"I wanted to explore friendship, specifically the friendship between two young Mexican American boys."
Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Mendez, congratulations on the publication of your first novel, Barely Missing Everything, young-adult fiction published last year by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Please tell us what we need to know about your book.
Matt Mendez: Barely Missing Everything is a grown-up book written for young people, which is to say I wrote it for youth who’ve had to grow up quickly, who face life-changing events and have to make choices that adults often do, all while still having to navigate life in high school.
Juan, JD—Juan’s best friend—and Juan’s mother, Fabi, are the three main characters, and readers have been connecting deeply with each of them. Juan and JD are funny and smart, full of hope but also afraid of the future ahead. They make mistakes—like all people do. Barely Missing Everything is about growing up in the ways many people never see coming.
Your first published book, Twitching Heart (Floricanto Press, 2012), is a collection of short stories set in El Paso. Dagoberto Gilb said of this collection that you write “from, and about, Chuco's heart.” “Chuco,” short for “Pachuco,” refers to the culture of El Paso. What does Chuco mean to you?
Chuco is El Paso. Pachucos, pachuco culture, originated in El Paso and Juárez, and then migrated from there. And so those traits of the pachuco—style, free-thinking, community—are embedded in El Paso’s culture and personality.
And those traits are a big part of my writing, too. I try to write stories with a unique sense of style, to keep my work feeling outspoken while also having my community close to my heart.
The New York Times review that included Barely Missing Everything carries the headline, “Y.A. Novels That Let Teenage Boys Be Vulnerable.” Is the vulnerability of teenage boys something you deliberately set out to explore or is it a by-product of the plot? How and why are portrayals of adolescent boys changing?
Absolutely. I wanted to explore friendship, specifically the friendship between two young Mexican American boys. I don’t feel like this relationship is something we see in books—or anywhere else, really—very often. The second part of your question is harder to answer, and for that exact reason, I wanted to write about it [vulnerability] in the first place.
With Juan and JD, I wanted to show the tenderness that exists between boys, how they love each other, and the different ways they show it. Juan and JD don’t always understand each other—they even get into a fight—but their friendship remains unbreakable because they have invested their hearts into it.
Your work has appeared in many outlets, among them Pank, the Literary Review, and Huizache, and you’ve taught creative writing at the University of Arizona. What is the most helpful writing advice you’ve received, and what is your advice for successful submissions for writers just starting out?
The best advice is to read widely and deeply. As a fiction writer, I get so much out of reading poetry and memoir. Reading outside of the genre you are writing in really shows you how to push past the limitations, or perceived limitations, of the genre you’re working in. Reading shows you the limitless possibilities of what can be done with words.
For writers just starting to submit, I would say to make sure you aren’t rushing your work. There is a lot of self-induced pressure to start publishing in order to feel like a “real” writer, and that pressure often causes writers to push work out the door before it is ready. I like to sit on a piece once I think it is done; to read it, sometimes months later, with a cold eye and see if I love it as much as I once did. I usually don’t.
Let’s talk process for a bit. Some writers begin from a central conflict; others begin from dialogue. How does inspiration come to you and how do you know what form a piece wants to be?
My stories always begin with a question or with me trying to make sense of something that I’m having a hard time putting into words. And so stories, constructing an experience, has been my way of understanding the world around me.
I love creating situations where characters have to make choices, where these choices both reveal who they are while also building tension. I often begin a story with some dramatic event, an occurrence that changes the existing world of the main character and forces him or her to take an initial action, one that gets the story off and running.
I’m currently obsessed with editing because I can’t seem to stop myself from editing as I write, which makes for slow going. How do you approach the revision and editing process?
I do the same thing! I am also a slow writer. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but it is how I do it.
Revising is where I think I am strongest. Once a draft is done, and I have had time away from the story, I can re-read it and see what I was trying to do and where I need to make the story stronger. Editing along the way, being careful, usually makes this process easier. I don’t spend a lot of time making big structural changes—usually—seeing as I have been carefully constructing the story during the drafting process.
Which Texas writers and artists do you admire and why? How have these writers inspired your own work? Which writers would you recommend to readers who enjoy your work?
I’m a big fan of ire’ne lara silva. Her short story collection, flesh to bone, is just wholly original and an all-time fave of mine. I would also recommend the prolific David Bowles, whose books traverse genres and are gifts to readers of all ages. Everyone should read Dagoberto Gilb, who I feel my work shares a connection with—and a debt to. And writers Ruben Degollado and Natalia Sylvester are two of my favorites. Throw by Degollado is thrilling, and Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home is an epic story. I cannot wait for her 2020 release Running.
What books are on your nightstand?
I’m in the middle of Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Corina and Sabrina, which I am loving. Sergio Troncoso’s A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son is up next. I saw him speak at the Texas Book Festival and thought he was great. I can’t wait to dig in.
Matt Mendez has worked on airplanes all of his adult life and is the author of the YA novel, Barely Missing Everything, and the short story collection, Twitching Heart. He earned his MFA from the University of Arizona where he also taught creative writing. His work has appeared in Pank, the Literary Review, Huizache, and other places. Matt is from El Paso, Texas, but now lives with his wife and two daughters in Tucson, Arizona. You can visit him at mattmendez.com or follow him on Twitter @mgmendez.