writing is. “Oh, here’s a comment coming from this person, and I see what they’re doing. They’re trying to make it more sensible to them, so I’m going to ignore that. But this person over here had an interesting comment, and maybe I can use this. So I learned the art of the workshop—what can make it successful.

And then one last class: Religion and Cinema by Larry Meredith.  He was probably the most amazing human-being I’ve ever heard lecture up to that point. He was so popular when I was here. I know of, like, eight people who had him do their wedding—that’s how popular he was. And he’s still around, but just a genius person. He’d talk about religion and the way it interacted with movies, but also fiction, and that was a big one [for me]. That was outside of the English department though. I think it was part of the religious studies program.

Q – You attended Pacific on a basketball scholarship. What was your experience balancing being a student athlete and an aspiring writer?

A – I will speak in all honesty—I played basketball, I loved basketball. I loved the sport. I experienced total moments of grace playing a sport. But it was also a huge vehicle for me, because I knew my parents could never afford to send me to college, and I really wanted to go there. I didn’t want to think that just wealthy people could go to college and not someone like me. So, basketball was my vehicle to get onto a college campus. Once I got here, of course I played, because I was on scholarship. And I tried my hardest and I loved my teammates—they were like family.

But honestly, if I was going to tell the truth about it, my focus shifted to academics and writing. So, the hard part was, I still had a job to do. Playing a college sport is a job. You don’t get to go out Friday night because you have practice at 8 a.m. in the morning on Saturday. So you have to figure out: “How am I going to do my job, but then also give enough time to this thing that I love: academia and writing.” So that was a challenge. And that’s why a lot of student athletes tend to choose a major that’s going to be easy, because there are so many responsibilities. You’re travelling, you have practices all the time, and it’s very difficult to excel in both [college sports and academics].

Q – What made you decide to pursue your Master in Fine Arts (MFA) from San Diego State? 

A – Again, UOP professors. I think it was Camille Norton, Gilbert Schedler, and [Douglas] Tedards. The three of them actually brought up the idea of an MFA to me—I had never heard of it before. They told me, “You could get a master’s degree in creative writing. You seem to really like it and your work is good. You could try this.” And I was like “Wow! I didn’t even know that was an option.” So I owe just the introduction of that as a possibility to the professors I had here.

Q – In another interview you talked about how literature is a tool to promote empathy. You also talked about growing up in a machista culture. How did literature change your point of view on this topic?

A – I think the cool thing about literature is that it allows you to take on a point of view, for however long the book is, that might be different from yours. I think literature can function in two ways: one, it can make you feel included, and that’s when you read about a character who’s similar to you or lives in a setting like yours, or even speaks the way you speak. So that makes you feel like you’re invited to this story.

But then I think equally as powerful is when literature can be an opportunity to see into someone else’s universe. So, the second part of that is the real empathy builder for me. So, when I read “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros, I was like, “Oh, she’s writing about my neighborhood!” So I felt included, even though she’s from Chicago and I’m from California. But when I read the book “The Color Purple,” I was like “I never lived like that. I never knew someone had those kinds of circumstances, and look at what a challenge this is. Look at how she finds her voice. It’s a woman, so different gender [than me], so it was an opportunity to have empathy for someone different than me.

I think what I wish I could do is go to every school and talk to every boy about the power of being a literature person and living through books because so many boys think “Ah, reading’s not for me. I’m out on the street living. I’m out playing sports or hanging out with my friends. I’m living stories, I don’t need to read stories.” But what I think they don’t realize is it’s not about not being active, it’s about putting yourself in someone else’s point of view. And you’re more likely to be empathetic to someone if you travel with them for a second. It’s much harder to hate people who are sitting with you and having a conversation with you. It’s very easy to hate people that aren’t within our close distance.

I think of how politically, when the election happened with Trump, a lot of people were saying, “Hillary’s got this; it’s no problem.” But I was going, “What you’re not seeing but what I’m seeing is when I go on the road and rent a car in Indiana because I have a book event there, and then I have one in Michigan, and I drive through these small towns and I see all the Trump signs. And why do they have Trump signs? Well, because they feel left out in some way, right? These rural, poor, white communities. They feel left out somehow. And even blamed for some things that are happening. It’s culture change. I live in New York City and everybody’s super liberal, right? But if we think of them way over there in a suburb of Michigan, it’s easy to say, “What’s wrong with these people? They’re voting for Trump, he’s not going to do anything for you, blah blah blah. But if you go into the communities and meet them, you start to have empathy for them. You’re like, “Oh, I see where you’re coming from. Maybe I don’t ultimately agree with you, but I now understand it. So, a book is an opportunity to have that empathy without leaving your house.

