May in Texas is a time for celebrating the literary contributions of those who have changed the world with their pen. From O. Henry to Katherine Anne Porter, we love our writers, and this month we’re taking the opportunity to shine some light on today’s writers who call Texas home.
Are you a native Texan? If not, what brought you to the Lone Star State?
I was actually born in Oklahoma, but my father was in the military so we’ve lived all over the world. I came to Texas to attend UT Austin to follow in my sister’s footsteps after my father was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Has living in Texas shaped your writing? If so, how?
I write two different kinds of books: books for teachers that support their educational practices, and fiction for children. The books that I’ve written for teachers are really respective of the context in Texas, because here we have a lot of different cultures, and we also have a lot of students who are second language learners. So I’ve written books that show teachers how include these students from varied cultural and linguistic backgrounds in their classrooms, discussions, and instruction. My fiction books are also reflective of Texas culture because I’ve written a book called Sometimes which is about immigrant students coming to Texas from Mexico, and their experience in Texas schools, and how the Texas school is actually a welcoming environment for them, and was able to receive them. My other book, The Champions’ Game, is about a dedicated teacher in El Paso who changed the lives of his students through the game of chess despite their hardships and “border kid” narratives.
What inspired you to pursue writing as a career?
I have loved to read since about middle school, when I had a teacher who used to read out loud to us. I really have a passion for telling other people’s stories. I love to hear people’s stories, and share these stories, and even when I was in high school and my dad was stationed in Japan, I won an international storytelling contest in Seoul, South Korea. When I started publishing stories about how to teach, I didn’t really think of writing stories as being something that I would do. But I found that when I shared students’ stories while working with teachers, it had a powerful effect on the teachers in the room. This then evolved into telling stories in book form about students and teachers in Texas.
Tell us a bit about your latest book. Where did you get the idea for it?
My latest book, The Champions’ Game, is co-authored with Saul Ramirez who is a middle school art teacher and chess coach in El Paso, Texas. I decided to write this book when I was in El Paso and I heard the amazing story about how these kids were from one of the lowest income districts in United States were able to win first place in the state championships for chess. And then, with NO money at all, raised $20,000 to go to the national championships … and win! The story inspired me so much that I knew it had to be a book. So I traveled to El Paso to interview Saul, and about 25-35 hours of taped interviews later, the journey of The Champions’ Game began.
Are there any works of yours that you would want to be adapted for the screen?
The Champions’ Game would be a great movie, in my opinion. We were so surprised and honored by the starred review from Kirkus Reviews because twice in the review it was described as a “movie-ready narrative.” When I tell people about the story, I continually hear, “this has got to be a movie!” Everyone loves a movie about the people who overcome the odds and win something big, and this is one of those stories. And I think that today in America, there is a lot of negativity and energy about kids on the border, and I think a story like this could really help contribute some positive energy to that conversation.
Which books or authors have inspired you the most?
For the teacher books that I’ve written, I’m very inspired by Parker Palmer, who wrote The Courage to Teach, and also by Harry Wong, the author of The First Ten Days of School because of its practicality. To mirror his style, I try to make everything I write for teachers user-friendly and have a tremendous amount of joy. For the stories that I’ve written, I’m inspired by Gary Soto who write stories about Hispanic kids, and also by Louis Sachar who is a very funny author.
What are you reading at the moment?
Right now I am reading Hillbilly Elegy which I think is an important book at the moment because it chronicles a side of America that we don’t often hear about. And I’m kind of embarrassed by this one, but I’m reading Tolstoy, the great Russian storyteller. I’ve always been a fan of Dostoyevsky, and my favorite book of all time is The Brothers Karamazov.
Where are some of your favorite writing spots around Texas? How do these places help you create?
My favorite place to write is where a story is taking place. When I was working on Sometimes, going to the school where the story was based really helped me get a feel what the illustrations should look like, and for the kind of language used when a kid comes into the office. Also, going on location in El Paso numerous times for The Champions’ Game really inspired the “Tex-Mex” use of the language and for the shape and flow of the narrative.
What do you find most difficult about your writing process? Why?
What I like about writing is thinking of a new idea, or finding a new story to tell and mapping out the story. I also have come to like writing dialogue. What I find most difficult about the writing process is editing. I’ve always heard the saying that anyone can write well if they are willing to rewrite often enough. I know that my book 7 Steps to a Language-Rich Interactive Classroom was re-written about 12 times, and The Champions’ Game took on a variety of different forms before landing on its final version.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors looking to give writing a shot, but don’t know what to do?
My advice to a new writer is to look for good stories, and to look for opportunities to share those stories. As you share those stories, whether in print, on airplanes, for contests, or for local publications and venues, listen for good stories. And when you hear a good story, look for ways to share that story, because you never know what that opportunity is going to become. I think my own experience in writing has not come from thinking, “This is going to become a book!” but rather, “I have to share this story.”