YEM Author Interview: Matt Mendez chats about basing his books in El Paso

Matt Mendez is the author of The Broke Hearts. The Broke Hearts follows JD and Danny, who are still reeling from the gutting death of their best friend. The novel explores mourning, emotional depth, and identity. YEM was able to speak with Matt about the inspirations for his books, his writing process, and advice he has for others.

Young Entertainment Mag: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

Matt Mendez: It wasn’t until I was in college, and in my late twenties, that I figured that out. Up until that I had wanted to be a filmmaker and was studying film, but then I took a creative writing course that really changed the direction of my creative life.  Of my entire life, really.   

YEM: Did you know from the start that you wanted your book The Broke Hearts to be a follow up to Barely Missing Everything?

Matt: I did. Danny Villanueva was the third friend in Barely Missing Everything. He wasn’t a point-of-view character like Juan and JD, but he was just as important to the group, and was just as interesting.

He also had a much different life than either Juan or JD. His father was in the military and had just retired. He lived in a nice house in the nice part of town. He also went to a private school and was college bound.

On the outside, Danny seemed to have everything going for him.

So I wanted to write a story about a kid with the pressure of expectations, him carrying his own and also everyone else’s.  

YEM: What were your inspirations for these books?

Matt: Inspiration isn’t really the right word. Believe me when I say I’m not writing anything in a high-minded way. Writing is how I try to figure out how I feel and think, stories an easier way for me to answer and ask myself questions. 

Barely Missing Everything was my attempt to understand destiny and choice. How much of Juan and JD’s future was actually up to them? 

The Broke Hearts was much simpler. My writing it was me trying to answer the question: how do you live with a broken heart?

YEM: Why is it important for you to base these books in El Paso, Texas, where you grew up?

Matt: El Paso holds such a special place in my imagination, as does the Southwest.  I love the desert. The mountains, the wide-open sky. The cactus and rock. The landscape has this resilient beauty that matches the people who live there. 

It is the perfect mirror, or at least I see it that way.

YEM: What was the biggest difference in writing the two books?

Matt: Confidence.

I took some risks with Barely Missing Everything as a writer—multiple POVs, one being an adult. I included an epistolary sections and included a chapter from the POV of a math test.  

Readers of my books have to trust that I’m not wasting their time and that my choices are not only fun and interesting but are going to reveal something bigger about the world in the book.

With The Broke Hearts I again have multiple POVs. And a short screenplay. And sections of short flash backs written under the headings of Lotería cards. There is a lot going on.  

But I am confident that readers will love this book, and that confidence comes from readers themselves. How they’ve reached out and expressed how they like all the different elements and moving parts.  

YEM: What is your writing process like?

Matt: The process for The Broke Hearts was unusual. I wrote a majority of the novel in my car. My two daughters are folklórico dancers, and they were practicing three days a week at the time—now it is down to twice a week!

But while they were at practice, I set up a mobile office—with my cup of coffee and little tray that attaches to the steering wheel—and wrote.  

I also would take walks around the neighborhood, which is South Tucson and has a lot of the same vibes as El Paso, take notes or pics on my phone and get back to writing. 

It was actually a pretty great process, almost like writing on location.   

YEM: What do you hope readers can learn from reading these books?

Matt: Nothing.  Ha!

I’m an emotional dude, and I want readers to have emotional reactions to the work I do. 

If they are able to learn from them, then that’s amazing. But I would much rather that they laugh when reading them. Get upset when a character does or says something upsetting. Cry if they are moved to.

I want readers to invest in these characters, in these stories.

What I learned writing The Broke Hearts was to be kinder, to be easier to forgive. People with broken hearts tend to break hearts.

So maybe that.

YEM: Do you have any advice for those who want to be writers as well one day?

Matt: Learn to enjoy working.

I’ve been in aircraft maintenance most of my life, so working with my hands, taking things apart and putting them back together over-and-over again is normal for me. And I approach writing in the same way.

Knowing that I am going to rewrite every chapter, paragraph, and probably sentence multiple until everything works is just work.  And I like it.

Also, I always suggest finding an outsider’s way to approach writing and story. 

How would a florist put a story together? A nurse? A construction worker? A cashier? 

Being a mechanic has helped me be at being writer about as much as having a MFA—if not more.

YEM: What does it mean to you to be able to write about grief?

Matt: The characters in The Broke Hearts are all dealing with grief, and some with trauma—two different things, to be sure.

And while JD and Danny are dealing with their grief, they still have to live their lives. They still have their futures, which seems absurd to them, especially since all they feel is guilt and sadness.  

I am deeply interested in how different people navigate these feelings and still consistently stumble upon joy while in the middle of heartbreak. 

Some of the best things in my own life are knotted to the worst things that have ever happened to me. Things I still wish never happened.

This is what writing about grief is to me.    

YEM: What is your favorite part of writing for a young adult audience?

Matt: That I can be as honest and straight forward as I want. There is no pretending with young people—young audiences can spot a fake, a lie, or a con better than any adult pretending to know better.

They also love what they love without apologies or pretense, and I love that. 

So, I’m hoping to write books that young audiences will find to be true, and that they will love.

YEM: Is there a line or quote that is your favorite from The Broke Hearts?

Matt: “The secret is heart, even a broken one.”

I just find this to be true. 

YEM: Are you planning to make a third book for this series?

Matt: Maybe? 

I’m writing something completely different for my third novel—a ghost story!

But I really love these characters, so I don’t ever want to close the door on them.  JD has become such a part of my own life and wonder what he will do with his own. And Danny, he is such a different person than I thought he was going into this book. I would like to see what he does next. 

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