Matt Mendez, author of Twitching Heart, a collection of short stories,
and Barely Missing Everything
Inscape: We wanted to start with your latest novel, Barely Missing
Everything. How was the process of writing that? Your first compilation
came out in 2012, and your novel came out earlier this year. Were you
working on that novel for seven years? Or were you working on a couple
different things and Barely Missing Everything is what graced the table
Matt: I actually started working on the novel in 2009, so it’s been
a really long process, at least for me. I guess you can say that I’m not
a prolific writer. It takes me quite a while to get something real. In
2009, I was at the Red Clay Writers Conference. One of the stories
from Twitching Heart just had been published in Pank, the literary
journal. I don’t know if you guys have ever read Pank. It’s one of my
favorite online journals. The editor there was just doing a little bit of
fact checking like any good editor would do. One of the elements of
that story was this database of Texas, where they collect the last words
of death row inmates. While I was sending her the link, I found a guy
on there who had my same exact birthday, day and year, and me, being
curious and inquisitive, I clicked on the link just to see who this man
was. You know, he was a lot like me; he was Chicano, from Texas, and
he’s from a city similar to me. That got me thinking how our lives took
alternative tracks. He ended up on death row, and I was at this writer’s
conference. The month and year he was admitted on death row were
the same month and year I graduated from college. So, I wondered how
it happened that our lives split in these two different tracks, and how we
ended up in these two stark and different places. Because for me it’s not
really about the individual choices so much as circumstance. That was
the original seed for the novel and the beginning of a long journey of
writing and researching.
Inscape: There seems to be pressure from publishers to get a novel
done really fast. If we’re not able to write an awesome book in a week,
then we are failures. But it’s good to know that things take time, you
have to do your research, your homework, and there’s no rush.
Matt: I started writing the Twitching Heart stories in 2004, and my
collection didn’t come out until 2012. It takes a while to get stories
going. I finished my MFA in 2007, and all those stories that I wrote at
the MFA program were the stories of Twitching Heart. Between 2007
and 2012 I worked on getting those stories better. It’s a long process.
Even when you’re done with your MFA, it doesn’t necessarily mean the
stories you worked on are ready to be published and made into a book.
It takes a long time to get it all ready and for you to figure out what it is
you’re trying to say or trying to write.
Inscape: Do you often run these stories by readers before they’re
Matt: No. Nobody.
Matt: Yeah. After I was done workshopping and doing an MFA
program, I pretty much kept them to myself. I think writing in a
workshop and being in an MFA is a special time. It’s the one time when
you’ll have a group of people really invested in your work. There is
really no other time quite like that. Other people are never as invested
in your work as you are. For me, writing is a one-person sport. Nobody
is going to care about your writing as much as you do, except while
you’re in a program like this because your professors are invested in
your work, your classmates are invested in your work. The same effort
you’re putting into your work, they’re putting into their work. You are
all creating this safe space, this community to write. But once you are
outside your program, you know real life has come to you. You can give
work to other people, but they have commitments, and a life, and a job,
and their own work, and that level of intensity is just not really there.
You’re the only one who’s going to have that level of commitment, just
like an athlete who golfs or plays tennis or boxes. You’re the one that
has to push yourself constantly. So, I didn’t necessarily share any of
my work with other people. It’s just me constantly minding my crap,
reading other fiction and working. I developed the tools I needed in the
MFA program to make my stories, and then I just needed to have the
confidence to turn them into publishable stories, which is always hard.
Inscape: Which is tough. You need a lot of discipline to do that.
Matt: Yeah, but it’s also a one-person thing, right?
Inscape: So, you started with short stories.
Matt: Yeah, and I still write short stories.
Inscape: Right, but what made you want to write a YA novel?
Matt: It didn’t start off necessarily as a YA novel. It just had young
protagonists. I find young characters are the most inquisitive and
vulnerable. I like the young voice, so there are a lot of young characters
in my short story collection. The way they view the world is more open
and honest, so I think writing a young adult novel was a natural next
step. When I was writing, I considered my audience carefully because
I didn’t want to write anything exploitative. When you’re writing a YA
novel, you don’t want to lend yourself to exploitation; you don’t want
to write anything that’s going to be damaging to your audience. At the
same time, you don’t want to write down to a YA audience. There’s this
perception that when you’re writing YA, you’re writing lesser and that
you’re writing something that is not literature, which is absolutely not
true. You can still write elevated fiction. I’m just not writing anything
that’s going to damage a young person while they read it, or something
that is gratuitous or exploitative.
