TeenBookCon Author Matt Mendez on Representation, Hope, and BARELY MISSING EVERYTHING
Have you heard about the debut YA novel drawing comparisons to Jason Reynolds and Matt de la Peña? It's Barely Missing Everything by Matt Mendez, and it's a stunning portrayal of two Mexican-American families in El Paso, Texas. Using three distinctive narrators, Mendez tackles difficult themes of race and social justice with a sure hand and plenty of heart. It's one of our favorite books of the season, and a must-add for your TBR pile.
We're thrilled to host Matt at the tenth annual TeenBookCon this weekend, where he'll be joined by 23 other fantastic YA authors. Join us on March 30 at Clear Springs High School—you'll be able to attend panels, connect with authors, get your book signed, and catch a great keynote from Angie Thomas and Laurie Halse Anderson. You can register now... but first, read Matt's exclusive Q&A below. Trust us: It will only leave you more excited for the weekend.
You're a debut young adult author. (One who drew comparisons to Jason Reynolds and Matt de la Peña, no less!) Tell us a bit about your path to publication.
I had been working on the novel for a few years already when I’d been invited to teach a writing workshop and present at a writer’s conference at my local community college. But, my second daughter had just been born and I only had a few days to prepare (I was a last-minute fill in). I was tired, stressed out, and ready to say no.
But, Pima Community College had been key to the start of writing career and an old friend really needed my help, so I reluctantly said yes (after some convincing by my wife, Marlo). I read student stories, prepared writing exercises, and I wrote a presentation. In the audience for my presentation was Dara Hyde, who was the first person to read Barely Missing Everything and who became my agent shortly after. We worked together for two years after that conference, her helping whip BME into shape and eventually finding the novel a home with Caitlyn Dlouhy Books. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had said no.
What made you decide to write for teens?
When I was a teen there weren’t many books written by people like me or that had characters like me in them. So, the goal for me is to make sure that Barely Missing Everything finds its way into the hands of teens who may feel unseen, for them to see their lives on the page and know that what happens to them matters. That their stories and lives are being written.
Barely Missing Everything has three distinctive, original narrators: Juan, JD, and Fabi. What was it like to develop those three voices, and how did you keep them all so separate and clear?
I wanted to make sure all three characters were as real as I could make them and that readers wouldn’t have the urge to skim over a section because one of the characters seemed flatter or boring compared to another. To make the voices distinct, I revised the novel out of sequence, writing Juan, JD, and Fabi’s sections like three separate stories. By writing each character as the center of their own story I was really able to discover them as characters and how they related to the novel as a whole. Then, I reassembled the book and revised again…and again…and again.
I also spent a lot of time away from the keyboard thinking as the Juan, JD, and Fabi. Is that considered method writing? Is that a thing?
The story has tough, realistic details—but also a lot of hope. How did you balance those two themes? And why is it important to hang on to hope?
Fabi has a realization in a scene with her sister that I feel captures the balance between hard times and hope: “It was amazing the way life pushed onward no matter what could be happening in any one person’s life. This used to bother the hell out of her, but maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Everyone pulling everybody else in one forward direction simply by continuing to live.” Tragedy always feels personal, and it can make you feel alone, but hope, in part, comes from the people around you. So a big part of hanging onto to hope is hanging on to those close to you. In finding support so you can eventually move beyond a tragedy or tough circumstance because the people around you are doing it too.
Can you tell us a bit about the project you're currently working on?
I’m working on a companion novel to Barely Missing Everything, but I don’t want to say much more than I’m excited by where the writing is taking me.
Do you have recommendations for readers who love Barely Missing Everything?
YES! Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. Both of these books are so amazing. Both writers take such big chances and then pay them off. Kekla Magoon’s How it Went Down is another fantastic book. Like BME, it uses multiple POVs to tell a difficult story.
Author photo by Chris Summitt.