By Rebecca Ballenger, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZMatt Mendez is the author of Barely Missing Everything and the short story collection, Twitching Heart. The New York Times says Matt “has an uncanny ability to capture the aimless bluster of young boys posturing at confidence.” His new novel, The Broke Hearts, also captures this bluster. In this profile, Matt opens up about this new novel, his writing process and meaningful reader interactions.
The Broke Hearts
The Broke Hearts is more of a companion book than a sequel and revisits characters from Barely Missing Everything. Told in alternating perspectives and formats that encompass the experiences of JD, Danny and Sarge, Matt explores shared grief and moments of individual heartbreak in this book.
Matt wrote The Broke Hearts because he felt as though Danny had more of a story to tell and that motivated him to revisit these characters and places. “The plan was to write a straightforward, standalone novel with Danny as the main character, him going off to college and me exploring the relationship between him and the Sarge,” says Matt who aimed to write about a book about fathers and sons.
“But as I started to write,” Matt continues, “JD’s presence in the story began to grow and grow until I had to make him a POV character too. Before I knew it, I was writing a different book than I had originally planned, but it was still centered around that central relationship, between boys and their fathers. Only now it is much more complicated, and I think better.”
Although JD and Danny are teens, the book skews toward New Adult as they’ve graduated high school with JD signing up for the Air Force and Danny moving on to college. Even so, it appeals to the Young Adult reader. Matt says YA readers need books that reflect their current lives and what their near future could look like.
“JD and Danny are living right where YA readers are about to be, in that big transition from high school and into the first steps of adulthood,” Matt points out.
The Broke Hearts invites readers to ask important questions as they go on this journey with JD and Danny. Specifically, what happens if all your effort is put into achieving one goal such as getting to college but don’t like that future once you get there? How do you adjust your goals and re-imagine your future?
Writing to Reveal Character
Matt’s books have moments of levity and dry humor, while the stories have heavy themes of family hardship and over-policing of targeted neighborhoods. However, he is more interested in people: how they move in the world, make choices, think and observe.
He says, “Most of my work takes place in the contemporary world, but I’m less concerned about exploring an issue or theme than I am about revealing character. I’m way more interested people.”
And amidst the darker settings, Matt’s characters are funny. “I like to write jokes and create characters who use humor to deal with hard situations because that’s just a very human thing to do.”
The Broke Hearts and Barely Missing Everything take place in cities Matt calls or has called home (primarily El Paso, but Tucson also gets a shout out). Matt makes the setting seem more integral to the storytelling and elevates place to the same status as the characters.
“The Southwest occupies such a large space in my imagination. The mountains, the cactus, the rock. The wide-open sky. The desert environment can seem harsh, but it also beautiful and giving. It’s the only place I can think of setting my stories, where my characters will feel at home.” He adds, “Where I feel at home.”
Matt earned his MFA from the University of Arizona and often discusses the people who inspired his writing. He has also taught creative writing. That begs the question, what would he say to a JD, Danny, Roxanne or even a Fabi who was considering an attempt at a novel?
“Both JD and Danny are artists, so I think writing a novel might seem more natural for them. They are already thinking about story and images and wanting to make meaning out of things they are observing in the world around them,” he says.
“Roxanne and Fabi may not see themselves as artists or even creative, but that may actually be an advantage when it comes to writing. I’ve been in aircraft maintenance most of my life, so I have a very different way of approaching writing than a lot of writers.”
Teachers and Readers
In a 2019 Pine Reads Review podcast episode with the Worlds of Words Teen Reading Ambassadors (episode no longer available online), Matt joined the show to discuss Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams. In that podcast, Matt shared his admiration for Rivera, who makes a cameo in this book. Apparently, Rivera is not the only author cameo.
“All of the adult characters in The Broke Hearts are named after writers that are important to me in way or another. It was my way of keeping their work in mind while writing and also of honoring them,” says Matt. Finding these Easter eggs adds playfulness to the readers’ experience of the story.
Matt clearly honors those who have influenced his work. “Writers like Meg Files and Aurelie Sheehan, who were my first writing teachers, helped me incorporate so much of my life outside of writing into my how I approach the craft of it,” Matt says.
As Matt acknowledges his teachers, he also appreciates readers – both at book events and in the classroom. He especially enjoys interaction as part of these experiences. Matt appreciates being in an unscripted conversation with a book-talk host followed by an audience question and answer in with both parts of the program go in unexpected directions.
The same is true for classroom visits. “Being in conversation with a classroom is much more fun than talking at students,” he says. “I like to have small workshops, where students can begin a story of their own and the visit not just be about a writer coming to visit but also about them seeing themselves as writers.”
Matt sees the reader as the star of book events and classroom visits. “I’m way less interesting or important than books,” he says. “Readers want writers to know how books and stories have affected them and their lives.” He acknowledges the gift of readers’ time spent between the covers of a book. “The least I can do is listen to them and repay that time.”
Like many of his characters (and readers), Matt grew up in El Paso, Texas and continues to live in the Southwest, now in Tucson, Arizona. Readers interested in a teen’s take on The Broke Hearts should listen to Season 2, Episode 1 of WOW Reads, a podcast of Worlds of Words that features younger readers. In this episode, the Worlds of Words Teen Reading Ambassadors discuss the experience of meeting Matt at the book launch for The Broke Hearts.
Authors’ Corner is a periodic profile featured on our blog where authors discuss their writing process and the importance of school visits. Worlds of Words frequently hosts these authors for events in the collection. To find out when we are hosting an author, check out our events page. Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.