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Interview: March 2010

March 2010

Francisco X. Stork’s latest novel, THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS, is loosely based on Miguel de Cervantes’s classic DON QUIXOTE and portrays the unlikely friendship formed between two young men --- one is determined to avenge his sister’s mysterious death, while the other is suffering from a terminal disease. In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Norah Piehl, Stork describes how he was able to put himself in the shoes of two characters caught in such difficult circumstances and elaborates on the qualities that helped form the basis of their strong bond with one another. He also explains why he chose to set their story in the American Southwest, discusses the parallels between this book and his previous acclaimed work, MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD, and suggests some further reading for those who enjoy his writing.

Teenreads.com: THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS is loosely based on Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE. Did you always have this connection in mind, or did it grow out of the characters you had already created?

Francisco X. Stork: DON QUIXOTE inspired the relationship between Pancho and D.Q., characters who had existed in my mind for a very long time. Like Don Quixote and Sancho, I wanted to write a story about two very different young men who gradually transform each other.

TRC: Pancho is full of anger and obsessed with revenge, reluctant at first to allow D.Q. and others into his life. How did you create his character? Was it difficult to write from the perspective of such a complex and, at times, difficult-to-like character?

FXS: I had to find a place inside of me that was like Pancho. I think I was able to do that because I could identify with some of the losses that made Pancho so angry and hard. Writing from the perspective of someone who is full of anger was difficult in that it brought back painful memories. On the other hand, I knew that Pancho had a good heart and I loved him, as I do all my characters, and this made the writing easy.

TRC: D.Q. is suffering from a debilitating, diffuse and potentially terminal form of brain cancer. Is this a real type of cancer? If so, how did you research his disease?

FXS: Diffuse Pontine Glioma or brainstem glioma is a very real type of cancer that affects the glial or supportive tissues in the lowest or stem-like part of the brain. Most of the research I was able to do on the Internet. I also had conversations with persons who had cancer.

TRC: D.Q. has a voice and perspective that seem to be of a much older person, or an “ageless” person, as Pancho observes. Was it a challenge to write a character who is so wise and yet also a believable teenager?

FXS: I wanted to make D.Q. both very wise and very human, and this was extremely challenging. I also wanted to make sure that his wisdom came from the core of his being and not from the fact that he was ill. One of the things that helped me was D.Q.’s sense of humor. D.Q. has what I call a “lightness-of-being,” and this makes him likable and believable.

TRC: Pancho and D.Q.’s friendship grows slowly, at least on Pancho’s part. Why do you think Pancho eventually opens up enough to let D.Q. inside his thick emotional shell? Why does D.Q. trust Pancho so completely?

FXS: I think that it is ultimately the recognition of courage that brings about their friendship. Pancho recognizes D.Q.’s courage, and D.Q. recognizes Pancho’s. Each one has a different kind of courage, and each one needs the other’s type of courage. D.Q. needs the fighting courage possessed by Pancho, and Pancho needs the accepting kind of courage possessed by D.Q.

TRC: THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS so successfully evokes the landscape and culture of the American Southwest, yet you currently live in New England. Why did you choose to set your novel in this environment?

FXS: I wanted Pancho to be Latino and the novel to have other Latino characters, and you can do that much better in the Southwest than in New England. But I also wanted the landscape of mountains, desert and clear starry nights because these reflect for me the kind of open, vulnerable searching that takes place in the book. 

TRC: D.Q. loves to read and finds much of his philosophical inspiration in books. How did you decide which books would inform D.Q.’s ideas? Were they books that you read when you were a teenager?

FXS: One of the books that D.Q cites is WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau, and this was a book that had a big impact on me when I was a teenager. I too wanted to live simply in a little shack by a lake, reading, writing and paying attention to all that really mattered, internally and externally.  

TRC: D.Q. and Pancho grapple with some of the biggest questions people ever consider, but your novel also includes plenty of action and dramatic tension. How did you work on balancing the plot between talk and action?