Inscape: In regards to that, a Booklist review for Barely Missing
Everything says: “Mendez’s attention to raw detail in plot and diction
is both painful and illuminating. With its shades of social justice, this
will appeal to readers of Matt de la Peña and Jason Reynolds.” How
important is realism and honesty in your storytelling?
Matt: It’s pretty important for me. I like realistic fiction, and that’s
good company to be with. Matt de la Peña and Jason Reynolds are pretty
great writers. I write contemporary fiction —getting the world right
is important to me. I’ve been in the military for 23 years and traveled
all over the place, but for me the Southwest is home. It’s where I feel
the most comfortable, being in the border, being around my Chicano
people is where I feel the most comfortable. The Border and the
Southwest always feel mysterious to other people who’ve never been
there. They have these really weird ideas of what life is like there. Sure,
people from other countries have these weird, abstract ideas of what
Mexico is, what the DF [Distrito Federal] is. Even here in the United
States, the Southwest always feels like this foreign place to people, but
to me the Southwest is real in a vibrant way. I don’t want so much to
show other people what the Southwest is like, but I just want to write
my own cultural experience, add it to the canon of American Literature.
Inscape: Barely Missing Everything has been compared to Jason
Reynolds’ works, which portray difficult stories about racism and the
Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think your book is the YA book
for brown kids?
Matt: Yeah, I think so. Not a lot of literature is directed at brown
boys specifically. They’re an underserved group because nobody
thinks of little brown boys reading books. They’re not going to be the
target audience because they’re not going to get on Goodreads or post
Amazon reviews. Nobody targets books to them because they don’t
think that they read, but there are kids out there reading books, and
they want stories about themselves. I mean, who doesn’t want to see
themselves in books? Everybody does. You have Matt de la Peña and
then there’s a huge gap with nobody else writing books for these kids.
It’s important to have representation for these kids in high quality
books about their lives, so they can see themselves portrayed, not just
in a representative way but in thoughtful, meaningful ways. Like, “that’s
my family, my mom, my grandmother—that’s me and that’s how I feel
about things.” It’s important to them to have that part of their lives on
Inscape: Did you ever see yourself doing anything other than being
Matt: Oh I didn’t see myself being a writer at all. I was one of those
kids who didn’t grow up reading as a young person. I grew up not liking
school, not trusting school; none of the institutions I grew up with as
a kid felt trustworthy. I would walk into a school, and when I left, I’d
felt that nothing that was going on in that building had anything to do
with my life. Nothing! I mean, they taught Shakespeare, Hemingway,
and Chaucer, and they would tell me that I’d have to read and learn
this stuff in order to be successful, but I would walk outside and none
of that had anything to do with the life I was living. It wasn’t what my
parents were talking about. My dad never finished high school, and he
was doing all right. My mom finished high school and wanted to keep
going, but it was so hard to have to take the bus to community college,
and then she had two kids, three kids. I didn’t see how reading all that
was going to help me be anything—it was such a disconnect. I felt like
I was constantly being lied to by the adults in my life. It seemed like
total bullshit, honestly. If I’d had books that had to do with my life,
that they would talk about critically, it would’ve made more sense. But
those weren’t the books being taught at my school. It just seemed like a
fraud to me. I think books like mine, books like Jason Reynolds’, books
that are being published now in the YA world will connect with young
readers, and that’s why it’s vitally important to publish them.
Inscape: Is that what inspired you to write? Was it this connection
that you wanted to make?
Matt: Yeah, but it wasn’t until I was twenty-six years old and in
college before I found Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, and
I thought, “That’s exactly what my neighborhood looks like!” When
I read that book, I wanted to read more. I wanted to be a filmmaker,
but it wasn’t until I found these books and started writing my own
stories, that I decided to write more as opposed to making films. The
only reason that I wanted to make movies was that I really idealized
Robert Rodriguez because he was making El Mariachi and Desperado.