Q – Growing up in a Mexican household and attending a public high school, I identified with you when you talked about not being exposed to literature (and much less literature that I could identify with). Why do you think it’s important for students to be exposed to diverse literature from an early age?

A – The one thing we have to admit about college is that it is a bit of an elitist idea. You have to get in, some parents are paying all this money, as we all now know, to get their kids in. So the structure is kind of elitist. Let’s take Stockton. Now, this is a wonderful, beautiful campus and a great institution. But right down the road, there’s incredible poverty, you know? And I think if you grow up there, and you look at this campus, it’s unattainable. So, that doesn’t mean those kids aren’t as smart, but they’re navigating the world with different tools. So, you don’t have to be book-smart to read a book and get a lot out of it. That’s the first thing that came to mind when you said your question.

One other thing though—I had this really good experience of judging the National Book Award in 2015, so it’s been a few years. But you read all these books, like three hundred books, in a year. And you pick the best one. It was me and five other people. So I knew the book that I really wanted to win. It was called “Inside Out and Back Again and it was about a girl who leaves wartime Vietnam and she moves to Alabama. So this is historical. At first I was like, “I want this to win because here’s this Asian girl who goes to this place like Alabama where there’s no one like her  There’s black kids and there’s white kids, but there’s no kids in the middle. And I thought, “How powerful would it be for a kid who’s an exchange student or moving from San Francisco and ends up in a place where there’s no one like her. It’d be so powerful for her to see herself in the book.”

And I went to bed the night before we decided thinking that’s why the book should win. But I woke up the next morning and I was like, “Whoa, that was so short-sighted and narrow. The book should win because could you imagine if everyone in that classroom has read the book before the exchange student or the girl from San Francisco moves and takes a seat? Well, then she’s going to be treated so differently because they’ve all read the book. And they have now seen the hardship of this kind of experience. So now they might pull her in instead of casting her aside.” You see what I mean? I think the power of empathy…it goes beyond just reading about yourself.

Q – After working with Disney on the children’s book, “Miguel and the Grand Harmony,” how do you feel about major companies (like Disney) featuring and creating more diverse content and representing people of color? What do you think it does for kids watching/reading from home?

A – First of all, it’s the most incredible thing ever. By the way, as a grown man, Coco is hard to watch. At the end, when he’s singing “Remember Me” with the grandma, and she’s singing with him? Aw man, you’re done! (laughs).

So my daughter is a quarter white, a quarter Mexican and half Chinese. So she only has a quarter that’s Mexican. But I took her to see that movie, and I remember the incredible surge of pride I had that she was watching about one quarter of her heritage. And I walked out and I was like, “You’re Mexican too.” And it just made me so proud. And if you think of how many parents are feeling that same way…that’s why it’s amazing.

But I’ll tell you an interesting thing that happened with that movie. When they started the project, Pixar made a mistake—this is a really bad move—they took the Day of the Dead and they tried to trademark it because that would be the title of the book. Think about that. They tried to trademark the Day of the Dead! It’s so irresponsible and culturally insensitive. So there were all these critics in the Mexican community saying, “What are you doing!” and picketing. So you know what Pixar did? And this is humble and smart. They hired all those people that were criticizing them. They hired like five of them and said: “Will you please help us do this right?” So now, they empowered the people that they were being insensitive toward and gave them a voice at making this the best possible movie. What a genius move, because now they were getting feedback and insights from the community that they were ultimately trying to appeal to. And also it was a Mexican writer, but it was a white director. So I just think they did a really great job. I think a lot of people could learn from that. If you are being criticized, it’s okay to listen—and even empower—your critics and learn from them.

And I will just say this: Pixar is a special place. It truly is. They make great movies. They’re not just trying to pump them out. They’re trying to make great movies, not a lot of movies. I spent a day on campus. I don’t know if you guys know this, but Steve Jobs designed the campus and he was very pivotal in the beginning of company. I think they’re doing great work there. I saw the movie (“Coco”) a year before it came out in only still pictures—there was no animation—and I was on the verge of tears at the end. So if they can do that to you with no animation? That’s when I was like, “This movie’s going to do well.”

One of my coolest moments was sitting in a room just like this, all these chairs, and it was me and the writer, who was a Mexican guy, and we were brainstorming what I was going to do. So I was telling him my idea, and I was like “How did the character find music? What happened there?” And he was like “Oh, that’s interesting because the music part is so important to us.” And I was like, “What if I took the point of view of music? And you know, music is trying to discover this kid and introduce this kid to the guitar?” So it was really cool. We sat there for about two hours talking about the possibilities. I just loved that it was such an open dialogue. So I had a great experience.

Q – What inspired you to go from writing teen novels to illustrated children’s books?