FXS: Story always comes first. By story I mean, events acting upon characters and characters acting upon events. The grappling with “big questions” is something that happens naturally, but secondarily, given the events and the personality of the characters. Since DEATH WARRIORS is about the development of a friendship, there has to be a fair amount of dialogue, but the dialogue is part of what moves the story forward.

TRC: Your earlier novel, MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD, was about a boy with autism spectrum disorder who, among other things, had to decide whether to remain in special ed or become part of the "real world." Similarly, in THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS, Pancho has to decide whether to remain focused on death and revenge, or to embrace real life with all its imperfections. Are there other points of connection that you see among your novels? Do you have other themes that captivate you that you'd like to explore like this?

FXS: You rightly point out that the theme of isolation versus community is one that is present in both MARCELO and DEATH WARRIORS. You are also right in that community involves embracing the world with its imperfections, and this is something that is hard to do for young people (and some old people like myself). There is also a tension in both novels between the obligation to change the imperfections that can be changed and the need to accept what cannot be changed (and the wisdom to know the difference). 

TRC: MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD was praised for having such an authentic, consistent first-person voice. How did writing about that book help you develop your craft as a writer?

FXS: I hope I become a better writer with each book. I try to challenge myself with each book so that this is the case. With MARCELO I learned not only about the importance of maintaining a consistent point of view for each character, but also about allowing that point of view to grow and change as the novel develops. In writing MARCELO, I also learned a lot from Cheryl Klein, my editor, about timing, structure and plot.

TRC: A noteworthy aspect of much of your fiction is the inclusion of genuine engagement with religious and spiritual issues. This kind of serious treatment of spirituality is rare in young adult literature. Why do you think that is?

FXS: It could be that authors are afraid of being preachy. It could also be that authors don’t genuinely believe that young people are interested in or capable of understanding spiritual issues. Inclusion of spiritual issues in fiction is hard to pull off. You really do need to have strong characters for the novel to work, and the “spirituality” should be a searching kind of spirituality that is universal, that is part of our humanity.

TRC: You’re a practicing attorney who works on the issue of affordable housing. Do you find that your “day job” informs your writing, your ability to create diverse and sympathetic characters?

FXS: I’m not so sure that being a lawyer allows me to create “sympathetic” characters! I’m sure it’s helped me with a few unsympathetic ones, however. I’m kidding. I shouldn’t be so hard on lawyers. I’m sure there are one or two good ones out there. But seriously, for the longest time I’ve seen my “day job” as an impediment to writing full time, which is what I would like to do. Lately, however, I’m beginning to see how my day job has, as you say, informed my writing in many ways --- ways that I am probably not even aware.

TRC: What is your writing process like? What time of day do you do your best work? Do you revise as you go along, or write a whole first draft and then revise later?

FXS: When I wrote my first book 10 years ago, I used to get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for two hours before going to work. Now, I find that my brain doesn’t work quite as well, so I write an hour or two in the evenings. Sometimes my day job has zapped all my energy and I sit in front of the laptop like a zombie, but I force myself to stay there for at least an hour even if all that comes out of that hour is a sentence. I like to write out a first draft without thinking too much about it. I revise a little after I finish, and then I share that draft with my editor, and together we come up with an outline of areas that need further revision.

TRC: What other books --- either those marketed for young adults or for older readers --- would you recommend to readers who enjoy your books? Would you advise readers of THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS to read DON QUIXOTE?

FXS: Definitely read DON QUIXOTE. There are some very accessible translations. It may be difficult reading at first, but try to get to the second part of the book, which is where all the wonderful dialogues between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza take place. I also think that J. D. Salinger’s books have themes similar to the ones that interest me. I’m talking primarily about books like his short stories and FRANNY AND ZOOEY.

TRC: What writing projects are you working on now?

FXS: I’m working on a novel written from the perspective of two young sisters. The book will come out in 2011. Wish me luck.