I always loved stories, but I looked at him and thought, “Well, I can
do that.” There were no other examples growing up. I didn’t see any
other brown people making art, unless I was watching Telemundo or
movies in Spanish. I didn’t even know who Gabriel Garcia Marquez
was. They weren’t teaching him in school; they weren’t teaching Juan
Rulfo or Cortazar. They were teaching Shakespeare! I’m not slagging on
Shakespeare—Shakespeare is fine, but they weren’t teaching these great
Latin American writers who have their own huge canon. They weren’t
teaching any indigenous writers—all this huge cannon that belongs
in Southwest literature that we could have been learning. They didn’t
teach any of that stuff, which would have really helped the students in
our school and in the Southwest. It’s terrible.
Spencer Hyde: I didn’t even get into Borges until I was in college.
Late in college—amazing! It was unfortunate it didn’t happen earlier
because of all this great stuff I would have had to read.
Inscape: You talked about filmmaking. Would you like to turn one of
your stories that you’ve already done into a film?
Matt: I would like to sell it for someone else to do. I don’t think I
would want to be the one to necessarily make it.
Inscape: In Twitching Hearts Juan loves basketball and JD loves
filmmaking, so you gave your own interests to your characters.
Matt: I think all fiction writers put material from their own lives into
Spencer: It’s impossible not to.
Inscape: In Twitching Hearts you mention Octavio Paz and Juan
Rulfo, but do you have any other authors that have inspired you to
Matt: Oh, there are so many. I mentioned Sandra Cisneros—she is
like my patron saint of writers, and she blurbed the book to be on the
paperback, so I am eternally grateful to her for that. Dagoberto Gilb,
Roberto Bolaño, Borges, Cortazar. Eduardo Galeano! He’s one of my
favorites, and Manuel Muñoz, who’s the creative writing director at the
University of Arizona. He’s one of my favorites.
Inscape: We were doing some digging and discovered that you used
to write at Denny’s?
Matt: That’s where I wrote a lot of Barely Missing Everything.
Inscape: So while you were pounding some breakfast?
Matt: No, it was in the middle of the night. I was an aircraft mechanic
for a lot of years and my shift would start at 2:30 p.m., and I would get
off at 11:30 p.m. Then I would drive to this Denny’s cause they’re open
24 hours a day. I would write until about 1 or 2 in the morning, and
then I would go home. That was my writing routine for a few years.
Inscape: What was your meal of choice?
Matt: I would take terrible coffee and then sometimes fries,
sometimes cheese sticks until I started gaining weight from eating the
cheese sticks! So I would have to cut that out and start ordering a salad
that I would never eat. They make you order something, you can’t just
Inscape: I got a couple more questions to wrap things up here. Is
there any advice you would give that could help less experienced writers
in the writing process?
Matt: Just read, read widely, read outside of your genre. If you write
fiction, read nonfiction, read poetry. I think poetry helps a lot with
timing, language, economy of language. If you’re a poet, read fiction
and nonfiction Just read, read, read, read, love to read—that’s the best
advice. If you want to be a great writer, you have to read.
Inscape: I think that’s something that Stephen King said: you have to
read in order to write.
Matt: I think you need to have a passion for reading in order to write
good stories. There’s so many writers doing such interesting things, that
reading helps inform your writing. If you have ever read something and
you have been moved emotionally, you will go back to that moment
where a writer made you feel something, and you ask, “How did they
do that? How did they pull this trick on me?” You never see that trick
when it’s happening. They make you feel suspense; they make you cry
or laugh, shock you with a plot twist that you didn’t see coming. But it’s
not a magic trick. They set you up all along to have that moment pay off.
It’s either sentence level or characterization or pacing; the author sets
you up for this moment that pays off. I’m a mechanic, so I’m interested
in the craft, how this writer made this wonderful moment happen. The
books I have at my house that I really love are full of highlights and
arrows and question marks. I’ll sit there and deconstruct the whole
thing and see how they did it.
Inscape: Last question—what lies ahead for Matt Mendez?
Matt: I’m working on another young adult novel and, knock on
wood, hopefully that goes well.
Inscape: Any titles or things you can throw out for us?
Matt: I’m superstitious, so I don’t like talking about it too much.
Inscape: Well, I’ll knock on wood for you.
END OF INTERVIEW