In this interview, he talks about his latest novel:
How would you describe Down?
Down is a contemporary, urban, YA thriller about a 15-year old trying to stay out of lock up. Leon Mendoza starts the school year with an ankle monitor and an upcoming court date. He's determined to stay out of trouble. But how can he with the pending charges against him, his P.O. breathing down his neck, a father in jail, a mother in deep depression, and even his home boys pressuring him to quietly take the rap?
Will the attention of an attractive school girl, the support of a few teachers and a part-time job make a difference to Leon? Or is he destined to follow in his father's footsteps, and spend his life in and out of jail?
How did the idea behind the novel come about?
I teach middle school in East Los Angeles, I have seen how disconnected from pleasure reading most of my students are. Reading for their classes is not just a chore for some of them, it is torture. A surprising number of middle school students in the inner cities in the United States have never read a complete book. A good number of them haven’t read any books since the third grade.
But I was lucky enough to come across Townsend Press, and their Bluford Series. These books offered adult, urban themes about teenagers at a very accessible reading level. Paul Langan, Anne Schraff, and John Langan have done a remarkable job creating high-interest books for urban teens. As a teacher, I assigned the Bluford books to my students, and I cannot count the number of formerly non-reading students who read not just one book of the series, but several.
Then one of my students, a 15-year old eighth grader, handed me Sapphire’s Push, which was turned into the movie “Precious”, and I saw further proof of these students’ needs.
Twenty years ago, in “For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Wasn’t Enough, Ntozake Shange said something like, “The New York TImes never said nothin’ to me.” She repeats it over and over.
That sentiment is still true.
Regardless of the advances so-called “minorities” have made in the political arena, urban kids today are inundated not with personally empowering works, or slice-of-life stories designed with respect for the audience. They are bludgeoned with senseless violence, or idiot humor - the Saw series, Scarface, American Me, Blood In Blood Out, any Adam Sandler film, SpongeBob, etc. The only other outlet they are afforded is sports, and many of them have parents who don’t let them out in the neighborhood to play sports because the area is dangerous.
As I looked into what else is available, I discovered Street Lit, and realized that I wanted to be a part of this movement. Although my life was blessed compared with some of my students’, I faced my own issues as a teenager, including getting thrown out of both a middle school and a high school (both public).
I realized how much I wanted to write a book for my students who are struggling readers. My personal writing process led me somewhere between Bluford and Precious, and I believe that Down will speak to a wider audience than those for whom I wrote it.
How long did it take you to write the novel?
The book gestated in my mind for a couple of years before I put it down on paper. But from the time I sat down to write until its publication this past May took about 22 months.
Did you write everyday?
I teach full-time, have two small children and a marriage that requires my attention. We home school our girls, so that is an additional demand on my time. I write when I can, where I can. Some times I don’t get to write for a week or two. Other times I can get a good three days in a row.
What happens most often is that I get time to write between 11.00pm and 1.00am. On a good day, I‘ll get in an hour or two before dinner.
As a teacher, I have periodic vacations, and my most productive times are usually then.
Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?
By far most of my difficulties have surrounded creating a genuine voice for Leon. The slang was not the problem, nor the tone, nor the inflection. What I found particularly difficult was being consistent with Leon’s syntax, and maintaining an appropriate grade-level vocabulary.
Early on, I decided that Leon’s voice would be confined to his speaking, but his thinking might operate at a higher level. But in conversations with my editor, Hugh McCracken, it became clear to me that the whole thing was in Leon’s voice, so I have to adjust all of the prose to be delivered with a third- or fourth-grade vocabulary. This insight engendered an enormous amount of work, and its efficacy continues to haunt me.
Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?
I have been a teacher, on and off, since 1989. The best part of the book, for me, has always been the knowledge that I am writing something for struggling readers that might interest them enough so that they will finish it. I also enjoyed working with the character of Mr. Chong. Playing up the dynamic between Leon and Mr. Chong was really fun for me.
What sets the book apart from other things you've written?
This book is different from my other published work because it was written with a focus on maintaining an accessible reading level. I enjoy the interplay of words, and take pride in my prose. A Thousand Beauties is truly a beautifully written book. Down contains prose that is much more raw. The play of ideas is limited because Leon’s thinking is limited and Leon delivers this book.
There are similarities in that both Down and A Thousand Beauties are realistic, contemporary explorations of societal expectations, mores, and values. Both Leon (Down) and Ruskin (A Thousand Beauties) pressure themselves to perform well under immense duress. Both make terrible mistakes. Both characters are imperfect and multifaceted, and both try to maintain lives spiraling out of control. There are other similarities, but these, I think, are the important ones.
How did you choose a publisher for Down?
The novel was published by Bewrite Books, Canada, May 25, 2012, and is available in all digital formats.
Bewrite Books published my first novel, and I enjoyed (and benefited from) their editorial process. I have relationships with Neil and the people at Bewrite. They know me as more than the author of this one book. Their editorial process is enjoyable, and is designed to produce the best product possible. The disadvantage is that they no longer offer hard copies of the book.
What will your next book be about?
My next book is a historic, romantic farce set in Southern California around the turn of the last century. That’s about all I can say about it right now.
- The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with John Brandon, by Emily Temple, Flavorwire, July 3, 2012
- Mark Adam Kaplan [Interview_2], Conversations with Writers, November 27, 2011
- Mark Adam Kaplan [Interview_1], Conversations with Writers, July 30, 2009