A – So really, the departure in that whole equation was really novels. I used to only write poems. Spoken word poetry. That’s at UOP—I wrote poems. I won this thing called the Arlen Hansen Award. That is a big thing for me, because that was the first time anyone said, “Hey. You’re good.” You know what I mean? So my submission was poetry. I was a poet.

And then I went to grad school, and I had an idea that just seemed to be too long for a poem. It just seemed like a short story. And then it got too long to be a short story and became a novel. And then what happens is if you publish one book, the publisher always says, “If the book does well, do that book again, just a little different.” Because that’s just what you do. So, I wrote four novels before I did anything else with poetry. All I’m doing when I write a picture book is just writing a poem, but for a different audience: young people. And the parents or teachers that are reading to the young people. So in a weird way, the novel was the departure, not the picture books.

And also, I have two young kids, so I love having something I can read to them.

If you read a diversity of characters to kids, they’re going to be more open to the world and the diversity in the world, right?

Q – Most writers have tough journeys, especially in the beginning, with getting their work published and/or selling it. How do you embrace failure as a writer?

A – There are so many different kinds of failures. That’s the hard part. The truth is, if you want to do anything in art, rejection comes in so many different ways. For instance, this is a form of rejection: you’re in your workshop, you turn something in, and people didn’t really love it. That’s a rejection. It’s on more of a micro-level because it’s just confined to that one classroom. And there’s the rejection of sending off a short story to a publication and they can’t use it. So that’s a rejection. I guess what I’m saying is, the rejection just gets more and more public. Because now rejection for me is if I get a bad review or if people think this one book is going to win this big award and everyone is talking about it, and it doesn’t…But also, sometimes you get rejection back on the micro-level after you’ve made it as a writer, because somebody just doesn’t like your book! And it feels like I get the sting of being in the workshop again, you know?

So, I think what you just have to realize is that not everyone is going to love what you do. Is it legal to quote Charles Barkley in this interview? (laughs). Charles Barkley says, “If everyone likes you, you’re lying to somebody.” And I think that’s so true in art as well. Not everyone is going to like your book. If no one is criticizing your book, that means you wrote a book that everyone thinks is OK, or pretty good. You’d much rather have a book that this person just loves, and this person just dislikes. So now it’s more impactful both ways. So I think that leads you to believe that the best thing you can do is just write the story you want to tell instead of writing something that’s not going to fail.

Q – In your book “Love,” you explain the different situations and some of the different ways there is to show love. Also, in your book “Last Stop on Market Street,” you talk about the colors and experience of riding the bus with your grandmother. How do you think your children’s books help shape the young minds of children to diversity and empathy?

A – I think the thing we’re realizing is that the thing that separates kids at a young age is how much we read to them. So, you want to read to your children as much as possible. That’s first; that has nothing to do with what the characters are. But then, there’s another layer, which is if you read a diversity of characters to kids, they’re going to be more open to the world and the diversity in the world, right? My wife told me—she grew up in Brooklyn—Asian, but she didn’t speak Chinese, her parents spoke Chinese. She told me one time she went to school with all African American kids, Dominican kids and three white kids. And she said a couple times when she was young, she would be in the bathroom brushing her teeth and she’d go, “Oh my god, I’m Asian.” Like she was surprised. Why was that happening? Because she never looked out and saw Asian: in books, in movies, in commercials…she never saw that.

There’s a great line from Junot Diaz. I heard him talking one time and he said there’s a trope in comic books where the monster can’t see himself in the mirror, and he said, “The quickest way to create monsters in our cities is to never show kids their reflection of themselves in art.” Because it makes you feel invisible. Because if I don’t exist, I have nothing to lose. And now I might do something desperate to be seen. So there’s that. But also, I just think exposing children to more kinds of people is incredible.

There’s a book out right now that’s called, “Julian is a Mermaid,” and it’s about a little boy in Brooklyn who’s with his grandmother, and he just wants to be a mermaid. He sees mermaids on the train, and he just wants to be a mermaid! So he goes home, and his grandmother takes a shower, so he’s by himself, and he does his hair like a mermaid. And then he sees the blinds, and they’re white, so he pulls them off and makes himself a little robe. And then his grandmother comes out and she looks at him and she looks mad. And he looks at her and he’s like “Oh no.” And she goes, “Mijo, come here.” And you’re like “Whoa, this kid’s going to get in trouble.” And then she takes him into the room and gives him her pearl necklace.

So, in other words, she’s embracing him showing who he is. How important is that to show boys who are growing up with dads who are scared of gay people? You know what I mean? It’s like this creates this opportunity to see the humanity of a group that maybe your parents hate. So I think that’s the power of children’s books.

Learn more about the Department of English

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