Francisco X. Stork Talks with Roger

Francisco X. Stork Talks with Roger

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In Disappeared, brother and sister Emiliano, a high school student, and Sara, a young newspaper reporter, respectively, alternate their voices to relate this moral thriller set in contemporary Juárez, Mexico.

Roger Sutton: There have been a few recent YA novels — including Disappeared — that deal with young people who in one way or another get wrapped up in the drug cartels in Mexico. Is this a frequent theme in Mexican contemporary popular culture? Or are people afraid of it — is it too close to home?

Francisco X. Stork: It's not something that people shy away from. If you watch Mexican television, the telenovelas and all of that, the drug world is very prevalent. From what I understand, the cartel people take a little pride in it; there's a certain notoriety. I still have family in Mexico. Their way of life has totally changed. You're afraid of going out onto the street. You have to take all kinds of precautions. You live under constant fear. What's amazing to me is that people try to live their normal lives despite all of this, which is a credit to their courage.

RS: Do you feel like an insider or an outsider writing this novel, or both?

FXS: I feel like an insider because I was able to put myself in the shoes of the Mexican characters. I lived in Juárez for a year or so when my adoptive father was bringing us to the United States and my mother had to wait a year before she could get her visa. We were in Juárez before we could cross over to El Paso. In order to write this novel I went back to those times when I was Mexican, before I became Mexican American. I put myself in the shoes of those who love their country and really don't want to leave it for any reason.

RS: They leave because they have to.

FXS: Yes, and I wanted to convey how much of a sense of belonging you have in your own country that you lose when you come to a different country. Belonging — it's a very difficult thing to describe, the comfort level that you have in your own culture, with your own language and your own food and your own people, so much so that you're torn apart when you exchange cultures.

RS: Safety isn't everything.

FXS: No. I think that for a lot of people, when they come to the United States, they really would like to return to Mexico someday. They have to leave for all kinds of reasons, but if they had an opportunity to go back, I believe that many would.

RS: There's a scene I love in the book, when Sara goes into her boss's desk. She's looking for a bus token, and instead discovers something that we won't give away, but that all of a sudden turns another screw into the plot. How do you, as a novelist, deal with such a serious topic while also acknowledging that people read for fun? Because it was fun for me when that happened, like, "Oh, boy, what's going to happen now?"

FXS: My guiding light is to be interested in what I am writing from an intellectual point of view, but also from an emotional one. To be captivated that way is to be engaged, and that's what ultimately drives the reader, this immersion into the world of the book through the characters. Isaac Bashevis Singer would say that entertainment is everything. For him, of course, the definition of entertainment encompassed a lot more than watching reality TV or something. If you go for entertainment in the sense of capturing the reader's attention, even on a serious topic, that's going to save you from being preachy and from putting the message ahead of the story.

RS: Right. I realized in that moment in the story that I must really care about Sara because I became emotionally invested in what was going to happen as a result of her discovery. Whereas if she were just a character in a thriller movie, say, you might be enjoying the action but you don't really feel connected with the characters the way you do with Sara and Emiliano. Which sibling came to you first?

FXS: Emiliano was the character that grabbed me. He is a young man who is in many ways American in his ambition and desire for success. Sara appealed to another side of me, one that was more noble, I guess you can say.

RS: That's true. Through her character, you can get across ideas that you couldn't express through a younger person — not through Emiliano anyway — without having it seem out of character or preachy. You have in Sara an adult perspective, but she's young enough that Emiliano's friends think she's hot.

FXS: Yes, she's just about nineteen, so on the edge of adulthood. My experience with young people from Mexico is there's a maturity level that is very interesting to me. A lot of them still have this sense of courtesy to one's elders. Now that I'm old I notice it more frequently.

RS: Like when a young person doesn't hold the door for us.

FXS: Or maybe it's because in Spanish they speak in the usted form, the formal, so you notice that deference toward old people a little bit more.

RS: Initially you only spoke Spanish as a child, right?

FXS: Yes.

RS: Is that still in your head? Did you think in Spanish as you wrote this story? Or was it all in English in your imagination?

FXS: I wanted to maintain some of the Spanish rhythms, which are a little different — sometimes the position of where the verb and noun go is different in Spanish. While I was working on the story, I figured that if I thought through something in Spanish first, that would give a more realistic sense that these characters were in Mexico and speaking Spanish. I still read a lot in Spanish. I love the classic Spanish-language authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. There's something about reading in Spanish and then writing in English that creates, for me, this sense of my own personal voice.

