Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Q&A: Francisco X. Stork, author of MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD

Earlier this month, Francisco X. Stork's much-acclaimed Marcelo in the Real World came out in paperback. Francisco and I are working on our third book together (after Marcelo and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors), but I had never actually hosted him for a Q&A here, so I asked him to answer a few questions for me, and he was kind enough to agree.

Could you tell us a little bit about how Marcelo came to be? 
Marcelo had a long journey before it came to be in its final form. The first version I wrote was not about Marcelo but about his mother, Aurora. In this story, Aurora enters Marcelo’s room a year after his death and discovers his journals. The journals reveal a very special young man. It was when transcribing the journals of Marcelo that his voice became very powerful. It was as if Marcelo was urging me to write his story. So I wrote about him, a book that I initially intended as an adult book. It had Marcelo traveling to Mexico in search of Ixtel, the young woman whose picture he discovers in his father’s files. Faye Bender, my agent, sent this version to adult publishers without success. I then decided to rewrite some of it and we sent it to young adult publishers and this is how the version you got came across your desk. As you know, there were major revisions after you accepted it. The trip to Mexico was canned. The story became more “local.” I think that with your help, I rewrote about sixty percent of the book. [CK note: For my own account of the editorial process, click here.]

The other thing I want to mention is that I never set out to write a book about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. I created Marcelo, paying attention to the voice that was presented to me, and only later discovered that someone like him would probably be diagnosed with something. It was then that I connected him to Asperger’s syndrome.

Has there been a pattern to where your books begin for you? That is, do they usually begin with a philosophical idea to explore, or the characters, or the situation – or is it different with every book? Once you have the initial seed, whatever it is, where do you go from there? 
It is very difficult to tell just exactly how the seed for a novel is planted or where the seed comes from. It’s a combination of philosophical idea and voice. In Marcelo, for example, I asked myself what would happen if a very innocent, saintly young man discovered a file that would show him the evil and suffering of the world. Once I started playing with this idea, Marcelo’s unique voice came into being. Then the philosophical idea was put aside and the character and the story took over. In the case of Death Warriors, I asked myself what would happen if I put together two very different young men, one who was very down-to-earth, practical and consumed by revenge, and the other, idealistic, philosophical and also gravely ill. Then the voices of Pancho and D.Q. came into being and they led the way. It is very important to me to let character become the driving force of the book.

You often write beautifully on your blog about the act of writing itself. What is your personal writing process like? Do you draft longhand, or on a computer? Write a full draft and then revise, or revise as you go? Do you plan books out, or write as the characters direct you? Do you have a conscious process for developing your characters, or do they just reveal themselves as you write? 
I have a full-time job working as an attorney for a state agency that develops affordable housing. The day job has forced me to find a compatible writing process, which is not easy. When I start writing a novel, I need to accept the fact that the finished product is three to four years down the line. So I strive for patience and I try to be kind to myself. If I can write a page a day, that’s wonderful. Some days I write five pages and some days I don’t write anything. I usually write directly on my laptop and I try to keep an attitude of play about the writing. Being playful for me means that I follow where the characters take me with only a vague notion of where I’m going or what I’m going to write about tomorrow. Somehow tomorrow always takes care of itself. I usually try to develop the character’s voice or personality before I start writing and that happens over a long period of gestation. During that period I will often try out different voices in a separate journal. But, of course, characters grow and develop as I write about them and they quite often surprise me.

