Friday, September 7, 2018

The Universal Story: An Interview with Tight Author Torrey Maldonado [Contributor: Megan Mann]

(Image credit: Penguin Random House)

When was the last time you sat down with a book and reading it felt like reading an intimate conversation? Has it been a while? If you are looking to dive back into this kind of reading experience, look no further than Torrey Maldonado’s newest release, Tight.

Tight follows Bryan as he navigates the Brooklyn projects where his dad reigns supreme. He’s a quiet kid who likes hanging out at his mom’s office and keeps to himself — that is, until his parents decide he should befriend the new kid named Mike across the street. What starts out as a fun friendship full of comic books and banter turns into a test of who Bryan really is, and a lesson in standing up to a bully.

The story that Tight tells is a universal one, and it is one that I think a lot of people need to read. So I discuss this, the writing process, and the great battle between Marvel and DC with Torrey Maldonado!

Congratulations on Tight! How does it feel to have it out?

Torrey Maldonado: Thank you. It feels like Tight being out answers so many questions. I wondered, “Can I overcome the sophomore slump?” Another question that I got from everyone since my debut of Secret Saturdays was, “When will we see your next book?”

So I feel good — James Brown good — to get to finally say: “Tight is out!” And people feel Tight is tight, so YES!

What was the inspiration behind Bryan’s story?

Elizabeth Bird of A Fuse # 8 Production, a School Library Journal blog, told me that she wants to steal a phrase of mine: the bully spectrum. My whole life, and my two decades as a teacher, have taught me that there is a spectrum of bullies.

I want readers to finish Tight and plot the bullies of their lives on a spectrum like: “Okay, the one who pushes people against a wall goes here,” and “I’ll plot the one who is like Mike who steals your heart over there.” I hope that through Tight, my students and other kids learn that there is a mix of bullies on the bully spectrum so that they can better respond to that mix in their lives. And I definitely hope they see the hero Bryan as themselves.

If readers know that they can be heroic like him, then that’s a win.

What I really enjoyed about the book was that it felt like someone was telling you a story. It didn’t feel like a book, in a way, which made it such a great book to sit down with and get through. Did you want to make the language and the references timely? If so, why?

Dang. You said, “It didn’t feel like a book, which made it such a great book to sit down with and get through.” Can I turn your praise into a cup of coffee and drink that daily? I appreciate you saying that. Yours is high praise because many kids I write for are allergic to books. Since they aren’t feeling books, I hoped Tight wouldn’t feel like one.

About the language and references, I see books set in New York that don’t feel like New York. I’ll read books with tween dialogue and tweens don’t talk that way. Those books are off. I’m glad you feel Tight is on-point. As a tween, I needed timely accurate books that were both windows and mirrors so I that’s what I write.

What’s great is that while Bryan’s culture is evident, his story of doing things he doesn’t want to do in order to impress someone else is entirely universal. Was that dichotomy important to you?

Jay-Z has a rap line: “He’s got skills but he’s not real.” As a writer, my goal is to make a book so real and accurate that I get reviews like the one that I just got for Tight. Someone said, “You had to live this book to write it.” So, it’s a mirror book. Now, as a middle school teacher, I know that it is a universal theme that the middle school years are “crossroad years” where tweens spend a lot of time trying to impress others. So I wanted to craft a window into that universal struggle. I appreciate you saying I achieved that dichotomy because I want Tight to sit on shelves with other books that are both mirrors and windows.

Why did you want Bryan to always feel like he had to be tough instead of “soft” and that he couldn’t show his emotions?

Since before the 1960s when Frankie Valli sang “Walk Like a Man”, males have been told to “man up” and to hide their emotions and not be “soft.” In tough neighborhoods, toughness is admired and tweens like Bryan need tough friends like Mike who protect them. Mobb Deep, the rap group, has a lyric: “We livin' this til the day that we die / Survival of the fit only the strong survive.” In my Brooklyn hometown where I was born and raised — and in lots of neighborhoods — urban Black/Brown boys who don’t project toughness get called “soft” and get bullied. It happened to me. Through Byran we see the pressure boys feel trying to balance their emotions with a survival skill of showing toughness.

On the flip side, Mike is Bryan’s exact opposite. He acts nice until you get to know him, and then he’s more concerned with being the baddest kid on the block. What was the thought process behind making them both such polar opposites while still sharing interests?

The stereotype of enemies being total opposites is so cliché and overdone. I wanted to Mike to be real. In real life, we deal with ambiguous friendships and people. We all know that likable, interesting person with great qualities who is nice until you get to know them. Then we learn that everything that glitters isn’t gold. With Mike, I show the truth — people who are like each other tend to like each other and we tend to get hurt by those in our circle.

The story essentially showcases how your environment and your upbringing can influence who you become and how you react to certain things. Would you say that’s true?

Yes, Tight is about what your environment presents and how you react. And, the book acts as a timely version of the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. Bryan knows what’s tight, in good ways, for him but two roads diverge in his hood and he’s in a tight squeeze. He has a choice — take the road less traveled, which will make all the difference, or follow in the footsteps of toxic masculinity.

Okay, let’s move on to some fun questions. What’s your writing process like?

Listening to music makes writing so much better. It has to be the music that my students and I love, but the instrumental versions. Otherwise, the song’s words mess with my typewritten words. I wrote a chapter while listening to Childish Gambino’s lyrics and I almost typed “This is America” over and over.

What would you say is your best advice to any aspiring writer who feels like they’re stuck or faces writer’s block?

My best advice to any aspiring writer who feels like they’re stuck or face writer’s block is to replay the ending of the last episode of season two of Daredevil on Netflix. Karen Page has writer’s block and her journalist boss tells her to write something new and different that only she can write. He tells her to write her truth — all of it and everything she’s been through and not to pull any punches. He tells her to tell people something they don’t know. That unstuck me so many times with Tight.

What are you reading now?

Right now, I’m following the advice of writers who have published way more books than me. They say keep writing so a book comes out each year. That means I have a list of what I want to read once I’ve caught up to publishing all of the stories I feel need to be told.

What are five books you would recommend?

The five books that I would recommend are:

  1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  2. Night by Elie Wiesel
  3. A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson
  4. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
  5. The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker

Lastly, since it was so heavily discussed, are you DC or Marvel? Who would you be and why?

Ha! You know Tight like the back of your hand. Fist bump to you. Mike asks Bryan the same question. I’m like them, but I won’t pick their heroes. Their “who” changes and so does mine. So I’ll list the top five powers I want. From Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ghost’s power to turn myself and any objects I touch invisible or intangible. From Wolverine, Logan’s regenerative healing ability. From Professor X, his incredible ESP, psychic, telepathy, and mental-manipulation powers. Fourth, the ability to control air the way Magneto controls metal. And finally, the fastest Flash’s speed.

Tight is available now through Penguin Kids. It’s a great read!


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