RS: Do you have a different approach to a story set in Mexico rather than one set in the United States?

FXS: This is the first story I've written with Mexican characters. All of my main characters have been Mexican American, either first generation or second generation. I approached this one a little bit differently because I went back to my experiences coming from Mexico to the United States, and I tried to figure out the dialogue the way a young person would say something in Mexico as opposed to the United States. So there was some thought that was put into making it really Mexican.

RS: How do you feel connected to kids in general these days? Do you find yourself in your imagination speaking naturally in a way that makes this a young adult book? Did you know you were writing a young adult book when you wrote your first one?

FXS: My first book was for adults and it was published by a small university press. The second one, Behind the Eyes, was a book with a young person as a character and a young adult publisher, Dutton, picked it up. And then Marcelo in the Real World was the first time a book of mine was read by more than my immediate family.

RS: It was huge.

FXS: Even with Marcelo, I wasn't really sure that I was writing for young adults, but I did want to write about young characters. I am more conscious of it now — I do see myself as writing for young people, and that's something I want to do. In terms of my connection to them, I find that it would be hard for me to write a very contemporary book with young people in high school texting each other and so forth. I just don't have the same facility with that kind of language. A lot of my characters appear in circumstances that are a little bit different. For example, in Irises: two young girls who are very poor in Texas, who live kind of isolated lives. It's easier for me to understand how these characters would speak than it would be at this point for the kind of talk that kids do all the time.

RS: But you do have technology in this book. That definitely plays an important part.

FXS: That took a lot of work. Every time I came up with something that required technology, I had to research it. I was fortunate enough to have a young man in an IT department who could verify that I was on the right track. I do venture into the modern world. But it's not quite as easy for me these days as it probably would be for a younger author.

RS: I guess if you've grown up with digital technology, it is your world. But for those of us who didn't, which is pretty much everybody over forty — there weren't cell phones. Technology could so easily cut off a lot of classic stories. If the characters had a cell phone, the story would be over in five pages. In Disappeared it feels like you acknowledged the value of the cell phone to the story, the limitations it imposes, and the dangers it can also present.

FXS: It was good to write about those technologically savvy people in Mexico who have a lot in common with the high-expertise computer people in every country. There's kind of a universality about that now. All these young people share this technological expertise, even in countries that you don't necessarily think of as "developed" as the United States. You still have these incredible minds that have a facility with technology. It was important for me to show that with respect to Mexico.

RS: Right, because as far as culture goes, in pop culture we are more used to seeing scenes of kids sitting in the plaza throwing pots all day or something. Doing folk customs.

FXS: That's right.

RS: How do you think the book is going to fare in our current political climate?

FXS: My hope is that in a climate where there is a lot of anger and hatred, having portraits of individuals who are complex in the sense that all humans are complex — that we are all good and bad and have problems and aspirations and so forth — the portrayal of full humans will counteract some of the anger and hatred that may be directed at the Latino immigrant or the undocumented person. That would be one hope. But really the other hope is on the other side, for Latino kids to see themselves in this complexity, and say, "Yeah, I'm like that," and to be proud of that heritage.

RS: The way you portrayed Emiliano's decision about what he was going to do with his life was great. When that theme began to be developed I thought, this is such a no-brainer. There are good guys and there are bad guys. But you kept complicating that on me—and for him. It wasn't that easy.

FXS: Especially in a country where there's a lot of poverty. We have this image of crime being totally evil, but there are some good people — people we would call "good" in many other ways — who need to get their hands dirty in order to survive. Whenever a stereotype comes into my mind when I'm writing, I make sure I demolish it. I take a different direction. I want to give people more to think about. It leads to a greater self-knowledge, to recognize the ambiguity that exists in others, that exists in ourselves. I feel that's an important thing to do.

RS: You'd think that wouldn't be a huge leap, right? We know that about ourselves, that we're complicated. Why is it so difficult to imagine that somebody else is too?

FXS: We form these abstract concepts about the other person almost without realizing it — old, black, Latino. That's like a shortcut to doing any further thinking.

RS: Our first thought is, how much is this person like me? Which is really not the best way to get a balanced view of somebody else.

FXS: Right. What better place for that than literature, really? It's very difficult to get to know another person. Think of how long it takes us to get to know our partners.

RS: They're always surprising us.

FXS: But literature allows you that ability to really go in-depth into another person's mind, another person's heart, in a way that's not so easy to do in real life. And then you can take that experience, and maybe a little light bulb will go off in your head the next time you're in front of somebody. This guy could have more to him than meets the eye.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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