We’re two years out now from the publication of Marcelo, and almost three years from when you finished writing and revising it. What is your relationship to the characters at this point? Do they still feel present for you, or have they faded away a bit in favor of the people you’re writing now?  
The characters from Marcelo are still very present for me. Every once in a while I’ll ask myself: What would Marcelo do? It’s a terrible burden to create characters that are better human beings than you can ever hope to be! Now and then I’ll read a passage from Marcelo for inspiration (usually one of the dialogues with Rabbi Herschel). Reading Marcelo at this point is like reading something written by someone else.
Do you know what the characters from Marcelo are doing now? [This next passage, with Francisco's answer, is blanked out to avoid spoilers and for readers who might have their own visions of the action. Highlight to read:] In my mind, Marcelo finished his last year of high school. He had some fitting-in problems but he managed okay. His mom and dad unfortunately got divorced and Marcelo has had to deal with that. He is going to nursing school in New Hampshire. He visits Jasmine and Amos every weekend and is currently trying to convince Amos to buy some ponies. He and Jasmine are in love.

You wrote once on your blog about Marcelo, “the role of religion in the book is in the asking certain type of questions when the asking is done with mind, heart, body and soul.” I would say all your books reflect this kind of religion – the asking of those big questions, which come to occupy the characters’ and the book’s whole heart. To what extent are you conscious of those questions when you’re writing the book, and to what extent do you discover them later and weave them into the revision? 
Let’s just say that I’m semi-conscious of the big questions during the first draft. I know the big questions are there and I’ve created young people capable of asking these questions, but because I’m writing a novel and not a philosophical essay, I’ve let the characters and the story take over. Then, after I finish the first draft, you have asked me to write a letter that addresses the big themes in the book. It is through this letter that I become aware of those big questions and how I was trying to deal with them. Once this awareness is present, you and I can revise the novel in such a way that the big questions become part of the flesh and blood of the book.

What are you reading now for pleasure? 

Whenever I’m in the process of writing, like I am now, I like to reread those authors who have the kind of language and rhythms and characters that are inspiring. For me, the work of people like Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, Dostoievski, Cervantes always do the trick. I also read every day something from or about a world religion.

What makes you tell stories?
I’ve always liked Flannery O’Connor’s response to the question: Why do you write? “Because it’s worse when I don’t,” she answered. So it is for me.  Telling stories is part of why I came into this world and so when I don’t write, I have a sense that I’m not quite living up to my end of the bargain. Of course, writing is not the only reason (or the most important) why I came into this world, so I try not to be anxious about the process of writing. I do what I can. I try my best. What else can I do? There is also a social element connected to the telling of stories. I tell stories about intelligent, sensitive Latino young people who in many ways serve as role models for other young people and that fulfills a sense of personal and social responsibility.

Thank you, Francisco!


  1. 12:33AM - Thanks Cheryl for your late postings. And thanks to Francisco for sharing his writing process. I love to hear of multiple versions and finding voices and trusting them. But I disagree that creating characters that are better than we are is a burden. Instead lets think of them as prayers and wishes. What if? Marcelo!

  2. Fantastic interview. Thank you both! I can't wait to read Marcelo now! =)

  3. Francisco is so impressively calm and modest. Someone to emulate. (I find myself thinking, "oh, I wish I could BE like that"--but that's not the right reaction!) I love what he says at the end about writing being part of the reason he came into the world, so he does it as well as he can--but it is not the only or even the most important reason. As a person who gets stressed about not being good enough, not doing well enough, I deeply admire these wise words from a stunning writer. Words to live by. Thank you Cheryl and Francisco!

  4. Thank you, Cheryl, for the insightful interview; thank you, Francisco for writing a book that changed the way I think about the world. Marcelo in the Real World will always be on my shelf of books to reread when I'm upset or discouraged or in doubt of the world's goodness. Hearing of the work you put into creating it makes me very grateful. I am so glad it made its way into the world, so thank you both for that!

  5. I love this so much. Especially the spoiler. T

    Thank you, Francisco. When I say that Marcelo was my favourite book of 2010, I actually mean that Marcelo is my favourite character of 2010 (and one of my favourites of all-time). I think about your beautiful book surprisingly often, considering how many books I read. It's really stuck with me. And those big questions really resonated with me at a time when I need to hear some resonance.

    This interview is just as gorgeous as the writing in the book. Thank you so much, Cheryl, for sharing it!