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Matt de la Peña Matt de la Peña

"Get to the Good Stuff"

Novelist Matt de la Peña runs with Elmore Leonard’s classic advice.
By Michael Price

This story is featured in the fall 2014 issue of 360:The Magazine of San Diego State University.

Attending college, on a basketball scholarship, Matt de la Peña didn’t yet think of himself as a writer. But he was an observer. He noticed the stories of his teammates and classmates, their shared ambitions, dreams and fears. When he enrolled in San Diego State University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, those stories came exploding out of him.

Today, de la Peña is recognized as a rising star in young adult fiction. His characters primarily navigate issues of mixed-race identity. His best-selling book “Mexican WhiteBoy” can be found on high school and college reading lists, and his book “Ball Don’t Lie” was made into a major motion picture starring Ludacris and Rosanna Arquette. 360 talked to de la Peña about his craft.

How necessary is an MFA degree to becoming a successful writer?

It’s not necessary for everyone, but for somebody like me, it was pivotal. When I came to writing, I hadn’t read enough. I didn’t have enough books under my belt. SDSU is where I learned to be a good reader. I had great professors who led me down paths to books I never would have read otherwise. The MFA took my passion and helped me figure out how to structure it.

Also, I’d never been in a community of other writers before. You get this competitive feeling and you want to keep up with your colleagues. That’s helpful.

Which writers have influenced you?

Cormac McCarthy is my favorite writer. I carry his books with me wherever I go. I could never write like him, but I want to soak it in. Junot Diaz is another big influence on me. Then there are a lot of Hispanic authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Sandra Cisneros. African-American literature was also influential when I was young—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?

Elmore Leonard had this rule for writing: “Get to the good stuff.” And I’ve always loved that.

What was it like seeing one of your books turned into a movie?

It was surreal. When you’re in an MFA program, you never think beyond the little story you’re writing alone in a room. Then you go to a set and there’s all these guys carrying cables and there are craft service tables and there’s Ludacris, and you think, “I can’t believe my little story is employing all these people.”

How did you decide to become a YA author?

It was sort of an accident. I was writing young protagonists during my MFA because I loved the coming-of-age story. But I’d never heard of Young Adult as a genre until my first book sold as Young Adult. My agent said, “Hey, your book is going to be purchased as a Young Adult novel,” and I had to Google the term. I’d never heard of it.

How do you approach writing for a young audience?

There’s incredible, literary, interesting stuff being written in YA. But if you go into writing it thinking about YA, you’re in trouble. A mistake that a lot of first-time authors make is they think they’re handing a book down to teen readers, and that’s the worst thing you can do. Teen readers are savvy, and they can smell a rat. You’ve just got to write a good book.

What are the major themes of your work?

The biggest one is the working class male’s inability to deal with emotions and vulnerability. I love to deal with blue-collar kids figuring out what to do with their sadness and their shame. I’m always viewed as someone who writes about race, but I’m more interested in class. That’s the thing I think about most as a writer: “What about this character’s neighborhood changes the way he interacts with people?”