Do you speak Spanish?
Yes. I am first generation Cuban American. I grew up in Queens, New York with my mother and sister. We spoke both Spanish and English at home, although I spoke mostly Spanish to my other relatives.
Which age group do you like writing for best?
Every age has its own way of being magical and tragic, and I love to write about all of it.
How many of your books are true or from real life?
Almost everything I write is based in some way on what I’ve experienced or seen in my life. But I write 100% fiction, which means that no character or event in any of my books is directly from life. I mix memories of people together, change their gender or their species or their circumstances. Then I put them in harm’s way and watch them solve the problem. What’s important is that I tell the truth about the feelings of the experience.
What were you like as a kid?
I was a nonstop motion machine. As a younger kid, I was enthusiastic and liked to be involved in school. When I reached junior high and high school, though, a lot of my personality changed. I was unhappy at school and within my family. I was sometimes sullen and was suspicious of people. I had a harder time reaching out of myself to make friendships. Luckily, that didn’t last forever.
What advice do you have for young people who want to become writers?
I think the most important thing is to read widely and voraciously, beyond what your school assigns you. (For heaven’s sake, find the books that make you lose yourself in the pages.) I also think you should write as often as you can, even if it’s privately in a journal. The only way to learn to be a better writer is by writing many, many terrible drafts and having to figure out how to make what’s in your head and heart sound right on the page.
What scares you? What inspires you?
I am scared of violence, plain and simple. All forms. What inspires me is the amazing kindness you can see in this world every single day if you really look.
What are the best and worst things about being a writer?
The best things are that I live in the world of my imagination and that I get to honor childhood and youth in a really important and lasting way. The worst thing is that you need a very thick shell to keep your self-confidence. Writers succeed and fail very publicly, so you have to be prepared for people who might not like your book at all and who will tell you so in great detail.