SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When Matt de le Pena's book "The Living" opens, a young man named Shy is a towel boy by day and a water boy at night, spending the summer earning money on a cruise ship. And then the big one hits - that epochal earthquake Californians have always heard would strike one day in the future. Well, the future strikes in an afternoon, and Shy, who is 17, is flung into shark-infested seas from a sinking ship. "The Living" is Matt de le Pena's fifth novel for young adults. It is at once a disaster epic, a survival story, and a coming-of-age novel told through the life of a young man who is becoming aware of class, prejudice and romance. Matt de le Pena joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
MATT DE LA PENA: It's an honor to be on your show.
SIMON: What put the character of this young man named Shy in your mind?
DE LA PENA: Well, I actually stole him from a failed novel that I wrote probably about six years ago. The novel failed but I loved this kid Shy.
SIMON: I don't think you're stealing if it's from your own failed novel.
DE LA PENA: That's true.
SIMON: There are some similarities between you and Shy?
DE LA PENA: Sure. The biggest thing is, you know, a kid growing up in a working-class environment often doesn't know how to show emotion. You're taught to be tough, machismo. And I think it's fun to watch those characters try to figure out what to do with their heart.
SIMON: There's a startling beginning of the book, and I don't even mean the earthquake, which happens in a few chapters. But Shy tries to hold onto a man who throws himself overboard. What does that set off in a 17-year-old who has his whole life ahead of him?
DE LA PENA: Well, the first thing is it was great to work with this clash of cultures, you know, here's this kid growing up near the Mexican border in San Diego and then now he's on a cruise ship confronted with all these wealthy people for the first time in his life. And so he doesn't know how to work with them in general. And then now this guy wants to throw himself off the ship, this guy who seemingly has everything. And I think it's incredibly confusing to him. And I wanted to start the novel with this event that sort of just put the class situation in perspective.
SIMON: Yeah, what could this guy possibly have to throw himself overboard for?
DE LA PENA: Exactly. I mean, my life is tough. This guy seemingly has it all. Why does he want to kill himself?
SIMON: There's more than a tinge of class consciousness in this story when the earthquake hits. The ship is going down and a debate breaks out; women and children or premier class passengers. Is there a lesson in that that people ought to realize - they're all vulnerable equally?
DE LA PENA: That's the thing. I mean, I think all of my books I really want to work with working-class people. My goal is to show the moments of grace and dignity in their lives. But this book was different because I now had them interacting with extreme wealth. And I think it was the first time that they started to understand, wow, in the construct of this country, my life doesn't mean as much. But now when the earthquake hits and everything is falling apart, all of that is stripped away and humans are just humans again. And it was a very interesting thing for me to follow. I didn't even know that that was going to be a big part of the book until this earthquake hit.
SIMON: You refer to yourself as a working-class writer.
DE LA PENA: Yes.
SIMON: What does that mean to you and why is it important?
DE LA PENA: You know, when I was young, I grew up in a family of working-class people - not just my parents but my extended family as well. And, you know, OK, there was an education but I will tell one thing. I saw my dad get up every single day - never took a sick day. So, that experience of seeing my dad work so hard and my mom work so hard, it translates for me into the writing process in this way. I have to clock in every day, just like my dad did going to work at the zoo. Just that I'm sitting at a desk writing a book.
SIMON: What a remarkable man your father sounds like. Could you tell us the story? 'Cause he went back to school later in life.
DE LA PENA: When I was born, he was a teenager. He got a job immediately - worked that job for 25 years until they found a way to get him out of there because he didn't have the education to be at the position he'd worked himself up to. So, my dad lost his identity because he believed that the San Diego Zoo was his identity. Eventually, he found literature through me actually. He borrowed one of my novels - "Hundred Years of Solitude" - he read it, he liked it. He wouldn't tell me anything more than he liked it. But eventually he started reading every single book I gave to him. Covertly, he enrolled himself in a community college and then ultimately went to the University of California at Santa Cruz and got his bachelor's in literature. And it's really just changed this man's life. The last time I was home, he points to a James Joyce line and says this is why we read James Joyce, Matt, which is just such a shock considering where he'd come from.
SIMON: Yeah. Are there certain features that you just have to put into a young adult novel?
DE LA PENA: No. I studied an MFA program in adult literature. And when I wrote my first book - I'll be honest with you - I had never heard of young adult, I didn't know what it was. As a matter of fact, when my agent told me my book was sold and it was going to come out as young adult, I had to Google it. But here's what I learned. If you're going to write a young adult novel about a 17-year-old character, it can't be from the point of view of a 52-year-old man looking back at when he was 17. The character has to be 17 right now. The feel of the prose has to be immediate.
SIMON: You can talk to young people but they're going to talk to you like you're an adult.
DE LA PENA: That's absolutely true. I always tell kids every single one of them switches codes depending on who they're speaking to. I'm invited to high schools and colleges all over the country. I will speak to the group, but then I'll hide sort of in the background and just listen to young people speak. Sometimes I don't even think I'm writing books; I think I'm just plagiarizing the world.
SIMON: Matt de la Pena. His new novel, "The Living." And there's a sequel to come. Thanks so much for being with us.
DE LA PENA: It was a pleasure.
SIMON: And you can read more about Matt de la Pena's teen years and the struggles that he had growing up at NPR's blog on race and ethnicity, Code Switch.